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  Issue Date: 4 / 2017  

Rethinking How to Promote Reform in the Mideast and Asia

Michael L. Moravitz
       The promise of the Arab Spring has ended with the devastating civil war in Syria, a chaotic post-Gaddafi mess in Libya, authoritarian rule in Egypt, and limited reforms in Tunisia and elsewhere. In China and Vietnam, there is not much to show for the idea that free market reforms would lead to democratization. Where to go from here? Much attention focuses on the military situation in Syria and whether to increase U.S. intervention in the multi-faceted conflict or not. However, for the long term, ideas should be discussed on the way forward in the mid- to long-term in the Mideast and Asia, taking into account the specific culture and societies of the regions, their current government structures, and what types of reforms would be most likely to be implemented.
        For one thing, Western countries may wish to deemphasize advocating secularism and instead talk about minority rights in Middle Eastern countries, given the important role of Islam in the region. For example, protecting Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities in Egypt and political dissent is more important than Western concepts of secularism. Egyptian voter support for the Muslim Brotherhood shows that many there want a role for Islam in the government. The United States, of course, has a principle of separation of church and state with the First Amendment to the Constitution – in particular the clauses prevention the establishment of an official church or religion and the one affirmed freedom of religion. There may be a fine distinction here, but one worth noting. The U.S. government is secular – and many of those of Europe as well. However, the rights of religious minorities are protected under secular rule. In Egypt and other Muslim countries, there might be an official role for Islam – whether Sunni or Shi’ite – but the political and religious rights of minority groups would be respected explicitly. The important thing would be for the people to have political rights and the right to peacefully dissent from the government and express their opinions in speech and print.
        There is also an assumption in the West that democracy comes in one form or at least in very similar forms. Democratic principles may need to be established at a local level – with a true group up structure that would allow the peoples’ voices to be heard while maintaining elite control of a country. In this way, reform might come to the Saudi kingdom – without a major disruption of the existing system, instability in the oil producing-nation, and with an outlet for the people to express their opinions. The kingdom might allow male suffrage for local councils that would have some authority over regions, while at upper levels the royal family would still hold sway. This might lead to an elected council or parliament to advise or even check in some respects King Abdullah or his successors.

        A number of conservative political thinkers, including Fareed Zakaria, have discussed the need for building civil society before democracy can truly take hold in countries previously governed by authoritarian rulers. This is a good point, but must also take into account local traditions and in the Islamic world, a de-emphasis on secularism. Secularism also connotes more explicit media content, openness on sexuality, and a lack of respect for religion and tradition. For countries emerging from dictatorship, democracy springs from the people – and if they are mainly Islamic and conservative that should be acknowledged. That does not mean they are incapable of governing themselves or will repress minorities at will. (Why we seek to impose certain sexual mores on different societies or emphasize LGBT issues at the expense of more important civil rights issues, I don’t know. That does not mean I support the death penalty for gay people, however. A degree of freedom from government repression and a zone of domestic privacy are necessary, of course.)
        Another idea to consider is regional autonomy for minority groups – such as the Kurds have in Iraq. This could be extended to the Sunni minority in Iraq as well – undermining the Islamic State and insurgent activity. It goes too far to think of redrawing border from an international perspective; it is going to be up to the countries involved to make such decisions. But perhaps in the future a Kurdish regional council could be created, across national borders once violence tapers out, to give the Kurds more autonomy in Turkey, Syria and Iran – in addition to Iraq. Perhaps a timeline could be set in place preventing any moves toward an independent Kurdistan.
        In Asia, a hierarchical and pyramid-like structure may be appropriate if elections are allowed – with some real choice at the local level. In this way, the communist parties of Vietnam and China may allow local voices to be heard and for the criticisms of the people to be filtered up the government to the top. This is the type of “democracy” the Soviet Union implemented with little openness or choice involved. However, the situations in Vietnam and China may allow for this type of government to be structured and to be effective. More than 25 years after the Chinese government crashed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen square, the leaders in Beijing have allowed some openness in the media, including both official news organs and social media, to express criticisms from the people. However, this is still limited, and people in the provinces face retribution from communist bosses if they get too far out of line. Local elections with some choice – even if within a one-party system – might allow the peoples’ voices to be heard and for greater reform later. Now might be the time for the United States to focus on this type of reform rather than the continuing hopes for Western-style democracy to be implemented from the top down because of free market reforms.
        Some may argue that I am trying to tell the people of the Middle East and Asia how to reform. But my goal is more to suggest ways the United States and Westerners can approach the issue to be most helpful to the people there. Establishing more openness and democratic principles in the Middle East is of course in the long-term interest of the United States to curb violence in the region and limit the need for incessant U.S. diplomatic and military intervention. With little progress in site toward democracy in China and Vietnam, another approach may yield more results. In particular, this could focus China’s energies inward toward meeting the needs of its people more rather than any confrontations with the United States or increased conflict with its neighbors in the South China Sea.

Michael L. Moravitz has had a 25 year career at the Voice of America, including a position as the National Editor. He holds a PhD. in History from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.
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