Tuesday, June 21, 2011

From an Arab Spring to a Muslim Winter

By Sultan Knish

The Communists wanted to turn every country in the world into communists, the Muslims want to turn every nation Islamic, and we want to turn them all into Democrats. Our national passion for democracy long ago overshot baseball, football, horse racing and billiards. Lately even our wars have turned into perverse democracy crusades. But the tonic of democracy does not cure all ills. And like most medicines, it is quite poisonous when used against the doctor's instructions.

Lately some of us have gotten caught up in the idea that the Arabs have finally become just as passionate about democracy as us. But where we have come to value democracy as an end, their passion is for democracy as a tool of change, a means, not an end. Even the most devout Mahmoud, his scraggly beard caught in the pages of the Koran, blesses democracy as Halal, so long as it ushers in the rule of the devout. What matter if the Caliphate of the 12th Imam comes by way of a lottery, inherited monarchy or the ballot box-- so long as it comes.

Democracy for most Americans means the ability to rule over their rulers, to fire their political bosses, hook a thumb behind the ear and a knee in the ass of the boys in the big white buildings with the shiny domes. The balance of popular will and constitutional law maintained the widest possible decentralization of power, from the government to the people, and from the people to the laws that governed their untouchable freedoms. The people limit the power of government and laws limit the power of the people over each other. But systems of government abroad that dabble in democracy rarely duplicate the American experiment.

To do that they would have to believe in democracy for its own sake. The decentralization of power is a difficult creed. Most of the congressmen, aides, aides to aides and lobbyists who swamp Washington D.C. have long ago lost faith in its tenets. In their swarming masses, suit and powersuit clad, they have built up an oligarchy, buttressed by bureaucracy, immune to the people and the law. If our own leaders have lost faith in the peculiar notion that it is better to have a country run badly by the people, than a country run scientifically by its highly paid elites-- what should we expect of a region where there are special police forces in charge of hunting down witches.

Our Johnny Appleseed act doesn't have a good history, and why should it, when each time we go in acting as if democracy is functional, rather than cultural. As if it's something you practice, rather than believe. You can teach people to count ballots, but you can't teach them to understand why they count. They have to learn that for themselves. Otherwise they'll start miscounting the ballots or shooting everyone who doesn't vote the right way.

Most revolutions like to call themselves democratic, because democracy is disruptive to the old order. But their revolutions are only democratic means toward authoritarian ends. The ultimate victory of one faction or another. And they typically have as much use for democracy, as the Muslim armies who captured Alexandria had for its library. As Caliph Omar, successor of Mohammed, and a bookburner of far greater fame than Terry Jones, said of its books, "If they are in agreement with the Koran, then we have no need of them; and if they are opposed to the Koran, destroy them." So too with democracy, if the voters support us, then they are redundant. If they oppose us, open fire on them.

Our form of government is highly skeptical and highly idealistic about people. And so it treats power like a hot potato, hiding it, passing it around and doing its best to keep anyone from holding on to it for too long. And that is well and good. If we were too idealistic about people, our system would quickly degenerate into mob rule. But if we were wholly cynical about them, we would end up just like the places we tried to seed democracy only to bring up rotten apples.

Most people like the idea of democracy, it's the idea that the people you hate get just as many votes as you do, that they don't like. That's why Muslims will play the game of democracy, but only until they score enough goals that they can take the net home with them. Tolerance was only a virtue in Islam, when Mohammed and his handful of followers needed to rely on the goodwill of people who didn't like them. But once the sandal was on the other foot, the swords really began to fall. And so did the heads. That's why the Arab Spring is fated to end in a Muslim Winter.

To play the game of democracy well, you need good sportsmanship. A set of binding rules that makes it okay to lose without running away to Canada or settling the whole thing with a round of suicide bombings. And that requires a certain mutual affection for one's fellow man. A country where 90 percent believe that it's time to start beheading adulterers is not that sort of place. Which is why Egyptian democracy will do half as well as its pyramid construction unions did.

Islam's constitution is the Koran, which makes any national constitution the work of a lower body, to be overuled by even the meanest Hadith. Roughly on a par with UN covenants on women's rights and binding contracts signed with foreigners. Democracy decentralizes power by vesting power in the people's will. Islam centralizes it in the binding of the Koran and the mouths of the Clerics who have memorized every verse. To question that centralization is to court blasphemy. And if the courts don't sentence you, the mob will.

By salaaming before the Koran, and apologizing for everyone who takes a lighter to a redundant copy of the orally transmitted venom of a frustrated desert merchant, we place the Koran above the people and the Constitution. Not by their will, but by the will of our own clerics. Clerics who subscribe neither to the Constitution or the Koran, but to the Emily Post Guide to Politically Correct International Appeasement. The Muslims have their Mullahs and we have our Senators. But the advantage of democracy is that we can more easily remove a Senator, than they can remove a Mullah. And we can generally do it without being burned at the stake for blasphemy. Which is why neither Senators nor Mullahs are fond of democracy.

Power to the people is a popular slogan, so long as the people are giving you the power. But democracy actually gives power to the people. And that's a dangerous thing.

Our revolution was one of the few to limit the consolidation of power while still preserving the rule of law. But our form of government was as much cultural, as it was the theorizing of a few intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic. And we have often made the mistake of treating cultural values as teachable skills. Or assuming that to teach the functioning of a government was to also indoctrinate the values that come with it.

Twice the Russian people rose against their overlords, and twice democracy was a brief flicker of ineptitude extinguished decisively by a black boot. Had we paid more attention, the outcome of Egypt would have been even less in doubt. In the contest between those who believe in democracy as an end and those who view it only as a means to muster popular outrage before transitioning to authoritarian government-- the cynics of democracy have the upper hand. After all they know what they want and the only thing standing between them and their goal is the people. A people who genuinely want self-rule will fight for it. But a people who only wanted someone to kick out the old bastards and then bring order and stability to the land will welcome tyranny once again.

The Arab Spring may unexpectedly flare up, but its petals will freeze as soon as the Muslim Winter sets in. The Arab Spring is liberating, but the Muslim Winter is reassuring. The Arab Spring is Dionysian, but the Muslim Winter is Plutonian. And underachievers even by Satanic standards, most Muslims would rather serve in hell, than rule democratically in heaven. At least this way they know what the rules are and there are always some Christians and Jews to torment who were unlucky enough to get stuck on their side of the Plutonian shore.

To practice democracy, you must have faith in people. A difficult thing to manage when walking the streets of Cairo or Karachi. Totalitarian rule brings out the worst in people, and people bring out the worst in totalitarian societies. It is easy enough to cast off a foreign tyrant, but not the little tyrant who sits enthroned in the mind of man.

Islam's greatest victory over humanity is in that little tyrant. The one who encourages husbands to beat their wives, wives to beat their children and children to spit on outsiders so that everyone can feel good about being superior to someone. Islamic democracy is the law of the little tyrant. Men are free to beat their wives, wives may beat their children, and their children may spit on infidels. This is the hell that Muslims have made for themselves and anyone in their vicinity. And the ballot box cannot save them from it. Can any ballot box save a man from himself? Can it save a culture from its own self-degradation and its need to degrade others?

The noble clause of democracy is that it makes government in the image of men, rather than men in the image of governments. And our own government practices a perversely cynical view of its own citizens-- and an even more perversely idealistic one of Muslims. The American people are not ready for self-government, they insist, but the Egyptians are. And now as ice forms on the petals of their Arab Spring, they are about to learn once again that in a Muslim winter, democracy is the temperature at which freedom freezes.

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Sultan Knish

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