I’ve lived in the Islamic world twice, once in Palestine and once in Uzbekistan. In total I’ve only lived among Muslims for about 2 and a half years, but I was in my twenties, and in both cases I was spending most of my time interacting with ordinary people in ordinary neighborhoods. I wasn’t locked away in offices filled with expats, and indeed I would often go for days or weeks without seeing a fellow Westerner. So, I think I was in a position to develop some moderately useful anecdotal impressions about the attitudes of ordinary Muslims towards democracy and the West.*
In my opinion, most ordinary Muslims don’t hate Westerners per se. In my months of living and working in Gaza City, I walked the streets freely and never felt that my nationality put me at particular risk. I was occasionally accosted by someone who wanted to give me an earful concerning American policies towards Israel, but that’s about as serious as it got. Uzbeks, in general, have very favorable feelings towards the United States. If someone accosted me on the street in Uzbekistan, it was generally to ask whether I could help them get a visa.
Despite this, my experiences in the Islamic world eventually led me to believe that, on the whole, Muslims do not want democracy. When asked, they normally say that they do. Further discussion reveals, however, that what they really want is peace and prosperity. If you talk to them about civil liberties, you’ll find that most of them are pretty adamantly opposed to free speech and religion. They don’t think proselytizing should be legal, and most are suspicious of legal protections for Muslims who want to convert to another faith. They are scandalized by the suggestion that blasphemy, for example, would qualify as protected speech.
It would probably be possible to have a democracy with less civil liberties than we have here in the United States. Free and fair elections, however, are surely a necessary and defining feature of a democratic state. Do Muslims want them? Again, if asked directly, most would tell me that they did. At the end of the day, though, I found that they were fairly indifferent. The Uzbeks had great admiration for Vladimir Putin, and often expressed the wish that they could have such a strong and capable leader. Their impressions of Russian politics were strongly influenced by their own MSM, which was dominated by Vremia, a (very yellow) Russian television station that invariably portrayed Putin in a positive light. But here was the fascinating part: when I filled them in on some of the discrepancies in the Russian electoral system, they didn’t disbelieve me. They just didn’t particularly care. A few even observed that if Putin could successfully rig elections, that proved him to be clever, capable, and the perfect man for the job.
Is it just an incontrovertible truth of the modern world that justice, peace, and prosperity can only be achieved in a democratic state? Are elections the only effective safeguard against tyranny? That certainly hasn’t been the case historically and it’s hard to see why it should be so now. Why couldn’t the Islamic world hammer out a system of government that was more hierarchical and authoritarian than ours (perhaps a monarchy of some sort), and that restricted civil liberties more than we would allow, but that still ensured the rule of law and consistently protected an Islamified understanding of citizens’ rights?
Undoubtedly, such a society would have many features that we Westerners would lament. Homosexuality would probably be illegal, and women and religious minorities would be treated as inferior citizens. Makers of anti-Islamic videos would be prosecuted. At least, though, such a society might direct its ire against the actual creators of controversial literature, instead of massacring innocents who were utterly unassociated with the offensive media. More generally, I think radical Islam would mostly simmer down if Muslims had functional governments of their own to attend to. Like people everywhere, most ordinary Muslims want peace and stability, and care little about the lives and customs of foreigners who live far away.
Is there any chance of this happening? I don’t know, and obviously the initiative would mainly have to come from within the Islamic world itself. But on our end, I think it’s worth considering whether there are more achievable possibilities for the Islamic world -- possibilities that we could live with, even if they aren’t especially delightful to us.
*I should admit that my anecdotal data is a bit old. I was in Palestine in 2000, and in Uzbekistan from 2002 through 2004.