The Arab Human Development Report 2004 and the Trans-Atlantic Response to the Islamic Republic of Iran

Posted in Iran | 22-Jul-05 | Author: Peter Skerry

Conference paper edited with the permission of the Aspen Institute, Berlin

Aspen Berlin Conference
“Iran and Democracy in the Greater Middle East”

May 23-24, 2005 – Amman


Of the many grave issues facing the world today, one of the gravest is the political future of Arab and Muslim nations. Because it tackles this issue, the Arab Human Development Report 2004 promises to be even more widely discussed than its predecessors. Many people around the world will welcome its broad argument that Arab governments need to move toward freedom and democracy – ideals which have resonated as much in the Arab world as in Europe and America.

Yet complications immediately arise. The Report begins by articulating imprudently high standards by which to gauge political progress in the Arab world – standards so high that were they taken to heart, they would soon lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Not surprisingly, the authors of the Report reject that path and opt instead for so much less than what they originally identify as optimal that they wind up open to the charge of opportunism. In the final analysis, the Report lacks sufficient intellectual rigor and moral clarity such that it manages simultaneously to misjudge the consequences of American policies and to neglect aspects of Islam that could prove valuable to all nations in the decades ahead.

As a study of Arab societies this Report is understandably silent on Iran. Yet its findings might well have been relevant to an evaluation of the world’s one revolutionary Islamic regime. Unfortunately, the Report is not very helpful in this regard. Indeed, it is only by inference that one can extract any guidance to inform the on-going efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to deal with Iran at this particularly tricky juncture.

The Report begins curiously by ignoring religion generally and Islam specifically. Defining “human development” as not limited to material well-being, it specifies “the non-physical, non-material aspects of a dignified human life: freedom, knowledge, aesthetic pleasure, human dignity and self-fulfillment.” Not only is religion, or even some mention of the transcendent, not found at this critical juncture, but the Report explicitly identifies its purpose as “humanist.”[1] When discussing civil and political liberties in Arab countries, those specifically cited include freedom of “opinion, expression, and creativity.”[2] Once again, religion is overlooked. To be sure, later on the Report does allude to religion when it emphasizes that it is “unacceptable to prevent any societal group, including religious groups, from forming a political party.”[3] (my emphasis) But on balance, the authors’ stance toward religion ranges from indifference to obtuseness and scepticism – such as when they repeatedly reduce religion in the Arab world to tribalism.[4]

More curiously, the Report overlooks basic aspects of Islam seemingly relevant to problems facing many societies at the outset of the twenty-first century. To begin, the authors invoke the term “liberation” not only in the context of 1950s-era “Arab liberation movements,” but in the context of contemporary Western societies, where “liberation” speaks to individual desires to be freed from the domination of large bureaucratic institutions in order to pursue more authentic definitions of self.[5] Specifically citing writers such as Herbert Marcuse, the authors nevertheless seem oblivious to how such critiques of advanced capitalism, which had their heyday during the 1960s, have contributed to the hedonism whose full-flowering in Western societies now so profoundly offends Muslim values.[6]

Indeed, it is quite surprising that in a document concerned with the social and political implications of Islam in the modern world, the authors use the terminology of “liberation” without any apparent sense of irony or even self-consciousness. For quite the opposite of liberation, Islam literally refers to the imperative of man’s submission – to the will of God. And in the context of contemporary capitalist societies, perhaps especially in the United States, Muslims are developing important critiques of what they regard as the obsessive, individualistic greed and hedonism on which they are based. Such critiques are precisely why many young women embrace Islamic modesty, including the hijab, which they view as a conscious choice of submission to the will of God instead of to the wiles of executives in Hollywood and Madison Avenue. And though such Islamic critiques of capitalist societies can be pushed to extremes, I for one am not prepared to dismiss their basic insights as completely wrong. But all this is apparently lost on the authors of the Arab Human Development Report 2004.

More directly related to the Report’s focus on politics and government in Arab states, we are confronted with the overriding problem of the authors’ extraordinarily high standards for defining liberty and democracy in the modern world. They begin by calling for “institutions which operate . . . with complete transparency.”[7] The authors also declare that “human development is incompatible with any type of discrimination against any groups of human beings whether defined by gender, social origin, creed or colour.”[8] They also assert at the very outset that “human development is most profoundly seen as a process of expanding ‘the range of human choice’. . . [and] people must have the freedom to choose among alternatives. This becomes an “absolute priority.”[9] In the same vein, the Report goes on to insist that “human entitlements, in principle, are infinite, and they develop and change continuously in accord with human advancement.”[10]

Now, each of these assertions is subject to serious challenge. To begin, no effective institutions can ever operate with “complete transparency.” There are of course degrees of openness that can and ought to be achieved in democratic societies, but sooner or later the price becomes too high – due either to diminished effectiveness of the institutions or to outright disillusionment with them. This problem has been demonstrated in recent years in the political system which is undoubtedly the most open in the world and where levels of disaffection and disillusionment are high – that is, the United States.

As for discrimination, the United States can again be relied on for some relevant experience. While as a people Americans have certainly proved capable of acknowledging our racist past, we have yet to arrive at a common understanding of what today constitutes “discrimination” toward specific groups – either in the context of wrongs to be rectified or policies to overcome presumptive wrongs. Is “discrimination” to be determined and judged on the basis of the intentions of individuals and policies, or on the basis of outcomes, independent of intentions? While social scientists, the courts, and many of our political elites have generally opted for the second, structural understanding of discrimination, it is equally clear that large numbers of ordinary Americans have not.

When it comes to human choice, the authors’ strong preference for maximizing it not only would seem to collide with the powerful ethos of submission in Islam, but with parallel tendencies among many non-Muslims – including some Americans. At a minimum, the authors might want to consider how choice can undermine social cohesion and solidarity, and even efficiency. The latter is certainly the finding of many recent experiments conducted by sociologists and economists, demonstrating that when faced with too much information and too many choices, individuals tend to freeze and avoid making any choices.[11] Obviously, there are trade-offs here that the “absolute priority” the authors assign to choice fails to take into account.

Lastly, the assertion that “human entitlements, in principle, are infinite” seems profoundly wrong. At least to this writer, “in principle” entitlements are by definition limited. Even if by an entitlement we mean some material benefit deemed of fundamental importance to fellow citizens, or to human beings generally, it must almost certainly be limited. To declare otherwise is to render the notion of an entitlement meaningless. Of course, the seductive implication here is that we can avoid making the difficult choices that are the essence of politics and government by assuming that the critical nature of some desired good translates into its ready availability.

Again, the experience of the United States seems pertinent. American political culture is profoundly suspicious of government and politics. One way that we Americans have figured out how to respond to the demands that a modern citizenry places on its government, without appearing to rely on politics, is to label all variety of benefits as “rights” – another term for entitlements. In this way, the point is made that what is being sought is of such fundamental importance that it should not be subjected to the ordinary vicissitudes of politics. As a result, all variety of rights – to education, to housing, to medical care, etc – are routinely invoked by advocates and politicians alike. Yet in practice such rights are frequently not fully implemented. For sooner or later, they must be voted on – by politicians! Such are the games that we play with ourselves in the United States – and that the authors of the Arab Human Development Report 2004 would now apparently imitate.

But like us Americans, the authors of the Report manage to avoid the full implications of their strong words. Having taken such an aggressive stance on human rights, they then assert that such rights – which many Arabs and Muslims argue are in fact tainted by Western assumptions and cultural norms – should be reconciled with Islamic culture, Shari’a law in particular:

It may be appropriate to work towards a concept of human rights in the Arab context, that respects international human rights law in its entirety, while recognizing the Arab national identity and its aspirations as an historical legacy of critical importance in defining Arab reality, and in shaping the Arab future.[12]

Yet I would argue that such an approach will quickly and inevitably lead to double standards, especially since, as the authors conclude, “awareness of human rights principles is limited; such rights are not deeply rooted in the Arab cultural environment.”[13] In such a context, the ever-present temptation for politicians to resort to hypocrisy and deceit will crowd out any meaningful progress on rights.

As for double standards, a case in point would be the authors’ brief evaluation of the situation in Iraq. Here I want to be very specific. The Report notes:

As a result of the invasion of their country, the Iraqi people have emerged from the grip of a despotic regime that violated their basic rights and freedoms, only to fall under a foreign occupation that increased human suffering.[14] (emphasis added)

My focus here is on the clause in italics. However much suffering and death have been visited upon a humiliated Iraqi people, many of whom clearly regard themselves as under occupation by a foreign power, I would nevertheless challenge the authors’ conclusion that U.S. policy has resulted in “increased human suffering.” Perhaps this will be the considered judgment of the invasion of Iraq by fair-minded observers sometime in the future. But even if this assessment were to prove accurate, surely the removal of a despot requires force and violence that cannot be exquisitely fine-tuned and is therefore prone to mistakes and excesses. If the alternative is tyranny, how else can freedom and human rights be secured? Surely not by the kind of exquisite utilitarian calculus that the authors invoke here. Even a critic of the invasion could accept this point.

The Report’s authors are guilty here of what I would consider moral obtuseness, at best; pandering, at worst. Such is the likely consequence when political actors – whether elected officials, policy planners, or intellectuals – pursue overly ambitious, unrealistic goals. Eventually they seek to avoid failure or defeat by retreating from the high ground to the low road. Much better, I would argue, to avoid the disillusionment and anger that follow from backing away from such extreme positions and to rely instead on more modest expectations that are less likely to require such posturing.

In a similar vein, the Report’s authors open themselves to the charge of opportunism – or perhaps just trendiness. At least this comes to mind reading their approval of efforts by Muslim thinkers to reconstruct liberalism in order to achieve “the assimilation of the principle of individual freedom within a concept of the sociability of man.”[15] This is an admirable goal. But it is a project already undertaken by, among others, French Catholic thinkers like Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier, who counterposed what the latter called “personalism” to liberal individualism.

The charge of opportunism perhaps more accurately applies to the authors’ frequent allusions to the situation of Arabs and Muslims in post-September 11 America, including their commentary on the Patriot Act. As they put it, in a section provocatively entitled “The Crisis of Democracy After September 11,” after that fateful day “the US administration moved to curtail civil and political rights, especially those of Arabs and Muslims, in the fight against ‘terrorism’ as the former defined it.”[16] The Report goes on to cite specifically the Patriot Act and concludes that “many immigrant rights, including those of legal immigrants, have been curbed.” The authors then go on to make the more general point about the impact of post-September 11 policies on Arab nations: “The fact that some Western countries which Arab reformers had long held up as models have taken steps widely perceived to be discriminatory and repressive, especially with regard to foreigners, has weakened the position of those reformers calling for Arab governments undertaking similar actions to change their course.”[17]

Such language simply misrepresents the situation of Arabs and Muslims in the United States since September 11. Again, I want to be very clear. In the fifteen or so months following the attacks on the World Trade Center, approximately 5000 Arabs and Muslims residing in the United States were detained and imprisoned – some for long periods of time – without benefit of legal counsel or communication with their families. Over time some of these were deported and an undetermined number remain in government custody. But it appears that by now most have been released.

Several points need to be made here. As the authors themselves indicate, such actions have been loudly criticized in the United States by various immigrant rights organizations as well as by Muslim and Arab advocacy and civil rights groups. Yet what is seldom noted is that few of these individuals were actually detained or prosecuted under provisions of the Patriot Act. For the fact is that though intensely and frequently criticized by many segments of American society, the Patriot Act has been infrequently relied on by federal authorities, and has in fact been little used against Arabs and Muslims in the United States. Yet the Act remains highly controversial and threatening, especially to Arabs and Muslims. As a result, it might be curtailed as it faces mandatory review this session of Congress, an aspect of transparency and accountability that the authors – given their focus here on “good governance” – might have at least alluded to.

It should be emphasized that Arabs and Muslims in the United States remain – understandably – uneasy and fearful. Hundreds simply fled the United States in the months following September 11. But many of these, along with many of those detained and eventually deported, were in violation of U.S. immigration laws. It is also true that Arabs and Muslims in the United States have been subjected to various forms of ethnic profiling at airports and other control points. And in December 2002, foreign nationals from selected Muslim and Arab nations were asked to report and register with the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service. At that time a few thousand individuals were detained, which had not been generally anticipated by the immigrants, their families, the general public, or apparently many government officials. Shock waves went through Muslim and Arab communities in the United States. Many of these detainees were eventually deported for immigration violations. Widely regarded as unfair and a public relations fiasco, this policy was soon rescinded.

What is one to make of all this? If I were a Muslim or Arab in the United States today, I would be concerned, anxious, even angry. Many, probably most, are certainly disaffected with their government, especially the Bush administration. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Arabs here go about their daily lives and enjoy the broad freedoms that all Americans do. Muslims and Arabs are not the objects of any generalized, sustained policies systematically depriving them of their rights. Of course, in the wake of the unprecedented attacks on the U.S. mainland, aggressive policies have been implemented; mistakes have been made; abuses have occurred. But the impression left by the Arab Human Development Report 2004 is that Muslims and Arabs in America today are living in a discriminatory and repressive society. This is simply not true. As most Muslims and Arabs here understand and readily acknowledge, they enjoy much more security and freedom – especially religious freedom – in the United States than they would in their countries of origin. But as they also know, and many say loudly and vehemently, their situation in the United States today is not what they have the right to expect and requires constant vigilance to ensure that government authorities live up to the letter and spirit of the Bill of Rights.

Finally, I would like to address the Report’s findings relative to the situation in Iran and the implications for democracy in Muslim societies. Iran of course is different from the pro-Western authoritarian Arab states on which the Report’s authors focus: it got rid of the Shah twenty-six years ago. Similarly contrary to the pattern envisioned by the authors, Iran never undertook liberal reform, either. It had a revolution instead. And most importantly, Iran does not have an Islamist opposition: it has an Islamist government and an opposition made up of dissident or reform-oriented Islamists as well as some liberals and secularists. These facts about Iran are self-evident, but need to be emphasized here in light of the Report’s understandable preoccupation with political developments in the Arab world.

In that world, the current reality is that the loudest and most potent opposition to established regimes is neither secularist nor liberal but Islamist. And until very recently, at best, the Islamist commitment to freedom, democracy, and what the authors refer to as “good governance” has been either weak or non-existent. For the authors, this fact is the elephant in the living room – something they would rather not confront, but must eventually. To the extent that the Report grapples head-on with the relationship between democracy and Islamism, it deserves the widest possible circulation. But to the extent that it tries to avoid the pachyderm in the parlor, it is frustrating to read.

Islamism is avoided in two ways. First, it is lumped together with liberal opposition, as though both were equally persecuted and there were no significant difference between them. For example, Part I of the Report contains a discussion of “Gains and Setbacks,” in which there are many vague references to “popular participation,” “civil society organizations,” and “independent political forces.”[18] All of these have suffered repression, evidently. But nowhere in this discussion does the reader learn which of these suppressed entities were seeking democratic reform and which were seeking religious authoritarianism.

Second, Islamist movements are lumped together with “tradition” and “tribalism”[19] as primarily cultural forces that impede political progress but do not represent a genuine political force. Again, this only reinforces the tendency of Western observers to see pressure for democratic reform coming primarily from modernizing secularist forces.

This is a problem, because in any given country the most crucial and delicate question seems to be: Which way is the Islamist movement likely to jump, and what will be the outcome? Will it resemble the current Turkish situation, in which a reformed religious party has won power and been governing without much, if any, threat to established secularist norms? Or will it resemble Algeria in 1991, where the imminent electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front was blocked by the army, sparking a vicious civil war?

The Algerian outcome points directly to what Arab governments and their Western supporters most fear. In the Report’s own words, the substance of this fear is “that opening up the public sphere to all societal forces – among the most active of which is the Islamic movement – will end with these forces assuming power, followed by oppression, such that democratic competition becomes history, after one and only election.” Admitting there is “some justification” for this fear “in contemporary Arab experience,” the Report nevertheless dismisses it as “the trap of the one-off election.”[20]

Why a “trap”? Clever phrase-making will not eliminate the problem, and neither will the solution offered next: “We believe that the best insurance against this risk is to strengthen constitutional principles and clauses to safeguard society from abuses of majority power, and to secure at the outset the commitment of all political movements to respect those measures.”[21] In other words, the solution is to create a tradition of respect for constitutional protections in a society that has not had genuine constitutional government. Not very plausible.

Further on, the Report does a better job of identifying the differences between Islamist and secular opposition movements. And in several places it holds out the promise of practical advice based on the experiences of actual polities. For example, Part II, Chapter Five, discusses “The Debate on How to Reform.” Seeing the headings “Change from top or at the grassroots?” and “External versus internal,’ the reader naturally expects some concrete examples to illustrate the complexity of the problem. Yet these discussions are entirely speculative, entirely abstract. And as befits such an airy exercise, the solution offered at the end is a tidy resolution of the dialectic: “The Optimum Choice,” in which “change stemming from within” combines with “dynamic social forces with a clear stake in such change.” And as for “Bridging the gap between social forces,” namely “the Islamists on the one side and the secularists, liberals, and nationalists, on the other,” the Report recommends “intellectual and methodological reconsideration by the parties involved.” In other words, all parties should put down their bombs and guns, and “develop a new way of thinking, more in keeping with the requirements of democracy and peaceful co-existence with competing movements.”[22]

Again, this just does not offer much that is plausible or practical. What is lacking in the Report is a sense of realistic positive models to follow. There are plenty of negative models – these pages offer a primer on how not to govern. But there are very few down-to-earth questions here, let alone down-to-earth answers.

So how should the Western democracies think about the Islamic Republic of Iran and respond to developments there? One important factor that gets scant attention in the Report is nationalism. At least in Iran, what we have been watching unfold there for the past quarter century has been driven as much by nationalism as by Islamism – not that it would be easy to disentangle one from the other. Even more precisely, this is a nationalism forged in opposition to the United States, which got to be the Great Satan because it backed the modernizing monarchy that the Islamists overthrew.

This history suggests that no matter what happens in Iran and no matter how we respond, a genuinely pro-American regime is not likely to emerge there. This does not mean that there aren’t strong currents of pro-American sentiment among Iranians; there are. Nor does it mean that there won’t be exploitable fissures among the ruling elites. But even if we’re lucky, we will almost certainly be in the position of supporting opposition elements that are likely to be as wary of us as we are of them.

This latter of course is a problem across all contemporary Muslim and Arab societies. We ought not to kid ourselves that our pro-democracy agenda is going to result in more, and more friendly, Muslim regimes. It just isn’t going to happen that way.

Nor is this a scenario that the American public is likely to be very tolerant of. It is certainly not one for which our leaders have done much to prepare us. Take, for example, the issue of women’s rights. It is striking how even conservatives in the United States have identified these as critical to the development of democracy in Arab and Muslim nations. For example, citing how 40 percent of voters in Afghanistan’s recent elections were women, President George Bush observed: “You can’t have a free and hopeful society unless women are full participants in the society.”[23] While at one level undeniably true, we should also be mindful that women in the United States have had the vote in the United States for only eighty-five years. Does this mean that we weren’t a free society before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920? Or that France was not a free society until it granted women the franchise right after World War II? Of course not. But such examples point to how the standards we use to evaluate democratization need to be measured and reasonable. Again, it is not clear that our leaders are doing enough to help the American people move in this direction.

In any event, Iran’s Islamic regime will rely on anti-Americanism to play us off against our European allies – at a time when we are already distant from them. And of course the incentives for the mullahs to do precisely this will increase as the agenda becomes dominated – understandably – by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Conversely, the importance of maintaining a coordinated strategy with our European allies is dictated by the importance of keeping Iran nuclear-free. But this goal is critical not only for the stability of the region, but also for the long-term benefit of the Iranian people – for whom nuclear arms would likely mean the reinvigoration and emboldening of the repressive hard-liners. .

Again, we Americans need to continue to engage Iran, supporting wherever possible opposition elements and civil society initiatives. But however strong pro-American sentiment there may be, this won’t be an easy path to follow. We will encounter plenty of obstacles and hostility, with which we will have to learn to be patient. We will also have to learn to dole out support and aid without necessarily getting much thanks in return. This is a tall order for the American people.

[1]Arab Human Development Report 2004: Towards Freedom in the Arab World (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2005), 2.
[2]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 9.
[3]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 69.
[4]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 8-9.
[5]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 58-60.
[6]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 77.
[7]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 63.
[8]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 2.
[9]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 1-2.
[10]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 2.
[11]See Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (79/6), 995-1006.
[12]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 75.
[13]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 72.
[14]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 7.
[15]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 61.
[16]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 67.
[17]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 67.
[18]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 36-43.
[19]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 8,143.
[20]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 71.
[21]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 71.
[22]Arab Human Development Report 2004, 140-143.
[23]“President Welcomes Afghan President Karzei to the White House,” Office of the Press Secretary, The White House; May 23, 2005.