The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

America’s missionary zeal to impose democracy

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Iraq votes today in an election that George W Bush sees as a triumph of his foreign policy. In Davos, from where this column comes this week, there has been a puzzling absence of sessions on Iraq but while wandering about the corridors of the Congress Centre I ran into an American friend who had this to say about his government’s attempts to enforce democracy across the world. ‘‘It’s beginning to seem a little like what the missionaries did in colonial times, isn’t it? They tried to enforce Christianity among people they considered basically ignorant and barbaric and today we are doing the same with democracy.’’

Let me say, before I go any further, that I would rather have an evangelical Bush imposing democracy than Osama or Zarqawi imposing radical Islam but, having said that, may I add that it really annoys me to hear Bush talk of freedom and democracy in the tone that he does. As an example, I quote the comment he made last Wednesday when a military helicopter crashed in Iraq killing 30 US marines and a sailor. It was the largest loss of American lives in a single incident since the war on Iraq began and this is what the President had to say, ‘‘We value life and we mourn when our soldiers lose their lives. But our long term objective is to spread freedom.’’

The ignorance of this remark reminded me of the first comment I heard Bush make on the sub-continent. It was during his first election campaign and he was not President yet. A reporter asked him if he could name the Indian Prime Minister and the President of Pakistan.

George W looked, blinked thoughtfully into the camera, paused as if pondering a deep and complex question and said, ‘‘Uh, uh India... no sir I can’t... Pakistan, it’s that General that just got elected.’’

The American President has come a long way since then but apparently not far enough to understand that there are countries outside the Western world that believe in democracy and freedom. And, they believe in them because they fought for these ideas and did not have them rammed down their throats by some foreign conqueror.

Perhaps, against all odds, the elections in Iraq will go well. Perhaps, they will put in place a credible, democratic government but some of the credibility of the process has already been tainted because of it being seen as something that foreign conquerors have forced upon the Iraqi people. You cannot replace a dictator with dictated democracy. It cannot work and, it is the humble view of your humble columnist, that the best thing the Americans can do is to get out of Iraq as quickly and painlessly as possible. Iraq represents a monumental failure of American foreign policy at a time when the world needs so badly for it to succeed.

Radical Islam has to be fought. No matter what sense of grievance it emanates from, it is an ugly, dangerous distortion of religion that harms Muslims almost as much as it harms the rest of us but it cannot be fought if Western leaders turn it into a fight between freedom and barbarism.

If Bush had learned a little more about the big, bad world that lies beyond the shores of the United States he would have discovered by now that there are civilised religions and civilised people elsewhere who value democracy and freedom as much as he says he does.

People who do not like to be lectured about the glory of Western values by a President who appears to have a very selective idea of where they need to be imposed. From an Indian point of vantage how are we to understand that Iran — apparently the next target of American democracy — is more dangerous than Pakistan or Saudi Arabia?

Iran is in the bad books of the American state department ostensibly because it has been secretly trying to build itself a nuclear bomb. This is dangerous in the hands of a theocracy controlled by radical Islamist Ayotollahs given to thinking of the Western world, and America in particular, as the great Satan. Fine, it is scary but how is it more scary than our already nuclear armed military dictator next door who watched while Dr A Q Khan set up his international nuclear bazaar? How is it more scary than Saudi Arabia that has done more to spread radical Islam across international borders than any other country and that may well have an understanding to use Pakistan’s Islamic bomb if it needs to?

Bush got re-elected for a second term so there must be Americans who believe that his foreign policy has made the world a safer place but for the rest of us it is a more dangerous place than it was before the war on Iraq began. And, there are too many scary questions that remain unanswered. How is a destabilised, anarchic, violent Iraq safer than it was under Saddam Hussain? There may not have been democracy in Saddam’s days but perhaps there were reasons why democracy had not put down roots in that country.

If today’s election is a success, then the new rulers of Iraq will be another set of ayotollahs. Is this what Bush wanted when he decided on regime change? How does another theocracy, albeit democratically elected, help us in the war against radical Islam? Saddest of all, though, is the damage that American foreign policy has done to democracy itself. How very sad that it will now be viewed with the suspicion and wariness with which colonised people like us viewed the kind of Christianity our colonisers once tried to impose.

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