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The Fever Is Winning

It happened just over a year ago in Key West, of all places. We’d come down for a conference organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and one afternoon two friends, Reuel Gerecht and Jeffrey Goldberg, squared off for a debate on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

Gerecht and Goldberg are Americans whose fascination with Islam has taken them to ridiculous places. Gerecht, a former member of the C.I.A. clandestine service, spends an astonishing amount of time in spare rooms in Middle East backwaters talking fatwas in klatches with bearded fundamentalists.

Goldberg has lived in a madrasa in Pakistan. His pieces from inside Hezbollah won a National Magazine Award for The New Yorker. In the fall he has a book, “Prisoners,” coming out about his time as a prison guard in the Israeli Army, and his friendships with the Palestinian detainees.

Having heard many of their stories, I have this image of Goldberg being kidnapped by some terrorist group and when he’s thrown into the hide-out he finds Gerecht already there schmoozing with the local mullah.

But these two companions disagree utterly about the path to Arab democracy. Gerecht began their debate in Key West by reporting that a genuine wave of democratic thought is sweeping through the region. It’s not only happening among the liberal secularists who are marginal to the Arab mainstream, he said. It’s happening among the ayatollahs and the clerics.

The people who will do well in the first elections, Gerecht predicted a year ago, will not be to our liking. They will be anti-American and ferociously anti-Israeli. The first phase of Arab democracy will be extremely bumpy, he warned, with possible attacks on Israel, and crackdowns on women’s rights.

But it is better, he argued, to go through this phase than to wait for a religious reformation, which will never come. It is better to endure this phase than to preserve the old dictatorships, which feed extremism.

The only way to reform the Middle East, Gerecht concluded, is by changing political institutions and enduring as the spirit of democratic self-government slowly changes society. There will be a period of fever, but the fever will break the disease.

When it was Goldberg’s turn (the transcript is available online at pewforum.org), his first observation was that sometimes fevers break the disease but sometimes they kill the patient. The only difference, he said, between the terrorists and the “moderate” Islamic supremacists that Gerecht would empower is that the terrorists want to kill all Americans and all Jews whereas the moderates only want to kill all the Jews.

Morally, Goldberg, continued, the U.S. cannot champion democratic reforms that produce jihadist regimes that attack Israel and wink at the honor killings of teenage girls. And politically, how long are we supposed to endure this period of painful democratic birth? Fifty years? One hundred?

In Goldberg’s view, cultural reform has to precede political reform. The West should continue to champion the Arab world’s liberal modernizers, who believe in pluralism and human rights and who may have deeper roots in society than we think.

Fourteen months later, we’re in the middle of the fever Gerecht and Goldberg were grappling with. Hezbollah, Hamas and Moktada al-Sadr have indeed benefited. But, Gerecht points out, so have a lot of real democrats who are resisting the extremists. Goldberg counters that organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah were always jihadi and will always be jihadi, and no amount of democratic participation will change that.

What this debate is really about is the mother of all chicken-and-egg problems. Can we use political reform to spark cultural change, or do we have to wait for cultural reformation before we can change politics?

The Bush administration’s position is clear. In some of my best arguments with senior officials, they insist, à la Gerecht, that institutions shape behavior. And to their credit, even in this moment of turmoil they are hanging tough and pushing for more democratic reform.

But the truth is that at the moment neither the Goldberg nor the Gerecht thesis is winning. The fever Gerecht predicted has sent world opinion scurrying off for stability at any cost. World opinion is abandoning both Palestinian-style democratic transformation and the cultural modernizers who are being crushed in places like Egypt. People are rushing back toward the illusory stability of Mubarak and the House of Saud.

That, Goldberg and Gerecht both agree, is what brought us 9/11.

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