There are cynics who say democracy and freedom cannot find a home in the greater Middle East. There are skeptics who question whether democracy can flourish in a Muslim nation. There are those who criticize President Bush’s forward strategy of freedom.
To all those who possess the soft bigotry of low expectations for the Islamic world, I say look at the brave and resolute people of Afghanistan.
Last month, I led a delegation of international election observers who traveled to Afghanistan to monitor their presidential elections. I return inspired by the people, my faith in freedom strengthened, and I am optimistic about the future.
Afghanistan is a large, rugged country along the ancient trade and invasion routes from Central Asia into South and Southwest Asia. A country of about 27 million people, the people always have been organized by their ethnic tribes: the Pashtuns, Tijirks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen and others. Each ethnic group had its warlords, and bloody conflict has been the way of life.
Since the fall of the Taliban on Nov. 13, 2001, the Afghan people have traveled far.
In the runup to the election, many obstacles had to be overcome. Ethnic identities had to give way to the hope for a wider community. Through a cumbersome consultative process known as an Emergency Loya Jirga, an interim leader, Hamid Karzai, was chosen. Then a Constitutional Loya Jirga drafted a modern constitution. Meanwhile, well-armed warlords had to be marginalized. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed militias had to begin. And the bias and tradition that limited women had to be reversed
Meanwhile, remnants of the Taliban, al-Qaida and warlords used violence to intimidate the people and try to stop progress. Last month, a missile targeted President Karzai’s helicopter but missed. Afghan Vice President Nematullah Shahrani survived the bombing of his convoy. Twelve electoral staff members were killed and 33 injured in Taliban attacks. Militants killed at least 18 people merely for possessing voter registration cards. But on Election Day, Afghans went to the polls by the millions in the cities and in remote villages.
From old men with turbans, long white beards and sun-baked skin to young men in modern dress, to women in burkas and some without, the Afghan people came. They waited in long lines. They tolerated some technical problems. They voted and they felt empowered.
On the outskirts of Kabul at the Eman Zamen Public Mosque polling station, Said Mohammed told me,”This election will bring lots of changes. The most important thing is that the president will be our president.” He understands.
And Abdul Salam, a teacher at the Secondary School of Makha Badakhahe, said to me, “No matter who wins, the people will accept the new president because the people are making the decision. Today I am so happy.”
The enemies of Afghanistan want division because it serves their purposes. With the elections, the Afghan people triumphed over their enemies. The Afghan people won, and the Taliban and al-Qaida lost.
The atmosphere was festive. Outside the polling center in Kabul, music was playing and there was dancing in the streets.
For me, the transformative power of this election and of democracy was captured in a story told to me by one of my colleagues on the Afghan international election monitoring team, Lena Auerbach.
It was late morning in a village in the mountains outside Kabul. Lena was in a women’s polling center. She watched women come into the center in small groups of three to five. Once inside, protected from male eyes, they lifted their burkas and talked and laughed with excitement as one by one they cast their vote. After voting, one woman came over near Lena and leaned against the wall. She had a soft smile on her face. Through a translator, Lena told the woman, “Today is a good day for your daughters.” The woman’s smile grew to a large grin and tears flowed down her cheeks.
Democracy and freedom are on the march in the greater Middle East. Brave Afghan women and men are writing its newest chapter. I know. I saw it in their eyes.
Richard S. Williamson, a Chicago lawyer, is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.Top