When The Heritage Foundation Wants "Secular Liberals" To Win

October 26, 2011 5:21 pm ET — Walid Zafar

Conservatives are usually known for their defense of so-called traditional values. On domestic and foreign issues alike, they take predictable positions in favor of the free market and the strong presence of religion in public life, and against many social programs or anything resembling European-style social democracy. When it comes to foreign policy, they usually side with center-right movements against progressive or leftist forces.

But there is an exception to this rule. In the Arab and Muslim world, conservatives often take the very opposite position; they become big fans of the very political factions that they seem to despise here at home and virtually anywhere else in the world. On elections or political movements in the Arab world, the good forces are always the secular liberals and the bad guys are always the religious conservatives. When it comes to Muslims, the right champions the political forces abroad that they tirelessly work to defeat at home and attack those abroad who appear to be their natural allies.

Take for instance this post by Heritage Foundation foreign policy expert James Phillips on recent elections results in Tunisia. He laments: 

Tunisian secularists, leftists, and liberals were dismayed by the poor showing of many of their preferred parties. Some gathered in front of the office of Tunisia's electoral commission to protest alleged voter fraud by Al-Nahda, which did better than expected in the vote. The secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights in Tunisia complained that "the problem of Nahda is that they have a different discourse.... Today they will stick with the republic, but tomorrow-we'll see." [...]

If secular political parties fare so poorly in Tunisia-which had a strong secular tradition, a well-educated population, and a relatively large middle class-then they may attract even fewer votes in Egypt and Libya, which have much stronger Islamist political movements. Despite the fact that the initial leadership of most of the Arab Spring protests were secular pro-democracy liberals, the election results from Tunisia suggest that secular liberals could soon become canaries in the coal mine.

It's quite a puzzle and it's not limited to the Arab world. In Turkey, where state-enforced secularism still prohibits the free exercise of religion, the Heritage Foundation is squarely on the side of the secularist left and against the ruling party, which is religiously, socially and economically center-right, much like the Heritage Foundation. (In a 2010 paper, Phillips and other Heritage thinkers characterized the effort to abolish a law prohibiting headscarves in public institutions as "jeopardizing Turkey's hard-won democratic liberties." Bans, almost by definition, don't count as liberties.)

The exception to this obvious double standard is when the religious conservatives were put into power by Republican administrations. If Republicans usher in religious conservatives in the Muslim world, then they get a free pass, no matter what they stand for.

The past few days, conservatives have been raising an alarm over news that the new leaders in Libya have made references to basing their new constitution on the principles of Islamic law. But, as Juan Cole points out, the constitutions of both Iraq and Afghanistan have similar language to what Libyan leaders have promised.

In other words, it's alarming if conservative Muslim political movements incorporate Sharia into their laws, but only, as Cole notes, "if there's a Democratic president in the White House."