FROM THE NARROW perspective of Washington, D.C., the year 2002, marked by fears of terrorism and recession, hardly seems the most cheerful on record. From the perspective of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, 2002 might seem more upbeat. Senegal, whose current leader was chosen by free and fair elections, is one of a handful of countries that have, according to an annual survey published by Freedom House, joined the ranks of free nations this year, along with Bahrain, Brazil and Yugoslavia. This is no mean feat. The Freedom House survey, which began informally in 1955 and has been published as an annual report, "Freedom in the World," for the past 30 years, is a comprehensive independent study of political evolution, evaluating countries according to their civil liberties, independent civil institutions and independent media, as well as their electoral politics.
This year's Freedom House report is notable because it records some otherwise unnoticed trends. One is the number of Muslim countries that are quietly making progress toward greater political freedom and personal liberty: Afghanistan, Albania, Tajikistan, Qatar and Turkey as well as Senegal and Bahrain. While the 30-year record of the survey does indicate that, as a rule, few countries with Islamic majorities are democracies, it does not show any "inexorable link" between Islam and tyranny, as some have lately speculated. Indeed, if the Muslims who live in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey, Western Europe and North America are all counted, it seems that most of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims actually live under democratically elected governments.
Although the survey does not answer the chicken-and-egg argument about democracy and prosperity, it does demonstrate a remarkable correlation between the two. At the moment, the world's 89 free countries control 89 percent of the world's GDP. The 103 "partly free" and "not free" countries control a mere 11 percent. Most of the world's economic, technological and military resources are therefore in the hands of democratic governments. This bodes well for further movement toward open societies, particularly given that the rich, free world has lately started to pay more attention to this issue than it once did. Progress toward political liberty will be one of the conditions required for receipt of aid through the administration's Millennium Challenge program, and is also meant to be a factor in the decisions of donors such as the World Bank.
But the list of free and unfree countries may contain other hints for politicians too. Of the world's least-free countries, a striking number are directly associated with the export of international terrorism: Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya. The same is true of disputed territories, which the survey measures too: Chechnya, Palestine, Kashmir. Again, there is no evidence of cause and effect, but the correlation is notable, and worth thinking about. In explaining the growth of terrorism, and in looking for its roots, much attention has been paid to the religious causes that the terrorists claim to support, and to their hatred of the United States. Far more might be learned from a closer examination of the political climate of their native countries -- and far more might be gained by policies that aimed to make that climate more open.