This is particularly true of what he calls the "power-challenge dialectic," a residue from the tribal experience that both guides and constricts behavior at the national level. In tribal society, all males are theoretically equal and capable of exercising authority. Thus, to gain power a man must develop a following by demonstrating that he is heroic, ruthless, tough, cruel and understanding—in short, commanding. Since there are no formal means of selecting leaders, the informal realities unleash the power-challenge dialectic, in which challenge is the only way to get power and the accumulation of power invites challenge. As Pryce-Jones explains, the power-challenge dialectic has survived as a tribal legacy, perpetuating “absolute and despotic rule, preventing the evolution of those pluralist institutions that alone allow people to participate in the processes of the state and so to identify with it.”
The story of Western civilization is in significant measure the story of the slow, inexorable ascent of liberal democracy. It is a grand story, full of civic tension, brutality, sacrifice, intellectual exploration, heroism and triumph. But this is not the story of Middle Eastern Islam, which emanates from a separate cultural etymology and distinct cultural sensibility. It isn’t realistic to expect that the peoples of this cultural heritage will embrace in any serious way the structures, sensibilities and practices of an alien culture, however successful it has been in comparison.
But don’t take my word for it. Just look at developments in the Middle East in the wake of the American effort to remake Iraq and the Arab Spring of 2011. Do we see there an inexorable push toward democracy, or rather Pryce-Jones’s power-challenge dialectic at work? Anyone who sees the former should probably take a second look, but with a cold eye of realism.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His next book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians, is due out on June 26 from Simon & Schuster.