Blending Democracy

Blending Democracy

Mini Teaser: The political soil of the Middle East has not been tilled by the Western Enlightenment. Growing democracy there must take this into account.

by Author(s): Dov S. Zakheim

Islam is a faith that gives pride of place to authority. Moreover, unlike its other monotheistic counterparts, it never has experienced a thoroughgoing reform movement (among its core populations) that challenged the dicta of the established religious leadership. Indeed, one of the few major reform movements within Islam to develop a mass following in recent centuries is none other than Wahhabism--a puritanical counter-reformation against the perceived dilution of Islamic fundamentals.

Islam is also a faith that places great emphasis on the "rule of law", but its meaning is quite different from what Western societies practice. For Western secularists in particular, the rule of law involves secular, impartial courts interpreting legislation determined by elected representatives of the people as well as the upholding of individual rights. The rule of law in many Arab and Muslim societies is that of sharia law, which takes precedence over secular law. Sharia law need not be formulated by elected officials, nor does it treat all individuals in identical fashion. In particular, different creeds can be treated differently, while the role of men and women is quite strictly demarcated.

"Women's rights" in the region do not always yield the same outcomes as they would in the West: Cultural norms are simply different. In the West a woman might be insulted if a man refused to shake her hand; in the Middle East, a devout Muslim woman would be insulted if a man proffered his hand to shake hers. In the West a woman demands the right to dress as she pleases; devout Middle Eastern Muslim women insist on covering their bodies, their hair, and in many parts of the region, their faces as well. These distinctions are culturally, rather than geographically, bounded: In France young women protested that their rights were being infringed precisely because they could not wear the hijab to school. While the rule of law applies equally to Western and Islamic societies, its nature is quite different in each; to pretend otherwise is highly problematic.

In sum, Muslims in the Middle East are not going to be rapidly "secularized" along Western lines. All too often, assumptions about cultural change in the region derive from Western experience with a relatively small group of Arab intellectuals who interface with the West on a regular basis. In a way that resembles the Russian intelligentsia today, these people are often far removed from the daily concerns and priorities of the population at large. It is dangerous to assume that they are the standard-bearers of democracy, even if they are as secular as their Western acquaintances. Attempts to force secular values on a reluctant society could well result in an unwanted backlash that would exacerbate the gap between Islam and the West.

There is no denying the reality that many secular regimes continue to retain their power, if not exactly flourish, in the Middle East. Yet, with the exception of Turkey, none has systematically attempted to undermine the impact of religion upon society. Moreover, all of these regimes have recognized the importance of "making space" for Islamic values, and therefore its authoritarian impulses, even as they monopolize political power. For example, during his last decade in power, Saddam Hussein increasingly cast himself as a religious leader, even contriving to claim an association with King Hussein of Jordan, and thus to the Prophet Muhammad. Syria's Alawite regime bitterly fought the Muslim Brotherhood and wiped out the Islamist stronghold of Hama. Yet Hafez al-Asad felt the need to get a fatwa legitimating his Alawite sect as a branch of Shi'a Islam. Indeed, even Turkish society is undergoing a religious revival that is gradually undermining Atatürk's reforms; that country is now governed by an Islamist party.

While its secular example has not been truly replicated throughout the region, Turkey has bequeathed a different legacy--that of its Ottoman past. Turkey's Ottoman legacy actually reinforced the non-democratic tendencies of Middle Eastern populations. The Ottoman Middle East, which comprised the entire region with the notable exception of Iran, stifled the development of viable democratic institutions. It also spawned a culture of corruption that is the bane of whatever democratic institutions do come into being. Indeed, these same two phenomena--lack of democratic development and endemic corruption--continue to plague the former Ottoman provinces of southeastern Europe.

Finally, the region still suffers from a third unhappy legacy. Much of the Middle East--like parts of the Balkans and other areas where democracy struggles to take root--remains mired in tribal blood feuds and hatreds. Sometimes, though not always, these feuds overlap with religious or ethnic differences. In most cases, they supersede all other allegiances, however, making it exceptionally difficult to create strong central governments that are not autocratic in nature.

While all of these legacies cannot be ignored, they are not insurmountable. Culture is not destiny. Nevertheless, it is fanciful to expect Middle Eastern society to mount a sustained drive toward region-wide democratization. In this regard, the Middle East is not alone. Europe's march to democracy has hardly been linear. When Iran first experimented with democracy, much of Europe was ruled by emperors, only to be succeeded by fascist dictators. And while Lebanon's democracy flourished, half of Europe was choked by communism. It is true that once the Berlin Wall fell many central European states quickly established democratic forms of government that are flourishing today. Yet virtually every one of those states had a democratic legacy that predated their occupation by either Nazi or Soviet forces or both. Where no such legacy existed, as in some former Soviet states in both Europe and Central Asia, democracy remains a dream for the future.

Latin America is currently undergoing another period of social and political retrenchment. Democracy has come, gone and come again in several of its leading states, notably Argentina and Brazil. It currently seems to be disappearing quickly in Venezuela, while in the Andean states of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, governments change under the threat of mob rule rather than by the ballot box. Like the former Ottoman provinces of both the Middle East and southeastern Europe, these Latin American states suffer from endemic corruption at all levels of society. They also share with all the non-oil producing Middle Eastern states both literacy levels and per capita GDPs that are lower than those of developed democracies.

Having a relatively corruption-free society, maintaining high literacy rates and sustaining a growing economy do not guarantee that democracy will flourish in a given state.3 The Soviet bloc always boasted high literacy rates, while China's literacy rate rivals those of many Western democracies. Similarly, economic development in China, while uneven, nevertheless surpasses that of democratic India and of many smaller democracies. Yet if lack of corruption, high education levels and economic growth are not sufficient conditions for democracy, they certainly are necessary conditions for democracy, and none of these conditions can be realized overnight.

Democracy itself cannot be realized overnight, either. East Timor is a recent example of a state born into democracy that is regressing toward autocracy. Of course, the most egregious cases were post-World War I Germany and post-czarist Russia. The notion that somehow the Middle East can be "transformed" quickly into a democratic region--even by force of arms--therefore is simply unrealistic.

Dictators or Reformers?

Advocates of a muscular approach to the imposition of democratic values frequently argue that the United States has coddled Middle Eastern autocrats who at least verbally support its strategic objectives. They assert that while this approach may have been marginally tolerable during the Cold War, it is no longer an acceptable policy--meaning Washington should now be an unstinting supporter of those who urgently call for the removal of one-party presidents-for-life and hereditary monarchs throughout the Middle East. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that any critic of the status quo in the region is automatically in favor of liberal democracy.

In the context of Middle Eastern politics, such a premise misses the point. In the Middle East, reform has often come from above, despite, not because of, the demands of key sectors of the public. The Middle East has certainly seen its share of brutal tyrants, but it is a fallacy to lump them in the same category of autocrats as traditional rulers.

The kings, princes and emirs who tell their Washington interlocutors that they support a path of gradual reform for their conservative societies do have a record to back up their case beyond merely continuing the tradition of diwaniya, which enables ordinary citizens to meet face-to-face with their rulers in a fashion that compares favorably with Western citizens' interaction with officialdom.

The shah of Iran, for all his other faults, granted minorities--notably Druze and Jews--freedoms that are unheard of in Iran today. Druze are mercilessly persecuted; Jews are marginally tolerated. Under the shah, women had opportunities that they must fight for today. And they were not forced to wear the chador or use devious stratagems to maintain their coiffures even as they keep their hair covered.

It was the crown prince of Kuwait whose government was the leading advocate of franchise for women, who refused to bow to Assembly opposition to the franchise and who only attached Islamic provisos under pressure from Assembly "commoners" that threatened to torpedo the legislation for a second time. The Sabahs of Kuwait are hardly alone among the region's current hereditary rulers who have initiated many of its social and political reforms. The Kuwaiti ruling family was not even the first in the Gulf to grant women the franchise. Women already had the right to vote in the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Sultanate of Oman and Emirate of Qatar. In addition, the emir of Qatar was the first Gulf ruler to permit an unrestricted free press to operate in his country, often to the annoyance of his conservative--and powerful--Saudi neighbors. The rulers of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates have created a unique mix of social and economic freedom in their city-state unrivalled in much of the world. The kings of Jordan and Morocco, both descended from the Prophet Muhammad, were among the first to give women ministerial and other high governmental offices. They have also gone to great lengths to preserve and protect minority rights. And they have increasingly opened the political process, permitting opposition parties to function actively in the national legislatures.

Essay Types: Essay