Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bernard Lewis on the prospects for democracy in the Arab world 

Austin Bay links rather forcefully to an important essay by the famous scholar of Arabs and the Middle East, Princeton's own Bernard Lewis. Professor Lewis argues against the canard that democracy cannot succeed in the Arab Middle East:

What is the possibility of freedom in the Islamic world, in the Western sense of the word? If you look at the current literature, you will find two views common in the United States and Europe. One of them holds that Islamic peoples are incapable of decent, civilized government. Whatever the West does, Muslims will be ruled by corrupt tyrants. Therefore the aim of our foreign policy should be to insure that they are our tyrants rather than someone else's--friendly rather than hostile tyrants. This point of view is very much favored in departments of state and foreign offices and is generally known, rather surprisingly, as the "pro-Arab" view. It is, of course, in no sense pro-Arab. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and unconcern for the Arab future. The second common view is that Arab ways are different from our ways. They must be allowed to develop in accordance with their cultural principles, but it is possible for them--as for anyone else, anywhere in the world, with discreet help from outside and most specifically from the United States--to develop democratic institutions of a kind. This view is known as the "imperialist" view and has been vigorously denounced and condemned as such.

In thinking about these two views, it is helpful to step back and consider what Arab and Islamic society was like once and how it has been transformed in the modern age. The idea that how that society is now is how it has always been is totally false. The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the Assad family in Syria or the more friendly dictatorship of Mubarak in Egypt--all of these have no roots whatsoever in the Arab or in the Islamic past.

I strongly advise that you read the whole thing, for Professor Lewis connects the historical tributaries of today's pathological political culture in that part of the world. If you do nothing else, read Professor Lewis' explanation for the region's attachment to European-style totalitarianism:
In the year 1940, the government of France surrendered to the Axis and formed a collaborationist government in a place called Vichy. The French colonial empire was, for the most part, beyond the reach of the Nazis, which meant that the governors of the French colonies had a free choice: To stay with Vichy or to join Charles de Gaulle, who had set up a Free French Committee in London. The overwhelming majority chose Vichy, which meant that Syria-Lebanon--a French-mandated territory in the heart of the Arab East--was now wide open to the Nazis. The governor and his high officials in the administration in Syria-Lebanon took their orders from Vichy, which in turn took orders from Berlin. The Nazis moved in, made a tremendous propaganda effort, and were even able to move from Syria eastwards into Iraq and for a while set up a pro-Nazi, fascist regime. It was in this period that political parties were formed that were the nucleus of what later became the Baath Party. The Western Allies eventually drove the Nazis out of the Middle East and suppressed these organizations. But the war ended in 1945, and the Allies left. A few years later the Soviets moved in, established an immensely powerful presence in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and various other countries, and introduced Soviet-style political practice. The adaptation from the Nazi model to the communist model was very simple and easy, requiring only a few minor adjustments, and it proceeded pretty well. That is the origin of the Baath Party and of the kind of governments that we have been confronting in the Middle East in recent years. That, as I would again repeat and emphasize, has nothing whatever to do with the traditional Arab or Islamic past.

If the Arab world's presently incompetent and corrupt political culture is in no small part the product of Western colonialism, then America's democratization project -- which quite specifically reverses 60 years of Western policy in the region by rejecting stability at the price of justice -- is the least we can do to make amends. The Western left, in its opposition America's campaign for political reform, is committing in this abdication at least two offenses against its most basic principles. First, it betrays its traditional opposition to racism by implying or even saying that Arab Muslims cannot succeed at building a reasonably transparent and inclusive political culture built on popular sovereignty. Second, it has revealed that its "anti-imperialism" is of the most shallow sort; rather than correcting the legacy (intended or otherwise) of two, three or even eight generations of Western "imperialism" in the region, it would rather leave Arabs to the tender mercies of the bastards that the West, to a great extent, put in power.

One would have thought that the West's complicity in the mess that is the Middle East would have increased our obligation to do something about it, but the left will be damned before it admits that George W. Bush is the American president to do it. Austin Bay writes that "the progressive Left ... is in a big-time, hypocritical bind." Yup.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Sep 21, 12:08:00 AM:

so no, I didn't read the whole thing. but that first paragraph seems quite strange. for instance.

"They must be allowed to develop in accordance with their cultural principles, but it is possible for them--as for anyone else, anywhere in the world, with discreet help from outside and most specifically from the United States--to develop democratic institutions of a kind."

'discreet help'? Is that what he's calling the war? is that what the very-much-pre-iraq-war posturing is now?

I hardly think his characterization is fairly describing what some would say is imperialism.

Much of what I see posted on left of center blogs or news shows is shallow in it's anti-imperialism, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater eh? I think the resistance you see to this war and to U.S. foreign policy comes from a belief that U.S. actions are inciting unnecesarry violence, increasing anti-american sentiments and legitimizing radical wings of muslim beliefs by placing them front and center and forcing an 'us or them' choice. Perhaps it's the right way to go, but my personal opinion is that the approach is much too risky (more so than the specters of mushroom clouds that bush often raises).

and if the current attempts at democratization fail? (and how ugly will that be?), the right can simply point to the nay sayers and place blame.

I think that after 9/11, the U.S. had the world on it's side. It had real power and real sympathy in the face of a truly terrible attack. Now, we are perhaps worse off than before, we've lost much of the support we had and now appear overly eager to wreak havok on an entire group of people for the doings of a few radicals.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Sep 21, 05:58:00 AM:

I read it too, although I don't recall writing about it on this blog.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Sep 21, 11:14:00 AM:

Arabs (and Islamists world over for that matter) quickly adapted to Nazi/Fascist and then Communist totalitarian systems because Islam itself is synergistic with those forms of oppressive governments.

It’s true that dictatorships were setup in the Arab world primarily as way of ensuring “at least he’s our dictator” mentality (and to keep oil flowing). But the other part of the truth is dictators also kept a lid on the Islamists because the people could not to be trusted with power.

As imperialistic influence waned, Arab dictators have remained in large part because that’s just the way the tribal Middle East has always been. Tribalism and entrenched corruption play large roles. And Islam incompatibility with democratic forms of government.

Yet, tribalism and corruption can be overcome. So what does that leave? I would argue against democracy succeeding with Islam as the true root of the problem. It is hard enough to overcome corruption and tribalism, but Islam is the animal that breaks the deal.
The people cannot be trusted with power or, as I would take it to the root: Islam cannot be trusted with power. Unless you’re an Islamist of course. And why can’t islam be trusted with power? Because Islam lacks basic respect for other religions and seems unable to adapt to that concept.

If Islam can be forced to respect other religions and recognize the rights of individuals to have religious freedom to include apostasy from Islam, then and only then can democracy truly succeed.

So that is the essential question of 21st century: How can Islam be forced to respect religious freedom of the individual?

Winning the war of civilizations rests completely on answering this question successfully. All politics of the Middle East, past and present relate to this key point no matter what else is in play.

This war will be successful only when we can say this: Islam truly respects religious freedom of the individual including apostasy.  

By Blogger Papa Ray, at Thu Sep 21, 06:12:00 PM:

Right O, DanO, again.

Islam is the problem.

Papa Ray  

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