By Daniel Nicoloso
“For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability… We must help the reformers of the Middle East as they work for freedom, and strive to build a community of peaceful, democratic nations.” — President George W. Bush in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 21, 2004
In 2010, we saw the uprising of Arab Springs and we hoped that democracy would begin to flourish in the Middle East, but our hopes were largely dashed. Instability and tribalism still seem to rule in areas where we thought democracy would flourish. The relatively meager success toward democratic reforms begs two questions: can democracy thrive in the Middle East? And is it a positive development there? We in the West have at times assumed that democracy is a universally good system, and that it can be implanted in any culture, with no regard for history or natural development.
One of the problems that has been observed in these growing democracies is a failure to a protect individual liberties. Shadi Hamid is a research fellow for the Saban Center on Middle East Policy. In an article from last year, he pointed out that these countries, through democratization, have frequently failed to uphold individual freedoms against the tyranny of a majority. He points out that right wing islamist groups have tended to gain greater power through democratic processes:
“Islamist parties today are interested in fashioning religiously oriented states through democratic means and maintaining them through democratic means. They took this to levels of near self-parody in Egypt, where elections became a sort of crutch. Whenever the Brotherhood faced a crisis, its immediate instinct was to call for elections, thinking that electoral legitimacy would stabilize Egypt and solidify its rule. (It didn’t.)” (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/05/democracys-future-in-the-middle-east-islamist-and-illiberal/361791/)
Hamid suggests that the reason for this problem is that democracy is being developed backwards: developing democracy prior to developing the liberal philosophy that normally underlies democracy. In the West, democracy did not develop overnight. It was a step by step process and many liberal ideals were developed prior to the advent of democracy. Ideas like religious freedom, checks and balances, and the rule of law were developed in most Western countries prior to having free and open elections. These ideas have not been fully realized in many Middle Eastern countries, which suggests that democracy can easily become a means for islamist tyranny.
What Hamid points to in the difference between the development of Western and Middle Eastern democracies is a simple but often overlooked fact: the two cultures have different histories. Both cultures have developed toward democracy by different methods for different reasons. Liberalism, as a philosophy, was first formulated in the Western Enlightenment, which began in Europe as early as 1650. Liberal ideals such as personal freedom, equality, and the rule of law have been developing in Western countries for over 360 years. The process of developing liberal ideals was not quick, and it frequently encountered strong opposition in the West. Historically, when Western countries made the transition to more democratic power structures, it was driven by these liberal ideals. For the West, democracy and liberalism go hand in hand, and it is difficult for us to consider democratic reforms being taken over by right wing goals. Our perception is colored by history, and we assume that the same system that helped us protect our rights is universally helpful.
Liberal ideals have not taken root in the Middle East as strongly as they have in the West. Although instances of liberal movements can be found in the late 19th century, we must keep in mind that these came long after the Western Enlightenment, which means that they have had much less time to mature in the region. Although these movements may gain greater sway in the future, they have failed to form movements that are strong enough to resist islamist parties. One commentator, Maajid Nawaz, writes about why the islamist groups have succeeded in forming a movement, where secular and liberal groups have failed:
“Ill-equipped and with no centrifugal force to bind them together, anti-authoritarian secularists are always bound to fail. The mechanisms that make a group of people a movement are absent, and thus the building blocks for democracy — ideas, narratives, leaders, iconography and end goals — were not there either. This is where we need to start again.” (http://warontherocks.com/2014/08/what-the-middle-east-needs/)
It is imperative when considering political prospects in the Middle East that we keep in mind the progression of history. The West has developed the way that it has because of a unique combination of historical determinants. Expecting that a different culture, with a different history will take the same political tool, democracy, and use it to achieve an identical end is naive. Our first goal should be to protect the rights of individuals and to preserve stability in the various regions. We must keep in mind that democracy is not an inherent good, it is only a means to achieve an end, and it is only valuable in so far as it achieves that end. Although we can continue to hope, it seems that stable, liberal democracy in the Middle East may still be far in the future.
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