HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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The Problem of Western Universalism

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.)” (

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.” (

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.

References and Further Readings:



  1. amiteichenbaum says:

    Something to keep in mind is that we are not necessarily witnessing a failure of democracy. We are witnessing results that we don’t want. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was elected. In Gaza, Hamas was elected. We must keep in mind that this may be what the people want. Not to say that some elections are not rigged, with heavy suspicion in both Egypt and Iran. However, there is a possibility that these parties are the majority’s will. Many of these parties offer social services, which may be of more importance to the voters than international influence/perceptions. We may one day have to deal with the reality that the elected leaders, even if they are part of a terrorist organization, reflect the beliefs of their constituents.

  2. khospedales3 says:

    This is a very comprehensive and well-written analysis of the difficulties of imposing on other societies what we may believe represents “just” or “functional” society. Great read.

    It emphasizes the significance of culture and its role as the firm roots of any society. The United States was founded on these liberal concepts, and so no cultural roots really needed to be destroyed prior to establishing the structure of government and society that has lasted to today. But establishing the western “ideal” of democracy in these Middle Eastern countries seems to require a complete uprooting of the existing culture, which appears a near impossible task when you look at the strong sense of community and unity that Islam has fostered throughout its history.

    Western society tends to brush aside culture and its significance, anticipating that its reforms will be readily accepted by anyone in pursuit of peaceful, functional society, but it’s clear that that’s simply not the case.

  3. jackjenkins2015 says:

    I think this a very well articulated blog post. The US’s involvement in the Middle East to establish democracy has been fraught with difficulties, and I agree that a large part of that is because of how democracy developed. The Age of Enlightenment in Europe and America began in the 1600s, and it took time for those ideals to turn into a democratic nation-state. The US, as you mentioned, has been focused on turning countries like Iraq into a democracy overnight. This obviously doesn’t work. I guess the question then becomes, how do we help the people of Iraq achieve the social freedom and ideals that we have come to realize are so important? How do we help free people from tyranny and allow them civil liberties? And how much of this is the job of the US, and how much do they want us involved? I definitely think you bring up some great points in this blog, and it really does give us a lot to think about.

  4. ashumway3 says:

    First off, let me say that your blog is very well written and your position articulate. In reading it, I was reminded of the book “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver, in which a missionary and his family move to Africa in the 70s to try to spread their religion while improving the quality of life in areas of high poverty and political instability. One symbol from that book that has stuck with me is that of the garden that the missionary and his family tried to create in the village where they lived. The garden, a metaphor for Western ideals and religion, was composed of all the staple foods from the United States. Though his intentions were good (to help feed the local population), the plants that would flourish in the climate of the US simply could not be grown in the radically different environment of the Congo.

    I feel the same can be said of the spread of democracy and Western ideals in the Middle East. It is important to keep in mind, like you said, that we have two very different cultures and histories and what is best for us may not be what is best in every other area of the world. Instead, we should look at this issue from a different perspective and find what works instead of forcing our ideals on regions and people who may not want to accept them.

  5. vlobo3 says:

    This is a very well written article. And I honestly could not agree with you more. As much as it seems that we could just take what we have and place it somewhere else, it just does not make logical sense to. How can we take something that has had almost 400 years to mature, with its initial roots dating back even farther, and just “make it happen”? How can we take democracy and place it somewhere that is not receptive to the foundations of what brings about a democracy? My first thoughts to solving some of these issues was also to start declaring what the actual rights are of each individual person within a state. Without that, there is no foundation for the type of government needed to help the region flourish.

  6. austinsoper says:

    Some Latin Americans, after numerous failed democracies and coups and governmental turnovers, rampant with corruption have asked those in the United States: “Why does your democracy work?” The answer to that is simply that we believe it works. The second that we stop believing in democracy it will no longer be a viable form of government. If the people in the middle east don’t believe in democracy, because they are skeptical of how things have been in the past, then it will not take hold as it has in the United States, simply because we “want it to.”

    • nsumi3 says:

      I had a history teacher in high school ask the class once, “What is the most stable form of government (or something along those lines)?” Naturally most of the class answered with “a constitutional democracy,” to which he said, “No, it’s actually a parliamentary republic, see Great Britain. The only thing that holds the US together is tradition.”
      I’ve remembered this for years, and your comment is along the same lines. We have, now, hundreds of years of peaceful transitions of power under our belt, a marvel we tend to take for granted, often overlooking the tumultuous early years (nobody ever talks about the Articles of Confederation). So it’s easy to suppose that democracy is the best government and assume it will work for another culture, despite large differences in those cultures. I, along with apparently everyone else, thought the article did a great job expanding on this gap in understanding.

      • zhuyutong202 says:

        I agree with you that our tradition is a important reason why US democracy is so stable. However, I believe high rates education is crucial to stability because majority of Americans are educated and are able to participate in the democratic process and make informed decisions. Middle east countries have a large portion of uneducated populace who can be easily manipulated and this can lead to the interest of a few being represented in government. This can be very unstable and i believe is part of the reason the middle east is so unstable.

  7. nrassam3 says:

    Most states in the middle east have been ruled by a dictators for the past three to four decades. Switching from a dictatorship to a democracy overnight is not going to happen with ease. As we see in Iraq, people are not used to dealing with each other. A lot of democratic processes take a while to install and understood by the leaders of their societies. Democracy will be of great benefit to the middle east, but as you mentioned people gotta go through the stage of enlightenment first.

  8. cfundora says:

    I think its important to note that while democracy can be utilized as an efficient/effective government, we should consider that it also has its flaws. As someone pointed out, we can’t disregard a state’s authority figures just because we don’t like who they elected. However, judging a state based on our own standards serves as a form of ethnocentrism because of we can’t just assume the West’s culture/history is superior to theirs. In order to bring progressive change to the Middle East, it needs to appeal to their belief system instead of through secularism. Also, if things don’t turn out in our favor, it would be simplistic to classify the Middle East as “backward” as some narratives do.

  9. jkempa3 says:

    I enjoyed this piece. The middle east has been built, destroyed, rebuilt, and molded into its present day situation by centuries of influence from every corner of the globe. Its geographical location makes it inherently a cultural melting pot. Many people say the the U.S. is a melting pot, and in some ways it is. However, unlike the middle east, the U.S. has been sheltered to a large degree from unwanted outside influence by two oceans. The societies and ideas in the middle east have changed countless times over the centuries and I believe, just as with the rest of the world, the ideals and structures in the middle east will continue to change. As far as democracy in the middle, there have been baby steps in that direction with varying degrees of success. I feel in the present, some countries may continue to push in the direction of democratic society while others may push on in other directions. I do not feel that that should be viewed as negative but as progress. As long as progress comes with the intent of moving towards a better world and common good, any course a country takes to develop its society and structure should be encouraged. For the U.S, democracy has worked relatively well but that does not mean that it will work for everyone.

  10. missypittard says:

    Great post. I do not disagree with any part of your analysis, and to summarize, it is completely naive of the West to believe democracy can be superimposed upon any society.

    World powers need to keep the end in mind, a focus on stable and functional government born of the society itself; there is the only place where peace in the Middle East could be found (if at all).

    It is important we remember the structuring of Middle Eastern society is not unlike that of the developmental periods of Western society. This is not the first time the world has witnessed violent disruption in pursuit of stable government, nor the last.

    What is most critical (in regards to issues in the Middle East) is a greater understanding of the social and societal implications of what these countries face, and to recognize the reality of a long road ahead in the pursuit of sustainable stability.

  11. zhuyutong202 says:

    I agree with most of your points in this article, United States democracy was not developed overnight and was the product of over hundreds of years of enlightenment ideas that most of the citizens were exposed to. However, I want to add that religion and diverse ethnic groups are some of the biggest obstacles to democracy. One of the reason American democracy were able to succeed because the founding fathers separated religion from government. In the middle east, religion is still too big a part of their government. All the draconian laws originated from their religion still exist and is sanctioned by many of their governments. Also majority of their people votes along ethnic groups and this leads to oppression of the minority ethnic groups.

  12. apabst3 says:

    This was a very informative piece, and I agree with the idea wholeheartedly. Just because a form of government and a form of society works for the west it does not mean that it will work for those in the Middle East. I think most people in the west including myself are extremely disconnected from the culture of the Middle East. Because we don’t understand their culture and traditions we have an even tougher time understanding their politics. Like your blog says we can’t continue to assume a “constitution” democracy is the best form of government for unstable countries in the Middle East. We can’t continue to press our “favorite” type of government on countries where it simply won’t work.

  13. elenajoy92 says:

    Great post! I think this shows us that we can’t resolve a systematic and cultural problem by adding a pretty title. Making a country “democratic” will not resolve its underlying issues and the blog seems to suggest that the actual problem is the people’s ideologies. The people must first understand and desire certain principles before these can be implemented successfully. However, successful implementation is very subjective; certainly some people already believe that their implementation is successful when the United States deems it unsuccessful. For real stability in the middle east, there are still a few obstacles (e.g. education, gender equality) that need to be tackled first and, again, being democratic will not solve them all.

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