The Middle East is democratizing


This was originally a draft for a Ted Talk I was helping Rula Jebreal write…


I argue that the Middle East is in fact democratizing despite the continued violence, economic stagnation and constance of totalitarianism. The definition for this purpose is a political transition that allows the citizenry representation, education, human rights and the ability to affect change within the system. The argument is that representative governance is a naturally beneficial and economically efficient system. With this being said, governments are becoming more and more accountable to the demands of civil society, international economic variables and technological globalization. As a result, their trajectories, unless manipulated by unnatural factors, naturally flow towards democratization. The premise is that all systems everywhere are in the process of democratization whether or not they are early or late in the process and whether or not they intend to democratize.

The fact of the matter is that democratization is not an easy or nonviolent process. Whether one cites the forced removal of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans in the West, Nazism in Germany and World War II, or the forced disappearances in Argentina, the process towards a democratic nation has historically witnessed tragedy. There are mature democracies and budding democracies, and transitional systems that are not democracies yet. This talk is meant to cite the idea that stagnant authoritarians forced the Islamist movement’s emergence which shows a step towards the democratization of the Middle East. Political Islam like the ideology found in the book Milestone by Saed Qutb developed in oppressed, marginalized and brutalized prison spaces. The idea of a caliphate with God as the only ruler developed in refugee camps, impoverished street corners and shelled buildings. Authoritarian or oppressive dictators created environments where corruption, hunger and poverty where facts of every day life. The flawed systems which have led to arbitrary imprisonment, poverty, illiteracy, human rights atrocities and war, birthed a movement which challenges it to evolve from its stagnant totalitarianism (buttressed by the West) into a more violent, unstable but possibly representative system. Whether it is ISIS challenging Bashar al-Assad, they are doing so to challenge the system. Like the Muslim Brotherhood challenging Egypt’s rulers, Hezbollah politically legitimizing itself into the Lebanese system, or even Hamas going to war against Israel, the Middle East’s systems are being democratized by groups who have emerged as desperate by-products of very flawed systems. Their existence is a tool of democratization despite the fact that they are not democrats at all. Political Islam is the variable which will push these systems towards more representative governance. Political Islam exemplifies the fact that the democracies, which will inevitably sprout in the Middle East, will likely necessitate a space for Islamism making them less liberal than their Western counterparts.

While America is further along its own unique trajectory towards a more developed democracy, events like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown’s untimely murders, show that the system is flawed for at least one group of people. The events exemplify an exact space where America still needs to improve to fully represent and protect some parts of its citizenry. However, the Ferguson protests, the legal system and free media substantiate the fact that the American populace has a place in the system to challenge the flaws within that system. There are embedded checks to the American system, whether it is flawed or not. This space allows America to keep democratizing on its own unique trajectory. It allows it to evolve forward even if it stumbles backwards now and again.

Israel, a more limited democracy due to the Palestinian issue than America, both literally and figuratively created Hamas. While Israel is quite a mature democracy on the spectrum of Middle East systems, their inability to rectify the Palestinian issue within their territory substantiates the fact that their system is flawed. The idea is that although Israel is a democracy, Hamas’ violence towards Israel exemplifies how the Israeli system has enough flaws within it to have created a group of people who feel marginalized and are willing to use violence against the system as a means towards freedom. The Palestinians are, in real terms, under the supervision of the Israeli state. When Israel funded and encouraged early Islamist activists in order to balance the PLO, they fueled the beginnings of Hamas. The idea is that Israel’s engagement with the Palestinian issue is an example of an exact space where they need to continue to democratize. Hamas’ existence, in essence, challenges the flaws of the Israeli system. It is a by-product of Israel’s continued need to democratize. Hamas exists as both a product of Israel’s flawed policies and as a challenge to them. With no space to be democratic within the system, Gazans, instead of only protesting, which they do, are recruited into a group of people that, whether intentionally or not, are challenging the flawed democracy of Israel. The result will inevitably be a new system that corrects this flaw even if it is violent, slow and tragic. ISIS is doing the same thing to the Shiite-Maliki Iraqi system, the Muslim Brotherhood has been challenging the Egyptian system since Nasser, and since Lebanon is a more mature democracy than Iraq or Egypt, Hezbollah has been able to “Lebanonize” itself by using the space within the Lebanese system (albeit a corrupt space) to challenge the flaws of the democratic system by being elected to 12 seats of the Parliament in Lebanon. None of these groups are democrats within themselves, but rather by-products of a flawed system that exist in order to challenge the system towards democratization. Their existence shows that the flawed systems which litter the Middle East are being challenged, and movement, although more violent, is a symptom of democratization rather than authoritarian stagnation.

Finally, the real question is what the West can do to help nurture the democratization that is trying to bud in the Middle East. Obviously the West wants to fulfill its self-interests while putting its energy towards creating a stable Middle East. The first thing to avoid is buttressing authoritarians like Bashar al-Assad when fighting groups like ISIS because it further marginalizes and radicalizes those moderates who are disgusted with Assad’s decades of brutality. The West cannot ally with brutal dictators because that only serves to legitimize the Islamist narrative, which already enjoys a substantial amount of legitimacy since it is stooped in religious rhetoric. The West also cannot support policies like the separation wall in Israel or the systematic discrimination of Palestinians in Israel. It is these policies, which have led to Hamas, and the West is regarded as tacit in the oppression which has radicalized so many in the region. Also allies like Saudi Arabia have beheaded more people in the last month than terrorist groups like ISIS. The Saudis cite sorcery and drug smuggling for their brutal executions. Instead of giving billions in aid to dictators like Mubarak or Sisi in Egypt, or the al-Saud regime, the United States should be tracing their assets to make sure that money is being put into reformative policies—whether it is for education, redistribution of wealth or the development of civil society. The West must use its money, as does the federal system within the US towards states, to incentivize behavior. It can constitutionally do this within its own system, so it should do this foreign politically.

Secondly, the West must be recruiting moderate Muslims, Arabs and Middle Easterners into their intelligence networks in order to capitalize on this human resource. The fact of the matter is that the US has done rather poorly in foreseeing the political catastrophes within and coming out of the Middle East. It needs experts willing to advise its intelligence networks on the informational value and misguidance of sectarianism, sectarian alliances, and how money can be used to incentivize change. The United States and the rest of the West must understand that they can accelerate tension instead of mitigate it. This is what happened in Iraq which saw the undercutting of Sunni power to funnel it to the Shiites which has effectively led to ISIS. The truth is that military intervention only exacerbates the complex frameworks which lead to civil strife. Intervention has historically exacerbated Islamism instead of quelling it. Militaries do not succeed in creating political or philosophical change which is precisely what needs to be nurtured and kindled in the Middle East. The democracy that will bud in the region will be unique to its values. Representational governance is possible in the Middle East, so is higher education, the redistribution of wealth and a culture where civil society has space to develop. However, it is likely that the type of democracy that sprouts will need to incorporate space for Islamism. There has been and seems to continue to be a fundamental inability for secular state systems to include Islamism; that, ultimately, democratization pushes Islamists towards greater illiberalism. In Egypt, a pretty conservative Muslim country, majorities support Islamic law (Sharia law), as a primary source of law. It derives criminality, gender inequality and gives religious leaders incredible space to draft legislation. The fact of the matter is that there is popular demand for this. Since that is true, democratization equals applying this. Democracy developing means that the Muslim brotherhood no longer holds the monopoly on votes of the Islamist minded. They are in competition with other Salafi parties that have dragged the center-right towards the very right. What about Tunisia where Ennahda stepped down? If Islamists there want them back they will be voted in and they will likely go after a similar agenda. On the one hand, certain rights for liberal secularists are non-negotiable, while the religious right want the state to propagate a value system that reflect Islam’s ideals. So secularists think everyone can be happy in their system, but Islamists cannot be fully expressed in a state system that is not Muslim. If the Middle East democratizes, then it needs to incorporate Islamist parties and in doing so leave room for illiberalism. It might be a fact that democracy in the Middle East is impossible without Islamists. It is a fact that political reform must accompany economic reforms.

Thirdly, we need to counter extremism with the Kerry Initiative. Three hundred million dollars need to be funneled into a public relations campaign in the Middle East. The Soviets did this in Central Asia and when they broke from the USSR, there was minimal violence because of the high level of ethnographic research that had been done. This can be done with imams, scholars, media talent, journalists, and consulting groups like Beyond Reform & Development in Lebanon. Every diplomatic tool needs to be sourced in order to use a carrot and stick strategy. Ultimately, the Middle East began democratizing in a more tangible manner in 2011. The result will not be a Western democracy and it won’t be governance like those in East Asia. It will be unique to the Middle East and the values which come natural to it. The point is that the Middle East is democratizing in its own way. I have no projection on whether they will be democracies, nor which variables like outside economic manipulation will hinder it or accelerate it towards evolution. However, what is going on in the Middle East, while violent and tragic, is a symptom of democratization and not just the same old story.

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