Saturday, February 26, 2011

Democracy in the Arab World

As the Middle East was being engulfed in turmoil, I wrote that I would not be offering my own uninformed opinions. I thought it better to provide some examples to useful and interesting analysis from people who really did know what they were talking about.

It seemed like a good idea a few weeks ago. It still does.

Above all else, I have been trying to warn everyone not to get swept up in the hope for a new democratic dawn. Reality is always more complex than our dreams, and considerably less kind to us.

Yesterday, I discovered a long interview with a man who certainly counts among America’s best academic authorities on Arab and Islamic culture.

I am talking about retired Princeton professor Bernard Lewis. In the aftermath of 9/11 when we all started thinking that we needed to learn more about Islam, Lewis’s book, What Went Wrong? became an instant best seller. And rightfully so.

Lewis has not been among the more prominent voices offering a running commentary on events in the Middle East, perhaps because he is now 94, but he did sit down for an interview that was published in the Jerusalem Post. (I will mention in passing that I sincerely hope that we are all thinking as clearly when we are 94.) Link here.

His views should count as an important corrective for the politicians and intellectuals who have mistaken the events in the Middle East for the onset of Arab democracy.

Lewis begins by pointing that what Westerners and Arabs do not see democracy the same way. He has no illusions about whether a new round of elections in Egypt is going to solve anything.

In his words: “The Arab masses certainly want change. And they want improvement. But when you say do they want democracy, that’s a more difficult question to answer. What does ‘democracy‘ mean? It’s a word that’s used with very different meanings, even in different parts of the Western world. And it’s a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world.

“We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections.

“If there’s a genuinely free election – assuming that such a thing could happen – the religious parties have an immediate advantage. First, they have a network of communication through the preacher and the mosque which no other political tendency can hope to equal. Second, they use familiar language. The language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses.”

Next, Lewis addresses the role that social media and modern communications technology has played. He believes, as I and many others have stated, that the communication media has shown these nations what the outside world looks like. Now they know that their lives are not normal, that their governments have immiserated them, and that their backward nations that have fallen behind the rest of the world.

Normally, this recognition produces shame. To overcome the shame people have become angry and resentful of their leaders.

As Lewis expresses it: “There’s a common theme of anger and resentment. And the anger and resentment are universal and well-grounded. They come from a number of things. First of all, there’s the obvious one – the greater awareness that they have, thanks to modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their situation and the situation in other parts of the world. I mean, being abjectly poor is bad enough. But when everybody else around you is pretty far from abjectly poor, then it becomes pretty intolerable."

He continues: “Well, you see, two things have happened. One is that their position on the whole has been getting worse. The second, which is much more important, is that their awareness of that is getting much greater. As I said before, thanks to modern communications, they can now compare their own position with that in other countries. And they don’t have to look very far to do that. I have sat with friends in Arab countries, watching Israeli television, and their responses to that are mindboggling.”

Then, the interviewer asks Lewis whether a freedom agenda can take root in the Islamic world. Lewis responds, importantly, that the Western concept of freedom is not at all the same as the Islamic concept. If we do not understand the difference, then we will misunderstand what the people who are demonstrating, protesting, and fighting really want.

In his words: “In the Western world, we talk all the time about freedom. In the Islamic world, freedom is not a political term. It’s a legal term: Freedom as opposed to slavery. This was a society in which slavery was an accepted institution existing all over the Muslim world. You were free if you were not a slave. It was entirely a legal and social term, with no political connotation whatsoever. You can see in the ongoing debate in Arabic and other languages the puzzlement with which the use of the term freedom was first perceived.”

He adds: “The major contrast is not between freedom and tyranny, between freedom and servitude, but between justice and oppression. Or if you like, between justice and injustice. If one follows that particular discourse in the Arab and more generally the Muslim world, it would be more illuminating.”

Given that Lewis is being interviewed for the Jerusalem Post, he is naturally asked about the role of Israel.

You know, all too well, that sophisticated opinion has long held fast to the notion that Israel is the problem in the Middle East, that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will solve all the region‘s problems, and that this will happen if only the Israelis will make more concessions and build fewer settlements.

If the current turmoil in the region means anything it means that this piece of received wisdom is pure bunk. Anyone who still refuses to see it is ignorant,  fanatical, or delusional.

I have occasionally pointed out that, for the Arab Middle East, Israel is the solution, not the problem.

According to Lewis, more and more people are beginning to have the same realization: “There are increasing numbers of people in the Arab world who look with, I would even say, with wonderment at what they see in Israel, at the functioning of a free and open society. I read an article quite recently by a Palestinian Arab whom I will not endanger by naming, in which he said that ‘as things stand in the world at the present time, the best hope that an Arab has for his future is as a second class citizen of a Jewish state.’ A rather extraordinary statement coming from an Arab spokesman. But if you think about it, he’s not far wrong. The alternative, being in an Arab state, is very much worse. They certainly do better as second class citizens of the Jewish state. There’s a growing realization of that. People would speak much more openly about that if it were safe to do so, which it obviously isn’t.”

Conclusion: if Arabs want freedom and democracy, they should move to Israel. If that is not possible, then they need but set about emulating Israel.

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