Waves of historic change have been sweeping the Middle East. Much of this change has been stimulated by people who have been meeting and inspiring one another, on internet-based social media, to come out onto the streets to press for radical political and economic change.
In not much more than eighteen months, this “Arab Spring” movement, which began in Tunisia, has seen a spring clearance of long-established military-backed strong-men from Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Which autocratic leader will be next to go? And what sort of leaders or regimes are going to replace them? Is this going to be like the clearing out of communist regimes of Russia and Europe in 1989 for replacement by Western-style democracies?
For a while, there were some hopes that it would be so. However, such democratic framing of events looks to have less and less relevance to Middle East, Islamic reality. As illustrated in the results of the Egyptian elections since the January 2011 revolution, the strongest alternatives to replace the military strongmen may turn out to be Islamist fundamentalists. More may prefer traditional Islamic-based order over Western-style democracy.
As the Middle East Media Research Institute report on the December 2011 elections for the People’s Assembly says in these
…first free elections held in the country since the January 25, 2011 revolution, yielded a clear victory for the Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Salafi parties – whereas the secular-liberals and the left, and the fledgling parties of the country’s youth, women, and Copts, suffered a crushing defeat.
The prospects of getting beyond the spectre of socio-religious conflict looks even more remote in a tragically-torn Syria.
Much deeper level framing and learning is needed to get to the roots of the problems and begin to create solutions that can work. First, I think an understanding of the historical origins and promise of the modern world is needed. This promise was first expressed in the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which in turn grew out largely of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. These, in turn, were stimulated and amplified by a growing ferment of discourse and technological improvement that had already supported the rise of medieval commerce and towns. This march of progress towards the modern world as we know it was given a huge boost by Columbus opening up of the New World in 1492 and then, especially in the last few hundred years, by the industrial revolution.
Major changes in the West like the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the rise of secular, non religious societies helped create institutional structures and personality types that could experiment with change and enjoy the results without the constraints of traditional expectations, social structures or religion. There was freedom for personal, social, economic and political change.
Very simply, these movements produced the vision and possibility of human societies in which all could participate to access resources and create goods, services and lifestyles in which they could meet their needs and fulfill their hopes.
The political and human principles of the Enlightenment were strikingly embodied in the American Declaration of Independence, written in the midst of the successful revolt by 13 North American Colonies against British rule (1775-83). It is worth quoting from the preamble:
IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
– That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
– That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
This document spelled out the basis of democratic governance, a form of governance that was no longer to be based on royal lineage or traditional practices. Democratic governments that were created by the people and accountable to them for what they did have become a major aspiration of the modern world. The particular forms and practices democratic governance have varied and continue to change in both forward and backward directions.
Some big mistakes have been made in the way this project of modernity has been implemented, and these need to be understood and corrected. These have included an obliviousness to ecology, which I shall not address here. What I can touch on in this limited space, is the way social, political and economic restrictions that have been placed on many people’s power to create and participate in the freedoms and other fruits of modernity.
It needs to be said that despite the democratic and egalitarian framing of modernity, in practice the ability of some to advantage themselves over others, was often more the reality. Thus the United States itself began with a democratic constitution, but also had many black slaves, and has sustained to this day, in common with other Western societies, patterns of very unequal access to political, social and economic participation.
Similarly this kind of inequality was reflected at international levels by the more technologically advanced and powerful nations establishing imperial and other, hegemonic forms of control over the others, very much including in the Middle East.
In a nutshell, I see the deeper roots of the current Middle East eruptions as having much do with the strategies of control adopted by the more economically and scientifically advanced West, first Britain and France, and latterly the United States, in relating to the Middle East.
Basically, these modern Western powers used their leverage to form coalitions with typically authoritarian, conservative minority elite groups in a less developed Middle East. The goal was, of course, to access resources and control trade routes in amenable, relatively stable political and social environments.
This approach helped to create vested interests motivated to check democratic modernizing tendencies within Islam, while conservative Islam itself more generally became a traditional Arab rallying-point against political, social and cultural change emanating from the West.
The West’s Middle Eastern coalition partner could then be supported to control the rest, as happened in Syria and Iraq. In Iran an amenable regime run by a Shah who was brought to power by the West in the early 1950s did attempt more modernization, albeit of a harsh autocratic variety. However, the Sha’s modernization program represented a challenge to traditional Islamic elites that provoked a strong Islamist, anti-Western revolution that ended his regime in 1978-9.
In my view, a productive, stable future will only be in the offing in the Middle East when the people and societies at all levels can experience the autonomy and benefits of modernity. Problems will persist if Western agendas are about subtly changing the appearances, but not the reality, of the hegemonic political and economic patterns that have helped to keep so many in the Middle East from enjoying these.
To frame the issue more positively and thoroughly, I see the core challenge as being similar in both the Middle East and in the West. That is, to clarify and implement more genuinely democratic forms of participation from local levels upwards in both, and to create relations based on mutual respect between both.
The alternatives are not pleasant to contemplate.
Comments (critical and otherwise) are very welcome.