December 22, 2003


Democracy and the Enemies Of Freedom (Bernard Lewis, December 22, 2003, The Wall Street Journal)

The kind of dictatorship that exists in the Middle East today has to no small extent been the result of modernization, more specifically of European influence and example. This included the only European political model that really worked in the Middle East -- that of the one-party state, either in the Nazi or the communist version, which did not differ greatly from one another. In these systems, the party is not, as in the West, an organization for attracting votes and winning elections. It is part of the apparatus of government, particularly concerned with indoctrination and enforcement. The Baath Party has a double ancestry, both fascist and communist, and still represents both trends very well.

But beyond these there are older traditions, well represented in both the political literature and political experience of the Islamic Middle East: traditions of government under law, by consent, even by contract.

Changes in the spirit of these traditions would offer an opportunity to other versions of Islam besides the fanatical and intolerant creed of the terrorists. Though at present widely held and richly endowed, this version is far from representative of mainstream Islam through the centuries. The traditions of command and obedience are indeed deep-rooted, but there are other elements in Islamic tradition that could contribute to a more open and freer form of government: the rejection by the traditional jurists of despotic and arbitrary rule in favor of contract in the formation and consensus in the conduct of government; and their insistence that the mightiest of rulers, no less than the humblest of his servants, is bound by the law.

Another element is the acceptance, indeed, the requirement of tolerance, embodied in such dicta as the Quranic verse "there is no compulsion in religion," and the early tradition "diversity in my community is God's mercy." This is carried a step further in the Sufi ideal of dialogue between faiths in a common search for the fulfillment of shared aspirations. [...]

The study of Islamic history and of the vast and rich Islamic political literature encourages the belief that it may well be possible to develop democratic institutions -- not necessarily in our Western definition of that much misused term, but in one deriving from their own history and culture, and ensuring, in their way, limited government under law, consultation and openness, in a civilized and humane society. There is enough in the traditional culture of Islam on the one hand and the modern experience of the Muslim peoples on the other to provide the basis for an advance towards freedom in the true sense of that word.

The hard part of building democracy is creating traditions, but if we can change the spirit in which they consider their own, there's hope.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2003 4:43 PM

Islam is schizophrenic that way. On one hand, despotism and central government. On the other, no government at all, to speak of.

The first U.S. approach to what we now jokingly call Iraq, 130 years ago, found no representatives of the supposed suzerain, the sultan, at all; and scant local government above the village level. The 3 vilayets, of which some pretend sophisticates make much, hardly had any influence outside the suburbs of the provincial capitals.

It is not clear to me how happy the Arabs in Mesopotamia were with this situation, but they didn't revolt, which tells you something.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 22, 2003 6:40 PM


It sure does. I guess. What?

Posted by: Peter B at December 22, 2003 9:28 PM

Two possibilities come to mind. 1. they were very happy not to enjoy Turkish government and were willing to let well enough alone. 2. they had no more concept of self-government than a troop of baboons.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 23, 2003 1:48 AM

Like most of the West until a few years ago.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 7:57 AM

Mr. Eager;

Or the central state didn't interfere enough to matter. If, as you say, the vilayets "hardly had influence beyond the provincial capital", then what was there really to revolt against for the peasants in the country?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 23, 2003 5:32 PM

They were in a fix, Guy. If they raised their heads, then they would get the central government down on them.

But if they didn't, then you could hire a whole village to dig holes for a franc a day (actual example from near Mosul).

Call it a double bind. They could be poor, miserable and quiet or make a break for power, wealth and a whole lot of excitement.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 23, 2003 6:59 PM