Who cares if the Middle-East is incompatible with democracy?

This article is a response to an article by Sami Oussama Filali Naji claiming that democracy is compatible with the Middle East.


1. Introduction

In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would once complain that the people of England were enslaved until they voted, though they thought themselves free. Nonetheless, in modern democracies, the vote and the ability to participate remains the universal precipice for democratisation. Yet those other democratic principles we have come to valourise hold much importance in our emancipation for which we vote, though this view is not widely shared nor warranted.

A 2015 Pew Research survey on democratic principles indicates that roughly 75% favour multi-party elections in the “West” (US, Canada, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Poland and Spain) compared to 53% in the Middle-East (Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon). Only Latin America scores higher than the West in areas such as free media, free internet, free speech and freedom of religion, whilst Asia/Pacific states, Africa and the Middle-East score low in most areas with the exception of Lebanon.

Compatibility in regards to democracy as we understand it requires an adoption of these so called democratic principles, but ‘democracy’ when spoken of, when analysed and valourised is that of a European [Western] experience. For instance, a 2016 Pew Research report indicated low rates of internet access in Africa and Asia (also home to the poorest regions in the world), compared to advanced economies, an avenue for free speech in the West, so of course free speech and free internet are valued less.

So, when we understand holistically what is meant by ‘democracy’ under the mantra of the modern nation-state, we rather consume it with its predictable connotations as impressed upon us by European thought; therefore, incompatibility with this idea should not be seen as a negative in the Middle-East. Civilisations have progressed without it in the past and continue to do so today. The accusation should not necessarily cause offence, for democracy differs from country-to-country; wherever it can be found, it can also be discredited, and wherever it claims success, there too lies failure. We need only to look at the US today.


 2. The Nation-State and ‘Democracy’

The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, it is argued by some scholars, gave birth to the sovereign nation-state, yet this one-size-fits-all model under colonial pretences was enforced overseas under the guise of civilising the savage. From thereon was born an international system wholly Eurocentric that would come to define boundaries, races, nations and religions from a European [Western] perspective. Thus, to practice democracy within a nation-state, is too a European idea.

‘Democracy’ is therefore only compatible with non-Western political systems within the context of a European state [and mindset] whether voluntarily implemented or forced upon, as happened during decolonisation in the twentieth century. The processes of decolonisation reverberate throughout the Middle-East today, making the case for incompatibility stronger and a supposed negative, as adjudicated by former colonial masters.

Take for example Lebanon, after the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement which contributed to dividing the Middle-East between the French and British; the French produced a mandate for Greater Lebanon in 1920 which ended with an independent Lebanese state in 1943. By this time, the previously French-allied Maronite Christian population were the majority and consequently had their own state. In order to unify the state, ‘confessional’ politics was introduced whereby political representation is proportionally designated. Thus, today, the President should be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the House a Shia Muslim. This inevitably caused years of sectarian violence which was only brought to an end by an amendment of the original constitution in 1989. Nonetheless ‘confessionalism’ continues within Lebanon’s political system causing us to accuse Lebanon of compatibility issues for they have not achieved European democracy as we expect them to.

What, then, is the ‘democracy’ Lebanon should aim for, the one so commonly exclaimed to be the benchmark for governance? The claim that democracy is of Western origins does not need to be denied but rather defined. For that we turn to Aristotle: ‘A democracy exists whenever those who are free and are not well-off, being in the majority, are in control of government’, he explains in The Politics. The best, most relevant example of this in a Western-style democracy is not found in the West but in Uruguay. The former President Jose Mujica was referred to by the BBC as ‘the world’s poorest President’. He gave away 90% of his salary, refused the luxuries of Presidency by residing at his wife’s farmhouse and earned near to the country’s average salary. It would seem, even the West by Aristotle’s definition are incompatible with democracy. This is further supported by Robert Dahl’s research in 1971, whereby he concluded there was no state close to democracy; rather states consisting of the rule of many which he termed Polyarchy.

Whether or not we find it in previous civilisations, democratic practices in the Middle-East and the rest of the world are today not as they were or will be. Democracy is often experienced differently, yet the experience the Middle-East is subject to is not organic; it is the remnants of colonialism. As Tim Marshall sums up in Prisoners of Geography, the Middle-East ‘is based on a European view of the world … the Europeans used ink to draw lines on maps: they were lines that did not exist in reality’. He further added that ‘until European colonisation most of the people within it [i.e. the Middle-East] did not think in terms of nation-states and legally fixed borders’.


3. Before We Wanted to be Compatible…

The modern nation-state system is very much absent in previous non-European civilisations whereby fixed boundaries defined territories as Tim Marshall alluded to, yet many flourished under diverse political systems without the need to be compatible with some other political system.

For instance, according to British Anthropologists, pre-colonial Africa consisted of varying types of political systems. Professor Ralph Grillo further states that many of the early African states did not suffer from ethnic differences either, unlike some modern nation-states. In the 1940 text African Political Systems, two forms of recognisable political systems were identified – Group A would include the Zulu, the Ngwato, the Bemba, the Ankole and the Kede, whom combined represented a centralised system. Group B included the Nuer, the Tallensi and the Luhya who lacked any sort of central authority. Despite all these differing political systems within pre-colonial Africa, multi-ethnic societies co-existed in most cases with little emphasis on ethnicities similar to some modern nation-states/democracies.

Similarly, the Ottoman Empire incorporating many different societies and cultures was based on a form of meritocracy; individuals, whatever their ethnicity, claimed high positions through merit. Though most would only do so once they converted to the dominant and often imposing religion of the Empire – Islam. Yet, many whom had gained higher positions were often born of slaves and raised as Muslims; many Sultans and military personnel were also of Christian backgrounds. Citizenship as such was based on productivity and economic contributions. For non-Muslims, a social contract was devised whereby it was required of them to accept the rule of the Sultan through taxation or face losing their property. The ahlal khitab (the ‘people of the book’, who for the Ottomans were Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians) were, however, exempt from such things.

In 1982, Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis concluded that the Ottomans in many cases proved to be a plural society. Their research, along with Professor Ralph Grillo’s research, shows that violence, hatred and antagonistic behaviour towards differing societies and religions were very rare. Forced conversions, although common among slave elites (devshirme), was not a feature within the public sphere where non-Muslims were free to conduct business as usual. Thus, bordered-identities were not an important factor in determining one’s citizenship as the Jews would discover, evading persecution in democratic Europe.


4. The Struggle for Compatibility, Not Democracy

Much of our concern with compatibility descends from a post-colonial era, the consequences as such are still felt today and are often marginalised in these debates. Non-Western political systems have existed in the absence of European [Western] democracy historically, yet we find ourselves obsessed with the need to be compatible with ‘democracy’ as understood and taught by the West. In doing so, the Middle-East and the like are judged based on a benchmark set by the West, though upon further investigation many modern so-called democracies should not be sought after. Even those who attempt to be compatible, like that of Egypt, soon begin to resonate with the sentiments of Rousseau quite quickly.

The point being, if the Middle-East is accused of being incompatible with democracy, the accusation is warranted for all the above reasons, but it is also not a negative feature of the Middle-East. It is the dreamed obsession and desire to be compatible with European ‘democracy’ that in fact neglects the reality. As the Ancient Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes asserted, we often look deep into our dreams, so much so we fail to see the steps we are taking. It is this false presumption that one needs to be compatible – best expressed by Frantz Fanon – that one should feel elevated in adopting the “cultural standards” of those who proclaim to be the carriers of democracy, with the aim, Fanon concludes, that “he becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness”.


5. References

BBC News (2012) ‘Jose Mujica: The World’s Poorest President’ www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20243493

Braude, B., and Lewis, B. (1982) Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, NY: Holmes and Meier Publishers

Fanon, F. (2008) Black Skin, White Masks, London: Pluto Press

Fortes, M., and Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940) African Political Systems, London: KPI Limited

Grillo, R. (1998) Pluralism and the Politics of Difference, Oxford: Oxford University Press [see for discussion on Ottoman Empire]

Marshall, T. (2015) Prisoners of Geography, London: Elliot and Thompson Limited

Pew Research Centre, 2016 ‘Internet Access Growing Worldwide but Remains Higher in Advanced Economies’ www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/internet-access-growing-worldwide-but-remains-higher-in-advanced-economies/

Pew Research Centre, 2015 ‘Support for Democratic Principles’ www.pewglobal.org/2015/11/18/1-support-for-democratic-principles/

Rousseau, J-J. (1987) The Social Contract, Middlesex: Penguin Books

Ritli, E. (2011) ‘Colonialism, Lebanon and the Middle East’ www.e-ir.info/2011/07/05/colonialism-lebanon-and-the-middle-east/

Sinclair, T.A. (1978) Aristotle: The Politics, Middlesex: Penguin Books, trans.

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