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Democracy in the Arab World

Democracy in the Arab World

Natan Sharansky, Bernard Lewis and their differing views on the chances for democracy in the Middle East.


"The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing," goes the ancient Greek epigram made famous by Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin used the distinction to categorize writers – Tolstoy, in his view, was a fox who aspired to be a hedgehog – but it can be applied to many disciplines.

Neither the hedgehog nor the fox is always right or always wrong. Those who insist on discovering 57 degrees of Islamists, for instance, are foxes run amok. They overlook the crucial element that unifies all Islamists: the rejection of the legitimacy of any legal system besides Sharia. And those who insist that all men share the same basic cost-benefit analysis, and that a nuclear Iran could be deterred as was the USSR, are dangerous hedgehogs, whose error could lead to a nuclear cataclysm.

Natan Sharansky is a hedgehog. The proposition that all men seek to be free underlies all his writings. As a corollary, he divides political systems between fear societies, in which people cannot express their true opinions, and free societies, in which anyone can stand in the market square and shout, "Down with the ruler."

Sharansky assumes, without question, that all cultures are compatible with democracy.

Sharansky's major works all start from his experience as a Soviet refusenik, and extrapolate from that experience to all men at all times. He writes neither as a historian nor as political scientist. The processes by which democracy develops and the circumstances that foster that development are not central to his work. And he assumes, without question, that all cultures are compatible with democracy. He points to those who argued that the Japanese culture was not well-suited to democracy, as if it were a complete refutation to contemporary skeptics.

Nevertheless, he has many trenchant insights on democracy. One example: Tyrannies are inevitably bellicose compared to democracies because the former require external enemies to distract the populace from their lack of freedom. He has forcefully argued that dictatorships are inherently unstable because they cannot command the allegiance of their citizens, and chides the world's democracies for the refusal to exploit that vulnerability. Every Soviet political prisoner, he writes, sensed that the USSR was doomed from the moment President Reagan labeled it an "evil empire" and confronted it. And he describes President Obama's failure to support Iranian protesters in 2009 as one of the "biggest betrayals of people's freedoms in modern history."

Sharansky's views have been enormously influential. President George W. Bush pronounced his 2005 book The Case for Democracy "a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy." Even before that, Bush's June 24 2003 Rose Garden speech on the Middle East channeled a speech delivered by Sharansky four days earlier at the American Enterprise Institute World Forum in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Bush had been widely expected to declare American support for a Palestinian state. Instead he declared his support for Palestinian democracy – something far different.

Certainly, America's current position would be far better had President Bush not abandoned the democracy initiative, urged upon him by Sharansky. The few democratic reformers in Egypt might have built a sufficient following to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the United States would not find itself so closely identified with the region's autocrats.

And Sharansky was prescient in recognizing the futility of any peace agreement signed by a Palestinian strongman that lacks popular support: Because of the now evident instability of dictatorships, the agreement would last no longer than the strongman who signed it. (Palestinian "leaders" have recognized how tenuous would be their rule if they moved ahead of the consensus of the Palestinian street, even if Western politicians remain oblivious.)

Not surprisingly, Sharansky views recent events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East as an expression of the universal desire of all men to be free. And he is generally optimistic about the potential for a democratic Egypt to emerge that will not need Israel as an external enemy, particularly if America uses its economic leverage wisely.

Not on the Near Horizon

Bernard Lewis, the nonagenarian dean of historians of Islam, plays the fox to Sharansky's hedgehog. (The two men were interviewed two weeks apart by Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz.) Lewis views the unfolding events through the prism of his vast knowledge of the particulars of Islamic culture and society. That knowledge leaves him doubtful that representative democracy is on the near horizon.

Lewis notes that the word "freedom" as a political virtue does not exist in Arabic.

Whereas Sharansky instinctively understands the demonstrations in Egypt as the expression of a desire for freedom, Lewis is far less certain as to the demonstrator's goals. The riots in Tunisia, for instance, began over bread prices. And the sharp rise of wheat prices in impoverished Egypt played a major role in causing the cauldron of social tension to boil over.

True, most people do not like being told what to do or think, especially on pain of death. But both individuals and cultures differ greatly over the place of political freedom on their hierarchy of values. Many of world's citizens, for instance, would gladly opt for a full stomach over representative democracy.

Lewis notes that the word "freedom" as a political virtue does not exist in Arabic; rather "free" refers exclusively to one's legal status in contradistinction to being a slave. In the same vein, Harold Rhode, a former Defense Department advisor on Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs and a Lewis protégé, recently pointed out to a group of visiting European parliamentarians that Arabic has no word for personal responsibility, only for being held accountable.

Traditional Muslim societies emphasize the collective identity and loyalty to the tribe or umma over individual identity, Rhode argued. For Westerners that a government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed may seem to be the natural state of affairs. But that idea is largely foreign to the Arab world. In traditional Arab societies, rulers treat the state as their private property. Saudi Arabia, for instance, derives its name from the ruling House of Saud.

Based on his intimate knowledge of Islamic history, Lewis would base the move towards Arab democracy on pre-existing models, such as consultative councils between rulers and representatives of independent centers of power, with the circle of those consulted gradually expanding.

The other model for developing democracy in a traditional Muslim society is that of an enlightened despot serving as the midwife. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the leader of a group of young army officers who deposed the sultan and the founder of the modern Turkish state, is the outstanding example. He was above all an educational reformer, who sought to teach individuals how to make their own informed decisions. But part of that process was the forced secularization, and de-Islamization, of the public square. As the educational reforms spread, the realm of civilian control expanded as well.

Despite their opposite starting points, Sharansky and Lewis share certain affinities. (Lewis proposed that Sharansky's 2003 speech to the AEI World Policy Forum be published and widely distributed.) Both strongly oppose the rush to early elections in Egypt. Sharansky constantly warns against the conflation of democracy with elections, and emphasizes the crucial importance of an independent judiciary, the rule of law, tolerance for diverse views, and the commitment to regular elections, at fairly short intervals, as a value in itself, not just a means of seizing power.

Yet their take on current events in the Middle East differs greatly. Sharansky reads those events through the hedgehog perspective of the universal human aspiration for freedom. Lewis, however, reminds us that justice, not individual liberty, is the traditional Muslim measure of good government. Were the Arab states now being roiled by popular revolts not corrupt kleptocracies, ill-equipped to meeting the basic needs of their citizens, he argues, they would not have experienced the current wave of political unrest.

Time will tell whether the hedgehog or the fox has shown the clearer grasp.

March 27, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Wassim, April 3, 2011 2:12 AM

What's holding back "Liberal Islam" in the *Middle East*?

It's normal for any idea to be further refined over time. It's a by product of delving into the idea in the first place. Religion is no different. One's understanding should progress, and usually does, so inevitably there will be differences between conservative and liberal factions. Many religions have had some sort of reform movement, but I'm not sure if Islam has. It seems that Liberal Islam is being intentionally stifled, otherwise I'd expect it to be more prevalent throughout the Arab world. I don't believe Arabs are predisposed or biased towards some of the harsher points of conservative Islam. I think there is some political interference being channeled through religious outlets. So I think, Islam reform is at the heart of the matter. First of all, if the international community is going to accept that Islam is a religion that regularly influences foreign policy decisions of many countries, then those countries should demand that the Islamic "leadership" have formal representation and a place in the United Nations. Why is it so absurd that an Ayatollah or Imam or a delegation of such people, who influence the thoughts and actions of millions of others, not be given proper recognition and be held accountable for their leadership. Separation of church and state on the international stage is still centuries away at the rate we're going. Therefore, "church" is still interfering with "state". Whether you squash Islamist movements by force or with religious diplomacy, that will be in effect "Islam reform". Peace.

(7) Wassim, April 1, 2011 3:17 AM

Pathways to peace

I think there are many paths to peace... Religion, Politics, Language, Economics. There's doesn't need to be one solution. The more Arabs and Muslims can speak English the better. The more trade the better. The more democratic institutions (not necessarily the government itself) the better. The more interfaith dialogue the better. The last angle interests me the most. Most people seem to put Islam reform in the too-hard basket, and very few even dare to suggest it. I recognise that many religions have "problematic texts", but that's not a problem if there is a tradition of analysis that mitigates the dangers of literal interpritation. Also, every human being should be encouraged to filter the text against their own set of values. I think it's the height of Godliness to refuse a commandment to murder or hate, whereas obeying such a commandment renders a human into a donkey. Once people acknowledge that books are written by human beings, certainly not by angels or God himself, it becomes very easy to simply conclude "that part of the religious text does not apply today". If we must accept a religious text completely as it is then that religion is the problem that will counter any other attempts to achieve harmony and true civilisation. I wish Islam had Rabbis, and a website like too.

(6) rae, March 31, 2011 4:32 AM

destructive force!

How can one rationalise with a demolition ball?

(5) Donald Mattison, March 31, 2011 3:44 AM

Excellent Article

From my 20 years of linguistic studies, I would like to say that this article and its analysis is very accurate indeed. It has taken me many years to understand what this timely article says in a few pages. The free and open dialogue of both the language and the cultures are vital to any meaningful outcome--which I devoutly hope is some measure of peace.

(4) Joanne, March 31, 2011 2:50 AM

Yes, freedom is not being a slave

Freedom means not being a slave of a tyrant. So many of the young Egyptians are educated and must be aware of the rest of the world. This is the wake up call -- more tyranny or a new (for them) kind of government? A fair judicial system, fair elections, rule of law, and a separation of mosque/church and state. They have the internet. They know what repression is. Freedom is the opposite.

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