European Affairs

Since the end of World War II, considerable progress has been achieved all over the world to strengthen and deepen democratic government. But the area of the world where democratic institutions have found the greatest resistance is the region stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific inhabited by Arab and Moslem populations. There is no historical or cultural determinism to prevent the development of democracy and good governance in the Arab and Moslem parts of the world – as shown by Indonesia and some other countries.

However, democracy cannot be exported or sold by the West like a prepackaged product. Time and patience are required to make it a success. Above all, it is difficult to sell democracy to other peoples while we attack them militarily at the same time.

Political decision-makers in the West had thought that our own democratic institutions could be prescribed to non- Western countries like medicines. But we should be more aware of the uniqueness and cultural conditioning of our democratic institutions. The processes of state-building, nation-building, democratization and good governance have taken us centuries to develop and are still subject to improvement and recasting. They are the result of very specific historical developments related to the evolution of Western societies and Western political thought.We tend to forget that we only have achieved democratic government through a painful process of trial and error, through hard experiences such as the English revolution in the 17th Century and the American and French revolutions in the 18th Century.

We are so used to the idea of “the state” that we forget that it was only coined 500 years ago, during the Italian Renaissance. The concept of “the nation” is even more modern and artificial. It was developed by the French revolutionaries after they overthrew and beheaded King Louis XVI. In England, Oliver Cromwell introduced the notion of the Commonwealth after he beheaded King James I and put an end to his “Kingdom” in 1640. The American Federal Constitution of 1787 referred to “the people of the United States.” The French revolutionaries invented the new concept of “la Nation” to replace “the King” as the “sovereign” or “supreme power” within the state.

Recognition of the cultural and historical conditioning of these political concepts now in use in the West should help us understand the resistance of other cultures to accepting and digesting democratic structures in their political systems.Meiji Japan, prodded by the audacious initiative of the American, Commodore Perry, appeared to surrender to Western civilization in the second half of the 19th century, but in fact, it took Japan almost a century – until after World War II, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bomb and U.S. military occupation – to develop a modern, efficient, democratic system of government. Similarly, other cultures still have not had sufficient time to develop Western-style democratic institutions. This is the case of China. It is true of most of the African continent. (In this area, it is important to stress the importance of the consolidation of democracy in South Africa in the 1990s despite earlier pessimism about the outlook for the post-apartheid state.) It is true in Russia and other components of the former Soviet Union in the sense that democracy is taking root slowly there, amid great doubts about its future development. And it is largely true of the Arab and Moslem countries.

Some Western leaders thought that our own democratic institutions could be prescribed to non-Western countries like medicines

The history of our own intellectual evolution should prompt us to be more aware of our own cultural context when we approach questions about exporting democracy. After World War I, a German journalist turned historian, Oswald Spengler, wrote a pessimistic book about the prospects for survival of Western civilization – Der Untergang des Abendlandes (usually translated as The Decline of the West). Intended to discredit the democratic values gaining sway in post-1918 Europe and undermine the new Weimar Republic in Germany, its autocratic views helped Hitler come to power in 1933. For our purposes, Spengler’s thesis – that Western culture had within itself the seeds of its own destruction – articulated the idea that Western culture, our culture, was essentially different from other cultures. This insight was developed, shorn of its rightwing connotations, by British historian Arnold J. Toynbee in his A Study of History, which elaborated the notion of civilization as an essential element of historical development. These ideas have been adapted to modern-day U.S. power by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man and Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. (Recently, Fukuyama has voiced a new sense of the limits of Western political power in the light of developments in Iraq.)


These intellectual constructs are relevant in many respects when we approach the problems facing attempts to export democratic institutions to the “Broader Middle East.” To start with, even the concept,“ Middle East,” was invented by the West. People living there do not feel themselves conditioned by the geographical definition we have invented. The fact that we have given the area a name intelligible to us in the West does not mean that the area has a meaning by itself. Now we have redefined the region as the “Broader Middle East” – an extended area spreading from the Maghreb and North Africa to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It leaves out the eastern Islamic world (Indonesia or Malaysia), as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. But when we speak of the “Broader Middle East” we are bringing it eastward to the edge of China and westward to the Atlantic coast of Morocco, the Western Sahara and Mauritania. In this area, attempts to introduce Western concepts such as the notions of “state,” “nation,” “democracy” or “governance” encounter great hurdles, arising from deep-rooted cultural traditions. Even our ancestral civilization in classical Greece owed a lot to the contributions of the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia in this region.

After hundreds of years of social and political development, people in these non-Western societies are not ready to dispose of their values and institutions in favor of other concepts ready-made for them by the relatively young modern civilization of the West. In the place of the Western “state,’’ they have in the Arab language, above all, the concepts of the Umma (the “community”) and Islam (“the house of peace”). These predominant values come from Moslems’ commitment to Allah’s vision for the world as revealed by the prophet Mohammed.

Given these imperatives, the rational organization of the state in traditional Moslem theology was the “caliphate” – government by the caliphs (successors) of the prophet, without separation of church and state. There was a caliphate in the old Moslem world, with its center in Damascus, first, and in Baghdad later, and a dissident caliphate in the Middle Ages in Cordoba, Spain. Later, when the Turks imposed their military and political rule over the broader Middle East, they legitimized it by establishing a new caliphate in Istanbul in which the Turkish sultan became the caliph. The Turkish Caliphate had very little to do with the idea of the “modern state” as we understand it, but it lasted until the end of World War I.

Wherever a democratic process is initiated in the broader Middle East, its outcome becomes unpalatable to the West

The region’s modern history illustrates that the achievement of democratic rule in the area was not a priority for the West. The United Kingdom and the United States had no qualms about restoring the Shah of Iran to his throne when he put an end to Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh’s democratic experiment. No great pressures have been exerted by Western governments to force Israel to grant equal rights to non-Jewish minorities. The West supported the ruthless regime of Saddam Hussein in his war against the more democratic Islamic Republic of Iran.

The idea of spreading democracy in the Middle East came as an afterthought of the Bush administration once it was proved that there was no basis for the invasion of Iraq on the assumption that Saddam Hussein had developed or was in the process of developing weapons of mass destruction. The electoral process in Iraq has been conducted under military occupation by foreign powers. This has placed the country in a state of virtual civil war (between Shiites and Kurds against Sunnis), with the hope of a peaceful, stable and democratic Iraq receding into a distant future.

Wherever a democratic process is initiated in the broader Middle East, its outcome becomes unpalatable to the West. Free elections in Turkey led to the absolute majority government of a moderate Islamist party. In Egypt, if Hosni Mubarak yields his absolute power, the probable winner will be the Moslem Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic movement. Only military intervention prevented an electoral victory of the Moslem fundamentalists in Algeria.

In Tunisia, the main opposition to the authoritarian regime of President Ben Ali is made up of Moslem fundamentalists demanding elementary human rights. New fundamentalist movements are challenging a bulwark of moderate kings in Jordan and Morocco, who are themselves claiming unconditional allegiance to Islam, and absolute rulers in Saudi Arabia and all over the Arabian Peninsula who are also invoking their Islamic credentials to defend their position. Recent elections in Palestine gave a clear victory to Hamas, officially declared a “terrorist organization” by the governments and international organizations of the West.

We should not delude ourselves about the prospects for democracy in the broader Middle East. Democracy is always a risk, as the electoral processes are bound to yield unwanted and unexpected results. Under the present circumstances, democratic development will lead to the control of the whole area by the Islamic fundamentalists, who are bent on a confrontation with the West and the destruction of Israel. Iran’s president has vowed to destroy Israel, but he is the legitimately elected leader of a large Moslem country. Leaders in nations such as Libya and Pakistan, who are considered hostile to fundamentalists, have had to resort to the police to quell anti-Western riots protesting the Danish cartoons about the prophet Mohammed.

The West has a serious credibility gap in the Middle East. In this area, the word “freedom” means, above all, freedom against the West and our forces of occupation, as well as freedom to wage war against Israel.

The Western presence in the Middle East, our military deployment there and our attitude of political and cultural supremacy over the Arab and Moslem world, constitute a permanent source of irritation for the peoples of that part of the world. The nominal independence granted to these countries at the end of World War II was not followed by political, economic and military disengagement. The West has been present there ever since to protect our economic and political interests, usually with the support of autocratic rulers.

Disengagement by the West may generate important changes in the political situation there. Our present policy of permanent intervention has led to the consolidation of anti-Western feelings and the emergence of “taliban” regimes intent upon launching a new “jihad” against the West under the leadership of Al-Qaeda or any other of the numerous fundamentalist organizations that now exist in the area.

The nominal independence granted to countries in the Middle East at the end ofWorld War II was not followed by political, economic and military disengagement

It will be impossible for the West to maintain a steady political and military presence in the broader Middle East against the will of their peoples. A limited temporary presence there to achieve some well-focused political purpose such as the protection of the State of Israel could be called for. The West should not, however, try to become a permanent fixture there that relies on the support of traditional, corrupt regimes. The security of the West against religious fundamentalism will require more diplomatic talent and more respect for the deep-seated beliefs of Arab and Moslem societies. A defensive policy is compatible with the building of new bridges towards these societies. In the long term, democracy should be possible there, as everywhere else in the world – but not through occupation forces and the denial of the principles which inspire the lives of the ordinary people living there.

Manuel Medina Ortega has been a member of the European Parliament since 1986, and served as the parliament’s vice-president and as vice-chairman of the group of the Party of European Socialists. This article is based on comments at a meeting of the Trans-Atlantic Partnership Network held in the U.S. Congress on March 1, 2006.




A Colonial Legacy Has Hindered the Development of Democracy

During WWI, the British Government developed the idea of the “Arab nation” and the promise of an “Arab State” as a way to loosen the grip of the Turks over the entire Middle East. The idea had been developed at Oxford University by a group of expert Orientalists dedicated to the cause of building British imperial supremacy over the whole world. A young Oxford graduate, T.E. Lawrence, was dispatched to the Middle East to work with the British Intelligence services to encourage an Arab “national revolt” against the Turkish empire.With the help of the Hashemite family, who were the custodians of Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the British engineered an uprising of the Arabs in the Middle East against the Turkish empire. This led to the collapse of the Turkish military power and, shortly afterwards, to the defeat of Turkey and its ally, Germany, in 1918.

The war over, the projected “Arab State” was dismissed by allied diplomacy. The British promised, as Foreign Secretary Alfred Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild, “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” In the rest of the British mandate, artificial border-lines were drawn to create two kingdoms that were given to two Hashemite brothers as a reward for the family’s help in the war – Iraq to Faisal and Transjordan to Abdullah. In their mandate, the French created a new artificial political division by separating Lebanon from Syria in order to set-up a State with a substantial Christian minority. The result was a patchwork of unstable political structures without natural frontiers or specific “national identities” in the core Middle East.

On its periphery, three political entities emerged to become modern states in the Western sense of the world: Egypt, Iran and Turkey. The three new “states” had historical credentials for political legitimacy: Egypt was the heir of the ancient empire along the Nile; Iran traced its ancestry to the former Persian Empire; Turkey was the direct successor-state of the Ottoman caliphate. In order to achieve political stability, the new “states” under their new political elites went through a process of “nation building” by suppressing or annihilating minorities – in Egypt, the Christian Copts; in Turkey, the Christian Armenians, the Greeks living in Aegean coastal areas and the Kurds; in Iran, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs. Even the new, formally democratic state of Israel had to keep the non-Jewish Arab citizens – Christians and Moslems – as second-rate citizens in order to achieve the ideal of a unified nation-state. The attempt to create a multiparty democratic state in Lebanon failed in civil war that allowed Syria’s Assad-family rulers to take over the country until the recent withdrawal of the Syrian occupation forces.

The preference for “nation-building” over democracy and human rights led to the takeover of power by ruthless military rulers who often used the ideals of a united “Arab nation” or other trans-national goals to provide legitimacy for their personal rule. These grand visions gradually were curtailed. In Turkey, Kemal Atatürk gave up any aspirations to lead a pan-Islamic movement by building a secular state based on Turkish ethnic identity. The “Persian” identity of Iran’s Pahlavis militated against temptations to expand their power over their fellow Shiites in the nearby Arab-populated regions. The Egyptian Gamel-Abdel Nasser claimed pan-Arab leadership, but in the end had to content himself with a modern Arab state within the frontiers of the ancient lands along the Nile. The attempt by the Ba’ath (the National Arab Socialist party) split into states ruled by Hafez Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq: they eventually found themselves at war against each other in the first Gulf War in 1991. In Iran, an attempt to create a Socialist state under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who was elected in 1951, failed. Later Ayatollah Khomeini managed to topple the Pahlevis and set up a peculiar theocratic republic based on the ballot box, but not too concerned about human rights, especially those of religious dissidents. Throughout this period, the emergence of democratic processes in the Middle East seemed far from the policy objectives of the West.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 1-2 in the Spring/Summer of 2006.