The Road to Democracy in the Arab World

By Uriya Shavit

Liberalism has deep roots in the Middle East, if we know where to look.

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The 2003 American invasion of Iraq was designed to establish a new democratic foothold in the Middle East. In so doing, it sought not only to offer an enlightening example to the oppressed peoples of the region and a warning to the autocrats who rule them, but also to set the entire region on a course toward liberalization and peaceful coexistence with the West. Yet, in the nearly four years since the invasion began, and despite the Bush administration’s promotion of democracy in other Arab states, the region has become significantly less stable from the point of view of Western interests, and more hostile towards Western values.1
To many, this reality is proof of a fundamental incompatibility between Western forms of government and Arab society. In their view, liberal democracy (or anything approaching it) cannot possibly bloom on Arab soil, since Arab societies are so profoundly different than the West.2 Thus, President Bush’s gravest mistake—and the source of his democratization initiative’s failure—lay in ignoring the uniqueness of Arab society and attempting to force an alien and unwanted form of government upon it. According to this thinking, the fate of America’s campaign in Iraq was sealed even before the first shot was fired.
This essentialist view of Arab society, while commonplace in the West, is flawed. In truth, there is nothing unique to Arab societies that results in a preference for despotic regimes. Arab society does not possess an inborn aversion to freely elected governments, and particularly ones that uphold the basic freedoms of the individual; on the contrary, there is abundant evidence that liberal democracy can exist in the Arab world. Arab societies are, as history demonstrates, as likely to undergo the process of democratization as are any other societies to which this form of government was once foreign. Neither, for that matter, are they subject to any meta-historical imperative (of the kind that some scholars dress up as “cultural heritage”) that determines their fate as free men or slaves.
President Bush was not wrong, then, to place the democratization of the Middle East at the top of his administration’s agenda. Rather, his mistake was the poor implementation of a morally and strategically good policy. In short, Bush failed to grasp the ideological foundations of Arab resistance to the Western form of government.
The lackluster appeal of the liberal idea in Arab societies is the result of a specific paradigm that equates the adoption of Western-style governance with submission to the economic interests and religious faith of the United States. It is, in fact, one of the main reasons for the persistence of undemocratic regimes in the Arab world, as well as the ideological fuel propelling jihadists both inside and outside of Iraq.

Uriya Shavit is the author of A Dawn of an Old Era: The Imaginary Revolution in the Middle East (Keter, 2003) [Hebrew].

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