There seems to be an international trend towards less blatant outside interference in the Middle East recently. Last week it was the governments of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States (of all people) issuing a joint statement condemning “outside interference” in Libya’s civil war. Prior to that Iran and the US tacitly joined forces behind the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, offering a welcome contrast to their past struggles over that country. Even in neighbouring Syria, the Middle East’s quarrelling powers may have temporarily set aside their differences to work together. Coming after the successful removal of Syria’s chemical weapons in June, cooperation seems to be more popular than confrontation this autumn. For this to be more than a short-term trend however, longstanding Western preconceptions blocking reform in the Middle East will have to be overturned.
The first myth that needs to be thrown out is the notion that the West has a better idea of how to design and direct Middle Eastern countries’ political systems and social organisation than the people who live there. Ever since Napoleon marched into Egypt Westerners have had a bad tendency to swallow their own rhetoric about improving Middle Easterners’ lives as a justification for running their countries. The unintended consequences of each round of intervention are then used as a justification for the next one, proving that “they” need “us”. The Middle Easterner is supposedly the perpetual student of the Western tutor.
The second notion needing smashing is that there is something in Islamic, Arabic or Middle Eastern culture that is inimitable to democratic systems of governance. The collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing the dictator does not change the political calculations or social conditions that led to the original dictatorship. But what escapes the notice of those who use this to paint the Middle East as somehow “different” is how typical the early failure of outwardly imposed electoral systems is. A democracy is ideally an indigenous system of political organisation whose advantages emerge slowly over time as its competitors are tried and fail. Historically the Western world’s political turn to it happened violently and inconsistently. Our democracies emerged only after the alternatives slowly lost their credibility over time. Most of today’s Western European ones are less than a hundred years old; at two hundred and thirty-eight America’s system is their venerable patriarch.
The elites in the region will gradually embrace democracy as they stop being able to mobilise political support any other way. The Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonisation a mere five or six decades ago and the states in it are undergoing a century of nation-building akin to the German or Italian unifications in Europe. This is hardly evidence for stagnant medieval backwardness. Pessimists should ask Qatari pensioners if nothing has changed in their lifetimes. The tragic partial collapse of the Arab state system in the Levant and Mesopotamia should be a warning against the dangerous consequences of outside military action; but we should not distort the rise of hate groups like the Islamic State (IS) movement as being somehow an inevitable consequence of the end of secular dictatorship in the Arab world. That simply plays into the hands of old-school autocrats like Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who use violence to repress all opposition to their rule.
What is inevitable is that almost any political group that attains significant popularity in the Arab world and the wider region will be influenced by Islam, in much the same way as Western ones are affected by Christian frameworks and assumptions. Often even secular Middle Eastern political movements will have observant memberships. Just as Western politicians have to be in favour of things like “freedom” and “the right to bear arms”, leaders in Muslim-majority countries have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Often most of the political activism in the Middle East gets tabled under the catch-all term “Islamist”, despite it covering a wide spectrum of conflicting outlooks. This is a bit like taking the range of views represented in a typical Western country’s parliament and labelling them all “democrats”. It is technically true but vague to the point of meaninglessness.
Western paranoia about Islamists is therefore hard to completely understand. Certainly political Islam in power in such places as Sudan, Iran or Afghanistan has been nasty. But has it been any harder to co-exist with than the old Soviet Union or today’s Chinese Communist Party? Has its track record on human rights been any worse than Western allies in Central Asia or the Gulf monarchies? When the overthrow of elected Islamist political movements has been tolerated by the West (most recently in Palestine in 2007 and in Egypt in 2013) we simply look like hypocrites.
What should be clear for Western leaders is that fundamentalist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or even Hamas show clear ideological divergences with anti-Western groups like IS or Al-Qaida franchises such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Repressing them is a bit like banning the Tea Party to fight the Ku Klux Klan. It just causes people to rally behind extremists. Secondly collusion in the suppression of Islamist movements in general is a mistake because it retards progress towards politically stable representative systems. An Islamist movement in power inevitably needs to learn compromise if it is to survive (as happened in Tunisia or Turkey). If the West had weighed in against Tunisia’s Islamist al-Nahda party could the Tunisian elite have negotiated the successful transition to democracy that has eluded its North African neighbours? When such indigenous Islamist parties have to focus on the practical problems of governing such as economic growth they lose much of their crusading zeal about regulating their citizen’s private lives. The Turkish Islamist AKP government has not secured itself in power since 2002 because it focused on controlling Turkish people’s social life. Instead it delivered sustained economic growth to Turkey.
Accountable movements tackling real social problems are desperately needed in the Middle East today. When that comes it will be a grassroots phenomenon built on the increased awareness that new communications technology brings and the spread of higher education today’s regimes have been responsible for. Foreigners removing an Assad or a Maliki will not bring it about. As democracy takes root in the Middle East parties with religious values will eventually come to power. Once there they will either break into left and right-wing factions, or have to make a common cause with secular groups in order to govern. Either way Western governments need to get out of the way and stop assuming that they need to be on hand to stage mange events. Their failures in Libya and Iraq show that they can’t hold Middle Eastern countries together or build them functional political systems. Only Middle Easterners can manage that.