Charles Issawi (1916-2000) was a leading economic historian of the Middle East and an astute commentator on history, politics, and human nature. In 1956 he published an article on the foundations of democracy and their absence from the Middle East. Below, we reproduce a key passage from that article (in green, beneath Issawi’s photograph). In response to our invitation, MESH member Adam Garfinkle offers a half-century retrospective on Issawi’s views. In the comments to this post, MESH members Joshua Muravchik, Jon Alterman, Michele Dunne, J. Scott Carpenter, and Tamara Cofman Wittes weigh in.
“In the Middle East the economic and social soil is still not deep enough to enable political democracy to strike root and flourish. What is needed is not merely constitutional or administrative reforms, not just a change in government machinery and personnel. It is not even the adjustment of an obsolete political structure to bring it in line with a new balance of forces reflecting changing relations between various social classes, as was achieved by the Reform Bills in 19th-century England. What is required is a great economic and social transformation which will strengthen society and make it capable of bearing the weight of the modern State. Such a development is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for the establishment of genuine democracy in the region. For, in politics as in religion, a Reformation must be preceded by a Renaissance.
|“What should be done in the meantime? Clearly, while it is futile to lament the absence of democracy in a region still unprepared for it, it is absolutely necessary to set in motion the forces which will transform Middle Eastern society in the desired manner. Great efforts must be made to improve means of communication, multiply schools, and, so far as possible, bring about a cultural and spiritual unity which will bridge the chasms separating the linguistic groups and religious sects. Great efforts must also be made to develop the economy of the different countries in order to raise the general level and to create opportunities which will allow the individual to emancipate himself from the grip of the family, tribe, and village.”|
|Charles Issawi, “Economic and Social Foundations of Democracy in the Middle East,” International Affairs, 1956.|
From Adam Garfinkle
Charles Issawi’s is a remarkable quote, prescient to a stunning degree. Issawi managed to say a great deal in a short space; were that I was as talented.
It seems to me that Issawi makes four basic points, which I will list deliberately out of order for a reason to be made clear, hopefully, below.
First, the Arab Middle East lacks the prerequisites for democracy.
Second, those prerequisites entail not only political-legal adjustments but deep social and cultural ones, not least of them being the strengthening of the state (a very prescient observation for its time).
Fourth, in the meantime great effort should be placed in readying the prerequisites for democracy, including economic growth, wider social communication and better education.
Third is his enigmatic comment that “in politics as in religion, a Reformation must be preceded by a Renaissance.”
As to what has changed, the first point stands: The region is still not ready, and the reason many Westerners don’t see this is that they don’t understand the origins of their own political culture. So I argued in print (“The Impossible Imperative? Conjuring Arab Democracy,” The National Interest, Fall 2002) before President Bush’s February 2003 American Enterprise Institute speech, before the invasion of Iraq, before his November 2003 National Endowment for Democracy speech and before his second inaugural address, because I could feel in my bones what was coming and I wanted to do whatever I could to stop it.
When it comes to the second point, nothing has changed either—but more on this critical matter below.
When it comes to the fourth point, a lot has changed since 1956. As Fatima Mernissi was among the first to insist, there is a new openness in the region, a new kind of conversation (jadaliyya, she called it). There is more communication, there is better if still very inadequate education, and the economies are more modern in many respects if still foundering in others. Much of this change came over several decades in a push-pull sort of way. The weakness of the post-independence Middle Eastern state amid the attentions brought by the Cold War made them prey to outside blandishments and enticements at the same time that weak local elites sought leverage to get or keep themselves in power. The nearly complete penetration of the region by global business, especially over the past 15 years, has helped accelerate the communications revolution and the “creative destruction” that has gone with it.
This very unsettling process has riven most Middle Eastern societies into three parts: salafis who use religion to fight the threat to corporate identity they see; assimilationists who accept the Western secularist route to one degree or another; and those who seek a flexible, living Islamic tradition in order to find a culturally integral route to modernization. I think the third force will win out, even if it takes three or four generations; at least I hope so.
Third, we come head-on to the politics/religion, Renaissance/Reformation nexus. It can be argued that the humanism of the Renaissance stimulated significant reform impulses in the Catholic Church in the fifteenth century, and that initial Protestant rebellion in the early sixteenth century, from the far less advanced regions of Germany rather than northern Italy, was in essence a reactionary rejection of that more liberal, humanist direction. The vast changes attending the last gasps of European feudalism soon overtook the reactionary character of early Protestantism and drove it along as it did everything else in its path, but the sketch is interesting. Applied analogically to the modern Middle East, the salafis are the early Protestants shaking up a febrile religious establishment, stimulating them, one may hope, into re-creating a vibrant living tradition in tune with modern times, as Max Weber famously suggested happened to Protestant Europe and, in time, even to Catholic Europe.
And now we come back to the problem of the state. A Reformed religion, to work as Weber saw, has to be contained by the state. But the state system of the modern Middle East is under siege thanks to the onslaught of globalization. Unless a revived centrist traditionalism contributes to the strengthening of the state, all of the communications, education and hoped-for economic reform will be unavailing. How will this go? Well, different experts have taken different views on this question. I don’t know which ones are right. I wish Issawi, and Elie Kedourie and Ernest Gellner, were still alive. They would know.
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