Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Democracy in the Muslim Middle East: A Hopeless Goal?

A short quiz: what are the two common denominators of these five countries? Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria.

Answers: 1- These are the five countries with the world’s largest Muslim populations; 2- All five have a real democratic system of government, even if each is somewhat flawed by western standards.

At this point, the answer to this blog post’s title is clear: It is not a hopeless goal. But of course, that leads to the ensuing question: why then are there virtually no democratic Muslim countries in the Middle East? (Lebanon, although democratic, does not count because when the country became independent around seventy years ago, half its population were Maronite Christians and Druze.)

There is no one overriding answer, but rather a combination of several historical factors. First, colonialism. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the entire Middle East was taken over by the British and the French who did their best to ensure that no natural, grassroots system would emerge. Worse yet, as was the case in Africa (another major region beset by a lack of stable democratic structures), the colonial powers split the area into ethnically unnatural “countries” e.g., to this day the majority of Jordan’s population are “Palestinian” and not Hashemite – not to mention Iraq, a mélange of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd territories. Given that “tribal” ethnicity in the Middle East underlies one’s identity as much as (at times even more than) religion, this is a recipe for political instability of the highest order.

Second, the Cold War. With America and the Soviet Union locked in mortal “cold combat” after World War II – just as many Middle East countries were being established with the demise of western colonialism – the US found it more expedient to prop up pro-Western monarchies and dictatorships than to take a chance on fair elections that might lead to a pro-Soviet government.

Indeed, probably the best evidence that a Muslim country can really be democratic was Iraq in the early 1950s where fair elections brought Mosaddegh (an Iraqi nationalist) to power. One of his first moves was to nationalize the oil companies that had been paying ridiculously high royalties to the British, based on the original treaty signed decades earlier when the British were the true hegemonic masters of Iraq. America and England viewed this as the start of a slide towards “Communism” and quickly deposed Mossadegh through CIA machinations. That brought the Shah (Pahlavi) back to power which he maintained until… the Khomeini Revolution in 1979. Iranian democracy was thus aborted by the democratic west (US and Britain), with the end result (for now) a rabidly anti-Western and anti-democracy Islamic regime.

Third, there is also “negative” evidence: only two states in the entire Middle East and North Africa are wholly governed by Islamic law – Iran (a type of theocracy) and Saudi Arabia (an absolutist monarchy). True, many other governments in the region have some elements of Islamic law in their legal codes, but all these regimes have civilian- or military-run secular governments. Their prime goal is to stay in power, thereby suppressing any serious opposition, whether Muslim or ideologically oriented.

So why do extremist, non-democratic, Islamist movements gain a foothold (and sometimes a lot more) in the Middle East? Precisely because their mostly non-Islamic regimes repress the people, the latter turn to the only coherent and organizationally coordinated opposition left: the Islamists. Among other places, this could be best be seen during the Arab Spring when the protesters demanded democratic regimes that would be attuned to their socio-economic (not religious) needs. In Egypt, elections were indeed held, and the Muslim Brotherhood came out on top – but soon attempted to force widespread, strict Islamic practice on the populace – and were summarily dismissed by the army whose rebellion garnered widespread popular support. Similarly, the Iranian people have protested en masse several times against their radical Islamist government.

What does this mean for Israel? (The standard line: is it good for the Jews?) In the long run, it shows that the Islamic world can – and probably will – move in a more democratic direction, albeit with major fits and starts. This does not guarantee that they would sue for peace with Israel, but it definitely raises the chance for peace. After all, it is extremely rare for democratic countries to go to war one with the other; the interaction almost always works in the opposite direction: a closer relationship once two former enemies become democratic.

Just as one can find significant anti-democratic principles and ethos in Judaic Law, as well as proto-democratic ideas and commandments in Judaism, so too Islam has its pro and anti-democracy doctrines and attitudes. The Jewish State is successfully democratic; Muslim states can surely end up there as well.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
Related Topics
Related Posts