Academia dances to the tune of politics
Academia dances to the tune of politics
Friday, April 30,2010 10:57

Towards the end of his academic career, Bernard Lewis, the famous professor of the Middle East in Princeton University, wrote an essay titled Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East. In it he argued that establishing democratic rule in the Arab world isn't only desirable but also real and possible.

"To speak of dictatorship as being the immemorial way of doing things in the Middle East is simply untrue. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and lack of concern for the Arab future. Creating a democratic political and social order in Iraq or elsewhere in the region will not be easy. But it is possible, and there are increasing signs that it has already begun," Lewis wrote. In essence, this argument marks a significant shift from Lewis' original thesis on Islam and Arabism.

Decades ago, Lewis and like-minded scholars preached ‘modernisation' or ‘development' as the answer to the Middle East's woes. In the 1950s and 1960s, basing most of its analysis on Euro-American historical development, the modernisation school argued that the transition from traditionalism to modernity was desirable, unavoidable and, hence, it represented the future of the Arab world.

In this view the history and structures of traditional Arab societies were seen as retreating in the face of modernity and social change. Democracy was until recently a remote possibility and in many cases an unnecessary scenario; whereby anti-US elements might come to power in many Arab countries.

This was not only the view of traditional Orientalists, but was also shared by many pro-democracy scholars in the US. Even Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, who persistently preached the victory of western liberal democracy worldwide, believed that Muslim societies are particularly resistant to democratic practices. While other nations might have reservations about Western democracy, Fukuyama argued, "Islam, by contrast, is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people like Osama Bin Laden or the Taliban who reject democratic values lock, stock and barrel".

For quite some time, at least since the publication of Max Weber's thesis The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in the early 20th century, some western scholars have argued that Islam is by nature a religion of accommodation to patrimonial control. It is seen as the anti-thesis of democracy for three major reasons.

First, Islam is not only a theology but it is also an ideology — Islam is a religious and political system. Second, the source of Islamic law is divine — sovereignty belongs to God, not to the people; and, third, Islam stresses obedience to the ruler and prohibits rebellion against the existing authority.

For half a century Lewis acted as a mentor for this school and many have based their arguments on his writings. Samuel Huntington, the famous Harvard professor, believed that Islam is intrinsically un-democratic.

Amos Perlmutter, another renowned scholar, argued that when looking at Islamic politics, the issue is "the nature of Islam" itself. Islam whether it is "Sunni or Shiite … is not merely resistant" to western political values "but wholly contemptuous of the entire democratic political culture".

For decades and until the September 11 attacks, the US government embraced most of these views and acted upon them. In many Arab countries the military establishment was seen as a tool for change and westernisation.

Military coups were, hence, supported and democracy was stifled at birth in Syria, Egypt and Iraq.

In recent years, these same scholars started to preach democracy. The events of 9/11 precipitated the shift. Efforts to explain the attacks of that day and determine what ought to be done in order to defeat ‘terrorism' made the word ‘democracy' dominate the discourse.

It was embraced by all sorts of scholars in the US and the West in general. Authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, even if friendly to western interests, were seen at the root of the security dilemma and the answer to it was through establishing democratic rule.

Some academics have gone as far as to recommend reaching out to ‘moderate' Islamists. The Bush administration rejected the call based on its ‘one size fits all' policy towards the Islamist phenomenon. The Obama administration seems more equipped to do that and the recent meeting between US embassy officials in Cairo and representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood is a case in point.

Indeed, Edward Said had a point when he argued that Western academia is set to serve the political and economic dimensions of power?


Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Science and Media in Syria.