They are simply not ready for free and fair elections

Bernard Lewis, “renowned Islamic scholar”, shares with the readers of the Jerusalem Post what he undoubtedly thinks is a real-politik theory of democracy, the product of his decades of study:

The Arab masses certainly want change. And they want improvement. But when you say do they want democracy, that’s a more difficult question to answer. What does “democracy” mean? It’s a word that’s used with very different meanings, even in different parts of the Western world. And it’s a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world.

In the West, we tend to get excessively concerned with elections, regarding the holding of elections as the purest expression of democracy, as the climax of the process of democratization. Well, the second may be true – the climax of the process. But the process can be a long and difficult one. Consider, for example, that democracy was fairly new in Germany in the inter-war period and Hitler came to power in a free and fair election.

We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections.

So, while “we” in the West can reach the climax of democracy every few years, the Arabs, stuck somewhere in a stage of rudimentary democracy, should use some sort of “system of consultation”:

If you look at the history of the Middle East in the Islamic period, and if you look at their own political literature, it is totally against authoritarian or absolutist rule. The word they always insist on is consultation.

[… “T]he sultan has to consult with the holders of high office. He has to consult with the retired former holders of high office. He has to consult with the merchants, the craft guilds and all sorts of other groups.”

This is absolutely true. It’s an extraordinarily revealing and informative passage and the point comes up again and again through the 19th and 20th centuries.

You have this traditional system of consultation with groups which are not democratic as we use that word in the Western world, but which have a source of authority other than the state – authority which derives from within the group, whether it be the landed gentry or the civil service, or the scribes or whatever. That’s very important. And that form of consultation could be a much better basis for the development of free and civilized government.

A few paragraphs later, it turns out that the foregoing intellectual construction is built out of concern for the well-being of the Arabs who may simply vote themselves into dire straights:

I don’t think [the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt] is in any sense benign. I think it is a very dangerous, radical Islamic movement. If they obtain power, the consequences would be disastrous for Egypt.

I’m an historian. My business is the past, not the future. But I can imagine a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations of the same kind obtain control of much of the Arab world. It’s not impossible. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s not unlikely.

And if that happens, they would gradually sink back into medieval squalor. Remember that according to their own statistics, the total exports of the entire Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, one small European country. Sooner or later the oil age will come to an end. Oil will be either exhausted or superseded as a source of energy and then they have virtually nothing. In that case it’s easy to imagine a situation in which Africa north of the Sahara becomes not unlike Africa south of the Sahara.

Beyond this bit of political theory, I can’t claim to have read much of the rather lengthy interview, but for those with less limited intellectual horizons the entire piece may be of interest. Clearly Lewis’s wisdom is wide ranging, encompassing for example the psychology of sexual repression:

One has to remember that in the Muslim world, casual sex, Western-style, doesn’t exist. If a young man wants sex, there are only two possibilities – marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the brideprice, with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is attracted by the virgins of paradise – the only ones available to him. On the other hand, sheer frustration.

9 Responses

  1. Yoram, I’m puzzled as to why you find this so objectionable; Lewis’s pessimistic perspective strikes me as quite plausible, in fact the people who are most gung-ho over the Egypt revolution (and take a similar sarcastic tone to yours over Lewis) are the neocons, so you are choosing some unusual bedfellows.

    Surely it’s better to agree that elective democracy is unlikely to find fertile ground in a culture that is dissimilar to other cultures where it has proved of some (limited) value. Hence the argument that the Arab revolution is an ideal opportunity for sortition:


  2. > Yoram, I’m puzzled as to why you find this so objectionable

    Let’s say I am not surprised and leave it at that.


  3. And I’m not surprised by your sarcastic disdain for people with differing views to your own, although I still find it shocking.


  4. My disdain is limited to people whose views are determined by a sense of superiority over others – a group that neatly contains both the renowned Islamic scholar and yourself (as well as some other well known figures).


  5. In other words people who have studied a subject in depth, but disagree with you. Although I disagree with your views most of the time, I certainly don’t disdain them.


  6. Objectionable? No it’s utterly obnoxious to say that *some* people (races, religions?) think, feel and act differently to others. Call me naive, but I hold fast to the idea that ALL of humanity is hewn from the same stock, and in the same situation would re-act the same.

    So if I said that English parents felt that a lottery was a fair and acceptable method for sharing school-places, then the same would apply to parents in TelAviv or Beijing. (They do, it does btw) If we lose sight of our common humanity, then we are into dangerous territory of ‘inferior races’ and ‘chosen people’ with consequences too horrible to contemplate.


  7. On my reading, Lewis’s article is all about cultural and historical differences — all of humanity is hewn from the same stock, but geographically distinct groups up with different attitudes and beliefs for cultural/historical reasons. The hope expressed in my Inshallah post was that Arab nations might be more amenable to sortition as they had not been corrupted with decadent western notions of democracy.

    Why do you call that perspective racist? Is it not blindingly obvious that some people think, feel and act differently to others (for geographical, historical, religious and cultural reasons). The word “Arab” is intended as a shorthand for the above, not a a racial profile.


  8. Well, I for one am always embarrassed by a canard like this one:

    “Consider, for example, that democracy was fairly new in Germany in the inter-war period and Hitler came to power in a free and fair election.”

    I guess people do need to be reminded periodically that Hitler never won an election that he didn’t control. This despite the fact that the collapsing economy and hyperinflation made it possible for his lunatic party to enjoy much more popularity than it could have enjoyed in normal times. And this despite the fact that the brownshirts had already done much to undermine the ability of the democracy to function. (How do you have “free and fair elections” when armed bands of thugs can beat up opponents in the streets with virtual impunity?) Hitler last stood for election as president in 1932–and lost, but got named chancellor by the winner. After that, it was all about consolidating power. The German people never “voted in” Hitler.


  9. Leaving aside the canard, Lewis’s general point would appear to be that armed bands of thugs beating up opponents in the streets with virtual impunity are more likely in societies that don’t have a long history of stable government, independent judiciary, civil society etc. This is the reason why one should be sceptical about the neocon project of planting liberal democracy in ground that may not be particularly fertile. And I don’t see why these commonsense observations on cultural and historical differences should be seen as racist.


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