Fareed Zakaria: At War With History

Political commentator Fareed Zakaria, in a recent Time magazine article entitled “A Region at War with Its History,” ponders the question, “Why does it seem that democracy has such a hard time taking root in the Arab world?”

For insight, Zakaria turns to a recent academic paper examining the “democratic deficit” in the Middle East and its link to the ongoing Arab Spring. The paper, written by Harvard economist Eric Chaney, argues that this deficit happens to correspond with the areas originally conquered by the Arab armies following the Prophet Muhammad’s death: the Middle East and Central Asia from Palestine to Pakistan, and most of North Africa. The usual suspects of religion and culture are ruled out as obstacles to democratic change. Instead, the culprit is history.

The correlation between medieval Arab movement and the region’s democracy deficit is never identified, by either Zakaria or Chaney. Zakaria, writing for a general audience, states that “there was something in the political development of the Arab imperial system that seemed to poison the ground” against pluralistic directions. Chaney, writing for an academic audience at the Brookings Institution, laments that the “data limitations preclude an investigation of the precise channel(s) of causality,” but observes that “historic control structures have left a legacy of weak civil societies where political power is concentrated today in the hands of military and religious leaders that work to perpetuate the status quo.” The region’s democratic deficit, Chaney summarizes, is the product of its “unique political equilibrium.”

In other words, both men chalk up the effect the Arab armies and the Arab-Islamic Empire had on the lands they conquered to the following: Something.

What is conspicuously glossed over in both Zakaria’s article and Chaney’s paper is Western involvement in the Middle East’s path of development. In the latter, the Ottoman Empire is mentioned once in passing, along with a brief, abstract reference to “colonizers.” But the colonizers (i.e., Britain and France), for Chaney, merely play a bit part. Both writers attempt to confine the discussion strictly to the Arab world, to the point that when an outside actor enters the situation, the behavior of that actor is subsumed and becomes part of the Arab narrative. The alien ceases to be foreign. As Chaney states:

Despite the many changes that Arab-conquered regions have undergone over the subsequent 200 years [since Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt in 1798], both colonizers and native rulers … seem to have worked to perpetuate the historic concentration of political power in the hands of the ruler.”

The wording here is revealing. The “many changes” are set apart from how the region has been managed – set apart from the management that brought about those changes in the first place. At the very most, Western Europe “seems” to have simply perpetuated the problems that were already there.

This thinking is orientalist in nature and runs deep in Western culture, not least of which in the United States. Chaney is just exhibiting the sophisticated, academic version. The layperson’s variant is less genteel, but superior just the same. When one hears a person condescendingly bring up terrorists receiving virgins upon arrival in paradise, or Muhammad’s marriage to the tender-aged Aisha, or the Arab-religion-violence equation, the implication is that the Middle East is and has always been a basket case. And therefore, US-European dominance and intervention are ultimately a trifle in the broader historical scheme: the region would be a mess anyway, and for proof, look at the span of its history. Simply put, even when we do something, it still amounts to nothing.

Chaney goes on to quote esteemed Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, who abstracts the issue even further by mentioning the role of “modernization” in the region’s history – the term being code for what the “colonizers” did. Lewis, it should be noted, made a career out of de-emphasizing Western intervention in the Middle East many decades ago.

While Chaney correctly concludes that the democratic deficit is not the product of the region’s cultural, ethnic or religious characteristics, the petroleum factor is also ruled out. The reasoning is that some of the lands conquered by the Arabs were not oil rich, and that being the case, some modern Arab nation-states are oil rich and some are not. When the petroleum exporting states are removed from the analysis, the data are the same for non-exporters; that is, the effect of oil does not attribute to the overall lack of democracy. Oil states like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq are in the same boat with those states that are not rich in petroleum like Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. While this is technically correct, the bigger picture is excluded.

After World War I, the Ottoman Empire’s lands were divided up by Western Europe into nation-states. These new countries – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq – eventually achieved a kind of independence, but the individuals and groups that ended up ruling these states had been approved by Britain and France. The Middle East was strategically valuable, and oil quickly became part of the calculation. Winston Churchill described the region’s petroleum wealth as “a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams.” With this kind of real estate, the newly modernized Middle East needed to be managed appropriately. Leaders there were to satisfy those criteria consistent with European interests. Things would not be left to chance – to the “desires and prejudices” of the region’s inhabitants, as one British foreign secretary put it. And to ensure stability, states were not cherry-picked based on natural resources; the entire region became a sphere of influence.

After 1945, the United States assumed authority over the Middle East, and what the Arab Spring protesters are pushing against is a system created by Western Europe and, since World War II, preserved and superintended by Washington. The dysfunctions in the Arab world do not have ancient roots “going back over a thousand years!” as Zakaria exclaims. The dysfunctions in the Arab world go back about 90 of them.

Zakaria’s article is a good example of the more dangerous kind of dishonest journalism and scholarship. He belongs to the intellectual elite who have access to power and can (and do) influence it. In addition to Time magazine, Zakaria’s commentary and analysis also appear on CNN and in the Washington Post. He is on the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is not a cartoonish, right-wing crusader of the Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh stripe. Zakaria is polished, rational, and businesslike, and provides a glimpse into the echelons that do policy assessment. His opinions and interpretations indicate roughly where the establishment sits, and in turn helps inform the opinion of the politically articulate class, usually taken to be 20 percent of the population. To build his case in the article, as discussed, he cites the work of a fellow Ivy League academic. The Chaney paper features statistical analysis, charts, tables, calculations – the works. No bluster, no rants. Dispassionate and clinical.

What is being delivered, however – despite the erudition and refinement – is the same spurious analysis that misleads and deludes Americans, and in turn allows the creation of conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. What Zakaria and Chaney are in fact helping to create is a democratic deficit.

GREGORY HARMS is an independent scholar focusing on American foreign relations and the Middle East. He is the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (2nd ed., Pluto Press, 2008), and  Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: US Foreign Policy, Israel, and World History (Pluto Press, 2010) and the 2012 forthcoming It’s Not about Religion (Perceval Press).


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