Ever since the fall of Louis Philippe’s July Monarchy set off a round of sympathetic insurrections in Europe, revolutions have tended to appear in waves. The recent uprisings in the Middle East are no exception. The reaction to them among liberals and conservatives will be familiar to anyone who experienced the cold war. In those days, conservatives tended to support “anti-Communist” dictators against popular uprisings, and liberals tended to support the “democratic movements” against these “corrupt dictators,” even if their leaders happened to be Pol Pot or Ho chi Minh. Now, thanks to the Internet and other modern means of spreading the word, the related narratives on the left and right are similar, but more uniform, pervasive, and predictable than ever.
In the case of Egypt, for example, conservatives seldom write anything concerning recent events there without raising the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Liberals, on the other hand, are cheering on the insurgency, scoffing at the suggestion that it could ever be hijacked by Islamist radicals. For the most part, the proponents of the two narratives possess little or no reliable information on the balance of political forces in Egypt, and certainly not enough to support the level of certainty with which they represent their points of view. As with earlier revolutions, the notion that even the best informed human beings are sufficiently intelligent to reliably predict the eventual outcome is merely another one of our pleasant delusions.
In fact, the belief of the vast majority of those on either side of the issue that the point of view they support with such zeal was arrived at independently via the exercise of their own intellectual powers is also a delusion. The utter sameness of these “independent opinions,” as like to each other as so many peas in a pod, and their almost inevitable association with an assortment of other “independent opinions” of like nature, demonstrate their real character as ideological shibboleths that define the current intellectual territory of the in-groups of the left and the right.
What, then, of Egypt? Who can say? The political history of the Middle East, the rarity and evanescence of democratic governments in the region, the traditional role of the military as a quasi-political party holding all the trump cards, and the lack of experience in or ideological attachment to popular government do not encourage optimism that a modern democratic government will emerge from the current chaos. Still, as noted above, none of us has the intellectual horsepower to predict with certainty what will happen, although of all the guesses being made, some of them will surely be lucky. One can only suggest to the Egyptian people that, given the outcome of some of the other “popular movements” that were greeted with similar euphoria during the past century, it would behoove them to be very careful whom they allow to lead them.
2 thoughts on “1848 in the Middle East”
Doug– I’m somewhat ambivalent on the question of whether or not democracy can ever take root in a land where the state religion is Islam. Personally, I lean toward doubt. For that matter, like Lincoln, sometimes I wonder whether it will even long endure here.
Nice analogy to 1848, though. I’ve been thinking the same things myself, but of course the Muslims have not yet had their Renaissance/Reformation/Enlightement like Europe and the West did during the three centuries prior to the emergence of our own liberal democracies.
“Whether or not we have the vision to see him, still he is there beyond the broad dark river. He broods, he waits, just as he has always waited. Neither tall nor short, neither broad nor lean, shadowy in outline, without distinction of feature, he wears an odd sort of hat and an old, old sword at his side. And if we do not act in time, then he will.” Robert Ardrey, ‘The Social Contract’ p.296
I is difficult for democracy to coexist with any religion during their recurring phases of zealotry, such as the one now taking place in the Islamic world. My ancestors had to leave New Hampshire when the Massachusetts Puritans took over effective control there in the 1660’s because they were Baptists. Roger Williams is probably the most famous example of the fate of dissenters in the “self-governing” colonies of the New World. However, as you say, the problem is much worse with Islam. They had no Enlightenment, and early Islamic visitors to Europe were surprised by the existence of parliaments, since, after all, all law derived from the Koran. As Roger Williams and many others have demonstrated, one can also make a strong case for the separation of church and state based on Christian doctrine. The Koran, on the other hand, explicitly prescribes the union of “church” and state. Thus, democracy would only be a serious possibility in predominantly Muslim states to the extent that the people didn’t take their religion seriously, as is now the case, for example in many nominally Christian European countries.
I, too, wonder whether democracy carries the seeds of its own eventual decay. In all the major western democracies, there is a tendency for the state to become bloated and to arrogate ever more power to itself, including intrusive regulation of the lives of its citizens. There is also a tendency for effective “freedom of speech” to be concentrated in the hands of the few who control the narrative in the public media, and they tend to gravitate to a relatively uniform ideological world view. This process has been interrupted in the United States by the emergence of powerful alternative voices in the form of talk radio, influential bloggers, and Foxnews, but this does not seem to be the “ground state” of democracy. There is no similar trend in Europe that I am aware of. Perhaps most importantly, based, at least, on what is currently happening in the world, democracies appear unable to defend themselves against innundations of foreigners whose culture and/or religion is vastly different from that of the local population, and who show none of the willingness to be assimilated that characterized earlier waves of immigrants, for example, in the United States. Given the nature of human beings, the likely outcome of this will be ethnic/religious strife, potentially ending, as it did, for example, in Kosovo, in civil war.