The confusion is understandable. The unrest marks a buoyant reaffirmation of the universal desire for voice and dignity and may well enable democracy to take root in the Middle East. At the same time, the uprisings are not only producing bloodshed, but also toppling regimes on which the West relies for energy and strategic cooperation.
Putting the upheaval in historical perspective buttresses the case for caution.
To be sure, the moment has enormous potential. After all, the arrival of participatory government in the Western world cleared the way for secular nationalism, social cohesion and peaceful relations among stable democracies. But there was plenty of conflict along the way. Democratization in the Middle East promises to be similarly turbulent — and is poised to have quite different effects.
On two key dimensions — the relationship between religion and politics and the link between nationalism and social cohesion — the Middle East is following a trajectory quite different from the West’s. If democracy does take root in the Middle East — and the jury is still out — the regimes that emerge may well be much tougher customers than the autocracies they replace.
In the West, modernity has meant the separation of church and state. Christianity is a religion of faith, not law; its outsized influence on European politics during the medieval era stemmed from a longstanding alliance between secular rulers and the Catholic Church. After the Protestant Reformation, politics in the West took a secular turn that only deepened with the arrival of democracy.
In contrast, Islam is a religion of faith and law, in which there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. Beginning soon after the birth of Islam in the 7th century, state and mosque became inextricably bound.
Secular regimes of course do exist in the modern Middle East, but most of them maintain their secularity through coercion, not consent. In those countries that have experimented with participatory government, Islam has only strengthened its hold on politics.
The 1979 revolution in Iran gave birth to a theocracy. In 1991 Islamists won elections in Algeria, but were blocked from taking power by the military. In Iraq, elections have installed a Shiite-led coalition with Islamist leanings. Elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have strengthened the hand of Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively. The rise of Turkey’s middle class has brought to power the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamist-inspired party that has ended decades of political dominance by secular elites. In Egypt, a recent poll revealed that 95 percent of the population believes that Islam should play a large role in politics.
This track record makes clear that the more democratic the Middle East becomes, the greater the role that Islam — even if a moderate brand — will play in its politics. This outcome is neither good nor bad; it is simply a reality in a part of the world where politics and religion are intertwined.
Nonetheless, Western observers and policy makers had better stop operating under the illusion that the spread of democracy to the Middle East also means the spread of Western values.
The role of nationalism in the Middle East has similarly diverged sharply from the Western experience. In the West, nationalism emerged in step with consensual politics; it was the binding glue that replaced religion and dynasty as the main source of political identity.
In contrast, the nation-state in the Middle East is an imported construct, one that arrived via Europe’s imperial powers. And instead of being organic polities, countries in the region are contrived entities that cut across sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties. Egypt is one of the few exceptions; its sense of nationhood dates to ancient times.
But Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and most of the states on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa are political constructions left behind by retreating colonial powers. Iraq’s transition to democracy has been so troubled in part because tribal, sectarian and ethnic divides regularly trump a weak national identity. The same goes for Lebanon.
With the exception of Bahrain, whose Sunni monarchy rules over a Shiite majority, the Gulf states tend to enjoy greater stability and cohesion — but only because they are held together by tribal patronage systems. Libya’s politics also run along tribal lines. Should a coercive and top-down brand of rule give way to democracy in these countries, long-suppressed cleavages would likely rise to the surface.
These reflections by no means suggest that the West should resist the political opening that is finally coming to the Middle East. But they should approach the ongoing upheaval with eyes wide open. Rather than making overheated proclamations about the spread of liberty, Western leaders had better start mapping out plans for dealing with a Middle East that, even if more democratic, will be more beholden to political Islam and more vulnerable to domestic and regional upheaval.
Charles A. Kupchan is professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.