Persian Translation


June 8, 2003 -- MANY people in the Middle East are asking "Who is next?"; the real question is: What is next? What is the great idea that serve as the matrix of new political thought, to mobilize Arab and Islamic energies energies, to take them out of their historic impasse, and to turn their societies into makers of history, rather than its objects? Before we speculate about what this great new idea might be, let us review some of its predecessors.

The first great idea to come to the region from the modern West was that of creating a powerful state, with a standing army, a modern bureaucracy and (in Turkey and Iran, at least for the elite) European-style clothes. All that was accompanied by some symbols of Western industrialization such as railways, the telegraph and (in Tehran, Istanbul and Cairo) opera houses.

Yet the Western model was the fruit of centuries of development, in which Europeans had first defined their national identity and then created modern states to express it. Arab and other Muslim peoples of the Middle East however, put the cart before the horse: creating the state first, then looking for a nation.

Soon, they realized that the "powerful" states they had created - often at the expense of what was left of individual liberties - were not strong enough to resist the onslaught of Western powers. They were effective only as instruments of repression against the people.

Some Arab and other Muslim leaders acknowledged that a state not based on a nation was little more than a piece of décor. Their analysis led to another import from the West: nationalism. This, too, was doomed to fail - if only because there were no European-style nations in the Middle East. (All countries in the region were multiethnic remnants of broken empires.)

Those who realized that no Middle Eastern nation could alone face the challenges of a world dominated by the West, began to espouse another import from Europe: pan-ism - pan-Arabism, pan-Turkism, pan-Iranism.

When these too also ended in disaster, both at intellectual and practical levels, another idea was imported from the West: socialism. By the mid 1960s, all brands of Western leftism, from Marxist-Leninism to Castroism and Maoism, were present in the region alongside hybrid variations like Arab Socialism and Ba'athism.

The hybrid left won power in a number of Arab countries, notably Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The Communists seized control in South Yemen. Elsewhere, though not in power, the left exerted tremendous intellectual influence, often using it to impose Stalinist terror against non-left writers.

From the 1960s another idea was imported from the West into the Middle East: Islamism.

Since Islam originated in Arabia, the suggestion that Islamism was an import may appear paradoxical. It is not: The transformation of religion into a political ideology is a purely Western idea.

The Islamists believe that the majority of Muslims had ceased to be "true Muslims" and had to be "remolded" in the crucible of revolution. This is a typically fascist idea and, like other fascist ideas, turns the individual into a cipher while putting "the ummah" (the equivalent of the German "Volk"), a mere abstraction, at the center of things.

The "Ein Fuhrer" of Islamism is the Caliph or the Imam that the Islamists all dream about. The best-known advocates of Islamism, such as Khomeini, Qutb and Maudoodi are closer to western thinkers such as Hobbes, de Maistre and Hegel than to philosophers of classical Islamic thought such as Farabi, Nizam al-Mulk and Ibn Khaldun.

All the ideological imports of the past 150 years failed.

The myth of the "powerful state" exploded when, in 1921, the Shah of Iran was put on British payroll for an annual salary of 5,000 pounds while the Ottoman Caliph-Sultan, "the sick man of Europe," went packing for exile after losing his empire.

Nationalism failed, as well. Nasser died, presumably of a broken heart, after having led the Egyptians into their greatest defeat in the name of Arab honor. Saddam Hussein fled, allegedly taking part of the contents of the Iraqi Central Bank with him.

The leftists did no better. In Iran they became spies and torturers for the Khomeinist regime. In Iraq, they oiled Saddam's death machine.

Need one recall the disastrous record of Islamism: from Pakistani military dictator Zia ul-Haq to Iran's Khomeini, and passing by the Sudanese fundamentalist jackboots?

Statism, nationalism, pan-ism, leftism, Islamism: All were ideas imported from the West and twisted beyond recognition. Each wrecked the people's lives, in its own way, before some Arabs and other Muslims realized it was dangerous for their well-being.

So, what will be the Middle East's next big import from the West?

It is democracy. And there are attempts already at twisting it beyond recognition by reducing it to mere electoralism. There can be no democracy without elections. But there are many elections without democracy.

Suddenly, Iran, where all candidates are approved by non-elected mullahs, who also ignore the decisions of the elected Parliament, is labeled a "democracy" in Washington. Some of the smaller Gulf states, where doctored elections are used to increase the powers of the ruling elite, are hailed in as "new Arab democracies."

Electoralism of one form or another is likely to spread to most of the region within the decade. Many Arab and other Muslim states will become "democrats" just as, at different points, they had become statists, nationalists, pan-ists, leftists and Islamists of one kind or another.

But unless Arabs and other Muslims learn the lessons of the past, the next great imported idea could also fail. The reason? Once again, they may be putting the cart before the horse.

Democracy does not start with elections. It starts with freedom of thought and expression. It starts with grass-root movements, clubs, associations, unions, and, eventually, political parties.

For 150 years, Arabs and other Muslims in the Middle East have been like actors - learning a part and playing it in their fashion, but in the end, reverting to their true self, which means their culture of despotism.

Is this not too pessimistic?

Well, isn't a pessimist an informed optimist?