Wednesday, August 3, 2016

How the West de-democratised the Middle East

Irfan Ahmad is Associate Professor of Political Anthropology at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne and author of Islamism and Democracy in India, which was short-listed for the 2011 International Convention of Asian Scholars Book Prize for the field of Social Sciences.

Rather than promote democracy in the Middle East, the West has a long history of doing the exact opposite.


With the momentous convulsion in the Middle East sparked by Mohamed Bouazizi's martyrdom in January 2011, it is time to ask what happened to the question which for long dominated Western discourse on the Middle East: Is Islam compatible with democracy? The predominant answer for many years was "no". Among others, Elie Kedourie, MS Lipset, and Huntington advocated such a position. Bernard Lewis, "the most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East", who offered "the intellectual ammunition for the Iraq War", was most vociferous in upholding this position. Their main argument was that, unlike Christianity, Islam was unique in not differentiating religion from the state and hence democracy was impossible in Muslim polities. Against this doxa, I make three arguments.

Second, I argue that the West's discourse of democratisation of the Middle East is dubious because it hides how the West actually de-democratised the Middle East. My contention is that, from the 1940s onwards, democratic experiments were well in place and the West subverted them to advance its own interests. I offer three examples of de-democratisation: The reportedly CIA-engineered coup against the elected government of Syria in 1949, the coup orchestrated by the US and UK against the democratic Iran in 1953 and subversion of Bahrain's democracy in the 1970s. I also touch on the West's recent de-democratisation in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Third, I explain that the Middle East was de-democratised because the West rarely saw it as a collection of people with dynamic, rich social-cultural textures. The Western power elites viewed the Middle East as no more than a region of multiple resources and strategic interests; hence their aim was to keep it "stable" and "manageable". To Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary (1945-51) of imperial Britain, without "its oil and other potential resources" there was "no hope of our being able to achieve the standard of life at which we [are] aiming in Great Britain".

De-democratisation of Syria, Iran, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Iraq


Perhaps the earliest theatre of de-democratisation was Syria. True to the logic of colonialism, as imperial Britain and France dismembered and divided the Ottoman Empire to install the mandate system under the covenant of the League of Nations, Syria fell under the French rule from which it only gained independence in 1946. While still under French control, Syria held presidential elections, following which an elected government (based on universal male suffrage) led by Shukri al-Quwatly, came to power for a five-year term starting August 1943. The Syrian government, after its independence, was thus constitutional and based on democracy. In March 1949, the US organised a coup d'état against al-Quwatly's government to install military rule, presided over by Colonel Husni al-Zaim. Based on research from declassified documents now available, it is well-established that Stephen Meade, a CIA operative, played a key role in staging that coup. Meade had met al-Zaim at least six times. To Miles Copland, a US diplomat in Damascus, al-Zaim was "America's boy".

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