Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, delivered a lecture entitled, “Democracy in the Middle East: Historical Perspectives,” at the International House on Tuesday evening. The event was sponsored by the Center for International Studies and the International House Global Voices World Beyond the Headline Series.
Khalidi, described as a man “who needs no introduction” by Kathleen Morrison, director of the Center for International Studies, taught at the University for over 16 years before a much debated and public departure to Columbia University two years ago. Pro-Israel figures and groups, such as Daniel Pipes and Campus Watch, have accused the prominent historian, an author of numerous works on the Middle East, of being anti-Israeli and anti-American because of his support for the Palestinian people and his criticism of American policy in the Middle East.
The controversy surrounding the professor, however, was muted in the crowded assembly room. Khalidi noted that though the substance of his talk came from his book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (2004), he would address an entirely different topic: the history of democracy in the Middle East. Khalidi warned that any discussion on democracy in the Middle East must first begin by reevaluating the nature of democracy.
“What do we mean when we talk about democracy?” Khalidi asked. He noted that the crucial step in a nation’s move to democratize is the placing of restrictions on the existing autocratic regime, manifested, for example, in a constitution. According to Khalidi, however, critics must realize that, “constitutions have problems.”
“We generally fail to recall that our own great republic did not provide suffrage to vast swaths of the citizenry,” Khalidi said. Commentators on the Middle East who fail to take into account this realist criticism, he argued, “expect Jeffersonian democracy elsewhere when we don’t have it.”
It is this misconception of democracy, a misconception of Islam, and “the worst authoritarian regimes outside of the former USSR,” such as Libya, Syria, and Saudi Arabia that have complicated the dialogues on Middle Eastern democracy, Khalidi said. Khalidi observed that many fail to realize that this political philosophy originated in the Middle East. “Just take a walk through the Oriental Institute,” Khalidi said, referring to artifacts of ancient Mesopotamian empires, many of which were autocratic. The tradition has persisted, Khalidi argued, and hence this particular political configuration existed in the Islamic and Ottoman periods and continues to exist today.
Khalidi spoke of historical perspectives of Middle Eastern democracy in approximately the early-to-middle Ottoman Empire, when Turkish and Arab elites began to interact with European elites. “The bulk of Turkish and Arab elites were deeply affected by their by European Elitism,” he said. “But how affecting were they? More than most people think.”
Khalidi argued that this influence could be seen in the development of education and press, which extended into the late Ottoman Empire. “Ideas that were previously restricted to a much narrow elite could now be expanded,” he said, while noting that education was far from universal and that the press played a large role in the dissemination of “liberal” ideas.
The impact of such a development on the government was “great,” Khalidi said, since it, “undermined their absolute rule.” Egypt, Khalidi noted, has a constitution before many Eastern and Southern European countries.
In the interwar period, Khalidi continued, the heritage of the pre-war democratic system informed the workings of the government. Khalidi returned to his example of Egypt, saying that the country instituted a parliament in this period.
This “height of liberalism” was followed by the post-World War II “height of European interference,” which Khalidi pointed to as a specific reason for the failure of democracy in the Middle East today.
“If one thing can be said about the history of such interferences in the Middle East, it is that it produced illiberalism,” Khalidi said. Such “illiberalism” came from the strengthening of executive agencies in Middle Eastern governments as a result of alliances and treaties made with the United States or other countries.
“The last thing the Europeans wanted was a strong democracy because this undermines their allies,” Khalidi argued.
The role of Islam, which up until this development had paralleled the growth of democracy with its own “modern synthesis,” responded to European interference in a variety of ways, which included the emergence of Islamists, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Khalidi closed his talk with a discussion of another Islamist movement, Wahhabism. “From its modest origins [Wahhabism] has become a global power thanks [to] the Saudis, oil, and the support and encouragement of the U.S. who saw them as a counterweight to the leftist parties.”
What has resulted, Khalidi said, is a “witches’ brew” with “toxic heights” in Afghanistan. “It produced politics that was far removed from the democratic trends that prevailed in the early 20th century, which claims to represent a continuity with Islam,” he said, noting that this claim is then echoed by “so-called experts” in the west. “It’s the irony of ironies.”