Book Review: Political Trends in the Arab World

As promised, another review of a book I've recently read.

Political Trends in the Arab World : The Role of Ideas and Ideals in Politics
by Majid Khadduri

Like similar movements in the West, nationalism in Islamic lands passed through two major stages of development before it began to mature into a mode of loyalty to a modern nation-state. The first stage produced the territorial state governed by a dynasty whose interests were identified with interests of the nation. Justified as raison d’etat, the dynasty always sought to defend itself against foreign encroachment. In the second stage, when authority passed from the dynasty to the nation, the will of the people determined the national interests. This stage of development obviously has not yet been attained by the Arabs.

Originally, when I read this paragraph, I had to read it several more times, just to make sure I’ve read it right. In a way, it describes both this book’s attitude, and the problem of most people talking about Islam. There’s what you would like to say, and then there’s reality. If we try hard enough, we can believe that what we would like to have happened indeed happened.

Despite this, I found the book quite informative. Khadduri starts off by blaming the West for the lack of democracy in Muslim countries, but later he adds on insight into other reasons why Islam and democracy are not really compatible.

As its name implies, the book reviews various political trends or systems in the Arab world. Starting off with nationalism and going through democracy, Islam, socialism, communism, military takeovers and secularism. Each chapter is dedicated to examining one such political trend and its history in the past century. Though I found this helpful in understanding some points, it was also a weakness, as I felt quite confused by the historical timeline. Political ideas develop concurrently, and though Khadduri does refer to other political streams in each chapter, I felt it got lost among everything else.

The book I read was written in 1970, but I think the major points have not changed much. If at all, they’re just being reinforced by the US’s current “democratic experiment” in Iraq. Generally I found the chapters dealing with nationalism, democracy and military revolutions the most interesting, mainly because these were the ones which were started off by Muslims.

Discussing nationalism by the Arabs is not an easy thing to do and I found the book quite confusing at this point. Nationalism today is understood as a nation wanting to live in its own country. However, by the Arabs you could talk both about nationalism in the narrow sense (for example, Syrians feeling patriotic towards Syria) or in the wider sense (Arabs feeling a sense of nationhood, pan-Arabism). These two “trends” are contradictory, though they can both be called “nationalism”.

Additionally, there’s a major problem with the definition of the word “Arab”. According to Khadduri this includes anybody who speaks Arabic and feels a connection to the “Arab culture and tradition”. He sees Arab nationalism as cultural-based, rather than ethnic-based. As Europe becomes more ‘multi-cultural’ it might become an issue there as well.

Khadduri brings examples of both kinds of nationalism, though in his example of nationalism in the "narrow sense" he stresses how much it was not accepted by the general Arab population, who could not accept the rejection of "Arabism".

Moving on to Democracy, Khadduri first starts off by blaming the West. They forced democracy on the Muslims but did not seem to really believe it themselves. I think the Western powers did make a mistake when they put the emphasis on the trappings of democracy (i.e., having a parliament, conducting elections), rather than on the basis of what liberal democracy really is – protecting every person’s basic human rights. They did, however, force the Muslim countries to free their dhimmi subjects from their inhuman status, a point which Khadduri doesn’t mention at all.

The West is responsible for the collapse of democracy in Muslim countries, according to Khadduri, since the Western powers only ‘took over’ countries which had something to offer to them, and then used them in order to look after their own interests. The Arabs resented foreign dominion and their only example at the time for countries which were not dominated and ruled by the West were the poorer, more Islamic lands, such as the hinterlands of Arabia.

However, he then goes on to discuss the relationship between Islam and democracy:

At bottom, an inherent incompatibility between two political philosophies [Islam and representative government] was at fault. For centuries Islam provided a political system which commanded the allegiance and respect of its believers. It prescribed that authority belonged to God… A theory of the state, placing ultimate responsibility in God or his representatives or in both, is certainly not inherently democratic in principle. The believers were satisfied that their political system was an ideal that could not possibly be superseded or matched by any other system, since authority was derived from God, the embodiment of good and justice.”

In other words, the West may be partially to blame, but they were up against enormous odds. Under Islam there was no such things as “political parties”. Opposition was in its very essence heresy. Under Western influence political parties came about, but the main “goal” of the anti-government parties was only to fight the foreign influence. Once that goal was achieved, they simply faded away.

Almost all Muslim countries experienced military revolutions shortly after the Western powers departed; some going through several cycles before one man finally achieved and held power.

By its very nature, military training requires obedience and lack of responsibility are the very negation of democracy – but not of authoritarianism. Obedience discourages responsibility, creativity, and free expression of opinion and leads to submission and servility – qualities inconsistent with the ways of bringing up a new generation.”

Khadduri explains rather logically why Arab countries fell under military rule. Military officers wanted to hurry up the processes and decided that the old rulers (who usually ruled under the foreign powers) were not good enough. Taking over control, they then discovered that they liked being in power and therefore never gave it back to the people, in whose name they supposedly assumed it.

However, looking at the quote above, I was struck by the terms used, as they're very similar to those used in the very discussion of Islam. A Muslim (by definition) is one who subjugates himself to the will of Allah. Or in other words, Khadduri's description of military training might as well be a description of Islam itself. (Though not everybody who subjugates himself to God also subjugates himself to man, but that is another discussion).

In fact, Khadduri brings the words of Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, one of Islam’s most renowned reformists who said that Islamic lands could not possibly be reformed save by a benevolent despot.

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