Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Power of Ideas and the Middle East

I recently finished reading Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, a controversial book according to which the liberal democratic system would ultimately prevail over alternatives. The book, based on an article in the National Interest, was written at a time when the Soviet system was collapsing. To put it simply, Fukuyama's thesis relies on two arguments:
1) Scientific knowledge, which Fukuyama associates with modern capitalism, accumulates in the sense that it's not possible to reverse the course of scientific advancement and as such it's not really possible to reverse the course of human history (for extended periods, that is).
2) People everywhere possess what Fukuyama calls thymos (from Ancient Greek), the desire for recognition, which goes unfulfilled in non-democratic systems because dictatorships don't recognize individuals as sovereign, as adults capable of independent thought and action. Thymos is just one part of the soul, however, as the soul also has desiring and reasoning parts.

If prosperity brought on by the free-market economy can fulfill the desiring and reasoning parts of the "soul", the thymotic part of the soul can only be fulfilled by granting the individual some inalienable rights, including the right to participate in the political process. Democracy can also effectively restrain individuals with megalothymia, the desire to be recognized as superior to others, while still allowing these individuals to excel in ways that don't interfere with the rights of others. And once this liberal democratic system has been imposed, it's unlikely to collapse. We may have thousands of unsatisfied people at any given time but they have no credible alternatives to liberal democracy. (The downside, according to Fukuyama, is that a world where people no longer have to struggle for recognition is a world without great human achivements; a world that is, simply put, boring.)

Fukuyama's book was written at a time when Easter Europe was going through a series of revolutions, the Autumn of Nations, which resulted in what had been considered unthinkable up until then; total disintegration of the Soviet Union with no shots fired (technically that's not true but you get the point). Now there's a chance of something similar happening in the Middle East, at least with respect to "struggle for recognition".

Of course the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan are not the first phases of a liberal revolution but they do address something that Arab dictators have long tried to ignore; the need of the average Arab citizen to be recognized as a citizen, not a subject. But the definition of a citizen varies as there are more competing societal models in the Middle East than there were in Europe in 1989. Communism had promised material abundance which never materialized. The free market system, on the other hand, had been tried and proven by then, so there was no question as to what should replace communism. Traditional authoritarianism in the Middle East might as well be replaced with an Islamic alternative. Islam is hostile to both free markets and democracy and Islamic movements in countries such as Egypt are anxious to consolidate power after having settled for a minor role for decades.

Islam remains a threat to the Middle East because there's no tradition of secularism in the Muslim world. Europe had Reformation, and the wars it brought, but many Muslims still dream of going back to the old days, days when the Muslim world was united under one caliphate bent on expansion. Fukuyama argues that Christianity contributed to democracy in spreading the idea that all people are equal in the eyes of God. The problem was that this would matter in afterlife only. God had to be taken off the equation - Christianity had to be secularized (at first via Reformation, then via the Enlightenment) before the idea of equality could be applied to our existence on this rock. Except for countries like Turkey which went through a process of quick and forced secularization, the Muslim world has yet to witness a similar process.

But while the current situation is not a liberal revolution and while it carries great risks, it's not the starting point for the establishment of a new caliphate either. Yesterday (on Fox News) Glenn Beck was going on about how the situation in the Middle East could lead to the establishment of a new caliphate, stretching all the way from Pakistan to the UK. This is of course a completely ludicrous idea. While there's no tradition of secularism in the Muslim world, the average Egyptian is not exactly a puritan Muslim either and as such is not too keen to hand power to extremists. The very fact that the extremist Muslim Brotherhood has tried to appear as a moderate force throughout the crisis pretty much proves this. Egypt is not the Iran of 1979 in the sense that there isn't a similar backlash against modernization (Westernization) in Egypt. Another obstacle to a caliphate is nationalism, which played a prominent role in the struggle against European colonial powers. While the Muslim identity surpasses the national identity, this does not automatically mend fences between dozens of Muslim groups. The United Arab Republic lasted for only three years even at a time when Egypt and Syria shared a common enemy. With different factions killing - or waiting for the opportunity to kill - each other, how can anyone expect these people to form a caliphate when they are nowhere near getting their own houses in order? The fact that Beck wears glasses these days doesn't make him any smarter. 

At the moment the situation in the Middle East seems chaotic and the outcome unpredictable but the prospect of a change in a system that is hostile to all three parts of Fukuyama's "soul" sounds better than mere stability. The status quo, which the Western world has helped maintain, has been feeding resentment in the Middle East for decades now with hardly any proof that it's been worth it.

"Cairo today is all of Egypt," he said. "I want my son to have a better life and not suffer as much as I did ... I want to feel like I chose my president."

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