Democracy in the Middle East: An Oxymoron?

The following is the first of a series of articles on major political issues by Political Columnist Navroz Udwadia (NA).

January 30th 2004 saw the Prime Minister of Turkey visit the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), where he gave a speech that focused squarely on an issue of great importance to the world: democracy in the Middle East. Speaking to an audience of students, faculty members, dignitaries and members of the press, Prime Minister Erdogan debunked prominent theories about the inability of democracy and Islam to coexist within a state.

“It is argued that the culture of Islam is incompatible with democracy. Basically, this conventional perspective of the Middle East thus contends that democracy in that region is neither possible nor even desirable. I believe that all judgments that purport absoluteness ought to be avoided.”

Instead, he argued that democracy in the Middle East was not a question
of if but one of when and how. Asserting that he spoke not from personal will but as a result of witnessing “unmistakable demand” for democracy in the Middle East, the Prime Minister was emphatic in stating that the U.S. had a crucial role not just in fostering democracy, but also in choosing a sound method via which to promote it.

Curiously, in attempting to laud U.S. efforts in the Middle East, Prime Minister Erdogan appeared to shy away from passing judgment on American foreign policy in the Middle East that has often appeared to stray from the promotion of democracy. He is himself a beneficiary of the U.S. policy of promoting “stability” in the Middle East and he noted that such stability was not necessarily inimical to democracy.

“I am aware of the thesis that the United States has long since invested exclusively in stability and this has obviated democratic transformation in the Middle East. I find it hard to accept that instability would culminate in democratization … the theory that expects healthy democratization to emerge out of an environment of instability could not be substituted as a wholesome policy.”

Assessing the roadblocks to democracy in the Middle East, Prime Minister Erdogan underlined the existence of widespread suspicion among the middle-eastern masses about Western and U.S. objectives. Calling on the U.S. to adopt a “sincere and committed” strategy, he advocated a grass-roots level promotion of social consensus (this is somewhat at odds with his earlier claim of being able to sense “unmistakable” desire for democracy in the Middle East), democratic institutionalization, gender-equality, the supremacy of law, free political participation, the establishment of a civil society, and political transparency. Even as he spoke on democracy and its supposed pillars, the chants of Kurdish demonstrators continued to be heard outside the KSG.

Prime Minister Erdogan argued that the above mentioned pillars were most efficaciously promoted within a stable and secure external environment. To that end, he urged a stronger U.S. focus on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, explicitly recognizing the right of both nations.

More crucially, he urged the development of a “regional security and co-operation regime that is conducive to promoting positive change in the Middle East.” The Prime Minister managed a fine balancing act, balancing his advocacy of a new regional Middle East security regime with a call to recognize that although “Europeans come from Mars and Americans from Venus”, both had played and continued to play vital roles in promoting nascent democracies.

In concluding his speech, Prime Minister Erdogan issued three appeals. First, turning to the Muslim world, he boldly called for a move beyond the mindset that democracy was only suited to specific religions or civilizations. Pointing to Turkey as an example, Erdogan argued that “democracy is not particular to a specific group of societies. Democracy is universal, and a modern day requirement. Each country should lay out its democratization perspective that suits local conditions and in so doing benefit from the advice of third countries and international organizations.”

The Prime Minister’s next appeal, perhaps most relevant to the state of the present day world concerned the U.S. and more broadly, the western world, “The voice of the Muslim world must be listened to carefully with an open heart. Change must be supported with soft power and by setting a good example. Wrong steps should not be taken due to haste. The greatest strength of those societies that represent modern values is the attraction they create. The ultimate success of the war against terror too will depend on this.”

In a final plea perhaps most pertinent to Harvard University and other educational institutions around the world, Prime Minister Erdogan stressed the importance of youth, of investing in youth and of educating youth.

“The youth that bids farewell to his family in the morning and then takes his/her and others’ lives must be won back over by the modern world and civilization. They are also our children. Those who mislead these youths must suffer their rightful punishment, as they fall helpless to find minds to poison. For the sake of global peace and democratic transformation the doors of education and communication must be left wide open.”

As I walked away from the Kennedy School, the rain dropping gently on
my shoulders, I glanced at the glistening faces of the Kurdish demonstrators standing outside, protesting “Turkish repression and brutality”. Young faces, old faces, etched with fear yet determined. Their commitment to their cause on a cold and rainy winter’s night was heartfelt. Strolling into the night, I thanked God that I lived in a country that permitted such demonstration, such communication. Now we can only hope and pray that the vision of men such as Prime Minister Erdogan flourishes not only in other Middle East countries, but also in Turkey and many other countries across the world.