Is democracy possible in the Middle East? When observers worry about the future of the region, it’s in part because of the dispiriting political narrative that has held sway for much of the last half century.
The conventional wisdom is that secular liberalism has been all but wiped out as a political idea in the Middle East. The strains of the 20th century—Western colonial interference, wars with Israel, windfall oil profits, impoverished populations—long ago extinguished any meaningful tradition of openness in its young nations. Totalitarian ideas won the day, whether in the form of repressive Islamic rule, capricious secular dictatorships, or hereditary oligarchs. As a result, the recent flowerings of democracy are planted in such thin soil they may be hopeless.
This understanding shapes policy not only in the West, but in the Middle East itself. The American government approaches “democracy promotion” in the Middle East as if it’s introducing some exotic foreign species. Reformists in the Arab world often repeat the canard that politicized Islam is incompatible with democracy to justify savage repression of religious activists. And even after the revolts that began in 2010, a majority of the power brokers in the wider Middle East govern as if popular forces were a nuisance to be placated rather than the source of sovereignty.
An alternative strain of thinking, however, is starting to turn those long-held assumptions on their head. Historians and activists are unearthing forgotten chapters of the region’s history, and reassessing well-known figures and incidents, to find a long, deep, indigenous history of democracy, justice, and constitutionalism. They see the recent uprisings in the Arab world as part of a thread that has run through its story for more than a century—and not, as often depicted, a historical fluke.
The case is most clearly and recently laid out in a new book called “Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East” by Elizabeth F. Thompson, a historian at the University of Virginia, who tries to provide a scholarly historical foundation to a view gaining traction among activists, politicians, and scholars.
Thompson sees the thirst for justice and reform blossoming as long as 400 years ago, when the region was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. In the generations since, bureaucrats, intellectuals, workers, and peasants have seized on the language of empire, law, and even Islam to agitate for rights and due process. Though Thompson is an academic historian, she sees her work as not just descriptive but useful, helping Arabs and Iranians revive stories that were deliberately suppressed by political and religious leaders. “A goal of this book is to give people a toolkit to take up strands of their own history that have been dropped,” Thompson said in an interview.
Not everyone agrees with her view: Canonical Middle Eastern history, exemplified by Albert Hourani’s 1962 study “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,” holds that liberalism did flourish briefly, but was extinguished as a meaningful force in the early years of the Cold War. Even today Hourani’s analysis is invoked to argue that there’s no authentic democratic current to fuel contemporary Arab politics.
But Thompson’s work resonates with a host of Middle Eastern academics, as well as activists, who are advocating new forms of government and who see their efforts as consistent with local culture and history. It may offer a way out of the pessimism gripping many Arab political activists today, finding connections between apparently disparate reformist forces in the region, and political ideas that are often seen as irreconcilably opposed. Most intriguing, she finds elements of this constitutional liberalism even within fundamentalist Islamist movements that democratizers most worry about. These threads suggest a possible way forward, a way to build a constitutional, democratic consensus on indigenous if often overlooked traditions. Islamists and secular Arabs, it turns out, have found common ground in the past, even written constitutions together. The same could happen again now.
No one , including Thompson, would claim that democracy and individual freedom have been the main driver of Middle Eastern politics. Before World War I, almost the entire region lay under the dominion of absolute monarchs claiming a mandate from God—either the Ottoman Sultan, or the Shah of Iran. Later, Western colonial powers divided up the region in search of cheap resources and markets for their goods.
Yet lost in this history of despots and corrupt dealers is a long stream of democratizing ideas, sometimes percolating from common citizens and sometimes from among the ruling elite. In the 19th and 20th centuries, western countries were beginning to move away from authoritarian monarchies and toward the belief that more people deserved legal rights. During this same time period in the Middle East, a similar conversation about law, sovereignty, and democracy was taking place, encompassing everything from the role of religion in the state to the right of women to vote.
Although authoritarian governments largely won the day, Thompson argues that the story doesn’t end there: Instead, she weaves together a series of biographies to trace the persistence of more liberal notions of Middle Eastern society. She begins with an Ottoman civil servant named Mustafa Ali who, in 1599, wrote a passionate memo exhorting the Sultan to reform endemic corruption and judicial mismanagement, because injustices were causing subjects to revolt—thus making the empire less profitable.
From 1858 to 2011, a series of leaders—most of them politicians and also prolific writers—amassed substantial public followings and pushed, though usually without success, for constitutional reforms, transparent accountable governments, and the institutions key to a sustainable democracy. Thompson was surprised, she said, to find the case for liberal democracy and rights in the writings of Iranian clerics, Zionist Jews, Palestinian militants, and early Arab Islamists.
With support from the Maronite church, a group of Lebanese peasants formed a short-lived breakaway mountain republic in 1858, dedicated to egalitarian principles. The blacksmith who led the revolt, Tanyus Shahin, insisted on fair taxation and equal protection of the law. His followers took over the great estates and evicted the landlords, but their main demand was for legal equality between peasants and landowners.
An Egyptian colonel named Ahmed Urabi led a revolt against the Ottoman ruler in 1882, inaugurating a tradition of mass revolt that had its echo in Tahrir Square in 2011. Urabi in his memoir recounts that when the Ottoman monarch dismissed his demands for popular sovereignty in their final confrontation, Urabi replied: “We are God’s creation and free. He did not create us as your property.” Decades later, in 1951, Akram Hourani rallied 10,000 peasants to resist Western colonialism and local corruption in Syria. Eventually, he and his followers in the Baath Party were sidelined by generals who turned the party into a military vehicle.
Some of the stories that Thompson tells are less obscure, like those of the founders of modern Turkey—the one sizable Islamic democracy to emerge from the former Ottoman empire or the Iraqi Communist Party, which had its heyday in the decade after World War II, and whose constitutional traditions remain an important force today even if the party itself is almost completely irrelevant.
Perhaps most encouragingly, in a region known for clashes of absolutes, she finds an encouraging strain of compromise—in particular in the early 20th century, when secular nationalists negotiated with Islamists in Syria to hammer out a constitution they could both support. It was swept aside when France took over in 1923.
“The Middle East is going to see these crises in Tahrir and Taksim and Iran until it can get back to a moment of compromise, which existed a hundred years ago with Islamic liberalism, where you can have your religion and your democracy, too,” Thompson said.
Thompson said she was surprised to find support for constitutionalism and due process in the writings of Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue whose writings inspired Al Qaeda. They believed that consensual constitutions could achieve even their religious aims, without disenfranchising citizens who opposed them.
Some of the characters in this tale have largely vanished to history. Others remain hotly contested symbols in today’s politics. The name of Halide Edib, a feminist and avatar of Turkish nationalism in the early 1900s, is still invoked by the governing Islamist party as well as its secular critics. In Egypt, which enjoyed a period of boisterous liberal parliamentary politics between the two world wars, activists today are trying to revive the writings of early Islamists who believed that an accountable constitutional state, with rights for all, would be better than theocracy.
In Thompson’s view , this world did not simply vanish: It lives on in contemporary Arab political thought, most interestingly in Islamist politics.
It’s easy to assume that religiously driven movements are all antidemocratic—and indeed, some have proven so in practice, like the ayatollahs in Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But Thompson offers a more nuanced view, showing that many of these religious movements have internalized central elements of liberal discourse. The Muslim Brothers wanted to dominate Egypt, but they attempted to do so not by fiat but through a new constitution and a free-market economy.
Princeton historian Max Weiss says his own study of the Levant backs Thompson’s central argument that constitutionalism thrives in the Middle East: For more than a century, a powerful contingent of thinkers, activists, and politicians in the region have embraced rule of law, constitutional checks and balances, and liberal economics. Even when they’ve lost the political struggles of the day, they’ve remained active, shaped institutions like courts and universities, and provided an important pole within national debates.
For those in power, “constitutional” government can often be used as a fig leaf: Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamism and Arab legal systems at The George Washington University, observes that leaders like the monarchs in the Persian Gulf have often wielded constitutions as just another means of extending their absolute rule. And they’re not alone: Egyptian judges, Syrian rebels, and Gulf sheikhs often use law and constitution to “entrench and regularize authoritarianism, not to limit it,” he says.
But among the people themselves, there is a longstanding hope for the rule of law rather than the rule of generals, or of imams. Knowing this history is important, Thompson argues, because it establishes that democracy is a local tradition, with roots among secular as well as religious Middle Easterners. Reformers, liberals, even otherwise conservative advocates for transparency and human rights are often tainted as “foreign” or “Western agents,” imposing alien ideas on Middle Eastern culture. This slur is especially potent given the West’s checkered history in the region, which more often than not involved intervention on behalf of despots rather than reformers.
Even if democracy is far from winning the race, its supporters can take courage from how many Middle Easterners have demanded it in their own vernacular. As Thompson’s book demonstrates, it’s very much a local legacy to claim.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.