Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East
Demystifying the Arab Spring
Parsing the Differences Between Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya
Understanding the Revolutions of 2011
Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies
Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring
The Myth of Authoritarian Stability
The Arab Spring at One
A Year of Living Dangerously
The Promise of the Arab Spring
In Political Development, No Gain Without Pain
The Mirage of the Arab Spring
Deal With the Region You Have, Not the Region You Want
Tunisia's Post-Revolution Blues
Stagnation and Stalemate Where the Arab Spring Began
Tunisia’s Lessons for the Middle East
Why the First Arab Spring Transition Worked Best
The Tunisia Model
Did Tunis Win the Arab Spring?
Democracy by Necessity
Tunisians Go to the Polls
Tumult in Tunisia
Weathering the Economic and Political Storms
The Muslim Brotherhood's Long Game
Egypt's Ruling Party Plots its Path to Power
The Error Behind the Uproar in Egypt
Even Good Coups Are Bad
Lessons for Egypt from the Philippines, Venezuela, and Beyond
First They Came for the Islamists
Egypt’s Tunisian Future
Can a Myth Rule a Nation?
The Truth About Sisi's Candidacy in Egypt
Egypt's Durable Misery
Why Sisi's Regime Is Stable
The Brotherhood Breaks Down
Will the Group Survive the Latest Blow?
Did Sisi Save Egypt?
The Arab Spring at Five
NATO's Victory in Libya
The Right Way to Run an Intervention
Libya's Militia Menace
The Challenge After the Elections
The Surprising Success of the New Libya
Libya on the Brink
How to Stop the Fighting
Obama's Libya Debacle
How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure
Who Lost Libya?
Obama’s Intervention in Retrospect
Setting the Record Straight on Benghazi
What Really Led to Libya's Chaos
Russia's Line in the Sand on Syria
Why Moscow Wants To Halt the Arab Spring
Assad Family Values
How the Son Learned to Quash a Rebellion From His Father
Why Washington Didn't Intervene In Syria Last Time
Comparing 1982 to 2012
Alawites for Assad
Why the Syrian Sect Backs the Regime
Ramadan in Aleppo
A Letter From Rebel-Controlled Syria
The Real Reason Putin Supports Assad
Mistaking Syria for Chechnya
Syria's President Speaks
A Conversation With Bashar al-Assad
The New Great Game
How Regional Powers are Carving Up Syria
The Not-So-Great Game in Syria
And How to End It
Syria's Good Neighbors
How Jordan and Lebanon Sheltered Millions of Refugees
No (Gulf) Country for Syrian Refugees
The Kafala System and the Migration Crisis
ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group
Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat
ISIS' Social Contract
What the Islamic State Offers Civilians
How to Defeat ISIS
The Case for U.S. Ground Forces
The President in Practice
The End of Pax Americana
Why Washington’s Middle East Pullback Makes Sense
Fight or Flight
America’s Choice in the Middle East
Getting Over Egypt
Time to Rethink Relations
The Next Front Against ISIS
The Right Way to Intervene in Libya
Algeria After the Arab Spring
Algiers Came Out Ahead—But the Good Times Could Be Over
How Turkey Lost the Arab Spring
Assad Has It His Way
The Peace Talks and After
The Right Way to Think About the Syria Talks
They Aren't About Syria, They Are About Russia
For Muslims as for others, history is important, but they approach it with a special concern and awareness. The career of the Prophet Muhammad, the creation and expansion of the Islamic community and state, and the formulation and elaboration of the holy law of Islam are events in history, known from historical memory or record and narrated and debated by historians since early times. In the Islamic Middle East, one may still find passionate arguments, even bitter feuds, about events that occurred centuries or sometimes millennia ago -- about what happened, its significance, and its current relevance. This historical awareness has acquired new dimensions in the modern period, as Muslims -- particularly those in the Middle East -- have suffered new experiences that have transformed their vision of themselves and the world and reshaped the language in which they discuss it.
In 1798, the French Revolution arrived in Egypt in the form of a small expeditionary force commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte. The force invaded, conquered, and ruled Egypt without difficulty for several years. General Bonaparte proudly announced that he had come "in the name of the French Republic, founded on the principles of liberty and equality." This was, of course, published in French and also in Arabic translation. Bonaparte brought his Arabic translators with him, a precaution that some later visitors to the region seem to have overlooked.
The reference to equality was no problem: Egyptians, like other Muslims, understood it very well. Equality among believers was a basic principle of Islam from its foundation in the seventh century, in marked contrast to both the caste system of India to the east and the privileged aristocracies of the Christian world to the west. Islam really did insist on equality and achieved a high measure of success in enforcing it. Obviously, the facts of life created inequalities -- primarily social and economic, sometimes also ethnic and racial -- but these were in defiance of Islamic principles and never reached the levels of the Western world. Three exceptions to the Islamic rule of equality were enshrined in the holy law: the inferiority of slaves, women, and unbelievers. But these exceptions were not so remarkable; for a long time in the United States, in practice if not in principle, only white male Protestants were "born free and equal." The record would seem to indicate that as late as the nineteenth or even the early twentieth century, a poor man of humble origins had a better chance of rising to the top in the Muslim Middle East than anywhere in Christendom, including post-revolutionary France and the United States.
Equality, then, was a well-understood principle, but what about the other word Bonaparte mentioned -- "liberty," or freedom? This term caused some puzzlement among the Egyptians. In Arabic usage at that time and for some time after, the word "freedom" -- hurriyya -- was in no sense a political term. It was a legal term. One was free if one was not a slave. To be liberated, or freed, meant to be manumitted, and in the Islamic world, unlike in the Western world, "slavery" and "freedom" were not until recently used as metaphors for bad and good government.
The puzzlement continued until a very remarkable Egyptian scholar found the answer. Sheikh Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi was a professor at the still unmodernized al-Azhar University of the early nineteenth century. The ruler of Egypt had decided it was time to try and catch up with the West, and in 1826 he sent a first mission of 44 Egyptian students to Paris. Sheikh Tahtawi accompanied them and stayed in Paris until 1831. He was what might be called a chaplain, there to look after the students' spiritual welfare and to see that they did not go astray -- no mean task in Paris at that time.
During his stay, he seems to have learned more than any of his wards, and he wrote a truly fascinating book giving his impressions of post-revolutionary France. The book was published in Cairo in Arabic in 1834 and in a Turkish translation in 1839. It remained for decades the only description of a modern European country available to the Middle Eastern Muslim reader. Sheikh Tahtawi devotes a chapter to French government, and in it he mentions how the French kept talking about freedom. He obviously at first shared the general perplexity about what the status of not being a slave had to do with politics. And then he understood and explained. When the French talk about freedom, he says, what they mean is what we Muslims call justice. And that was exactly right. Just as the French, and more generally Westerners, thought of good government and bad government as freedom and slavery, so Muslims conceived of them as justice and injustice. These contrasting perceptions help shed light on the political debate that began in the Muslim world with the 1798 French expedition and that has been going on ever since, in a remarkable variety of forms.
JUSTICE FOR ALL
As Sheikh Tahtawi rightly said, the traditional Islamic ideal of good government is expressed in the term "justice." This is represented by several different words in Arabic and other Islamic languages. The most usual, adl, means "justice according to the law" (with "law" defined as God's law, the sharia, as revealed to the Prophet and to the Muslim community). But what is the converse of justice? What is a regime that does not meet the standards of justice? If a ruler is to qualify as just, as defined in the traditional Islamic system of rules and ideas, he must meet two requirements: he must have acquired power rightfully, and he must exercise it rightfully. In other words, he must be neither a usurper nor a tyrant. It is of course possible to be either one without the other, although the normal experience was to be both at the same time.
The Islamic notion of justice is well documented and goes back to the time of the Prophet. The life of the Prophet Muhammad, as related in his biography and reflected in revelation and tradition, falls into two main phases. In the first phase he is still living in his native town of Mecca and opposing its regime. He is preaching a new religion, a new doctrine that challenges the pagan oligarchy that rules Mecca. The verses in the Koran, and also relevant passages in the prophetic traditions and biography, dating from the Meccan period, carry a message of opposition -- of rebellion, one might even say of revolution, against the existing order.
Then comes the famous migration, the hijra from Mecca to Medina, where Muhammad becomes a wielder, not a victim, of authority. Muhammad, during his lifetime, becomes a head of state and does what heads of state do. He promulgates and enforces laws, he raises taxes, he makes war, he makes peace; in a word, he governs. The political tradition, the political maxims, and the political guidance of this period do not focus on how to resist or oppose the government, as in the Meccan period, but on how to conduct government. So from the very beginning of Muslim scripture, jurisprudence, and political culture, there have been two distinct traditions: one, dating from the Meccan period, might be called activist; the other, dating from the Medina period, quietist.
The Koran, for example, makes it clear that there is a duty of obedience: "Obey God, obey the Prophet, obey those who hold authority over you." And this is elaborated in a number of sayings attributed to Muhammad. But there are also sayings that put strict limits on the duty of obedience. Two dicta attributed to the Prophet and universally accepted as authentic are indicative. One says, "there is no obedience in sin"; in other words, if the ruler orders something contrary to the divine law, not only is there no duty of obedience, but there is a duty of disobedience. This is more than the right of revolution that appears in Western political thought. It is a duty of revolution, or at least of disobedience and opposition to authority. The other pronouncement, "do not obey a creature against his creator," again clearly limits the authority of the ruler, whatever form of ruler that may be.
These two traditions, the one quietist and the other activist, continue right through the recorded history of Islamic states and Islamic political thought and practice. Muslims have been interested from the very beginning in the problems of politics and government: the acquisition and exercise of power, succession, legitimacy, and -- especially relevant here -- the limits of authority.
All this is well recorded in a rich and varied literature on politics. There is the theological literature; the legal literature, which could be called the constitutional law of Islam; the practical literature -- handbooks written by civil servants for civil servants on how to conduct the day-to-day business of government; and, of course, there is the philosophical literature, which draws heavily on the ancient Greeks, whose work was elaborated in translations and adaptations, creating distinctly Islamic versions of Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics.
In the course of time, the quietist, or authoritarian, trend grew stronger, and it became more difficult to maintain those limitations on the autocracy of the ruler that had been prescribed by holy scripture and holy law. And so the literature places increasing stress on the need for order. A word used very frequently in the discussions is fitna, an Arabic term that can be translated as "sedition," "disorder," "disturbance," and even "anarchy" in certain contexts. The point is made again and again, with obvious anguish and urgency: tyranny is better than anarchy. Some writers even go so far as to say that an hour -- or even a moment -- of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny. That is one point of view -- but not the only one. In some times and places within the Muslim world, it has been dominant; in other times and places, it has been emphatically rejected.
THEORY VERSUS HISTORY
The Islamic tradition insists very strongly on two points concerning the conduct of government by the ruler. One is the need for consultation. This is explicitly recommended in the Koran. It is also mentioned very frequently in the traditions of the Prophet. The converse is despotism; in Arabic istibdad, "despotism" is a technical term with very negative connotations. It is regarded as something evil and sinful, and to accuse a ruler of istibdad is practically a call to depose him.
With whom should the ruler consult? In practice, with certain established interests in society. In the earliest times, consulting with the tribal chiefs was important, and it remains so in some places -- for example, in Saudi Arabia and in parts of Iraq (but less so in urbanized countries such as Egypt or Syria). Rulers also consulted with the countryside's rural gentry, a very powerful group, and with various groups in the city: the bazaar merchants, the scribes (the nonreligious literate classes, mainly civil servants), the religious hierarchy, and the military establishment, including long-established regimental groups such as the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. The importance of these groups was, first of all, that they did have real power. They could and sometimes did make trouble for the ruler, even deposing him. Also, the groups' leaders -- tribal chiefs, country notables, religious leaders, heads of guilds, or commanders of the armed forces -- were not nominated by the ruler, but came from within the groups.
Consultation is a central part of the traditional Islamic order, but it is not the only element that can check the ruler's authority. The traditional system of Islamic government is both consensual and contractual. The manuals of holy law generally assert that the new caliph -- the head of the Islamic community and state -- is to be "chosen." The Arabic term used is sometimes translated as "elected," but it does not connote a general or even sectional election. Rather, it refers to a small group of suitable, competent people choosing the ruler's successor. In principle, hereditary succession is rejected by the juristic tradition. Yet in practice, succession was always hereditary, except when broken by insurrection or civil war; it was -- and in most places still is -- common for a ruler, royal or otherwise, to designate his successor.
But the element of consent is still important. In theory, at times even in practice, the ruler's power -- both gaining it and maintaining it -- depends on the consent of the ruled. The basis of the ruler's authority is described in the classical texts by the Arabic word bay'a, a term usually translated as "homage," as in the subjects paying homage to their new ruler. But a more accurate translation of bay'a -- which comes from a verb meaning "to buy and to sell" -- would be "deal," in other words, a contract between the ruler and the ruled in which both have obligations.
Some critics may point out that regardless of theory, in reality a pattern of arbitrary, tyrannical, despotic government marks the entire Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world. Some go further, saying, "That is how Muslims are, that is how Muslims have always been, and there is nothing the West can do about it." That is a misreading of history. One has to look back a little way to see how Middle Eastern government arrived at its current state.
The change took place in two phases. Phase one began with Bonaparte's incursion and continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when Middle Eastern rulers, painfully aware of the need to catch up with the modern world, tried to modernize their societies, beginning with their governments. These transformations were mostly carried out not by imperialist rulers, who tended to be cautiously conservative, but by local rulers -- the sultans of Turkey, the pashas and khedives of Egypt, the shahs of Persia -- with the best of intentions but with disastrous results.
Modernizing meant introducing Western systems of communication, warfare, and rule, inevitably including the tools of domination and repression. The authority of the state vastly increased with the adoption of instruments of control, surveillance, and enforcement far beyond the capabilities of earlier leaders, so that by the end of the twentieth century any tin-pot ruler of a petty state or even of a quasi state had vastly greater powers than were ever enjoyed by the mighty caliphs and sultans of the past.
But perhaps an even worse result of modernization was the abrogation of the intermediate powers in society -- the landed gentry, the city merchants, the tribal chiefs, and others -- which in the traditional order had effectively limited the authority of the state. These intermediate powers were gradually weakened and mostly eliminated, so that on the one hand the state was getting stronger and more pervasive, and on the other hand the limitations and controls were being whittled away.
This process is described and characterized by one of the best nineteenth-century writers on the Middle East, the British naval officer Adolphus Slade, who was attached as an adviser to the Turkish fleet and spent much of his professional life there. He vividly portrays this process of change. He discusses what he calls the old nobility, primarily the landed gentry and the city bourgeoisie, and the new nobility, those who are part of the state and derive their authority from the ruler, not from their own people. "The old nobility lived on their estates," he concludes. "The state is the estate of the new nobility." This is a profound truth and, in the light of subsequent and current developments, a remarkably prescient formulation.
The second stage of political upheaval in the Middle East can be dated with precision. In 1940, the government of France surrendered to Nazi Germany. A new collaborationist government was formed and established in a watering place called Vichy, and General Charles de Gaulle moved to London and set up a Free French committee. The French empire was beyond the reach of the Germans at that point, and the governors of the French colonies and dependencies were free to decide: they could stay with Vichy or rally to de Gaulle. Vichy was the choice of most of them, and in particular the rulers of the French-mandated territory of Syria-Lebanon, in the heart of the Arab East. This meant that Syria-Lebanon was wide open to the Nazis, who moved in and made it the main base of their propaganda and activity in the Arab world.
It was at that time that the ideological foundations of what later became the Baath Party were laid, with the adaptation of Nazi ideas and methods to the Middle Eastern situation. The nascent party's ideology emphasized pan-Arabism, nationalism, and a form of socialism. The party was not officially founded until April 1947, but memoirs of the time and other sources show that the Nazi interlude is where it began. From Syria, the Germans and the proto-Baathists also set up a pro-Nazi regime in Iraq, led by the famous, and notorious, Rashid Ali al-Gailani.
The Rashid Ali regime in Iraq was overthrown by the British after a brief military campaign in May-June 1941. Rashid Ali went to Berlin, where he spent the rest of the war as Hitler's guest with his friend the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. British and Free French forces then moved into Syria, transferring it to Gaullist control. In the years that followed the end of World War II, the British and the French departed, and after a brief interval the Soviets moved in.
The leaders of the Baath Party easily switched from the Nazi model to the communist model, needing only minor adjustments. This was a party not in the Western sense of an organization built to win elections and votes. It was a party in the Nazi and Communist sense, part of the government apparatus particularly concerned with indoctrination, surveillance, and repression. The Baath Party in Syria and the separate Baath Party in Iraq continued to function along these lines.
Since 1940 and again after the arrival of the Soviets, the Middle East has basically imported European models of rule: fascist, Nazi, and communist. But to speak of dictatorship as being the immemorial way of doing things in that part of the world is simply untrue. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and unconcern for the Arab future. The type of regime that was maintained by Saddam Hussein -- and that continues to be maintained by some other rulers in the Muslim world -- is modern, indeed recent, and very alien to the foundations of Islamic civilization. There are older rules and traditions on which the peoples of the Middle East can build.
CHUTES AND LADDERS
There are, of course, several obvious hindrances to the development of democratic institutions in the Middle East. The first and most obvious is the pattern of autocratic and despotic rule currently embedded there. Such rule is alien, with no roots in either the classical Arab or the Islamic past, but it is by now a couple of centuries old and is well entrenched, constituting a serious obstacle.
Another, more traditional hurdle is the absence in classical Islamic political thought and practice of the notion of citizenship, in the sense of being a free and participating member of a civic entity. This notion, with roots going back to the Greek polites, a member of the polis, has been central in Western civilization from antiquity to the present day. It, and the idea of the people participating not just in the choice of a ruler but in the conduct of government, is not part of traditional Islam. In the great days of the caliphate, there were mighty, flourishing cities, but they had no formal status as such, nor anything that one might recognize as civic government. Towns consisted of agglomerations of neighborhoods, which in themselves constituted an important focus of identity and loyalty. Often, these neighborhoods were based on ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian, or even occupational allegiances. To this day, there is no word in Arabic corresponding to "citizen." The word normally used on passports and other documents is muwatin, the literal meaning of which is "compatriot." With a lack of citizenship went a lack of civic representation. Although different social groups did choose their own leaders during the classical period, the concept of choosing individuals to represent the citizenry in a corporate body or assembly was alien to Muslims' experience and practice.
Yet, other positive elements of Islamic history and thought could help in the development of democracy. Notably, the idea of consensual, contractual, and limited government is again becoming an issue today. The traditional rejection of despotism, of istibdad, has gained a new force and a new urgency: Europe may have disseminated the ideology of dictatorship, but it also spread a corresponding ideology of popular revolt against dictatorship.
The rejection of despotism, familiar in both traditional and, increasingly, modern writings, is already having a powerful impact. Muslims are again raising -- and in some cases practicing -- the related idea of consultation. For the pious, these developments are based on holy law and tradition, with an impressive series of precedents in the Islamic past. One sees this revival particularly in Afghanistan, whose people underwent rather less modernization and are therefore finding it easier to resurrect the better traditions of the past, notably consultation by the government with various entrenched interests and loyalty groups. This is the purpose of the Loya Jirga, the "grand council" that consists of a wide range of different groups -- ethnic, tribal, religious, regional, professional, and others. There are signs of a tentative movement toward inclusiveness in the Middle East as well.
There are also other positive influences at work, sometimes in surprising forms. Perhaps the single most important development is the adoption of modern communications. The printing press and the newspaper, the telegraph, the radio, and the television have all transformed the Middle East. Initially, communications technology was an instrument of tyranny, giving the state an effective new weapon for propaganda and control.
But this trend could not last indefinitely. More recently, particularly with the rise of the Internet, television satellites, and cell phones, communications technology has begun to have the opposite effect. It is becoming increasingly clear that one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union was the information revolution. The old Soviet system depended in large measure on control of the production, distribution, and exchange of information and ideas; as modern communications developed, this became no longer possible. The information revolution posed the same dilemma for the Soviet Union as the Industrial Revolution did for the Ottoman and other Islamic empires: either accept it and cease to exist in the same manner or reject it and fall increasingly behind the rest of the world. The Soviets tried and failed to resolve this dilemma, and the Russians are still struggling with the consequences.
A parallel process is already beginning in the Islamic countries of the Middle East. Even some of the intensely and unscrupulously propagandist television programs that now infest the airwaves contribute to this process, indirectly and unintentionally, by offering a diversity of lies that arouse suspicion and questioning. Television also brings to the peoples of the Middle East a previously unknown spectacle -- that of lively and vigorous public disagreement and debate. In some places, young people even watch Israeli television. In addition to seeing well-known Israeli public figures "banging the table and screaming at each other" (as one Arab viewer described it with wonderment), they sometimes see even Israeli Arabs arguing in the Knesset, denouncing Israeli ministers and policies -- on Israeli television. The spectacle of a lively, vibrant, rowdy democracy at work, notably the unfamiliar sight of unconstrained, uninhibited, but orderly argument between conflicting ideas and interests, is having an impact.
Modern communications have also had another effect, in making Middle Eastern Muslims more painfully aware of how badly things have gone wrong. In the past, they were not really conscious of the differences between their world and the rest. They did not realize how far they were falling behind not only the advanced West, but also the advancing East -- first Japan, then China, India, South Korea, and Southeast Asia -- and practically everywhere else in terms of standard of living, achievement, and, more generally, human and cultural development. Even more painful than these differences are the disparities between groups of people in the Middle East itself.
Right now, the question of democracy is more pertinent to Iraq than perhaps to any other Middle Eastern country. In addition to the general factors, Iraq may benefit from two characteristics specific to its circumstances. One relates to infrastructure and education. Of all the countries profiting from oil revenues in the past decades, pre-Saddam Iraq probably made the best use of its revenues. Its leaders developed the country's roads, bridges, and utilities, and particularly a network of schools and universities of a higher standard than in most other places in the region. These, like everything else in Iraq, were devastated by Saddam's rule. But even in the worst of conditions, an educated middle class will somehow contrive to educate its children, and the results of this can be seen in the Iraqi people today.
The other advantage is the position of women, which is far better than in most places in the Islamic world. They do not enjoy greater rights -- "rights" being a word without meaning in that context -- but rather access and opportunity. Under Saddam's predecessors, women had access to education, including higher education, and therefore to careers, with few parallels in the Muslim world. In the West, women's relative freedom has been a major reason for the advance of the greater society; women would certainly be an important, indeed essential, part of a democratic future in the Middle East.
The main threat to the development of democracy in Iraq and ultimately in other Arab and Muslim countries lies not in any inherent social quality or characteristic, but in the very determined efforts that are being made to ensure democracy's failure. The opponents of democracy in the Muslim world come from very different sources, with sharply contrasting ideologies. An alliance of expediency exists between different groups with divergent interests.
One such group combines the two interests most immediately affected by the inroads of democracy -- the tyranny of Saddam in Iraq and other endangered tyrannies in the region -- and, pursuing these parallel concerns, is attempting to restore the former and preserve the latter. In this the group also enjoys some at least tacit support from outside forces -- governmental, commercial, ideological, and other -- in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, with a practical or emotional interest in its success.
Most dangerous are the so-called Islamic fundamentalists, those for whom democracy is part of the greater evil emanating from the West, whether in the old-fashioned form of imperial domination or in the more modern form of cultural penetration. Satan, in the Koran, is "the insidious tempter who whispers in men's hearts." The modernizers, with their appeal to women and more generally to the young, are seen to strike at the very heart of the Islamic order -- the state, the schoolroom, the market, and even the family.
The fundamentalists view the Westerners and their dupes and disciples, the Westernizers, as not only impeding the predestined advance of Islam to final triumph in the world, but even endangering it in its homelands. Unlike reformers, fundamentalists perceive the problem of the Muslim world to be not insufficient modernization, but an excess of modernization -- and even modernization itself. For them, democracy is an alien and infidel intrusion, part of the larger and more pernicious influence of the Great Satan and his cohorts.
The fundamentalist response to Western rule and still more to Western social and cultural influence has been gathering force for a long time. It has found expression in an increasingly influential literature and in a series of activist movements, the most notable of which is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928. Political Islam first became a major international factor with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The word "revolution" has been much misused in the Middle East and has served to designate and justify almost any violent transfer of power at the top. But what happened in Iran was a genuine revolution, a major change with a very significant ideological challenge, a shift in the basis of society that had an immense impact on the whole Islamic world, intellectually, morally, and politically. The process that began in Iran in 1979 was a revolution in the same sense as the French and the Russian revolutions were. Like its predecessors, the Iranian Revolution has gone through various stages of inner and outer conflict and change and now seems to be entering the Napoleonic or, perhaps more accurately, the Stalinist phase.
The theocratic regime in Iran swept to power on a wave of popular support nourished by resentment against the old regime, its policies, and its associations. Since then, the regime has become increasingly unpopular as the ruling mullahs have shown themselves to be just as corrupt and oppressive as the ruling cliques in other countries in the region. There are many indications in Iran of a rising tide of discontent. Some seek radical change in the form of a return to the past; others, by far the larger number, place their hopes in the coming of true democracy. The rulers of Iran are thus very apprehensive of democratic change in Iraq, the more so as a majority of Iraqis are Shiites, like the Iranians. By its mere existence, a Shiite democracy on Iran's western frontier would pose a challenge, indeed a mortal threat, to the regime of the mullahs, so they are doing what they can to prevent or deflect it.
Of far greater importance at the present are the Sunni fundamentalists. An important element in the Sunni holy war is the rise and spread -- and in some areas dominance -- of Wahhabism. Wahhabism is a school of Islam that arose in Nejd, in central Arabia, in the eighteenth century. It caused some trouble to the rulers of the Muslim world at the time but was eventually repressed and contained. It reappeared in the twentieth century and acquired new importance when the House of Saud, the local tribal chiefs committed to Wahhabism, conquered the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and created the Saudi monarchy. This brought together two factors of the highest importance. One, the Wahhabi Saudis now ruled the holy cities and therefore controlled the annual Muslim pilgrimage, which gave them immense prestige and influence in the Islamic world. Two, the discovery and exploitation of oil placed immense wealth at their disposal. What would otherwise have been an extremist fringe in a marginal country thus had a worldwide impact. Now the forces that were nourished, nurtured, and unleashed threaten even the House of Saud itself.
The first great triumph of the Sunni fundamentalists was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which they saw -- not unreasonably -- as their victory. For them the Soviet Union was defeated not in the Cold War waged by the West, but in the Islamic jihad waged by the guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan. As Osama bin Laden and his cohorts have put it, they destroyed one of the two last great infidel superpowers -- the more difficult and the more dangerous of the two. Dealing with the pampered and degenerate Americans would, so they believed, be much easier. American actions and discourse have at times weakened and at times strengthened this belief.
In a genuinely free election, fundamentalists would have several substantial advantages over moderates and reformers. One is that they speak a language familiar to Muslims. Democratic parties promote an ideology and use a terminology mostly strange to the "Muslim street." The fundamentalist parties, on the other hand, employ familiar words and evoke familiar values both to criticize the existing secularist, authoritarian order and to offer an alternative. To broadcast this message, the fundamentalists utilize an enormously effective network that meets and communicates in the mosque and speaks from the pulpit. None of the secular parties has access to anything comparable. Religious revolutionaries, and even terrorists, also gain support because of their frequently genuine efforts to alleviate the suffering of the common people. This concern often stands in marked contrast with the callous and greedy unconcern of the current wielders of power and influence in the Middle East. The example of the Iranian Revolution would seem to indicate that once in power these religious militants are no better, and are sometimes even worse, than those they overthrow and replace. But until then, both the current perceptions and the future hopes of the people can work in their favor.
Finally, perhaps most important of all, democratic parties are ideologically bound to allow fundamentalists freedom of action. The fundamentalists suffer from no such disability; on the contrary, it is their mission when in power to suppress sedition and unbelief.
Despite these difficulties, there are signs of hope, notably the Iraqi general election in January. Millions of Iraqis went to polling stations, stood in line, and cast their votes, knowing that they were risking their lives at every moment of the process. It was a truly momentous achievement, and its impact can already be seen in neighboring Arab and other countries. Arab democracy has won a battle, not a war, and still faces many dangers, both from ruthless and resolute enemies and from hesitant and unreliable friends. But it was a major battle, and the Iraqi election may prove a turning point in Middle Eastern history no less important than the arrival of General Bonaparte and the French Revolution in Egypt more than two centuries ago.
The creation of a democratic political and social order in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East will not be easy. But it is possible, and there are increasing signs that it has already begun. At the present time there are two fears concerning the possibility of establishing a democracy in Iraq. One is the fear that it will not work, a fear expressed by many in the United States and one that is almost a dogma in Europe; the other fear, much more urgent in ruling circles in the Middle East, is that it will work. Clearly, a genuinely free society in Iraq would constitute a mortal threat to many of the governments of the region, including both Washington's enemies and some of those seen as Washington's allies.
The end of World War II opened the way for democracy in the former Axis powers. The end of the Cold War brought a measure of freedom and a movement toward democracy in much of the former Soviet domains. With steadfastness and patience, it may now be possible at last to bring both justice and freedom to the long-tormented peoples of the Middle East.