The legitimate state of the Middle East

Does the absence of a culture of “settled rule” imply continued instability?

At a time when political unrest is spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Bahrain and other parts of the Middle East, here’s a passage from Deepak Lal’s In Praise of Empires.

In his enthralling history of the fall of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the modern Middle East, David Fromkin concludes that [the unfulfilled Allied hope that they were installing permanent successors to the Ottoman sultans in the new states they had created] was due to “a characteristic feature of the region’s politics: that in the Middle East there is no sense of legitimacy—no agreement on the rules of the game—and no universally shared belief in the region that, within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such.” This is part of a deep crisis of social and political identity, similar to one faced by Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire.

In this search for a political identity, Muslims are not helped by an age-old cultural trait. The empire which the Arabs created was a conquest society, and subsequent Islamic polities have never lost their militaristic nature. The great fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun saw the medieval Islamic polity he observed as consisting of a settled, nonpolitical society and a tribal state, either imported or imposed by conquest. Whereas the Chinese, for instance, in their cyclical view of history saw settled rule as the norm and a change of dynasties as the result of a loss of virtue of an old tired dynasty, the Islamic polity never accepted the notion of settled rule. Ibn Khaldun considered it effeminate. This has been the black hole of the Islamic policy from its inception.

The social ethos of the political culture of Islam (according to Shlomo Avineri) “is imbued with martial values and the spirit of the army” unlike any other existing culture. “In the Arab world, military rule is political legitimacy; it is the only authentic form of government which has ever emerged in the Arab world.” It makes “glory, honor, pride, form—the virtues of chivalry—into the prime motors of the social ethos.” The democratic constitutions imposed by the West in Egypt, Syria and Iraq were quickly overturned once the West’s representatives departed, and the traditional military form of government clothed in various new civilian hues and ideologies was reestablished. In the Middle East “the question ‘what is the army doing in politics?’ is never raised. Of course the army is in politics; this has been its business since Mohammed, so to speak.” No better example of the continuance of this cultural trait in Islamic countries is provided by the fate of the successor states of the British Raj in the Indian subcontinent—India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Their respective armies had a common heritage and training as part of the imperial Indian army. All three countries had similar Westminster-style constitutions at their independence. But only the two non-Islamic polities—India and Sri Lanka—have succeeded in maintaining them and keeping the army out of politics. [Lal, In Praise of Empires, pp88-89]

The public protests in the Middle East are essentially anti-Establishment. It remains to be seen whether the resulting political transformations will prove Professor Lal wrong.

Note: An earlier version of this post wrongly attributed the Avineri quote to Walter Russell Mead. The error is regretted. (It arose due to the ghastly practice of endnotes by chapter. It must be abolished.)