The Arab Conquest and Democracy: A Response to Professor Chaney on Zakaria’s GPS

Dear Professor Chaney

I am a great fan of Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN. On his program of April 8 he featured a proposition put forward by yourself, and which is also stated in his blog entry Zakaria: Explaining the Arab world’s democracy deficit as follows:

“The democracy deficit today exists in lands that were conquered by Arab armies after the death in A.D. 632 of the Prophet Muhammad”.

While very clearly stating that Islam as of itself cannot explain this deficit, the argument still focuses on things Islamic and it leaves me puzzled as to the nature of and the reasons for its omissions.  

What about the democratic deficit which has persisted in Africa, the result of conquest and colonization by European Christians? The British, French and Portuguese colonized Africa and much of the Middle East for centuries and the lack of or slow progress in African democracy is mostly the result of this Christian conquest.

Turkey is now a democracy but it held sway over the Arab world for almost 400 years, only for the British and French to then take over and replace them as colonizers. Surely, these more recent colonizers are the more pertinent causes of the lack of democracy.

Then of course there is the ultimate example of Iran which you have specifically included in your analysis and to which I take great exception.

In 1953, Iran had a representative style of government with a Parliamentary system. However, that did not suit the British and Americans as they wanted Iranian oil. In pursuit of that oil, the British and Americans overthrew the parliamentary government and the elected Prime Minister Mossadeq, and then installed the Shah.

As noted by Noam Chomsky in his book Necessary Illusions, no less a publication than The New York Times reported on the coup as follows:

“The affair may yet be proved worth-while if lessons are learned from it. Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number, which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism”.

For the next three decades the Shah presided over one of the most repressive and dictatorial regimes in modern history. Is they any doubt that we can trace Iran’s current lack of democracy to the events of 1953 and what became known as the Mossadeq Revolution?

The simpler answer to Professor Chaney’s diagnosis that wherever Islam conquered post Mohammed is consistent with an absence of democracy is this; wherever commodities have existed to be exploited, human or mineral, colonization and repression have stunted and denied democratic development. Thus, the Christian west has in recent times proved far more adept at obstructing liberty than early Arab conquerors could have ever dreamed off.

There is another aspect to this. When colonization and repression destroy civil society, people will gravitate towards the single place where they can freely assemble i.e. the church or the mosque. As I pointed out in my earlier book, A Mannequin for President, this particular phenomenon explains why the leaders of the US Civil Rights movement were mostly based in the church, as well as, the rise of the clergy in Iran.

Ergo, if there had not been the imposition of a Shah, then there would not have been an uprising by and a dictatorship of the mullahs—and most of us would never have heard of either Khomeini or Khamenei.

There is another very serious observation that must be made here. Democracy in Europe and the west is a very, very recent phenomenon. The idea that Europe has been so far ahead of everyone else in the democratic stakes is historical fiction. More specifically, European history of the early part of the 20th century has been well documented—fascism and empires prevailed.

Just look at the map of Europe prior to World War I and you will see the extent to which there was a marked absence of nation states as we now know them. Mainland Europe consisted of the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire and a few other states such as France, Spain and Portugal. One should also be reminded that the latter two only became democratic in the 1970s.

I have taken the time out to address your issue for several reasons.

The first of which is my belief that there is an element of cultural bias in your analysis of the democratic deficit in the Muslim world. It is the same kind of cultural bias I observe when westerners say that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas—the implication being that the people who were living there before were non-human.

As such, I believe that your analysis has ignored the wider sweep of history and the role more recent and mostly Christian conquests have played in the denial of freedom and the dearth of liberty all over the globe. Do you remember or have you seen a map of the world circa the 1960s where it seemed that the entire land mass of the planet was either denoted red (British) or green (French)?

Would Indochina have suffered such a terrible fate had the French not insisted on reimposing harsh colonial rule immediately after France’s own liberation from Nazi Germany?

Also, my fear is that such an analysis might provide useful fodder for those less thoughtful and less honorable than yourself, and thus inclined to political and religious demagoguery. Given that elections are being held in the US this year, this is unfortunately the season for such mischief.

Finally, there is the geopolitical aspect. There is the very real possibility that many of the Middle Eastern countries that have thrown of the yolk of dictatorship might end up with Islamic governments. It is important that we allow those countries to go though their own trials and failures, as all other democracies have done, without prejudging their long term fate.

The sooner we allow Islamic fundamentalist governments to fail under their own steam the sooner we will be rid of them.


Jonathan Ledwidge


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