Does culture affect foreign policy – and democratization?



Western ideas—which many in the West believe are universal—collide with the ideals of Middle Eastern societies in ways that aren’t always obvious, argues Steven Cook, a Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a forthcoming book on the Middle East after the Arab Spring uprisings.

The challenges that Tunisians, Egyptians, and others face have less to do with the particularities of a Middle Eastern way of life than with the cultural milieu that authoritarianism has bred, which includes ideas about the role of the state, individual rights, honor, community, and identity, that has had a lasting effect on politics and society, he writes for The Atlantic:

This may be why the technocratic solutions to the array of problems before Arab societies are simultaneously appropriate and deficient; they assume a cultural vacuum or void. Societies certainly change and cultures evolve, but … ideas matter to people. It seems obvious, but it is worth repeating because of the analytic community’s collective aversion to grappling with anything associated with culture. There are no doubt material consequences of failing to undertake reform, but there are also significant cultural costs in pursuing them that societies may not be willing to pay.

In Democracy and Arab Culture, the historian Elie Kedourie famously argued that the Middle East’s political culture was a major impediment to democracy in the region, insisting that there is “nothing in the political traditions of the Arab world—which are the political traditions of Islam—which might make familiar, or indeed intelligible, the organizing ideas of constitutional and representative government.”

Kedourie pulls no punches, reviewer William B. Quandt noted:

Arabs, and Muslims more generally, have nothing in their own political traditions that is compatible with Western notions of democracy or, more accurately, constitutional representative government. Western implants, he shows in a series of case studies from the twentieth-century Arab experience, have not worked. Having destroyed the authoritarian but accepted, traditional order in the Middle East, the West cannot now hope to see democracy emerge.

But Kedourie’s analysis fails to account for the fact that outside the Arab world a number of countries with Muslim political traditions have had some significant experiences with democracy, Stanford University’s Larry Diamond wrote for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy:

And even if one were to omit Kedourie’s equation of Arab and Islamic political traditions, one would still need to explain why the alien “organizing ideas” of modern democracy have taken hold in a number of countries in Africa and Asia for which there really were no precedents, but not in the Arab world. If the problem, as Kedourie went on, is that Arab countries “had been accustomed to . . . autocracy and passive obedience,” why has this remained an insurmountable obstacle in the Arab world while it has not prevented democratization in large swaths of the rest of the world that had once also known only authoritarian domination?

In order to move toward democracy, Arabs were told that they would first have to build a secular middle class, reach a certain level of economic growth, and, somehow, foster a democratic culture, noted Brookings analyst Shadi Hamid. But it was never quite explained how a democratic culture could emerge under dictatorship.

The latest World Value Survey of 12 Arab countries revealed that they lag behind countries at similar levels of development in respect of four key values – support for democracy, readiness for civic engagement, obedience to authority and support for patriarchal values that condone discrimination against women

Arabs show a lower preference for democracy (a gap of 11%), are less civically active (a gap of 8%), are more deferential to authority (by 11%) and embrace patriarchal values more strongly (by 30%).

The results can in large part be explained by Arab citizens’ religiosity and poor educational standards, but blaming local culture, which societies largely inherit, is not constructive, argues Ishac Diwan, an affiliate at the Belfer Centre’s Middle East Initiative at Harvard University.

Recognizing that autocratic regimes purposefully neutralize the modernizing potential of education for the sake of their survival offers a road forward. Unfortunately for the Arab world, it is a rather narrow road, he contends:

Elites will not willingly reform education if doing so puts their survival at risk. Civil-society activists will need to fight to change the values underpinning their education systems, by encouraging civic engagement, inculcating democratic principles, supporting gender equality and promoting diversity and pluralism. Only by ensuring that these values take root in every school will they grow strong enough to change the course of Arab societies. RTWT

The mobilization of a younger-generation of Jordanian civic activists around new  ‘organic civic initiatives’ may be one such innovation, notes analyst Heba Al Nasser. Their new approach boosts awareness and appreciation of local culture, which some claim is undermined by the established donor model as supposedly novel concepts are imported into the host country with little cultural awareness, she writes:

As one interviewee said: ‘Rather than organizing a conference about co-existence between Muslims and Christians, we rely on storytelling from the elderly on the practices they followed to live peacefully together for decades.’ The initiatives also emphasize human development, explicitly valuing local communities’ agency in setting priorities for themselves, rather than focusing on donors’ predefined objectives. This contrasts with the common complaint about traditional NGOs’ agendas being externally dictated.

One civil activist said: ‘We went to a rural place and started talking to them about their daily lives. When asked what they see as a daily challenge, people spontaneously said unemployment and women’s rights.’


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