Hong Kong or ISIS?

The contrast between what is happening in Hong Kong and in the Middle East couldn’t be greater. In Hong Kong idealistic young people fill the streets because they know that a better society and greater prosperity depend on democratization. They are asking, not just for elections, but for elections that are not limited and censored by the regime in Beijing.

In the Middle East young men are in such despair that they have joined a vicious, violent movement that gained publicity-most recently– by beheading an idealistic British cab driver who went to Syria because he wanted to help.

The challenge for the international community is political – in both cases. In Hong Kong and many other countries people are trying hard to build democracy in their own countries, and not just through street protests. Trying to export democracy to the Middle East didn’t work, but in many countries democratization NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) are importing democratic ideas and combining them with their own democratic traditions, often most obvious at the local or village level. Argentine NGOs imported the idea of requiring open public hearings for supreme court nominees. NGOs in Tajikistan helped resurrect traditional village councils and helped them include women for the first time. Sensitive international support to enable democratization NGOs to exchange what works with each other would be far better than trying to “export democracy” , even peacefully.

The political challenge in the Middle East has been compounded by multiple missed opportunities and the failure to learn from the past. Ten years ago, when John Kerry was running for president, he floated the idea of a kind of educational Marshall Plan for the Middle East, to provide hundreds of thousands of young people with a secondary education, as an alternative to the Islamist Madrasas. If Kerry’s idea had been taken seriously, much of what has happened since might have been avoided. Ten years ago this ISIS fighters would have been young enough to be educated in a very different way. The fight against ISIS will be long and hard, in any case. Let us hope that the same mistakes will not be repeated with the next generation.

(For more on democratization NGOs, see www.importingdemocracy.org)

  • What I find disturbing in any cursory search on Arab tribalism is the lack of Middle East voices writing on the topic. Article after article, in academic and international relations journals, I see western authors, but almost no Middle East authors, writing on the subject.

    Understanding tribalism is central to understanding how – or even if – democratization can be pursued in the Middle East. This I can state with some certainty: centuries-old traditions will not disappear overnight and with the West’s microwave mentality, these two factors combine to make democratization’s failure a certainty.

    In Philip Carl Salzman’s “The Middle East’s Tribal DNA,” written for the Winter 2008 edition of Middle East Quarterly, the author pries back a potential starting point:

    “Balanced opposition is a ‘tribal’ form of organization, a tribe being a
    regional organization of defense based on decentralization and
    self-help.”

    Then Salzman launches into a detailed cultural history that does little to enlighten the reader as to how contemporary efforts could proceed in launching decentralized democratization efforts, but rather leaves us with feelings of despondency and the impression that the Middle East is a lost cause.

    Even Salzman’s characterization of the tribe as being a “regional organization” is a gross simplification of facts on the ground. And while Middle East “experts” from the West can outline tribal effects with ease, none can explain how tribal leadership emerges, at any level of organization. The importance of understanding this process cannot be overemphasized in any discussion of democratization.

    This raises questions as to how much understanding these experts truly possess when it comes to Arab tribalism. A casual reading of Middle East articles reveals too much of a willingness to paint Arab tribal culture in terms of Dark Ages barbarianism carried forward, rather than identifying the potential bright spots that could provide a starting point for democratization.

    Without the most basic, -non-judgemental- knowledge of Arab tribalism, how can we realistically expect to help any nascent democratization movement to start in the Middle East?