Sunday, September 12, 2010

A New Perspective

After reading Bernard Lewis' "Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East", it put me into a new perspective in viewing the governments of the Middle East. Though I have written research papers on the Middle Eastern society before, Lewis illustrated something that I, and I think many, tend to overlook. The point which I definitely overlooked was Islamic political philosophy and sources of legitimacy.

Last year I took political philosophy, but it focused on western ideas and philosophers. Western Societies have extensive writings on political philosophy and sources of political legitimacy dating from Plato and spanning to the present day. The concepts which have caught on are the social contract and legitimacy in binding a sovereign, chosen by the people, to that contract. In essence, social contract theory. However, I haven't explored or even thought about Islamic political philosophy and sources of legitimacy. Lewis does a great job in exposing the reader (well, at least for me) in the Islamic concepts of consultation, consent, and the way Islamic rulers operated in conjunction with traditional powers like the gentry, tribes, and merchants. Its very interesting to see the delicate checks and balances that developed in Islamic societies.

However, modern technologies and weaponry have led the rulers of many Islamic societies to gain more power. By not having these traditional limitations, rulers have transitioned to authoritarian governments. Lewis  makes a case that democracy has not spread is not because of a history if authoritarianism (which was checked by the traditional powers just mentioned) but by: new censoring technology, new profits from resources like oil, entrenched parties, and the lack of the idea of citizenship. Lewis states that a "more traditional hurdle is the absence in classical Islamic political thought and practice of the notion of citizenship, in the sense of being free and participating member of a civic entity." Now, this is not to say the people of the Middle East don't know what citizenship means, but rather it is an ideal that was brought from the west. We take citizenship as a right, however, it was because of the influence of the political writings in the west throughout the centuries.

In order to understand Middle Eastern states, we must first understand political theories behind them. The west has spread its notion of contract theory, democracy and citizenship all over the globe. However societies, like the Middle East, have struggled in adapting their notions of state legitimacy to the modern era. This struggle has translated into the present day international political mess (for lack of a much better word) in he Middle East. My guess is once the world figures out the solution to the current problem of Islamic political philosophy, some of the problems in Middle Eastern authoritarianism will be solved too. Whatever the case, the Lewis reading was immensely helpful in exposing me to the other side of the story in Middle Eastern authoritarianism; the historic roots and philosophical causes of the current issue.

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