The effects of the Skyes-Picot Agreement are still being felt today. It is true that the modern Middle East is a house built by the Europeans but it sits on the foundations of the Ottoman Empire. The history of the Middle East has been characterised by authoritarian regimes and religious zealots, however the Arab Spring has proved otherwise.
The Arab world is now fragmented, resembling a post-Soviet Eastern Europe with stagnant economies, high youth unemployment and wars based on sectarianism. The question to ask is, with America’s aggressive promotion of democracy which has resulted in two wars, continued insurgency and radicalization, and the quick and brutal rise of Islamic State, is Islam compatible with democracy? More than five years on and the rhetoric in the West seems to be that the Arab Spring has failed to deliver democracy in the Arab world. Examining the Arab world we see that the majority of Arab regimes are classified as non-democratic as there is a noticeable prevalence of authoritarianism, coupled with failed nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan only adds to the Western perception of the incompatibility of Islam and democracy.
The Bush administration claimed that “the lack of democracy led to Islamist terrorism,” and therefore, a global war on terror was deemed the only means of spreading democracy in the Middle East. Ironically, in fighting terrorism, the West unwilling supported authoritarian dictators because by pushing for greater political reforms in the Arab world, the West would lose their Arab allies hence the West’s lack of commitment during the Arab Spring. Most scholars in the West base their assumptions regarding Islam and democracy on Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” and concepts such as the separation of religion and state. He argues that in the West, there is God and King i.e. church and state, whereas in Islamic civilizations, God is King i.e. religion if the foundation of state and society, and in Sino-Japanese civilization, the Emperor is God reincarnated.
We must first understand how Muslims, particularly those in the Middle East, view democracy. First, the Traditionalist, who view Islam as both a religion and a state, denying democracy solely of religious grounds. Similarly, Modernist Muslims also view Islam as a religion and state too but however, disagree with Traditionalist as they see Islam being compatible with democracy, viewing democracy as a modern version on shura. Finally we have secularist Muslims who view believe that Islam is not the foundation of a state. Secular pluralist are broken down into two subgroups: the Statist Pluralist such as Ben Ali or Mubarak who believe in a strong centralised government and limited political participation. The majority of the Arab leaders resemble Statist Pluralist and their despotism stems from two fears; 1) democracy could get Traditionalist such as the Muslim Brotherhood elected, thus they opt for the status quo i.e, authoritarianism, save they become a theological dictatorship, and 2) with democracy not being perfect, pursing it could have disastrous implications such as the fragmentation of the state like in Somalia. To continue, the other subgroup is the Pluralist Secularist who are more aligned with Liberal Democracy.
Unfortunately the Western media seems preoccupied on Traditionalist like ISIS and presenting the idea that Islam and democracy are incompatible. It can be argued that the so-called incompatibility of democracy and Islam is reflective of the West’s own need for uniformity revealing fears of the “other”. The reason for this point to the one obvious answer; predictability. If all the states are democracies they will act democratic, and thus predictable, making their foreign policy easy to implement. However, it is clear that America’s aggressive promotion of democracy has, ironically, created a generation who are incredulous towards Western ideas. We must not forget that close to 300 million Muslims have been living under democracy in democratic countries like Indonesia, Turkey and Senegal. The thing you will notice is a lack of Arab countries, and it is here that you realise that Islam and democracy are not incompatible; it is, however, oil and democracy that seem incompatible in the Arab world, particularly the Arab Peninsular.
The argument here is that “oil wealth can be a political curse when oil-rich dictators oppose democratic development” because autocrats sole source of income is derived from oil exports and state institutions become heavily dependent on the oil wealth turning into what scholars call rentier states. The Gulf states have become richer, per capita gross domestic product, and yet remained staunchly authoritarian, explaining the democratic deficit becomes difficult because according to modernisation theory, “greater wealth lead to…..education, political decentralization and…political democracy” as the Arab world remains politically repressed. Furthermore, most will agree that a large middle class is needed for democracy to flourish, however, this is not the case in the Arab world. Oil wealth concentrates power into the hands of the ruling elite or royal family, leaving the potential middle class complicit in the maintenance of the rentier state as the “citizens are satisfied with low taxes and seemingly generous benefits”. For instance, during the Arab Spring, in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia oil proceeds were used “to maintain order or to buy social peace.” Simply put, oil wealth is used to buy citizens obedience.
Ultimately, what we are seeing in the Middle East is that the majority of the post-Arab spring states loosely resemble a crude mixture of authoritarianism with noticeable hints of a democratic regime all in efforts to starve of any further protests, and it has been working to some degree. One of the things to take away from this is that democracy is evolutionary and not revolutionary. By this, I mean unlike a revolution where the results are immediate i.e. the ousting of a dictator and installing a new government, democracy, on the other hand, is an incremental process whose full effects will not be felt for generations to come.