Democracy in the Middle East: A question of modernity or freedom?


An interesting debate that I’ve come across lately is that of defining a democratic society as a “modern” vs. “free” society. With the various permutations and criticisms of modernization theory, rooted in Western modernization, and the UNDP’s choice of defining human development in terms of the protection and advancement of freedoms, I thought the debate had been settled in favor of freedom.

However, recent discussions on whether advancing democracy in the Middle East is a question of promoting a “modern” society that develops representative, accountable and just institutions has got me thinking. The development of institutions such as rule of law, representative government, human rights, etc. are most certainly critical to advancing and protecting freedoms.

What I’m wondering is whether stating the institutions are modern and therefore pertinent does more to advance their cause in MENA rather than stating that they are indispensable because they help protect inalienable individual freedoms. In other words, are we advocating these institutions because they are modern or are we advocating them because they help protect social, political and economic freedoms that every human being is entitled to. This, I believe, is the foundation of the Arab Human Development Reports call to furthering an Arab renaissance. According to the 2004 Report, “No subject excites stronger feelings in the region than that of freedom, whether among those denied it or among those who violate and confiscate it.” (AHDR 2004)

My concern is that by putting the argument in terms of “modernity” we are going back to the decades-old debate of what modernization is. Who is modern and who is not? Are the autocratic regimes who restrict political freedoms but have succeeded in providing economic growth and corresponding opportunities modern or not? Is UAE modern? It certainly has all the luxuries of a modern society.

The dimensions of modernity are murky and while for some a modern society may entail certain fundamental institutions, I’m not sure that everyone else sees it in the same light. And by correlating democracy to modernity what we may be in danger of doing is sidetracking democratic reform by resurrecting its ties to Westernization.

The US and the international community should certainly support building institutions that foster an open, transparent and accountable government and society. But our experiences have taught us that these institutions cannot be imposed and must be developed in conjunction with partners and reformers from within. And if Islamism and Islamists are on the rise in the region then that implies that they have a growing constituency that the international community will need to deal with if change is to come from the ground.

The million dollar question, of course is, how to do so in a way that doesn’t result in a reversal of democratic progress. I would argue, in the vein of Amartya Sen and the Arab Human Development Reports, that what we really are talking about in the Middle East is a desire for economic, political, and social freedoms and that the way to do so is to engage Islamists groups on where they stand on freedom and not where they stand on modernity.