Democracy in the Balance: Culture and Society in the Middle East

Democracy in the Balance: Culture and Society in the Middle East

Democracy in the Balance: Culture and Society in the Middle East

Democracy in the Balance: Culture and Society in the Middle East

Synopsis

Examining the social and cultural forces that have hindered the emergence and widespread development of democratic polities in the Middle East, Mehran Kamrava analyzes the effect politics, in particular, and society-based dynamics, in general, have had on the nature and evolution of Middle Eastern culture.

Excerpt

by Peter Avery

HIS LUCID, explanatory study of the complexities of modern Middle Eastern society and politics is particularly distinguished by its author's consistently maintained thesis that the latter spring out of and are fashioned by the former. Society's modification, culturally speaking, often, alas, negative from foreign intrusion (notably the West) is not ignored because in a work as comprehensive as this one, it cannot be. Thus Kamrava spans, in a manner that would have intrigued the late Ernest Gellner, three disciplines: history, political science, and social anthropology. He demonstrates that democracy is a social as well as a political phenomenon, "entailing not only a set of democratic institutions and political arrangements but also a supporting social and cultural context." It might, of course, be said that democracy obviously does this. Unfortunately, however, the degree to which democracy and its problems can be properly explained in terms of cultural and social environment has in current studies too often been obscured by the monodisciplined approach. This study, therefore, is as timely as it is valuable, not least in its convincing attempt to relate failures in the establishment of democratic institutions in the areas with which the book is concerned to unachievement of that "fusion between state and society" on which a democratic system ultimately depends.

The pessimism about the future of democracy in Middle Eastern societies that, albeit with reluctance, the author expresses in his concluding observations, need not be entirely shared. It is nevertheless justifiably prudent, especially in view of his sensitivity to the "deep cultural schizophrenia running rampant throughout" those societies. Here the negative effects of foreign intrusion referred to above come to mind. But here too the author's insightful understanding of the peoples about whom he is writing, and their often betrayed aspirations, becomes manifest. To date, as he points out, even when voting has been ostensibly free and elections apparently "truly democratic," the average citizen has had little stake in a sys-

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