In Lisa Anderson’s 2006 article, “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East,” she discusses the problems she sees with political scientists’ attempts to understand the political forces at work in MENA. Approaching the issue from multiple perspectives, Anderson argues that the main problems she sees consist of a projection of Western ideals onto MENA and a focus on the wrong questions, and a misunderstanding of the history of the MENA region.
Anderson explains that political scientists’ focus on “Western discourse” distorts the understanding of the dynamics of politics in the Middle East. With an “excessive concern” with democratization, political scientists have attempted to squeeze MENA into a mold that does not fit, rather than try to understand the region in its own categories. Additionally, Anderson points out that many political scientists associate autocracy with Islam, which is false. Anderson cites political scientist Stepan who clarifies that the Arab Middle East is experiencing a democracy deficit, not the Muslim Middle East. Political scientists’ attempt to understand MENA through Western ideas such as democratization limits the scope of research and analysis that can be done in the region. Equating an entire religion with a specific regime type generalizes a population and undermines the complexity of a civilization.
Anderson suggests that political scientists are simply asking the wrong questions when it comes to understanding the political forces in the Middle East. The American foreign policy emphasis of democratization, presidential and parliamentary institutions, and economic development did not reflect the political dynamics of the Middle East at the dawn of the twentieth century. Instead, the MENA region was focused on issues of nation-building and identity formation, tribal and ethnic politics, the role of military in defining communities and supporting regimes, etc.
In addition to political scientists’ habit of researching MENA through a Western lens, Anderson also argues that the historical context of the MENA region, and the implications it has on its modern states, is misunderstood in political science. Since American political scientists only came in to contact with the Middle East after WWII, many view the “beginning” of Middle Eastern states as when they gained independence in the 1940s and 1950s. Ignoring the deep history of the MENA region prevents analysts from answering their question of “why is there a democracy deficit in the Middle East?” With an understanding of the history of MENA, it can be understood that the failure of most of the Middle Eastern states to develop modern bureaucratic institutions resulted from the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and European colonization.
Today, after the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011, many political scientists have begun to rephrase their questions from “why is there no democracy?” to “why is there persistent authoritarianism?” Mass mobilization has demonstrated that people of the MENA region want democracy, or at least change. With new classifications of the MENA region, analysts are now able to attain a deeper understanding of each state in regard to regime type, availability of resources and labor, and individuals’ freedoms.
All of the above problems affect the work that comes out of the MENA region, which impacts how the world perceives the Middle East as well as how international actors involve themselves in the region. Thus, it is important that when trying to understand the political forces at work in MENA, we approach our studies with the least amount of “Western bias” as possible, that we have a historical understanding of the region, and that we look deeper than religious concentrations and cultural differences.
References: Anderson, Lisa. “Searching where the light shines: Studying democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 189–214, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.polisci.9.072004.095345.