The Consequences of Ideological Colonization: Projecting Western Values onto the Middle East

Lisa Anderson’s 2006 article “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East” pieces together the works of various scholars to explain the misconceptions political scientists had about the Middle East in the past several decades. The main issue she describes is the West’s tendency to project its own values and expectations universally.  

While her diagnosis is most explicitly about the Middle East, it applies to Western political academia as a whole. In the West, the natural model of progression is independence, economic modernization, social mobilization, then the inevitable: democracy. Every step in this model is seen as causing the next, a logical evolution. However, as the Middle East has demonstrated, this pattern is in no way fixed. Middle Eastern states grew their economies, but the rentier model did not lend itself to passive rulers willing to allow a peaceful transfer of power. Even though they modernized, civil society could not be understood through the Western lens because loyalties were still based locally rather than nationally. The West took its understanding of politics and forced it onto regions it did not (and perhaps refused to) understand. 

Anderson attributes this insistence of democracy to the political atmosphere during the Cold War. During this period, there was a bipartisan push to embrace democracy wholeheartedly, both as a tool of foreign policy and a principled conviction. Such an environment not only affected government behavior but the ideology and approaches of individual political scientists as well. As she puts it, U.S. political science was designed to study and find democracy. Whether by true faith or social pressure, it is undeniable that the scholars of this time were prone to see democracy everywhere and as the only solution.  

Middle Eastern leaders were paying attention to the democratic pressures of the West, but rather than adopt democratic processes, they simply copied and misused the language of democracy. Pretending to run fair elections and advocate for human rights became the norm as it was a new way to claim legitimacy. It pacified Western political actors who hoped and expected these leaders would take the necessary steps towards democratization. Instead of investigating the validity of the democratic rhetoric and institutions, political scientists were satisfied with accepting vague indications; it was presumed that modernization made eventual democratization unavoidable. 

In this course, we should avoid replicating these mistakes, seeing the world only through the eyes of the West. We cannot look for democracy wherever we wish it existed but must remain impartial observers, open to shaping our ideas around the region rather than the other way around. We must understand the Middle East on its own terms instead of forcing democratic verbiage and systems onto it.  

The 2011 uprisings make it clear that the public is not a passive actor in politics. They are mobile and influential, even if Arab civil society is not identical to that of the West. Yet it is impossible to simply say the Arab public galvanized to insist on democracy. A major part of the uprisings was economic matters and perceived corruption, concepts which can be understood as separate from regime types as they apply to everyday life. The uprisings do not demonstrate that the people will revolt until they get democracy. They show that public opinion cannot be disregarded by any ruler. Even authoritarians cannot afford to constantly squash rebellions if they are to remain in power. 

Works Cited 

Anderson, Lisa. 2006. “SEARCHING WHERE the LIGHT SHINES: Studying Democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science 9 (1): 189–214 

1 Comment »

  1. Ed Webb Said,

    September 20, 2023 @ 8:37 pm

    Your last paragraph points to something important: we need to be careful to dis-aggregate concepts that we may be in the habit of clustering together. Fighting corruption, economic justice, dignified treatment of citizens, and accountability may be issues we are inclined to cluster under a heading of democratization, and there is some value in that for very broad comparison. But if we want to understand the different trajectories of protests and their outcomes in different national environments we must study specifically what these and other related concepts mean in those environments to find out if they are analytically useful.

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