As the countries and peoples of the Middle East seek to forge their political futures, they, or at least some of them, are searching for models of democracy that they can follow.
Of course, they can look to democratic theory, but how many ordinary people will crack open John Locke, the Federalist Papers, or John Stuart Mill? They can turn to the ever-available United States, with its 200-plus years of experience, for inspiration. But what does that colossus have to do with the radically different domestic situation in each of these countries? As for Europe, the past century makes it clear that it does not offer a distinguished record of democratic success, especially during times of stress.
The most obvious candidate bandied about, no less than by its own president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is Turkey, a relatively moderate, predominantly Muslim country that has one foot in the Middle East and a second foot trying to plant itself in the European Union. Perhaps Turkey can serve as a model of democracy and politicized religion coexisting — and what it has to offer should be paid attention to — but its own record is checkered.
For an alternate take on Israel’s democracy, read Eric Alterman’s column ‘Israel Turning Into Theocracy.’
Both the toughest test and a hallmark of democracy is how a country deals with social and political conflict, with competing visions of how society should be organized. In this critical respect, Turkey has not done well. Its military has meddled in politics, including ousting a prime minister in 1997. It has brutally suppressed a minority, the Kurds, destroying an estimated 3,000 villages and expelling more than 300,000 from their homes, while slaughtering perhaps 30,000 during the 1980s and ’90s.
Turkey has criminalized telling the truth about the Turkish past — especially about the Turks’ genocide of the Armenians — and about central aspects of the Turkish present. It jails journalists, or anyone, for writing or speaking critically about Turkey’s policies in Cyprus, or for denigrating “the Turkish nation.” Sure, Turkey looks good when compared with Iran, but by any reasonable standard of democratic success, it must be judged harshly. Freedom House ranks Turkey as only “partly free.” And regarding women, its record is deplorable, ranking near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index of 2011.
Turkey has been raised up as an exemplar, in part because it’s in the neighborhood and its system is known.
But there is a better model available that meets these criteria, even closer and much better known to the countries of the Arab Spring: Israel. That’s right, Israel.
It is hard to think of any other country and any other people that has endured such intense pressures, facing nonstop existential threats ever since its founding. It has fought many wars with external foes. It has had conflict within, owing to the presence of a highly disgruntled Palestinian minority that is, to say the least, exceedingly critical of Israel, finding the establishment of the state itself unjust.
It has absorbed hundreds of thousands of new immigrants: Between 1948 and 1950, it almost doubled its population. A large percentage of these new citizens lacked education and came from Middle Eastern countries that had far lower levels of economic and technological development; and for many of these immigrants, democracy was an utterly foreign concept. Israel has a significant minority of deeply religious people, with 8% of them being ultra-Orthodox that reject modernity, want their lives and the lives of others to be governed by religious law, and have essentially opted out of the broader society.