In the work of the Orientalists, essentialism functions in two ways. Generalizing the otherness is the first. Fundamentalizing western patterns of political participations is the second. Contemporary Orientalists have accumulated and consolidated the thesis of democracy’s absence in the Arab world. The thesis was strengthened through the so-called cultural argument, which lost sight of the diversity of the “other” and democracy itself.
The thesis that the people are incompetent for political participation has been well supported by the 1960s invention of "political culture". It was the result of a scientific attempt to reassure the applicability of the comparative government paradigm in the field of political science (Sadiki, 2004). The term political culture well explained foreign phenomena that many political scientists were unwilling to comb through, opening an easy path for Orientalists to rationalize the alienness they were required to tackle.
Among the Orientalists, Bernard Lewis served as the best example for essentializing the other. For him, the Middle East is either too young or too sick for the panacea as democracy. Being asked if one can impose western culture on the “ancient cultures”, he answered, “There are things you can't impose. Freedom, for example. Or democracy. Democracy is a very strong medicine which has to be administered to the patient in small, gradually increasing doses. Otherwise, you risk killing the patient," (as cited in Leibowitz, 2008). In a more recent quote, responding to the Arab “mass uprising”, he repeated, “They are simply not ready for free and fair elections” (Horovitz, 2011). Here, the culture becomes a straightforward and all-purpose answer for the immaturity and alienness in the eyes of the Orientalist. The cultural argument never requires explicit knowledge or equal understanding, but rather categorizes the behaviors of the others into one collective culture.
The virtues of democracy, its generosity and its versatility, along with its imperfectness, were often buried by Orientalists’ cultural argument. Surprisingly, the writings of al-Farabi (872-950), the writing of political philosophies in the ten century, stood as the anti-thesis of the modern Orientalists’ arguments on democracy in the Arab world.
The sharp contrast goes back to the time when al-Farabi encountered the political philosophies of Aristotle and Plato—those of "the others". Although he was a pious member of a religious community, being a political philosopher, he did not shun inquiring the foundation of his religion. In his work Plato's Law, he deconstructed the purposes of the divine law, compared it to Plato's notion of law and lawgiver, then made an analogy for unfamiliar concepts to his readers. As Mahdi (2001) evaluated his effort:
He had to ask the questions that the jurists as jurist was neither required to ask nor capable of asking: Why does political community need to be a religious community? Why does the ruler or legislator of the political community need to be a prophet or representative of a prophet? Why does a political community need to be governed by a divine law? (p. 40)
Al-Farabi asked fundamental questions of his own society in order to comprehend the idea of the others, instead of being satisfied calling Aristotle and Plato “foreign”. While many of al-Farabi's successors continued to take up the challenges for a few centuries, contemporary scholars might have never asked the reverse questions when they encountered the alienness. Arrogance of Orientalists leads them to fundamentalize democracy into a standard model of political institutions. This, in turn, misleads the notion of democracy and establishes it as one homogenic political culture.
Modern democracies are diverse and imperfect. They are neither merely products of institutions, nor unclear terms as political tradition and political culture. Derived from Greek, democracy literally means “rule by the people”. There hasn't been a consensual definition for democracy, but many agree on its values: it offers opportunities for a state to apply public preferences, it curbs violence when the public works to solve contending interests, and perhaps it is best characterized by its "inner pluralism and versatility” (Sadiki, 2004, p. 11). When Kedourie (1994) argued the absence of the political tradition of the west in the Arab world, he wrote in the conclusion of the book Democracy and Arab Political Culture:
To what may this fatality be ascribed? First and foremost, no doubt, to the fact that these ideas of constitutionalism and representation belonged to, and had their rise in, a political tradition and in political arrangements very different from those to which these countries had been long accustomed. What they have been accustomed to was autocracy and passive obedience. (p. 103)
When Kedourie mentioned the “very different” political tradition of the west, this political tradition became one tradition to which Middle Eastern societies were not and would not be accustomed. By arguing this, he not only generalized the complexity of many societies, but also depicted western political culture as one homogenous and hegemonic concept. Forms of political participations differ in genders and occupations. Patterns of debating politics vary across communities. Voters and candidates scatter across spectrums of ideologies from extreme to moderate. This value of pluralism is also praised by al-Farabi in his description of a democratic city:
It looks like an embroidered garment full of colored figure and dyes. […] People of every race multiply in it, and this by all kinds of copulation and marriages, resulting in children of extremely varied dispositions, with extremely varied education and upbringing. (trans. 1972, p. 50)
People of all kinds with their diverse desires composited a democratic city. While al-Farabi was able to picture the core values of democracy—generosity and versatility, contemporary scholars working on the issues take them for granted so easily.
Writing on the undemocratic world, modern Orientalists often downplay the reality of democracy. However, the imperfectness of democracy is not only real but old. As al-Farabi continued,
...the city possesses both good and evil to a greater degree to the rest of the ignorant cities. The bigger, the more civilized, the more populated, the more productive, and the more perfect it is, the more prevalent and the greater are the good and the evil it possesses. (trans. 1972, p. 51)
Modern democracies, like the city in al-Farabi’s description, have never been perfect. While some people cherish democracy’s value of plurality, the minority becomes a subject of oppression under the majority. “It [democray] is just as bad as a dictator…Democracy is two coyotes and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch” (Wenders, 1998). In public debates, opinions of the minority are sidelined. Voting in turn entitled very little for the weak voices. Also, although the majority win vote, an election doesn't ensure policies that reflect their opinions. Candidates’ public relations tactics make rational choices for voters impossible, resulting in so many democratic leaders being merely handsome faces and issuing policies that run counter to public wishes. Furthermore, many people either obsess with the election games and ideological debates or show their indifference to political participation. Frequent change in power makes policies inconsistent, risking social stability and long-term development. Democracy also does not guarantee a government free from corruption or nepotism.
Democracy is never a still picture of great harmony. However, its plurality and imperfectness seldom appeared along with the image of a democratic city. Standardizing political participations into a model of a set of institutions constrains the imaginations of democracy's persuaders and pursuers. From beginning to the end, many Orientalists scratch their heads contemplating why Oriental societies could not sustain an English parliament or elect a legitimate French president. Still, some scholars like Jon Elster at al. (1998) went beyond the present election paradigm, and proposed a new deliberative decision-making democracy (Sadiki, 2004).
The imperfectness of democracy would be clearer for the observers in places where the dominant model of democracy are operated; however, it is seldom mentioned when Orientalists depicted the ugliness of the societies of the others.
Nevertheless, democracy, defined as the ethos of generosity and versatility, is still cherished in many of societies today, and it is plurality that al-Farabi suggested for a democratic city to become a virtuous city. As he wrote:
…All kinds of wishes and ways of life are to be found in it. Consequently, it is quite possible that, with the passage of time, virtuous men will grow up in it. Thus include philosophers, rhetoricians, and poets, dealing with all kinds of things… this is the best thing that takes place in this city. (trans by Najjar, 1972, p. 51)
Whether it is the turmoil of pursuing the ethos in the Arab world today, or the failure to pursue the ethos in the places of so-called democratic model, democracy suggests an endless questing for virtuous human societies.
Horovitz, D. (2011, February 25). A mass expression of outrage against injustice. www.JPost.com. Retrieved December 9, 2013, from http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/A-mass-expression-of-outrage-against-injustice
Leibowitz, R. (2008, March 6). One on one: When defeat means liberation. www.JPost.com. Retrieved December 9, 2013, from http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Features/One-on-One-When-defeat-means-liberation
Wenders, J. (1990). Freedom and democracy are different. The Freeman/Ideas on Liberty, 288–289.
Kedourie, E. (2013). Democracy and Arab Political Culture. Taylor & Francis.
Lerner, R., & Mahdi, M. (1972). Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook. Cornell University Press.
Mahdi, M. (2001). Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy. University of Chicago Press.
Sadiki, L. (2004). The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-discourses. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers.