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What shall we do without our West friendly dictators?


By István T. Kristó-Nagy


The Montréal Review, March 2011


This short commentary was originally written in January 2011 for the website of the Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence in Islamic Thought project at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies of the University of Exeter.




Après eux, le déluge

On the 14th of January, I met a senior academic of Tunisian origin. He was in a state of revolutionary euphoria. This state of mind presupposes the experience of living under oppression and having the chance to get liberated from it. I had the same experience in 1989 when the communist rule was crashed in Hungary and subsequently in all Eastern Europe. What comes after this euphoria? This question worries everyone concerned with the future of Tunisia, Egypt and the whole Islamic World.

In order to predict the outcome of these revolutions we should know who triggered them and who is or who will be controlling them. The Romanian revolution in 1989, that cost the lives of hundreds of citizens,   started as a protest in defence of the Transylvanian Hungarian Calvinist priest L. Tokés and was a cathartic event subsequently "hijacked" by the "old guard". The destiny of the current revolutions in countries with Muslim majority depends greatly on those who maintain the oppressive regimes, i. e. the Western powers and the local armed forces. It is clear that the international media and the modern means of communications (such as mobile phones and Internet) offered new weapons to the revolutionaries who had grown used to being disadvantaged in the face of governments which had previously held exclusive control of both the media and the organised armed forces.

The recurring question is how can the destructive flames of despair turn into a sound reconstruction of entire societies, providing health, wealth, stability and welfare to its citizens?  If the goals of the liberated (and the liberators) are too diverting, chaos and civil war follow, as after the "liberation" of Iraq.

In the case of Eastern Europe, the goal seemed to be very clear: to join the West. In Tunisia, the call of Islamist radicals seems to be much less strong than the appeal of Western consumer society, so we can expect a similar aspiration. However, considering the forced westernization of social customs and traditions by the oppressive regime of Ben Ali, the outcome can still provide us with surprises. Egypt is a huge sick elephant, and the West and the oligarchies of the region are concerned what will come out if its old skin tears.

Violent Muslims and Western idiots

The Eastern European experience also illustrates how the question of "Where to go?" is transformed into the question of "How to join them?". A process in which many essential problems are swept away unresolved in the urgency of action. Namely, societies once belonged to the "Eastern Bloc" very soon had to face the problems of Western democracy.

Western democracy is one of the best social systems ever to exist, but it is remarkably difficult to apply to societies where it is not the product of a centuries-long internal evolution. The western media often offers the simplistic idea that our model is ideal and the problem is the manner of its adoption by the non-Westerners, or if more empathy is present, its adaptation for them. The democratic ideal consists of a society of free and responsible citizens making public decisions together. In our so-called "western liberal democratic" states, these principles are not at all fully realised. Citizens do not have either the possibility or the will and the qualifications to actively participate in daily politics. The purpose of our education is more and more to produce suitable labour for national and multinational companies and less and less to educate cultivated, happy and thoughtful individuals. Our democracy educates us to be idiots in its original Greek sense (the word "idiot" in Greek means someone who does not participate in political or public life).

But as far as things going well or seeming to do so, it does not appear to be a problem. We choose deputies to make decisions instead of us. The problem is that we choose those who we are guided to be chosen by the media and the media itself is guided by those who pay them. As a consequence, politicians do not represent the interest of the "electors", but the interest of those who make the electors elect them.

Contradictions, however, become apparent in the emerging conflict situations. The Iraq venture demonstrated many of the weaknesses of Western democracies. Our countries were led into a war serving the interests of some business companies and their political representatives who, with the help of the media, cheated their electors and, in the case of the United Kingdom, violated their will. The ideals of democracy were of course even more violated in Iraq, where they were used to exploit the country and led to its destruction.

Unfortunately, outside of the West, the image of democracy  - which would be positive due to the wealth and the liberties of the West  - gets constantly spoiled by the fact that our democratic countries support non-democratic regimes serving interests of Western companies rather than the interest of their own nations. Most of the enormous amount of U.S. funding given to the Egyptian government is directed to its armed forces. I saw Egyptian policemen sitting in cars mounted on bricks instead of wheels and others with corked rifles. The army and its American weapons are more serious but the Egyptian armed forces could not really harm their ally, Israel, especially if one considers what would happen to the country if their dammed dam (an ecological catastrophe already) gets bombed; their true mission is to repress their own people. In Egypt, a revolution against the established corrupt regime might give rise to an equally oppressing Islamist rule. Mubarak's regime has been blackmailing its foreign supporters stating that his only alternative is the rule of the Islamist, but the rise of radicalism is due mainly to his rule.

Western policy makers are also responsible for the present situation. Their main aim was not to help the Arab (and other) countries by doing fair business with free people of independent states, but controlling them relatively cheaply through their corrupt despots and taking advantage of the situation.  The rise of Islamism in the population of countries where we are exporting our democracy as well as in the immigrant Muslim communities in our countries shows that they are far from being satisfied with what we "offer" to them. Their reaction is not exclusively the result of differences of religions, cultures and traditions. Their aggression comes from frustration. Their violent thoughts and deeds are symptoms of their crisis and our own.

By the light of human torches

Suicide bombers blowing up themselves and killing others as well as suicide protesters burning themselves alive demonstrate extreme despair. In the case of the latter, any religious motivation should be excluded and religion merely serves to sanctify the existing rage.

These extreme actions are symptoms of a global crisis that is intellectual, spiritual and ideological, but also social, economic, demographic and ecologic. This complex question will be resumed in a later note, but some aspects have to be mentioned here.

In North Africa, the hunger protests have been going on since October. At that time, the Western media did not pay much attention to the problems of rural North Africans. Hunger is caused by high food prices, and over the last decade, commodity prices and the U.S. stock market have usually moved together.  The population of the Arab countries has been multiplying in the last decades and became proportionally younger and younger. The economy and even the ecology of these countries cannot support this demographic growth and the social and political structure is under extreme tension.  In the entire world, the spread between generations become deeper and deeper because with the constantly accelerating technical evolution the knowledge and experience of the elders is considered outdated and useless by the young. This problem is exacerbated by the fact the young are often hopeless, unable to find a way to success. In addition, it might be said, that since the young are using more the limbic part of their brain they are more passionate and less wise than the elderly using more their cerebral cortex. It is not by chance that the Masais excluded the unmarried young warriors from the villages, ancient Greeks sent them to found colonies and the Romans put them in the front line of their legions. Suicide bombers in their 60s-70s are rare. Selfish senile despots leading families and countries are many, and their answer to the current problems is repression.

Emigration is of course is a solution for many. But it has always been a difficult one. In addition, as the Arab countries are (currently) technologically and militarily underdogs, this emigration cannot be a glorious conquest, but an individual immigration, in mass. Mass immigration, however hinders integration and since social structures are primarily mental, they are carried by those who flee to their new countries; the original problems are reproduced. Delusion, hopelessness and identity crisis in their old or new homelands turn many Muslims toward radical streams.

Of course, Islamism is also fuelled by the Wahhabist ideology of oil-rich Gulf countries and to the fact that during the cold war the card of religion was played against the communist threat. Religion - especially in these antagonistic environments can also provide an important manifestation for the opposition. It is not unknown in Eastern Europe as well, where the Polish Solidarity movement was highly religious in both its character and ideology. Communism in its Eastern European sense is over but Islamism remained there.

The Eastern European experience shows that "joining the West" is a very difficult process and Western help is rarely genuinely generous. The backbone of democracy is the middle class. This middle class is fading even in the West and its values are eaten of by the society of consummation. The Tunisian middle class is relatively strong, but who can lead them? As the Eastern European experience shows, a real renewal should bring a decisive end to the former regime, so its collaborators should be excluded from the new leadership. Another experience is that returning emigrants are rarely welcomed as leaders; they are rather seen as irritant outsiders (Maghrebis living abroad and returning back "home" for holidays are called with envy and despise " facance " by the others). How to build up a society of conscientious citizens from masses socialised to live in oppressive structures, helped by a West offering unequal business and MTV? I want the Tunisians and Egyptians to find their way. But it would be hard.

Do the Arabs really want Western liberal democracy?

Freedom is responsibility. In reality, even Western citizens are happy to give up most of their political responsibility if in turn they live in comfort. Personal liberty is essential for Westerners but political liberty is important for us mostly as a guarantee that we can get rid of those who we think responsible for our countries' economic problems or harmful to our personal liberty. The role of the state is to ensure the collaboration or at least the coexistence of its citizens. The state has the right to limit personal liberty of a citizen in order not to allow him or her to harm the liberty of others.

People living in different cultures, however, have different standards regarding how much personal liberty they require for themselves and how much liberty they want to allow to others. In Western liberal democracy a relatively high level of both liberty and tolerance are required, but there are other cultures that are ready to renounce some liberties in order to maintain the norms. This could be perfectly democratic, but less liberal. Nevertheless we should not forget that in most societies in the history of mankind people were absolutely satisfied with the idea to live under the rule of a just monarch. If we look sincerely at our democratically elected leaders, they are not much better than former dynasts and usurpers. We usually consider democracy as the greatest achievement in the West, but the rule of law can be seen as even more important. What people in the Arab countries really want (Muslims and Christians alike) is not the fatigue to rule each other and the risks to be ruled by each other, but to live in predictable and acceptable conditions in a just society with clear norms. The Arabs want to get rid of parasite tyrants and oligarchies, they are attracted by Western comfort and personal liberty, but they do not want Western liberal democracy with openly loose social norms.

In spite of the astonishing impetuosity of the recent revolutions, what the people of the Arab countries desire and what they will get does not evidently coincide. The revolutions were successful because the armies did not crush them. In Cairo, the largest metropolis of the Arab world the apparent neutrality of the army resulted in absurd scenes like the " Tahrir Square battle of the camels " meanwhile soldiers were sitting in their tanks as mere spectators.

Since the beginning of organised agriculture, the Egyptian society was always pyramidal and dominated by the bureaucracy and the army. Rulers often came from the military, like Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak in the modern times.

From 525 BC up to 1954 AD the armies that controlled Egypt were composed of foreign troops. Today's national army was less willing to massacre Egyptians, but more importantly, the army did not intervene because its commanders knew that they remained in control. Thus there was no need for violent engagement, which would have made them unpopular in the eyes of the people and possibly even in the eyes of some of the troops. The army has the guns (real guns) and their privileges are so strong that their unity is unlikely to be dissolved by revolutionary propaganda.

As long as the Egyptian army is the main power in Egypt, the uninvited God-fathers of the Egyptian people (the use of the paradox image is on purpose), Western governments (including Israel) do not have to worry at all. Egypt is under control. If the Egyptian army was not loyal to its commander, the president of the country (the role of Mubarak in deciding not to use them against the people is still open), it remained faithful to its real boss, the government of the United States of America. This is perfectly logic. They need the American money and they could not confront the American army. Since the Americans support Israel even against their interest, it is against the interest of the Egyptian army to allow the rise in power of any political force that would put them in real conflict with Israel.

In addition to this Egypt is one of the most militarily vulnerable countries of the world. The balance of force between the Israeli and the Egyptian army is absolutely asymmetrical. But chaos in Egypt would only lead to another asymmetrical warfare (commonly called "terrorism") against Israel and against a much easier target, the Egyptian Christians. There will be no chaos in Egypt. It would serve only the interests of a few extremists who gain power from conflict. What we can expect is some kind of democratisation channelled by the army and indirectly by Western governments.

In most Arab countries, any foreign military intervention would lead to disastrous consequences. Intelligence services are busy to find out how to ensure some control over the uncontrollable regions of Yemen and to put things back to the right track in Libya. If the conflicts between institutionalised and state sponsored Wahabi Islamism, Jihadi extremists and the discriminated Shiites of the Arabian Peninsula exacerbate, it could have global consequences. Similarly, serious unrest in such patchwork countries as Morocco and Algeria - with their large territory, huge geographical ethnical and social diversity - could lead to a terrible turmoil of violence.

So the mission is far from completed: It is a shared duty of Western and Non Western thinkers and peoples to collaborate in ameliorating our future, building up on what is common in our cultural heritage and learning from each-other when it comes to the differences. Realistically, however, we can only hope that the self-sacrificing courage of the revolutionaries all over the Arab world will push Arab and Western leaders to cook up alternative ways for the political, economical and cultural collaboration of the peoples they represent.


Born in Budapest, Hungary, István Kristó-Nagy has earned two MAs; one in History and another in Arabic Studies from the Pázmány Péter Catholic University (Hungary) in 2000. He was awarded a PhD in Arabic Studies from the Université de Toulouse 2, Le Mirail and Eötvös Lóránd University Summa cum Laude in 2006.  An updated and revised version of his dissertation has been published under the title of "La Pensée d' Ibn al-Muqaffa" by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in 2010.


In the Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence in Islamic Thought project, István's research is focused on the State and the Individual. He investigates the interlinked questions of the legitimacy of the state's violence against the individual and of the legitimacy of the individuals' violence against the state. He is engaged in a detailed study of the first mih?na in Islam, that is, the persecution of the zan a diqa (Manicheans and other suspicious dualists) during the reign of two Abbasid caliphs, al-Mahdi and al-Hadi. This persecution is one of the most striking and less investigated examples of a violent campaign against a non-violent religious community within the Dar al-Islam.


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