- Is The Middle East Different?
Like many an edited collection of scholarly essays, the volume under review is uneven in quality, and lacks the coherence and sustained attention to a defined problem that are more likely to be found in works by a single author. Chapters in the first section of the book are more theoretical and general in character than the rest, but the issues they raise and questions they pose are not developed systematically in the case studies that follow. Most of the chapters adhere closely to the core theme of the book, but a few seem out of place in this collection. And while many of the chapters reflect both original research and innovative thinking, a few show signs of having been hastily thrown together.
On balance, however, this is an extraordinary collection that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. It conveys the sense of the field, clarifies core issues, frames key debates, and offers readers an unusual breadth of perspective. Overcoming the defects of its genre, Democracy Without Democrats brings together an impressive and diverse group of scholars to wrestle with two questions that have become increasingly central to, but also increasingly problematic for, the study of the contemporary Middle East, and manages to come up with thought-provoking answers.
The first question is one that has troubled specialists on the region for almost a decade: Why has democratization, which has happened in almost every other part of the world, not happened in the Middle East? This leads ineluctably to considerations of Middle Eastern exceptionalism and, above all, to Islam as a factor in the politics of Muslim societies. The second question is more recent, but no less important. It arises out of the political experiences of Middle Eastern states in the 1990s. Given the lack of democratization—and the absence of political actors genuinely committed to democracy—why have some states in the region been willing to experiment with political liberalization? How are we to account for the extraordinary spread of democratic discourse in the region, and for the attempts of both regimes and oppositions to appropriate the notion of democracy for their own purposes? How, in other words, are we to explain the apparent curiosity of democracy without democrats? This leads directly to consideration of the relevance of contemporary theories of democratization for the Middle East, notably strategic-actor models that grew out of the experiences of Latin America, and that seem to offer, as John Waterbury suggests, possibilities for [End Page 171] explaining how “democratic practices may flow from bargains arrived at by parties with no experience [of] and little philosophical commitment to democracy” (p. 34).
Over the past decade, Middle Eastern research agendas have been transformed, along with those of other areas, by the great political and economic transitions of the late twentieth century. Although the region has often been overlooked or marginalized in comparative studies on democratization, scholars of the Middle East have worked to overcome this neglect. Moreover, as the current volume indicates, these efforts have now generated a substantial and theoretically sophisticated body of research.
These accomplishments notwithstanding, scholars of the Middle East have an uneasy relationship with the field of democratization studies. The spread of democratization—not to speak of democracy—creates distinctive tensions for specialists on the region. These flow in part from a perceived sense that the Middle East is somehow out of step with the rest of the world, and that accounting for the relative absence of democracy is therefore the most important issue on the Middle Eastern research agenda—such an agenda inevitably requires a focus on what is missing, on what has not happened, on how states in the Middle East fall short. Moreover, as theoretical debates in political science come to be dominated by an interest in experiences of democratic transition, and more recently by problems related to the consolidation of new democracies, these debates seem to implicitly reaffirm the intellectual irrelevance of the Middle East and its experiences.
Democracy Without Democrats represents...