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  • Demography and Democracy: Transitions in the Middle East and North Africa by Elhum Haghighat
  • Paul Puschmann (bio)
Demography and Democracy: Transitions in the Middle East and North Africa, by Elhum Haghighat, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 261 pages. $99.99 cloth; $22.17 paper; $20.20 Kindle.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Middle East and North Africa have turned into the world's deadliest conflict zone. Due to the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, and the rise of the co–called Islamic State, hundreds of thousands of civilians have died, and millions have been forced to take refuge, mostly in neighboring countries. The flow of refugees has caused enormous challenges to international aid organizations and has put serious pressure on governments of refugee-hosting countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. If we add to this the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, [End Page 341] the Kurdish independence movement, the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Qatar diplomatic crisis, and more structural sources of instability—such as the large differences in wealth between and within countries, high unemployment, and limited availability of water—the political future of the Middle East and North Africa looks gloomy.

In Demography and Democracy, Elhum Haghighat shows that there is also reason for a more optimistic view of the political future of this region. Haghighat analyzes demographic and democratic transitions and demonstrates that, from Morocco to Iran and from Yemen to Turkey, large-scale developments—declining mortality and fertility, rising life-expectancy, schooling, and the advent of what might be called a civil society—have taken place that pave the way toward "modern" societies that sooner or later will be receptive to liberal democracy. She thereby convincingly refutes the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernization and demonstrates that a clash between Western and Islamic civilizations (as predicted by Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, and others) is highly unlikely. However, Haghighat also demonstrates that modernization in the Middle East does not follow the same paths as in the West; and that the interplay of economic, demographic, and political forces plays out very differently in various countries in the region, leading to multiple modernities, which are essentially compatible with Islam and are often even strongly connected to it. Piety movements and charity organizations—in which women are driving forces—also play a pivotal role in reform and they are, according to Haghighat, some of the building blocks of a rising civil society.

In the last chapter of the book, Haghighat focuses on Yemen, Tunisia, Qatar, and Iran to strengthen her arguments. Each of these countries has undergone thorough changes in the past half-century, and each country has made steps forward. However, each country struggles in its own way with the transition toward modernity. While the rights of women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people are everywhere either absent or highly contested, each country faces it its own challenges. Qatar has developed thanks to large oil and gas reserves and a large cheap and docile immigrant work force—based on the kafala system, which makes migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation—into the richest country in the world, but political inclusion lags. Tunisia has also experienced rapid demographic changes, as well as strong improvements in education and gender equity, and seems to be closer to liberal democracy, but it faces economic challenges. Iran's fertility decline is impressive and so are its improvements in health and life expectancy, but economic development is much lower than one would expect given its large mineral reserves. Moreover, although the country possesses democratic institutions, its regime has remained highly autocratic. Yemen struggles on all fronts: its demographic, economic, and political development lag far behind other countries in the region.

The book is a good introduction to students of the Middle East and North Africa, offering plenty of food for thought with respect to economic, demographic and political developments. However, specialists in the field might be disappointed as they will gain few novel insights from this monograph. The book offers a rich trove of statistics, but does not go beyond simple descriptive analyses. Additionally, the principal ideas discussed are—contrary to what the...


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pp. 341-343
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