In Other Words

Democracy in Arabic

Untitled Document Al-Dimuqratiya, Vol. 4, No. 15, July 2004, Cairo Western thinkers frequently accuse the Middle East of lacking political and intellectual dynamism. How many times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have they cited the fact that the Arab world produces fewer books each year than Greece? Dissemination of knowledge and political development undoubtedly ...

Untitled Document

Al-Dimuqratiya,
Vol. 4, No. 15, July 2004, Cairo

Western thinkers frequently accuse the Middle East of lacking political and intellectual dynamism. How many times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have they cited the fact that the Arab world produces fewer books each year than Greece? Dissemination of knowledge and political development undoubtedly remain limited in the contemporary Arab world, but the region’s new emphasis on reform — epitomized by increasing numbers of activists and region-wide summits on democracy — has increased the potential for democratic change.

One welcome product of this change is the Cairo-based, Arab-language quarterly al-Dimuqratiya (Democracy). The journal, which emerged in January 2001, is a boon for analysts interested in both political development and quality scholarly work by Arabs for an Arab audience. Loosely resembling the American Journal of Democracy, al-Dimuqratiya intends to provide a window on the thinking of Arab reformers. Until recently, they remained outside mainstream Arab political thinking, thanks to rampant deliberalization in the Arab world during the 1990s.

Some Egypt watchers may have a jaundiced view of the journal because of the close association between its publisher, the Al-Ahram foundation, and the Egyptian government. But the affiliation has not yet dampened the journal’s quality. Al-Dimuqratiya editor and Egyptian political scientist Hala Mustafa has a reputation for intellectual independence.

In the July 2004 issue, a special section titled "Building Iraq: Envisioning the Nation and Identity" covers issues ranging from the new Iraqi security institutions to postwar economic development. The most interesting of the section’s 13 articles relates to some of the thorniest problems that the United States currently encounters in Iraq. One article by Yassin al-Naseer, an Iraqi exile in Holland, positions the persistent violence in Iraq within a cultural framework. Social explanations for car bombings, beheadings, and assassinations are often frowned upon within the halls of Western academe. But Naseer, though not suggesting an absolute link between culture and combat, does see a connection between history, cultural production, and violence.

"What is frequently said about Iraqi art [and violence] is not always accurate, but some of it is true," Naseer writes. "Iraqi creativity is born in prisons." His point is not that Arab or Iraqi culture produces the current violence in Iraq, but that recognizing how enduring hardship, wars, and oppression affect art and literature is necessary to understand the reciprocal relationship between culture and politics. In short, the "bloody background" of Iraqi history is finding expression in a variety of forms — be they literature or car bombs — that affect current generations.

Another article on the Sunni Triangle by Rashid al-Khuyun, an Iraqi expert on Islam, offers a window into a part of Iraq that remains deeply misunderstood by the U.S. troops fighting there. Al-Khuyun surveys the history of the Anbar province where the Sunni Triangle is located, and, most interestingly, discusses the triangle’s incomplete assimilation into the Iraqi state. Indeed, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was frequently compelled to ensure the quiescence of the region’s tribes through force, despite the fact that he hailed from the area.

An appreciation of the Sunni Triangle’s historical setting helps readers understand whom the United States is fighting in this part of Iraq. It’s not just foreign jihadis, former Ba’athists, and remnants of Saddam’s military but also Anbar tribesmen who, historically, chafed under the central authority of Baghdad, says al-Khuyun. The Kurdish commitment to an integral Iraq is a constant concern in policy circles, but history and current circumstances suggest that there should be equal — if not more — concern about the long-term commitment of the Anbar tribes.

It’s a shame that al-Dimuqratiya is not more accessible to Western analysts and officials, particularly American ones, because it would likely shatter some myths about Arab intellectual lassitude. It would also provide much-needed insight into a part of the world that, despite being the focus of U.S. foreign policy, is still misunderstood.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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