In July 2006, Bernard Lewis delivered a lecture on board the Crystal Serenity, during a Hillsdale College cruise in the British Isles. He attributes the eclipse of democracy in the Middle East to two major factors:
Modernization and Nazi and Soviet Influence
The first of these changes is what one might call modernization. This was undertaken not by imperialists, for the most part, but by Middle Eastern rulers who had become painfully aware that their societies were undeveloped compared with the advanced Western world. These rulers decided that what they had to do was to modernize or Westernize. Their intentions were good, but the consequences were often disastrous. What they did was to increase the power of the state and the ruler enormously by placing at his disposal the whole modern apparatus of control, repression and indoctrination. At the same time, which was even worse, they limited or destroyed those forces in the traditional society that had previously limited the autocracy of the ruler. In the traditional society there were established orders—the bazaar merchants, the scribes, the guilds, the country gentry, the military establishment, the religious establishment, and so on. These were powerful groups in society, whose heads were not appointed by the ruler but arose from within the groups. And no sultan, however powerful, could do much without maintaining some relationship with these different orders in society. This is not democracy as we currently use that word, but it is certainly limited, responsible government. And the system worked. Modernization ended that. A new ruling class emerged, ruling from the center and using the apparatus of the state for its purposes.
That was the first stage in the destruction of the old order. The second stage we can date with precision. In the year 1940, the government of France surrendered to the Axis and formed a collaborationist government in a place called Vichy. The French colonial empire was, for the most part, beyond the reach of the Nazis, which meant that the governors of the French colonies had a free choice: To stay with Vichy or to join Charles de Gaulle, who had set up a Free French Committee in London. The overwhelming majority chose Vichy, which meant that Syria-Lebanon—a French-mandated territory in the heart of the Arab East—was now wide open to the Nazis. The governor and his high officials in the administration in Syria-Lebanon took their orders from Vichy, which in turn took orders from Berlin. The Nazis moved in, made a tremendous propaganda effort, and were even able to move from Syria eastwards into Iraq and for a while set up a pro-Nazi, fascist regime. It was in this period that political parties were formed that were the nucleus of what later became the Baath Party [emphasis added]. The Western Allies eventually drove the Nazis out of the Middle East and suppressed these organizations. But the war ended in 1945, and the Allies left. A few years later the Soviets moved in, established an immensely powerful presence in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and various other countries, and introduced Soviet-style political practice. The adaptation from the Nazi model to the communist model was very simple and easy, requiring only a few minor adjustments, and it proceeded pretty well. That is the origin of the Baath Party and of the kind of governments that we have been confronting in the Middle East in recent years. That, as I would again repeat and emphasize, has nothing whatever to do with the traditional Arab or Islamic past.
Read the whole thing. He also has a lot to say about the rise of Wahhabism and the West’s witting and unwitting promotion of it.
Let me illustrate the significance of this with one example: Germany has constitutional separation of church and state, but in the German school system they provide time for religious instruction. The state, however, does not provide teachers or textbooks. They allow time in the school curriculum for the various churches and other religious communities—if they wish—to provide religious instruction to their children, which is entirely optional. The Muslims in Germany are mostly Turks. When they reached sufficient numbers, they applied to the German government for permission to teach Islam in German schools. The German authorities agreed, but said they—the Muslims—had to provide the teachers and the textbooks. The Turks said that they had excellent textbooks, which are used in Turkey and Turkish schools, but the German authorities said no, those are government-produced textbooks; under the principle of separation of church and state, these Muslims had to produce their own. As a result, whereas in Turkish schools in Turkey, students get a modern, moderate version of Islam, in German schools, in general, they get the full Wahhabi blast. The last time I looked, twelve Turks have been arrested as members of Al-Qaeda—all twelve of them born and educated in Germany.
Copyright © 2006. Reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College, www.hillsdale.edu.
UPDATE: Several commenters object that the Vichy regime didn’t last long enough to have much lasting effect on the Middle East, but I think they’re missing the larger currents that preceded the crucial formation during Vichy times of European-style fascist parties in Damascus that later provided the vehicles for building secular nationalist, totalitarian police states. I feel a bit silly citing Wikipedia to support a well-known scholar like Lewis, but here’s the section on the origins of the Baath Party and its founders. I’ve also gone back and emphasized Lewis’s point that party formation was the key event of lasting consequence during the Vichy era.
The Baath party originated with two separate nationalist groups in Syria. The first of these, initially known as harakat al-ihyaa al-‘arabi (the Arab Resurrection Movement), was set up by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar in 1940s. It was a relatively small group of intellectuals and students, and Aflaq was its main theoretician. His ideology was essentially a form of romantic nationalism coupled with a vague socialism which rejected, however, the idea of class struggle. The second group formed around Zaki al-Arsuzi, a prominent figure in the resistance to French plans to annex the Syrian province of Iskandarun to Turkey. Al-Arsuzi’s conception of the Arab nation was essentially a linguistic one, and historian Hanna Batatu also charges him with racialism and a mystical tendency influenced by his Alawite religion. According to some sources, in 1940 Arsuzi founded a group known as al-Baath al-‘arabi (the Arab Resurrection); in other sources, he only used this as the name of a bookshop he opened in Damascus. In any case, he seems to have been the first to adopt the name.
Al-Bitar and Aflaq were from middle-class Damascus families, the former a Sunni Muslim and the latter a Greek Orthodox Christian. Both had studied in Paris, coming under the influence of European nationalist and Marxist ideas, as well as the secular historicism of leading 19th century French thinkers such as Ernest Renan and Auguste Comte. The two men, along with al-Arsuzi and another major proponent of early Baathist ideology, Shakeeb Dallal, had careers as middle-class educators.
These groups had formed in opposition to both French colonial rule and to the older generation of Syrian Arab nationalists, and advocated instead Pan-Arab unity and Arab nationalism. Their ideology blended non-Marxist socialism and nationalism. The early Syrian Baathists opposed the influence of Europe in their country’s affairs, and used nationalism and the notion of unifying the Arab world as a platform.
Aflaq (b. 1910), Al-Bitar (b. 1912), and Al-Arsuzi (b. 1899) all studied at the Sorbonne during the late 1920s and 1930s.