Books Discussed in this Essay:

The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy, by Reuel Marc Gerecht

The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East, by Reuel Marc Gerecht 

Egypt's experiment with democracy is probably over." So wrote Reuel Marc Gerecht in a July 2013 Washington Post opinion piece published nine days after Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's elected president and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was toppled from power by his country's military. It was a stunning admission coming from Gerecht, perhaps the most thoughtful and committed American advocate of democracy promotion in the Middle East—the man who predicted what came to be known as the Arab Spring. Yet with an eye cocked to democracy's eventual triumph, he surely thought to himself "…for now."

The long-running argument over democratization abroad is rooted in the fundamentals of our republican experiment here at home-government based on individual rights and the consent of the governed. On the one hand, the debate pits our faith in the universal moral force of democratic ideals against careful calculations of our immediate national interest. On the other, appreciation for American democracy's tough-to-replicate moral and social underpinnings is as likely to produce skepticism as enthusiasm about democratization as a foreign-policy tool. Whether developments in the Middle East cause the issue to fade for the moment or not, this quintessentially American policy puzzle will surely return.

Yet the overturning of an elected Islamist government in Egypt through a combination of popular rebellion and military force does provide an occasion to reconsider the fundamentals of the case for democratization. Gerecht's work makes that case at its boldest.

The Missing Consensus

Appearing in 2004, in the midst of bitter American debate over the wisdom of democracy promotion in Iraq, Gerecht's short book The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy argued, against the grain of even many of his fellow "neoconservatives," that moderate Muslims and authentic liberals were too thin on the ground in the Middle East to power a region-wide democratic transformation. He maintained that if democracy was to come to the Muslim Middle East, it would, paradoxically, need to arrive by way of illiberal fundamentalists, seduced by dreams of electoral power, yet ultimately moderated by participation in the electoral process.

Gerecht's 2011 book, The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East, updated and extended this argument. Unlike many "realist" critics of democratization, Gerecht recognized that the Middle East's autocratic governments were suffering through the final stages of a legitimacy crisis. He argued that the region could shortly be swept by a wave of democratic rebellions destined to empower Islamist political parties, and he welcomed that prospect. The body of The Wave was written mere months before insurrections began to sweep the Middle East.

The Wave also contains an Afterword penned in the first flush of the Arab Spring. There Gerecht tilted his argument away from predictions (later vindicated) of Islamist electoral triumph, toward an emphasis on the secular and apparently more liberal forces driving the rebellion at the time. Prescient as he was in anticipating the Great Arab Revolt and the immanant regional ascendance of Islamist politics, The Wave—and particularly its Afterword—suffers from the misplaced optimism typical of early Western responses.

Toting up his successful and unsuccessful predictions won't take us very far. Probing the assumptions at the root of his paradoxical democratization scenarios will. To Gerecht, the character of Middle Eastern regimes is the first cause, and—to a large extent—the only cause, of regional events. He argues that since oppressive autocracies have fueled the rise of militant Islamism, only drawing Islamists into the humdrum daily practice of democratic politics—with its inevitable disappointments and compromises—can break the fever of fanaticism.

Like nearly everyone writing in the wake of Morsi's ouster, Gerecht has little to say about the underpinnings of traditional Muslim society—the patterns of marriage, kinship, and tribe that cut against modernization. Yet the rise of Islamism may be less a product of oppressive autocracies than of an escalating tension between the traditional organization of Muslim social life and onrushing Western modernity. This clash is likewise at the root of an economic crisis so profound that it now poisons the ability of any Egyptian regime to succeed.

Although conflict between tradition and modernity is neither unique to the Middle East nor impossible to overcome, more than elsewhere, traditional social practices in the Middle East are difficult to harmonize with free markets, neutral bureaucracies, and liberal democracy. It is difficult to claim in our politically correct age that some cultures are more hostile to modernization than others, but the best explanation for the profound opposition between the Middle East's secular modernists and its religious fundamentalists is a deep-lying conflict between Middle Eastern tradition and modernity. There's a reason Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, framed his modernizing reforms as a secular break from tradition, rather than a novel Muslim synthesis. Attempts to modernize the Middle East tend to force a radical cultural choice.

Gerecht's scenarios for creating moderate and modernizing forms of Islam out of illiberal Islamist democracies are plausible, if far less probable than he implies. Even at their best, however, his plans run aground on the unwillingness of secular and non-Muslim Middle Easterners to tolerate the side-effects of lengthy experiments in Islamist-dominated democracy. This, in great part, is what brought down Morsi in Egypt.

Society, in this case, explains politics. Underlying social barriers to modernization in the Middle East open up an immense gulf between those who choose tradition and those who choose to break with it. The minimum consensus on social fundamentals needed for democratic politics is missing.

Middle Eastern Jeffersons?

In The Wave's afterword, Gerecht envisioned Egyptian autocracy crumbling under assault by a democratic pincer movement of Islamists on the right and secularists (with their minority Christian allies) on the left. In reality, once the autocrats were shoved aside, Islamists, secularists, and Christians had at each other, forcing a choice between chaos and restored autocracy.

Gerecht assumes a near-inevitable evolutionary sequence in which Islamist-dominated democracies travel, over decades, toward moderation and liberalism. As he understands, Muslim fundamentalists have traditionally resisted democracy. In many cases, they've accepted it more as a route to power than as an end in itself. After all, Islam's holy law, sharia, cannot be put to a vote. Gerecht's plan, however, actually depends upon the oxymoronic nature of Islamic democracy. He would cede Islamist parties political control precisely as a means of ensnaring sharia in the democratic process.

Presumably, Islamist-dominated legislatures will incorporate the details of sharia into public law. Yet as fundamentalist legislators divide into factions, and perhaps ally selectively with secular parties, the holy law could be pulled in decidedly unorthodox directions. At that point, national elections would effectively become public referenda on the reform of sharia, with results unlikely to be challenged by Islamist politicians in search of votes.

Gerecht envisions the same sort of transformative religious process playing out in Middle Eastern parliaments as happened in the West during the Protestant Reformation. As he puts it, Thomas Jefferson would have been impossible without Martin Luther. By subjecting sharia to a process of lively democratic contestation, he argues, Middle Eastern society can slowly adapt to modernity, turning once-illiberal regimes liberal over time. Middle Eastern Luthers will slowly give way to Jeffersons.

There are, of course, problems with this scenario, most famously the prospect of "one man, one vote, one time." An elected Islamist government might simply do away with further elections, or rig the constitution so as to effectively achieve permanent control. Morsi was apparently headed in that direction in Egypt.

Another possibility is suggested by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's first political platform, which proposed a religious oversight body that could approve or reject legislation passed by Parliament. Such a body would establish a genuine theocracy, while avoiding Gerecht's parliamentary trap. He argues that the commitment of younger Brotherhood members to democracy will force the organization to "evolve" away from such theocratic schemes. That's a risky political bet.

Critics argue that elections held in an illiberal cultural context doom democracy to failure. His rejection of this view in The Wave could hardly be stronger. He believes that a democratically induced reformation of Islam positively requires the injection of religion into state affairs, as well as an openly communal attitude toward the legislative process. He therefore suggests that the triumph of democracy in the Middle East may depend upon the "failure" of Western-style individualism in the region, at least initially. Though he appears to back away from this position in his Afterword, which nods in the direction of Egypt's secularists, the book's argument cannot cohere without the paradoxical claim that only anti-individualist theocratic democracies can pave the way for liberalism in the Middle East.

Society and State

That claim needs more support than Gerecht provides for it in The Wave, where he relies upon some brief observations by the French scholar of Islam, Olivier Roy, who notes that in the 19th century French Catholics slowly moved from rejection of the French Revolution to full participation in democracy. Democratic culture doesn't precede democratic institutions, says Roy, but follows and internalizes them over time.

Yet democratic culture did precede democratic institutions in France. Tocqueville's theme in his book The Old Regime and the French Revolution, after all, is that the embrace of ideas like the rights of man by peasant, artisan, bourgeois, and aristocrat alike made the Revolution inevitable. There is as yet no Middle Eastern equivalent of the French Enlightenment. Nor did recalcitrant Catholics lead the republican movement in France, as Gerecht expects illiberal Islamists to lead and guard democracy in the Middle East. On the contrary, French Catholics were brought into democracy only after years of persecution, including mass-killings in the wake of the counterrevolutionary uprising in the Vendée. Who will force authentic democratic ideals on Egypt's Islamists? The military?

For all their democratic reluctance, moreover, Catholics were in fact progenitors of France's liberal democratic culture. From the 4th century through the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church fought to protect personal choice in marriage, while prohibiting marriage between cousins and other relatives. This policy undercut social forms based on kinship and collective identity, laying the basis of democratic individualism in the West. Catholicism's centuries-long war against kin-based social structures helped create the conditions for Luther's individualist Protestantism.

In the Muslim Middle East, by contrast, arranged marriage between paternal cousins is encouraged as a way of reinforcing lineage solidarity, the basis of the tribal system. This close-in marriage system lends tremendous force to the practice of female seclusion and veiling, since in sheltering close female relatives, men are effectively safeguarding their own future marriage partners. These kinship solidarities persist in cities, and in a myriad of ways serve to weaken the state and economy.

Neither Martin Luther nor his Catholic opponents were as enmeshed in traditional kin solidarities as the Islamists Gerecht wants to turn into modernizing religious reformers. The road to modernity and liberalism in the Middle East is blocked, then, by something far more profound than sharia alone. A complex interlocking system of marriage, kin, and tribe—which functions to protect the integrity and continuity of the in-group to a degree seen in few other cultures—melds with Islam to create a society-within-a-society, a traditional world still vital beneath the veneer of the modern state. This is what stands between modernity and the Middle East, and it will sink liberal democracy before democracy sinks it.

Gerecht grapples with a version of this phenomenon, sometimes called by students of the Middle East "the separation of society and state." After a relatively brief period of direct theocracy in the decades following Muhammad's death, Middle Eastern rulers lost legitimacy, which came to inhere in Muslim legal scholars instead. Gerecht quotes historians Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds on the phenomenon: "Rulers were [henceforth] obeyed as outsiders to the community, not as representatives of it…. The state was thus something which sat on top of society, not something which was rooted in it." Gerecht aims to overcome this state/society dichotomy by drawing Muslim holy men and their legal disputes back toward the profane hurly-burly of politics, thereby denting their sacred auras and handing the voting public the keys to reform. The problem is that the holy law is merely one portion of a deeply-rooted social system resistant to legal manipulation—even by means of sharia.

A Vicious Circle

Muslim families in the modern Middle East—even in cities—spend years accumulating the wealth required to finance the wedding ceremonies and gift exchanges at the heart of the kinship system. Those funds are kept out of banks to escape taxation. The money is managed instead by kin networks on Islamic principles, weakening state and economy alike. As kinship obligations draw money away from the modern economy, they feed the endemic corruption that undermines the bureaucracy. And as the state fails to deliver the material and political benefits of modernization, citizens are driven yet more deeply into their kinship networks as a defense against chaos. A strong society and a weak state are locked in a vicious circle.

Black markets in state-subsidized food supplies often run through kinship networks. Savings made possible by food subsidies are channeled into those off-the-books marriage trousseaus. The International Monetary Fund has prodded Egypt for decades to pare back food subsidies and reduce its massive state bureaucracy to kick-start a modern economy. Yet marriage and the family alliances it creates depend upon savings made possible by state-subsidized food supplies and make-work government jobs. Cut back those subsidies or pare back the patronage and riots will likely follow, as they have in the past. This is why neither Mubarak, nor the Brotherhood, nor Egypt's secular parties have dared attack the structural barriers to economic modernization. The underlying problem is the traditional social system and the state/society dichotomy it supports. Even should they emerge, democratic sharia reformers such as The Wave envisions would be hard pressed to break this cycle.

Gerecht offers a political explanation for the spread of veiling. He sees it as an informal protest against dictatorship. If oppressive autocracies have a secular and modern tilt, says Gerecht, veiling and Islamism become the logical forms of symbolic resistance. Yet there's more to the rise of veiling than this.

The contemporary renaissance of Islamic fundamentalism began in Egypt in the mid-1970s, as both male and female university students spontaneously adopted a code of traditional Islamic decorum in mixed company. As modernization efforts spurred enormous increases in the number of Egyptians—male and female—receiving an education, traditional marriage practices came under threat. Arranged marriage and collective family honor blend poorly with coeducation. With a loss of female honor liable to scupper the marriage prospects and social prestige of a woman and her entire kin network, veiling became a way of enjoying the benefits of modernity—education and jobs for women—while safeguarding the traditional social system. In a modernizing world, Islamism is a way of strengthening resistance to temptations of the flesh—and the disastrous consequences that follow for kin.

As Gerecht sees it, withdrawing our support for Middle Eastern autocrats eases anti-Americanism and undercuts the political resentment at the root of Islamism's rise. Hand the Islamists political power and force them to subject their antiquated theocratic proposals to the votes of millions of modernizing Middle Eastern women, and they will slowly be undone, he believes.

Yet Islamism is more than a symbolic protest against autocracy. It is a way of negotiating the competing claims of contradictory social systems, and many Middle Eastern women have embraced it voluntarily, along with the veil. Modifying sharia legislatively—even if it could be done—would not solve this problem.

Reverse Evolution

In general, Gerecht makes too much of protest against autocracy by allegedly nascent democrats. Remember, regimes with weak legitimacy have been the regional norm for centuries. What's really driving dissatisfaction with Middle Eastern regimes is a pervasive sense of social failure—of bureaucratic incapacity and economic collapse. Periodic Islamist political uprisings are a traditional response to social crisis in the region. Today's rebellions are fueled, not by autocracy per se, but by failed autocracy. And the unresolved contradiction between traditional social forms and modernity in the Middle East is making it increasingly difficult for any regime to succeed, be it autocratic, Islamist, socialist, Nasserist, or liberal.

Gerecht would reply to these challenges with a single word: Iran. He views Iran's Islamist revolution as a model of democratic development for the Middle East. He understands, of course, that we may shortly face in the Persian Gulf what he calls, "a virulently anti-Semitic increasingly paranoid Islamist nuclear state." Yet as a former CIA analyst who knows Iran well having traveled through it secretly in the 1990s, he is convinced that the fires of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution burned out over a decade ago.

Although the mullahs retain their grip on the state through the Revolutionary Guard's iron fist, Gerecht is persuaded that the Iranian public yearns for democracy and has abandoned its rage against America: Islamist control has done more to Westernize Iran than all the efforts of the modernizing shahs. From his point of view, backing autocracies in the Middle East simply delays the near-certain progression from disillusionment with Islamic fundamentalism to democratic enlightenment.

In 2004, Gerecht wrote: "Iran's jihadist culture is finished." Nearly a decade later, Iran stands on the nuclear threshold and continues to export terror across the region. He understood back in 2004 that the regime would continue to use terror as an instrument of statecraft, regardless of flagging public enthusiasm for the tactic. Yet if it takes this long for public disenchantment with jihad to catch up with national policy, what do we gain by handing state power to Islamists? Iran's revolution is 34 years old. If America cedes the region to Islamists, will it take four more decades to see results? In the meantime, how many Islamist fingers will rest on nuclear triggers?

Besides, what actually broke the spirit of Iran's revolution? In part, Gerecht acknowledges, it was the killing fields of the Iran-Iraq war. Would a region given over to Islamism then need to exhaust itself in a series of fruitless, aggressive wars before abandoning the lure of jihad? And would America, rather than neighboring regimes, be the target this time? He freely acknowledges that, "the march of democracy in the Middle East is likely to be very anti-American" (emphasis in the original). Yet devolution into renewed anti-Western hatred seems a perfectly plausible future for a more democratic, yet still illiberal, Iran.

Gerecht concedes in The Wave that Iran's regime "may well be successful for years to come" in stifling the opposition that came to the fore in 2009's Green Revolution. He attributes the regime's continuing control to the entrenched position of the Revolutionary Guard, downplaying sources of genuine popular support for the mullahs. Yet his 2011 expectation that further destabilizing challenges to Iran's regime would be forthcoming has not been borne out. Perhaps the regime enjoys greater popular support than he was willing to grant.

Turkey is now experiencing "reverse evolution" as the elected Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has turned authoritarian of late. Erdogan's newly-imposed restrictions on the use of alcohol, along with other Islamist policies, set off demonstrations by outraged secularists in Istanbul, which were harshly put down by the regime. In The Wave, Gerecht acknowledged yet downplayed fears by Turkey's secularists that Erdogan was moving in this direction. His emphasis instead was on the peaceful coexistence of tradition and modernity in Turkey, where "big religious neighborhoods with well-attended mosques abut teaming neighborhoods where far more people on Fridays drink at bars than pray."

I was impressed during a 1984 visit to Delhi, India, by the comity between Sikhs and Hindus. Sikhs regularly worshiped at Hindu temples in the area. About a month after I left, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Violent Hindu mobs soon ran riot through Sikh neighborhoods in the city. Appearances can be deceiving.

No End to bin Ladenism

The late political scientist Samuel Huntington called Turkey a "torn country," pulled in opposite and irreconcilable civilizational directions by westernizing secularists, on the one hand, and Islamists on the other. Gerecht envisions a near-certain evolutionary drift toward liberal democracy in the Middle East. Yet it seems possible instead that the Middle East could become a "torn region," with secularists and Islamists at loggerheads everywhere. The social fundamentals are certainly consistent with that scenario. We're seeing potentially irreconcilable splits now in Egypt and Turkey, and a long-term split between secularists and Islamists is a possible outcome for a post-Green Revolution in Iran as well. And as in Egypt now, torn countries can either devolve into anarchy, or stanch the bleeding through a return to autocracy.

There is more than a tinge of utopianism in his assumption that political evolution is a one-way, albeit bumpy, progression toward Jeffersonianism. Democracy promotion in the Middle East is designed to permanently end terrorism by drying up the font of jihadist recruits at its cultural source. Yet Gerecht's apparent pragmatism has morphed into a breathtakingly ambitious and risky project in social engineering.

"Is there an end to bin Ladenism?" asks Gerecht in The Islamic Paradox. An end to bin Ladenism may require an end to History, a difficult engineering project indeed. Social peace is the default setting of modern liberal democracy, where crime and war are considered anomalous. In the stateless setting of Middle Eastern tribes, on the other hand, feud is the only sanction for crime, and peace is the anomaly. Globalization has pressed the United States up against this world.

The development of democratic and liberal forms of Islam in the Middle East cannot be excluded, especially over the long term. Reuel Marc Gerecht rightly foresaw the collapse of regime legitimacy in the Middle East, but the future is up for grabs. If anything, the signs are negative. His faith in one-way democratic evolution has made him an advocate for a policy that, as he himself puts it, in the short run "will undoubtedly aid those who hate us and…may well hurt true friends." In that part of the world, alas, the short run usually turns into the long run.