In a talk given by Amaney Jamal to the City Club of Cleveland, Jamal begins by describing the global political scene after the Soviet Union was disbanded as one that “assumed that liberal democracy had emerged victorious,” and how it became clear that this was not particularly true for the Middle East. This is still true today, and although public opinion polls have shown that a majority of citizens in Arab states support democracy theoretically, in practice they continue to maintain the status quo to an authoritarian regime.
She notes there are “two overarching explanations” to this ideological dichotomy: that democracy is fundamentally opposed by both the political culture of the Arab world and the culture of Islam, or alternatively, that it is the particular course of economic development which has had a much more important role in the lack of democratization in the area. Jamal argues that as democracy has flourished in nations like Turkey and Indonesia, it must be a particularly “Arab question” that needs to be answered, and that the answer most likely lies in the lack of an autonomous middle class in the region. Instead, she argues, the region is marked by heavy economic disparity, with some states, particularly oil-rich states, offering their citizens lavish wealth, with other states relying heavily on US aid. For this reason, citizens are wary of political disruption that may prove to change their economic situation in a way that is difficult to predict.
Throughout the talk she discusses the struggles of the region that affect the democratization process, while suggesting new outlooks on these issues and possible solutions. While the interesting points she raises are far to numerous to go into in this forum, anyone with any interest in the important political developments in the region would be well-advised to attend one of her lectures if given the opportunity. In a discussion more often marked by anger, vitriol, and combativeness, it is refreshing and truly educational to see a dialogue between speaker and audience that is measured, intelligent, and respectful.