Kettering Review 2016 online

The 2016 issue of the Kettering Review is now available online here and includes essays by Cornelius Castoriadis, Amartya Sen, Albena Azmanova, Merab Mamardashvili, Asef Bayet, and Elinor Ostrom. Here’s an excerpt of my editor’s letter:

Democracy may now seem mainstream, but at heart it is a radical idea: human beings can create self-governing practices out of nothing but their own aspirations and by their own lights. In other words, they do not need the authority of a god, a sacred text, or a tradition to create something new. The people can found democratic structures by fiat and they need only be accountable to themselves. In the mid-20th century, Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) developed the idea that human beings have the power of imagination to institute something radically new, such as the founding of a country. “In a democracy,” he writes in the essay here, “society does not halt before a conception, given once and for all, of what is just, equal, or free, but rather institutes itself in such a way that the question of freedom, of justice, of equity, and of equality might always be posed anew.”

How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator

A former student wrote to me this morning seeking guidance because, she fears, she is watching democracy crumble before her eyes. Referencing two of the books we read in a course five years earlier, the first by Jeffrey Goldfarb and the second by Jacques Derrida, she writes,

Given the current situation I am looking back on all of our course readings. I no longer feel like The Politics of Small Things or Rogues are theoretical.  Unfortunately I am coming to believe these works are now textbooks with potential guidance for the dangerous state of our democracy.

What else might she read, she asks, and what tactical solutions are there for this situation we are in?

He email made me realize that the little book I’ve been working on recently is more timely than ever, that I need to wrap it up right away, and that I should change the title from Deliberation, Politics, and the Work of Mourning to the more direct, though less sexy, How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator — a phrase I learned from those who led the “No” campaign that got rid of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. I never imagined that I would one day need to invoke this phrase here in the United States, but the election of the authoritarian Donald Trump and the far-right administration he is assembling does change everything. So, let’s ask ourselves, how can the US become a country that will not tolerate a dictator?

At the heart of my book are the key democratic practices I’ve learned from my work in community organizing and public life, from reading a lot of political theory, and from the collaborative research I’ve done with the Kettering Foundation. I borrow shamelessly from all to list the following practices that citizens—everyday people in a complex political society—can and need to take part in for democracy to work.

Not everyone needs to do everything, but in a large decentered society, all the following tasks need to be taken up in one space or another.

First there is the politics of seeing oneself as a citizen, someone whose office includes the overarching work of deciding what kind of communities we want; deciding what direction the political community should take, and what it stands for. I use the word “citizen” as a synonym for those with a sense of political agency—and this can include the undocumented and others with only residency status. This is  the most important office in a democracy: being people who decide what is right and just and ascertain whether their will is being carried out well.  All who are affected by matters of common concern are, to my mind, potential citizens. To be a citizen is to be someone with the sense that what she thinks matters. It also involves having a sense that one can call a meeting if there is an issue needing attention, that she can call on others to join with her in the work. This is the other crucial part of the First Amendment: the right of association. In dark times it is vital that citizens associate with others. Here the mantra is, Organize! Get involved in existing associations, whether they are civic or religious ones, and if there is a gap, create new spaces and organizations for people to come together. To be a citizen, again, is to be someone who can call a meeting.

Second is the task of identifying and thematizing problems. Importantly, it is often citizens and new social movements, not official agencies, that first notice something deeply amiss in the world and then send out alerts. New social movements often serve as what Habermas calls the “sensors” that identify problems not previously noticed. For example, it was citizens and a new renegade environmental movement that, in mid 20th century, began sounding the alarm about environmental degradation. In addition to identifying a problem, such citizen movements give problems a name and thematize or frame how they should be considered, just as young undocumented people in the United States are thematizing themselves as Dreamers. The Dreamers also show how political agency is not just the purview of those with citizenship papers, but belongs to anyone who is willing to take a stand with others.

Third are the ongoing, decentered conversations that take place throughout the public sphere. These are conversations geared toward thinking through, deliberating, and deciding what ought to be done on matters of common concern. These conversations take place informally throughout society, from a taxicab to a high school social studies classroom. Over time these conversations allow people to encounter different points of view and perspectives, work through the trade-offs, pros and cons of various courses of action, develop public knowledge, and decide what ought to be done, that is, develop public will on the matter that can, in turn, steer public policy. Making deliberative choices often involves deeply felt, and not merely cognitive, processes of working through and mourning loss.

Fourth is the task of identifying and committing civic resources, using the energy of communities and citizens to bring about change. Not all public choices call for government actions. This task also picks up on Arendt’s notion of public generative power, that when people come together they can create new potential. Also they can see how to make use of something that has previously gone fallow. For example, with the sustainability movement we are seeing a proliferation of farmers markets, CSAs, and farm to restaurant and to table movements.

Fifth is the task of organizing and engaging in civic actions, which can include holding governments and officials under siege until their actions begin to align with public will. Both social movements and deliberative bodies play a role here. Increasingly citizens are acting in concert on matters of common concern themselves. When officials act contrary to public will, strong democratic publics will hold them accountable. Various legitimation crises have erupted when publics point out discrepancies between public will and public policy. Publics find mechanisms (whether through protest or nullification) to get public will translated into law.

Sixth, is the task of civic learning, which means learning from the past and remaining open to judging how it all went and what could be done differently going forward. This is the antithesis of any “best practices” model. Any citizen can join with others to revisit a matter that others think was already democratically settled. In a democracy, no one should be ruled by decisions made by previous generation.

By seeing these kinds of tasks as central to democratic politics, we can reframe what citizens are doing when they converse and gather together around public issues. They aren’t merely trying to influence politics elsewhere; right where they are, they are creating the public will needed to imagine new futures. We can also see that democratic power is not a vertical relationship between rulers and ruled but a horizontal relationship of citizens associating with others to identify, name, frame, decide, and act on matters of common concern.

These practices don’t necessarily occur in any linear fashion. They are iterative. A first pass through a problem may turn up new unforeseen consequences and problems. This is what is so important about the sixth stage of learning, which I think resonates a bit more clearly in an Arendtian frame, especially her ideas of thinking and judging. Learning is a process of critically reflecting on a state of affairs, internally and collectively practicing the two-in-one back and forth of considering and reconsidering our thoughts about matters, being open to seeing something differently, not reifying some practice or institutions as “just the way it is.” Learning, then, loops back into re-naming and re-framing problems. The policies that a deliberative process may have resulted in may bring about unforeseen consequences that a social movement then names and begins to frame.

These six practices focus on what publics can do, including both social movements and deliberative publics; but they also point to the legitimacy question I mentioned above. If the public in its informal deliberations (what Jane Mansbridge calls “everyday talk”) begins to develop public judgment and will X, but elected officials are operating on notion Y, then the government’s legitimacy comes under question. For ultimately the power and authority of any state in the modern era derives from public will. When the state becomes oblivious to its real source of authority, then it loses its legitimacy and shows itself to be devoid of any authority whatsoever.

Mourning and Organizing in America

Many of us are in mourning, but we need to think strategically about using this moment to change the fundamentals of our political regimes.

Following last night’s electoral college victory, Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. At this moment, the following night, with 99% of precincts reporting, HRC has a popular vote lead of over 200,000. So this morning, easily more than half the country woke up in mourning.

How could nearly half the voting population vote for someone who has been so scurrilous about women, immigrants, religious minorities, the disabled, and so many other people? Do those voting for him share these racist, sexist, and xenophobic views? What does it mean for the country when one half of the people see the other half as enemies of all human decency?

On hearing the returns last night, I fell in a dark well thinking how unthinkable this all was. Trump has shown himself to be a demagogue and a clear danger to democracy. Does this mean that those who voted for him voted for the possibility of a fascist takeover of the country?

I think not.

On reflection I firmly believe that most, though certainly not all, the people who voted for Trump did not do so because they were sexist or racist (though many likely are) but rather because they feel like the political system does not give a damn about them, that they are struggling in some way relative to their circumstances, that the political system is rigged by people with money or in power (and isn’t that true?), and in desperation they voted for someone who seemed to get this DESPITE his bigoted views. I think these people made a terrible mistake, but I get it. If we on the left want to insist that half the country is purely bigoted then we will never get anywhere. The good news, if there is any, is that finally in this country most people are fed up with the oligarchy. We need to take this an opportunity to create a different kind of politics, or at least alternative political parties. The DNC and the RNC are both corrupt institutions.

The common denominator between many on the left and many who voted for Trump is this: precarity. Our neoliberal politics in an era of globalization does not give a wit about the plight of working and unemployed people — and it won’t offer them any opportunity to change the game. We have, for the most part, democracy in name only. The reality is this current anti-political national and global regime. It is anti-political in that economic mantras substitute for any real deliberative choice about how polities should proceed. Those who voted for Trump, I believe, were terribly naive that Trump’s reign would change any of this; but I do appreciate their desire to make the system more accountable to their lived reality.

Instead of demonizing all those who voted for Trump as bigots, we on the left need to appreciate that, while some may have been horribly bigoted, likely most are potential allies in calling for and creating more democratic and responsive political institutions. Yes, this is a dark time. Yes, this is a time for mourning. But also this is a time for organizing.

It’s time to make connections between those on the left and the right who feel that the system is impervious to their concerns — just as this Saturday Night Live skit brilliantly did. It is time to work on developing new political parties that are more responsive to people’s lived reality — and less responsive to corporate interests. It is time to develop political practices that are more participatory and inclusive. It is time to rescind laws that allow big dollars to subvert democratic life. It is time to increase opportunities for all who have been sidelined from political practice.

At this Trump moment, there are a lot of opportunities to take the disgruntlement that brought in Trump and use it to build a bigger tent for more democracy. If we just use the moment to demonize the other side, we squander this opportunity.


Humanity & the Refugee: Another Stab at Universal Human Rights

I had the great pleasure of giving a keynote address today to the North American Society for Social Philosophy. Here’s how it starts and a few excerpts….

“The minimal definition of humanity, the zero degree of humanity, to borrow and expression from Barthes, is precisely hospitality.”  —Julia Kristeva


Writing in his curious little book of 1967, The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan noted that with the new invention of the television we were thrown into a world of radical new responsibility for each other. The television had turned the world into a global village. All those other people I could previously ignore? Now I turn on the television and they are in my living room. “Our new environment compels commitment and participation,” McLuhan writes. “We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other” (McLuhan and Fiore, 24). Nearly fifty years later, as refugees pile up at borders of nations that are becoming increasingly xenophobic and nationalist, this technological determinism seems hardly warranted. For all our new media, millions of people around the world are bereft.

Statistics on the Refugee Crisis

According to the United Nations High Committee for Refugees ( , the world over,

  • 5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, that is, one in every 122 people in the world
  • Of these 59.5 million people, 38 million have been displaced within their own country and the rest are refugees or seeking asylum abroad
  • 5 million people are registered refugees, 51% of whom are under 18
  • every day 42,500 people are forced to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution, and
  • Additionally, according to the UNHCR, 10 million people are stateless, meaning, they have been “denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement”
  • During 2014, only 126,800 refugees were able to safely return to their country of origin. This was the lowest number since 1983.
  • 3 million people live in what the UNHCR deems a protracted situation, that is, a situation in which 25,000 or more refugees of the same nationality have been in exile in the same country for at least five years trying to get asylum.

On average, a refugee will spend 17 years as such, possibly spending as many as 25 years there.


In this paper I take up the questions of (1) how the refugee crisis exhibits the fault lines in what is an otherwise robust human rights regime and (2) what kinds of ways of seeing and thinking might better attune us to solving these problems. There is surprising agreement internationally the content of human rights, though, as I’ll discuss, there is a huge gulf between international agreements on human rights and their actual protection. The subtitle of my talk, “another stab at universal rights” has a double entendre: In the midst of a crisis that is stabbing international agreements on human rights to its core, I will take a stab at using the crisis situation to point a way forward toward a cosmopolitan social imaginary that uses human imagination, not just as an ability to represent in one’s mind what one has seen elsewhere, but also as an ability to imagine something radically new, something entirely different from what already exists, like the end of racism or democracy throughout the Middle East. Not too long ago, envisioning marriage equality called for such an imaginary.[1] Imagination is indeed powerful, perhaps even more than our technologies.

A cosmopolitan social imaginary is not a new thing, but the shape it takes now is new. In ancient times it took the form of identification with human beings as such; in early Christianity cosmopolitanism meant an understanding of all people being God’s creatures; and in modernity it was a matter of all having the same kind of rational nature. These were various views of how, despite ethnic and national differences, no matter how foreign someone else seemed, there was something that connected us all. Today’s cosmopolitanism, I venture, grows out of a political imaginary of a global world, inaugurated in part with the television and with that first photo of the earth taken from space in 1968 and published on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue, which profoundly shaped popular consciousness, literally showing the world without borders.[2]

But this image is not enough, nor are all the screens in our world. A cosmopolitan imaginary is in part an effect of ways of seeing, not just what we see but how we see it, what our vantage point is (vertical? horizontal?) and how we see ourselves relating to what we see.[3] ….

Refugees, stateless and exiled, interned in camps, living in states of extremity, waiting for months and even years to be taken in by a host country, are denied their own humanity. And this is not only or mainly because of deplorable living conditions, however dreadful, but because they are boing denied their right to politics.[1]

Even if and when they are taken in, more is to be done. So long as they are treated as foreigners and not as members, I argue, they are denied their humanity. To live in a society without full membership in that society, including the political capacity to shape it, means being alienated from others and from one’s own humanity.

This is not just a problem for the refugee but for anyone with second-class status in a country, including those who hold green cards in the United States as well as ex-felons who are denied the right to vote. Living in a society that does not allow them equal standing to shape that society’s direction is flatly undemocratic and inhumane. [Insert discussion of the figure of the migrant; refer to the argument in the book of this name and point out that the migrant is a figure much broader than the refugee, something much more widespread, and for whom the right to politics is increasingly endangered.]

This way of putting the matter only deepens the Arendtian paradox. Qua refugee, a living being has no humanity and no political opportunity. To the extent that human rights are rights that humans can have, the refugee is not the kind of subject we can fathom as having any rights at all — unless, that is, we see the performative and relational dimensions of humanity. Unless we performatively recognize and treat the refugee as human with full political rights, we are all stripped of our own humanity.

A fundamental human right that is insufficiently enshrined in international law is, as I will explain shortly, the right to politics, a right that under neoliberalism is under attack even for full-fledged citizens of democratic nation-states, but is completely denied to refugees, those in asylum, and even those with full resident status.

On the Meaning of Humane

I would like to attempt to solve the Arendtian paradox by focusing on the meaning of “human” in both the phrase “universal human rights” and in the history of philosophy. While the term human has been used horribly, often to exclude those rendered less than human, there is in the word a germ of possibility, especially if we think of human as an achievement, a kind of activity and disposition, and not as a being with given attributes. That is, human is not a category of beings but a way of being. The distinction is similar to Heidegger’s distinction between ontic and ontological. I am not interested in the ontic understanding of the human being but of an ontological understanding of what it means to be human.

The word “humane” helps; for in it we can hear its relational and dispositional meaning in three ways. First, one is not humane by oneself but always in relation to some other creature. One might be humane one moment and inhumane the next. It is not a static category or anything remotely like an essential attribute. I want to argue that being human is like that. If we find out that someone we know takes pleasure in torturing puppy dogs, our estimation of that person will certainly change: from human to monster. Our humanity is an achievement that can be sundered by our failure to act humanely.

Second, we treat others humanely when we think that they have some kind of dignity, even if it’s the dignity of a pet gerbil. We treat some creature humanely when we realize that it is not just a thing for our own pleasure but a creature that should in some way, however meager, live for itself. So our own humanity is relational, dependent on extending humanity to others.

So, third, intrinsic to the idea of what is humane is the Kantian notion that others are ends in themselves and for themselves and that they should decide their own ends.

Behaving humanely toward another is a way of acknowledging the dignity of the object of our attentions; but more so it speaks volumes about our own humanity. We think of those who treat other creature inhumanely as less than human themselves. The sociopath is a strangely inhuman creature, lacking the ethical sensibility that seems so central to others. So I venture to say that to be human is to acknowledge the humanity of others. And to be in a world in which all are acting humanely is to be given the special gift to be an end for oneself and to decide one’s own ends. (I think this is what Kant meant by a kingdom of ends.) Political communities that acknowledge all its members their rights of collective self-determination humanely treat people as human. Political communities that deny any of its members the prerogative of self-determination are forgoing the humanity of some of their members as well as their own humanity.

[1] Footnote essays by Albena Azmanova.

… to be continued in a future book….

Brexit’s Cautionary Tale for Democracy

I’m one of those democratic theorists who believes there are no right answers. By that I mean that there are no timeless truths that the will of the people will either grok or not. There is no epistemic gauge of whether people get it right or not. Contra Plato’s reactionary stance against democracy, I think that—under the right circumstances—people can measure and decide what ought to be done on a case by case basis. In other words, what is right is not something separate from public judgment but something that emerges from it.

But under the right circumstance—and by this I have long meant in an open and fair and inclusive process with opportunity to deliberate and consider multiple points of view. The more such conditions are in place, the better I think the outcomes are. And by “better” I mean what works best for all involved, and I mean all, not just the majority.

But with the news that 52% of the British people voted to exit the European Union, I can’t help but think they got this massively wrong. Do I think they got it wrong because their answer was wrong? According to what I said, that would be nonsense. Did they get it wrong because the opportunities for full and open deliberation were truncated? Now, there’s the rub. I don’t think so. Surely the discussion in the British media was open and robust. Surely all had an opportunity to offer their views, if not in mainstream media then surely in social media.

But I still want to say they got it wrong—simply because the results are catastrophic for Britain’s own welfare and because of the xenophobic and reactionary politics it has confirmed. So am I a Platonist after all?

I hope not!

Perhaps more needs to be added to “under the right circumstances” than the Habermasian litany of an ideal speech situation. There is also the need to deal with unconscious fears, paranoid projections, and infantile regressions that increasingly multicultural and globalized phenomena elicit. It’s no coincidence that this Brexit came on the heels of the refugee and debt crises emanating from the South. While the EU’s response to these has hardly been ideal, in fact it has been awful, but it has at least been a response rather than a complete shut down and reversal of any responsibility. Clearly the British people in the non-urban, non-Scottish, non-Northern Ireland, parts of Great Britain think even this response was too much.

So they vote to leave, complete with fantasies that now they will be stronger, that they will determine their own future, and they can take back their country from all these marauders.

What if, before the vote, there had been a way to address straight on these fears and fantasies? Imagine a series of deliberative forums for the last six months throughout the country on these issues where citizens would have to squarely face other people’s perspectives and the likely consequences of their own views. When a country is on the verge of making such a major and largely unalterable decision, that whole country should engage in some serious deliberation about its idealizations and fantasies—and the ramifications of its choices. Now they’ll have to deal with this all in real time.


There is nothing safe about democracy

Recently my university has gotten caught up in a brouhaha about a supposed chalk controversy, with many Latino and Muslim students taken aback by “Trump 16” chalkings across campus and, supposedly, the university caving in to their fear and terror over political sloganeering. The dichotomy being portrayed is democracy versus “safe spaces.”

There is some truth to students wanting Emory to be a Trump-free zone, given that Trump regularly demonizes and literally wants to extrude many of those living here, which would include a significant portion of our student body.  Who wouldn’t be a bit terrorized by that? And, yes, these students did march to the president’s office requesting some response from the university to address their concerns about the climate and policies on campus. Yes.

And, yes, the president did respond to their concerns in an email to the whole Emory community,

As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest. At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry. It is important that we recognize, listen to, and honor the concerns of these students, as well as faculty and staff who may feel similarly.

Many in the press are claiming that the Emory administration is caving into “coddled” students demands, but I don’t see a trade-off between free speech and creating a good culture for open inquiry. Students are free to express their concerns. The university is free to help foster open inquiry.

But the aim for a “safe” environment is misbegotten. There is nothing safe about democracy. In fact, as we’re finding now in these days of Trump, democracy can be horrifying: what if the mass of people make a disastrous and unjust choice? Yes, that’s always a possibility.  At least we’ve got a bill of rights, however weak, to do some protection against demagogues.

But the search for safety runs right up against and contradicts the search for rule by the people. Democracy always teeters on the unknown and it can never tether itself to the certain and true, for these words are meaningless when “what is to be done” is “whatever the people decide.” Yes, this is frightening. No safe space will help. Instead we all need to be more courageous and step up, even if in the short run that means aiming a waterhose at the Trump chalkings, and the next day holding a rally about why you did so.

epistemic deliberative theory

Advocates of epistemic deliberative democracy point to deliberations’ propensity to track the truth.  Could someone please explain to me what truth there is to track on political matters, which by their very nature are political because no one can agree on a truth that would adjudicate the matter? This seems folly from top to bottom.

Richard Rorty 1997 on Democracy and Philosophy

When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s, I was an occasional guest host on a public affairs program of the local PBS station. In 1997 I interviewed the philosopher Richard Rorty.

This afternoon, with the help of Emory graduate student Karen McCarthy, I finally got around to digitizing it. Then we uploaded it to YouTube.  It’s kind of eery watching it again.  So many of the issues Rorty and I discussed are still with us today in the clash of cultures between religion and secularism, attempts at democratization in the Middle East versus the Taliban, and the near-impossibility of finding a way to adjudicate between our differences.  Rorty stuck by his position that we can never really get outside our culture and history to adjudicate anything, yet at the same time he appealed to notions of “better” and “worse” that could be understood through stories we tell ourselves.  I wasn’t satisfied with that then, and I’m still not now.  But maybe that is simply because there is no philosophical panacea that could ever be satisfying and, in the end, we are really just left, rather bereft, with our ability to tell compelling stories. Rorty at one point appealed to the occasional geniuses like Jefferson and Jesus and Socrates (a weird troika) who, perhaps struck by a cosmic ray, could move us forward.  Then and now this appeal to genius is hardly helpful. But I think I get what he was saying — that the occasional fluke could get us out of our constituting context.  At the very end I bring up a piece he had written the year before for the New York Times on what might happen in the future in America, the future, specifically 2014 and 2015.  So it is a fascinating kind of time travel to watch this interview now, from here in the future.

Ziad Majed on the Middle East & Democracy

An Interview with Ziad Majed

To get a better perspective on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East, GonePublic’s author, Noelle McAfee, interviewed Lebanese intellectual and activist Ziad Majed, who has been working with other Arab researchers and activists for the past ten years to elaborate a regional democracy agenda. More recently he helped found the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy, which brings together researchers and activists from Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco to study democratic transitions and raise democratic awareness. Majed left Lebanon in September 2005 and now teaches Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Paris. He regularly visits Beirut and other Arab capitals.

Noelle McAfee: How might — or might not — the year 2011 be the Middle Eastern equivalent to Eastern Europe’s 1989?

Ziad Majed: We can definitely consider that 2011 in the Arab World is comparable to 1989 in Eastern Europe. Popular uprisings are overthrowing despotic regimes, hopes for freedom and dignity are unifying men and women from different cities and social classes, and a wind of change is blowing through the whole region.

In that sense, one can say that the fall of the “wall of fear” in most of the Arab countries today is equivalent to the fall of the “wall of Berlin” 21 or 22 years ago.

Nevertheless, the international context is different and many characteristics of the regimes in question are also different (while Eastern European regimes adopted “soviet socialism” economically, regimes in Egypt and Tunisia for instance have been through economic liberalization for more than four decades now). In addition, democratic transitions might take longer in the Arab World as the political processes, the socio-economic challenges and the regional situation are more complex.

NM: You know, the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe varied according to what kind of history and memory of civil society the various countries had — with Eastern Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia having a great deal, but Romania having very little.  The Romanians executed their leaders, whereas the other revolutions proceeded peaceably. The more history of civil society, the better the revolutions fared, during and afterwards. Are there any lessons here for the Arab world?

ZM: There are lots of lessons from Eastern Europe and from Latin America for the Arab World.

Police states, terror, censorship, corruption, the cult of personality (for rulers) were and are common trends in many of the regimes in question and understanding ways in which they were deconstructed in the different Eastern European cases is very useful for Arab democracy activists in the current phase.

What might be crucial, however, in influencing transitions in the present Arab situation — more than the history of civil society and its level of development — is the degree of social cohesion in the concerned country. Whenever a despotic regime relies on a sectarian or tribal basis, overthrowing it peacefully becomes difficult due to the fact that the clientelist networks and the military/police ones that the regime built are concentrated in this sectarian/tribal basis, and its members consider themselves directly threatened by the regime change. This is the case in many Levant and Gulf countries (and in Libya), while it was less the case in Egypt and Tunisia. In other words, countries with deep vertical divisions might confront more challenges than those with horizontal ones.

NM:  Many observers worry about religious extremism in the Middle East, thinking that a secular dictator might be better than an Islamist state. But of course the United States. has many religious fundamentalists vying for political power, or at least for their religious values to shape public law. Is this an apt comparison?  In your view, does Islam pose a different kind of challenge for democracy in the Middle East than Christianity does in the West?

ZM: There are three levels that need to be addressed while answering this question.

The first concerns the fact that the argument about “preferring” secular dictators to an elected Islamist party or to an Islamic revolution appeared as a “Western” political stance only after the Iranian revolution in 1979. This contradicted a long US/western “trend” that supported for instance the Islamic Saudi Arabia in its confrontation with the secular Nasser of Egypt (during the inter-Arab rivalry years and the cold war context), and the Islamist Ziya ul-Haq in Pakistan in his coup against the secular Ali Boto. It also contradicts the continuous support to Saudi Arabia – a country where religion supposedly rules over the state and the society — until this moment.

Moreover, this same logic led to the support of Saddam’s Iraq in the war against Iran (from 1980 to 1988) that killed more than a million people on both sides and that politically consolidated both regimes in Baghdad and in Tehran. The consequences are still ongoing…

The second is that those who are considered “secular dictators” contributed to the “Islamization” of their societies for different reasons, among them: Islam as a political identity became a refuge for many of those marginalized or excluded from the political and economic arenas; the dictators and their regimes had — each time their legitimacies were questioned — to show that they were the “real” Muslims (more Muslims than the Islamists), allowing thus censorship by religious institutions in the name of Islam to hit many cultural events and to reduce all margins of secular thinking. Dictators also allowed religious social networks (that do not adopt political positions) to expand in order to attract lower classes and bring them away from Islamist groups (those who have political agendas).

One can already see (from movies, books, newspapers, and social “taboos”) that religious conservatism progressed in most countries where regimes played (and blackmailed) on this false equation: “secular dictatorships or radical Islamists.”

Third, it is not true that democratic transformation in the Arab World will automatically see the Islamist movements on the rise. Neither is it true that these groups all look the same. They are groups with different backgrounds, agendas, priorities and organizational structures. They are nevertheless there, more organized than others, with more resources, with simple slogans and lots of promises, and at the same time with few concrete political, financial and economic proposals. They might play important political roles, but they will be competing with other old or emerging secular groups, with a young generation of men and women thirsty for jobs, for freedoms, and in touch with the World through the Internet, social networks and satellite TV that no one can control. They will have to run for elections, to please voters and to know that people discovered their way to the streets, to the public space where they can demonstrate and express their opposition to any policy that they do not approve, and no one will be capable of forcing them back home.

Therefore, without denying the fact that political Islam (in its different forms and schools of thought) is a serious challenge in most Arab countries, I think that Islamists in general are not the alternative to despotism, and they will only be strong political tendencies or currents among others.

As for comparing Islam to Christianity or to other religions when it comes to coexisting with (or challenging) democracy, I personally do not believe in culturalistic approaches, nor in civilizational cleavages. There are historical contexts and economic developments that shape peoples and their cultures. I think the Arab-Islamic geography where one empire has been brutally replacing the other for centuries now, oil and rentier economies that dominated modern formation of Arab States, and patriarchal-tribal social structures that survived many transformations have together influenced our societies more than Islam. They weakened citizenship, individual freedoms, work and production ethics, marginalized women and substituted transparency and accountability with a distribution of wealth based on loyalty and primordial ties. Military coup d’etats and despotism, conflicts, occupation and wars all continued to shape this Islamic/Arab saga in last decades. Decadent interpretations of Islam constitute in that perspective only one reflection of a severe malaise in our societies following its different failures. And of course, any religious discourse can create more impact on people due to the “symbolic capital” a religion carries, and to the fact that it deals with intimate beliefs and collective emotions.

NM: Conceptually, can a religious people have a secular state? Does Turkey pose a good model, one that might work in other predominantly-Muslim countries?

ZM: The Turkish model is becoming more and more a reference for many Islamists in the Arab World. Turkey’s AKP party in power today has a Muslim brotherhood background, the same as most of the largest Islamist parties in Arab countries (overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim societies). I think a compromise is possible, and it will depend on the balance of power that democratic secular groups would be able to impose in the long political processes to come, so that no attempts by any group (including the military) at monopolizing power would be possible.

It is important to add here, and this is also related to the previous question, that the Arab and Islamic political literature from what was called the renaissance era – in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – carries brilliant texts on religious reforms, on rejecting religious and political despotism, on women’s rights and on citizenship. They present within the Islamic scene the best response to obscurantist discourses and groups.  People like Al-Afghani, Mohamad Abdo, Al-Kawakibi, Ali Abdel Razek, and Kassem Amin left a great heritage that many Muslim scholars, like the late Nasr Hamed Abou Zeid of Egypt, further developed in recent years. Their work should be revisited today and better presented to new generations.

NM: Thank you, Ziad.

After Nonviolent Protest…

As nonviolent protest rolls across the Middle East—now in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran—we see governments convulsing and fighting back, violently, but in a way that shows their ultimate lack of power. Today’s New York Time’s reports on how the quiet American intellectual, Gene Sharp, took Gandhi’s ideas and compiled them into a primer on nonviolent protest. One lesson he takes is that nonviolence is a good pragmatic tactic. “If you fight with violence,” Sharp told the NYT, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.”  Alas, even with nonviolent protest, there are still many brave and dead heroes these past few weeks, 365 in Egypt alone. Still, nonviolence  is probably the most effective method for it hits autocrats where they are most vulnerable, unveiling their complete and utter lack of popular support and legitimacy and ultimately deposing them.

A couple of years ago I met with some of the staff of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which has its roots in Gene Sharp’s work.  The work they are doing is great and important, but I wonder:  What happens after the revolution? If nonviolent protesters remain in the posture of beseechers rather than as actors, they will remain supplicants, begging whoever steps into power for higher wages, more freedom, and a better life.

Autocratic regimes treat “their people” as subjects not citizens. Over generations, it’s easy to take that lesson to heart, to become a supplicant rather than one who with others creates a new world. Subjects may rise up nonviolently, but sustainable change won’t happen until subjects turn themselves into citizens.