After 2011: Making Citizens in a Dangerous World
by Eric Brown
February 3rd, 2012
A version of these remarks was presented at the conference “Liberty, Democracy and the New Realities of the Middle East and North Africa,” which took place at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani on November 24-25, 2011.
After 2011: Making Citizens in a Dangerous World
Eric Brown, Hudson Institute
The revolutions and popular uprisings which have ripped across the Middle East since the beginning of 2011—and which are still very much underway—have had very different origins, and each of them may, in time, give way to very different futures. But they have been unanimous and undeniably clear in their rejection of the repressive and corrupt authoritarianism which has dominated political life in many parts of the Arabic-speaking world over the last half of a century.
A new political order is coming into being in the Middle East; but what will it look like?
In important respects, Revolution will likely prove far easier than what lies ahead. Right now, the emerging polities here in the Middle East which have come through their revolutions are grappling with an altogether more difficult, yet crucially important political task—defining not what the revolutions have been against, but what they will be for.
This question, to say the very least, is an open-ended one, and has generated enormous fear as well as hope in the Middle East and elsewhere. In the clamor to make sense of what’s happened, Western commentators have frequently compared 2011 with two other profound political transformations of recent memory: The 1989 revolutions, which freed a large swathe of the globe from Soviet Tyranny and brought democracy to Eastern Europe, and the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which brought to power a totalitarian theocracy which menaces its people and the peoples of this region to this very day.
Right now, we can see an open contest between anti-democratic as well as modernizing and some liberalizing forces, but the new norms and patterns of political life have yet to take shape. The situation in Egypt looks especially bleak, and there’s little right now which appears capable of reversing the slow-motion disintegration of that country’s economic and security situation. Important elements of the region’s Old Order are also still clinging to life. In nearby Syria, the Assad regime has thus far managed to brutally suppress the uprisings against it. We can expect that Damascus’s backers in Tehran will try to seize upon 2011’s turbulence and redouble its efforts to impress its own designs on the region. Suffice it to say, 2011’s full import will not be known for some time to come.
Thanks to the uncertainty of the situation, some have compared the 2011 revolutions with the upheavals which rocked the states of Central Europe over 150 years ago, in the year 1848. The parallels between 1848 Central Europe and 2011 Middle East are indeed quite striking. In both, economic distress and public fury over a corrupt and anachronistic political order ignited a broad-based revolutionary movement which heralded in a new age of populist politics shaped by contending nationalist, liberal, as well as more radical and utopian aspirations. Both 1848 and 2011 have thus been described, and I think rightly so, as “Springtimes of Peoples.”
There are two other reasons why I think the comparison between 2011 and 1848 is apt, both of which will bear upon my remarks today. The first is that, within the context of European History, and specifically, the history of Central Europe, 1848 was a watershed year in a complex and profound process which had begun in the wider Western world with the recovery of classical Greek and Roman political thought by the thinkers of the Renaissance era and the early modern proponents of republican government.
This process culminated in the formulation of an expressly modern and democratic concept of citizenship rooted in the ideal of Self-Government. Of course, it was the American Republic, founded in 1776, which was the first regime to put this modern concept of the self-governing citizen into practice—and, even then, the freedoms and responsibilities of full citizenship were extended to only a select group of men, not to American society as a whole. Yet what the revolts of 1848 helped to show, as the commentators and sociologists of mid-nineteenth century Europe took note, was that democratic Self-Government wasn’t merely the ideal of a far-flung peoples in North America, but increasingly a universal aspiration.
In my view, the 2011 revolutions prove that the Middle East is now integrally, perhaps irreversibly, part of the universal discussion about liberty and democracy, and this may, in time, contribute to the successful transitions of the many polities within this region toward greater freedom and Self-Government. As the Moroccan philosopher Abdou Filali-Ansary observed recently in the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2011 Lipset Lecture, “democracy has become the implicit religion of humanity.”
The second aspect of the 1848 revolutions which bears on what I wish to discuss today is the fact that Central Europe’s revolutions ultimately failed. The democratic order which liberal republicans struggled to create in Central Europe rather swiftly collapsed beneath the weight of irreconcilable disputes and the popular temptations of utopian and radical political ideas. Not only was the Old Order able to re-assert itself, but the populism of the era soon gave way to new ideological trends—to romanticism and communism, for example—which subsequently became the wellspring of the totalitarianisms of Right and Left that ravaged the world politics of the twentieth century, the bloodiest and the most depraved century in all of history.
In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that the Middle East of 2011 is condemned to more years of war, revolution and sectarian strife. This future is certainly possible; indeed, a great deal of what we see today on the ground suggests it is even likely. But this region isn't condemned to modern Europe’s fate.
I say this, rather, to underscore a point: That democracy is an enormously difficult societal achievement that can be tough to hold onto—especially in a “Springtime of Peoples” like our present one, with all the passions and ideological zeal which it has unleashed. The progress of human freedom in this part of the world, just as everywhere else, will be well-served by a healthy skepticism informed by the tragedy of history, and by a deep awareness of the real and abiding dangers which lie ahead.
Today, I wish to offer a few reflections on something that will be indispensable to the development of genuine prosperity and democracy in the Arabic-speaking world after the 2011 revolutions. That is the work of “making citizens”—and specifically, of cultivating individual citizens who have the capacity to build a free and prosperous democratic order in what is, frankly, a very dangerous and unforgiving part of the world which is notoriously hostile to liberal democratic principles and ideas.
Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the challenges of making citizens have largely been neglected by the proponents of democracy in this region, as well as by their many supporters in the West. Making citizens has, for example, been brushed aside as merely of secondary importance to, say, the formation of political parties, or the holding of free and fair elections. Clearly, parties and elections are essential for political representation; neither one of them, however, are sufficient on their own to create a democratic order and sustain it. Even more, the future of all of these essential democratic pursuits and their ultimate success will be intimately connected with progress in the development of democratic citizenship, and therefore, with the work of making citizens.
What is a citizen? We could easily draw up a list of traits which we all can agree are desirable for citizens to possess—honesty and trustworthiness, industriousness, a willingness to defend one’s country, and so on. Yet for the democratic citizen, there is one quality even more essential than these or other traits. We can say the democratic citizen is neither a subject nor a tyrant, but a person capable of the democratic ideal of Self-Government. Self-Government refers not only to the freedom to express one’s will politically, but also the capacity and willingness to take civic and political responsibility for one’s own actions. Democratic citizenship thus requires exercising one’s freedom so as not to become a subject, as well as restraining one’s own self so as not to tyrannize over others.
At a bare minimum, we can say that a democratic citizen is someone who possesses not only rights and freedom and the capacity to exercise and safeguard them, but someone who is responsible to his or her fellow citizens and who doesn’t infringe upon their rights and freedoms. Citizens care not only for their freedom, but also for the freedoms of others.
The vital importance of a people’s character and of citizenship to democracy was well-understood by America’s Founders. The founders understood that human beings were capable of decent and noble things—as well as enormous depravity. Part of their genius was to devise a constitutional system of government based on this realistic assessment of human nature and the fact that, as James Madison put it, people are not “angels.”
But Madison, among others, also understood that democratic Self-Government—the most noble and ennobling form of government—required certain human qualities and virtues. Thus, as The Federalist 55 says: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
What Madison understood was that democracy needs and can only thrive if it has citizens; in fact, the more democratic and free a regime is, the more it depends on the character and the virtues of the people and their capacity to engage in Self-Government.
Now, as I’ve suggested, democratic citizens need to be “made”—which is to say, citizens need to be cultivated, shaped, and educated by Society and Culture at-large. Nowhere, for example, may we find a naturally-occurring citizen. The fact is, while all human beings have an inherent desire to be free, humankind is by nature almost always a subject; the most ruthless, the most willful—or perhaps merely the luckiest—will become tyrants. Moreover, because most human societies throughout history have not been democracies, we can say that democratic citizenship is a truly uncommon, even exceptional, achievement.
A democracy’s lifeblood derives from its capacity, its prowess, and its talents at making citizens. Given the inevitable passing of the generations, cultivating citizens is by its nature the very long, and always unfinished work of a democratic society. Indeed, we can say the unique responsibilities and demands placed on one generation to cultivate the citizens of the next and secure the future of Self-Government is the very stuff of which a Democratic Tradition is made. Thomas Jefferson, for example, worried about how Epicureanism and the immoderate pursuit of pleasure and material things could corrupt the republican virtues which democracy requires. In the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville worried about how a democratic citizenry’s growing dependencies on a central, all-encompassing welfare state weakened their desire and capacity to govern themselves, thus threatening to make them subjects. Today, these concerns are still central to the political and cultural debate in the United States, and American citizens ignore them at their own peril.
By this account, one might be tempted to say that “cultivated citizenship” is a practice which belongs principally to mature or well-established democracies. Over the last year here in Iraq, I’ve participated in a series of roundtable discussions on building civil society (sponsored by the International Republican Institute) with Iraqi politicians, ulama, tribal shaykhs, and educators who care for their country’s future, but who commonly point to the fact that Iraq’s transition to democracy faces far more urgent tasks than cultivating citizens—the challenges, for example, of reining in sectarianism, establishing a culture of lawfulness, and of growing the national economy.
All of these issues and others are, indeed, vital for Iraq, just as they are to any democracy—regardless of how mature or developed it is. But the successful pursuit of these and other public and democratic goods is inextricably bound up with the character and capacities of the people who pursue them. As such, all democracies, even developing ones, require institutions devoted to the cultivation of a citizenry capable of responsible civic and political action.
Before 2011, tyranny in the Arabic-speaking world managed to maintain itself in power for so many decades not simply by repression and the Muhkhabarat, but because it was actively involved in making subjects. Tyranny implemented, for example, a system of rote education which suppressed critical thought (serious study of the liberal arts—especially of history, the humanities and social sciences—has been virtually absent in this region for decades); at the university level, education’s sole purpose wasn’t for Self-Government, but for the aggrandizement of the authoritarian state’s power. Tyranny also suppressed whatever form of religion it could not co-opt for its own purposes, and it also created economic and other kinds of social dependencies on a ruling class.
In this atmosphere, political and intellectual life, and all the things which make up “Civil Society” as a whole, naturally fell into decay. Arab intellectuals complained incessantly about the intractable “malaise” of the people, but offered few practical fixes to this state of affairs. With no freedom to take responsibility for their circumstances, what came to dominate the political and ideological life in many parts of this region was rage, anger and hatred—hatred for the regime, hatred for others, hatred for the West which was, invariably, blamed for the intractable nature of the region’s problems. Ordinary people had few meaningful political choices—save acquiescing to the autocratic order, or dissenting from it through the embrace of politicized religion, which promised the utopian alternative of an “Islamic State.” Not surprisingly, Islamism’s ranks only grew over the last twenty years the more ideologically and economically bankrupt the region’s autocracies became.
After 2011, many of the autocrats in this region have fallen. But they’ve left behind shattered civil societies, a culture of dependency on the State—and, far darker, something which the Najaf-based scholar Naema al-Ebadi, has powerfully described as a “Tyranny Culture” which still exerts its influence over people’s minds and souls, creating subjects who are slaves to their passions, their ignorance, and their hatreds. This Tyranny Culture, we can be certain, has already produced a new cohort of actively aspiring tyrants. Overcoming this Tyranny Culture will be crucial if the societies in this region are to rebuild and create for themselves a better future. I think Radwan Sayyid, a professor at the Lebanese University in Beirut, captured this dilemma brilliantly when he said in The New York Times: “The problem now is not how you can destroy something, how you can resist something, it’s how can you build something new—a new state, a new authority, a new relationship between the public and leadership, a new civil society.”
Put another way, we can say the core problem for democratic politics in the Middle East after 2011 will be undoing the shackles of Tyranny Culture, and starting the work of making citizens.
This work will be profoundly difficult, but it will also be vital if the new politics in this region are to be set firmly on a more democratic course. To illustrate the importance of cultivating citizens for transitions to democracy, it is useful to consider Indonesia’s experience. With a population of 240 million souls, Indonesia is the world’s largest predominantly Muslim country. It is also religiously and culturally enormously diverse, much like the Arabic-speaking world. Indonesia began its democratic transition in 1998, under conditions of severe economic distress and alarming political turmoil. At the time, there were dire predictions that the country would disintegrate into faction and civil war. Indeed, Indonesia had experienced bouts of horrific ethno-religious violence, and international opinion held these clashes would only intensify without a dictatorial power to hold the country together.
Today, Indonesia is still very much a democratic work in progress. But it is also model of democracy—both for Asia, and I would argue, for the wider Islamic world. Much has contributed to this achievement, and there are also a number of practical lessons which those in the Middle East might draw from Indonesia’s experience.
Indonesia’s democracy leaders, including the late philosopher Nurcholish Madjid, were intimately aware of how religion could be corrupted by politics, and by how religiously-based politics were inherently susceptible to faction. They were thus keen on separating religion and politics, a sentiment which came to be popularly expressed in the 1990s democracy movement in the slogan “Islam, Yes! Islamic Parties, No!”. Indonesia’s pro-democracy leaders also understood the importance of political prudence, especially when dealing with festering disputes among Indonesia’s diverse peoples and between the new regime and remnants of the Old Order. To keep the peace, and to hold their country together, it was better to kick some of these disputes down the road—and to focus people’s attentions instead on economic development, a public good which everyone could agree upon. You can’t count on economic growth to erase the most serious constitutional disputes, but it might render them more manageable for future generations to deal with constructively.
A few years ago, when I was in Jakarta conducting research, I met one afternoon with Abdurrahman Wahid, who became in 1998 the first democratically elected President of Indonesia. Before entering national politics, he was the head of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization with upwards of 80 million members. While his presidency has been judged poorly, it was Mr. Wahid’s religious and civic leadership, and specifically his tireless efforts at building institutions whose purpose was the making of Indonesian citizens, which became indispensible to his country’s ongoing democratic transition.
One of the things I asked President Wahid was what he thought was the single greatest threat to Indonesian democracy. His reply was simple and profound, and upon further reflection, I also think revealing of how crucial he believed civic and political responsibility was to democratic development. President Wahid said the greatest threat to Indonesia’s democracy was “hatred of Chinese.”
By this, President Wahid was referring to the deep-seated hatred which many Indonesians held toward their own country’s ethnically Chinese minorities. The country had experienced episodes of mass anti-Chinese violence, some of which had been perpetrated by President Wahid’s own organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama. The Chinese were habitually blamed for the country’s ills: Nationalists suspected them as political subversives; Islamists and conservative Muslims saw them as corrupting the country’s “Islamic character”; and since the Chinese minority was, as a group, relatively more economically successful than others groups, an even greater body of Indonesians detested them simply because of envy or jealousy.
Demagogues had exploited such popular prejudices and hatreds in the past—creating what Tocqueville called “Tyrannies of the Majority”—and Mr. Wahid understood they could do so in the future. More fundamentally, he understood that when a group of people blames another group for their own circumstances they have failed to take responsibility for the improvement of their own lives and societies, and they’ve thus effectively abandoned their obligations as citizens. Few things, I’d argue, could be more damaging to the development of a prosperous democracy and Self-Government than this kind of moral and political failure.
There is a terrific book on modern Indonesian history, aptly titled Civil Islam, by the American scholar Robert Hefner, which I’d urge all of you to read. It describes the important role that Mr. Wahid and other religious leaders played in Indonesia’s democracy movement, and in actively promoting a new ethic of political responsibility as a way of preempting ethno-religious conflict and runaway anti-democratic populism. Even though President Wahid has passed away, those citizens influenced by his teachings continue to work through a country-wide network of pesantren, or Islamic schools, to teach civics and the obligations of pluralist democracy.
If we are to learn something from Mr. Wahid’s example, and I believe we should, democracy’s future in this region will depend not only on holding regular elections, but on the overcoming of Tyranny Culture through the development of a new practice of citizenship rooted in a new ethic of civic and political responsibility. In fact, since 2011, citizenship and the fundamentally democratic work of making citizens has become more important and urgent than ever before.
The urgency of making citizens derives partly from the new sectarian dynamics of politics and geopolitics within this region. Indeed, while 2011 has been commonly described as the “Arab Spring,” we have good reason to wonder just how much the new regional order that’s emerging from this “Springtime of Peoples” will be defined uniquely, or even primarily, as “Arab.” Over the last two decades, dramatic attitudinal and structural changes in Middle Eastern societies have combined to break down the modern conceit of a single, monolithic “Arab World.”
This process has only accelerated in recent times and, as a result, we’ve seen the political reinvigoration of older, “pre-modern” and “local” identities whose roots may be found in ethnicity, in tribe, and in the differences between, and within, the religions.
In all likelihood, the salience and power of these sectarian identities will grow, not weaken, in the new politics of the post-2011 era. In some ways, this is to be expected as a natural consequence of the new populism and parliamentarianism of the new era. It may even have some salutary benefits: Many of the “Arab-centric” (qawmiyya) ideologies which ravaged the Middle East over the past 60 years—Nasserism, Baathism and, to a certain extent, the pan-Islamism of groups like al-Qaeda—have all been in decline in recent times, and may find themselves in an even more competitive environment in the sectarian landscape forward.
The danger, however, is that the new sectarian dynamics of regional political life will present new opportunities for demagogues and others with anti-democratic agendas to exploit for their own purposes. We’ve already seen abundant evidence of this danger in the grotesque religious and ethnic clashes which have occurred in Egypt, here in Iraq, and elsewhere. We should brace ourselves, as the future will likely hold more of this.
Moreover, we know that the contemporary threat posed by anti-democratic sectarianism isn’t simply “homegrown,” but a function of geopolitics, and the fact that the Arabic-speaking world is situated within the broader context of the Great Middle East. Powerful states, including the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the AKP-ruled Turkey, have all sought to lay claim to the 2011 “Springtime of Peoples” for their own purposes as they pursue their divergent and often deeply antagonistic regional ambitions. Without citizens who will not succumb to anti-democratic sectarianism, the influence of these outside states in the internal and sectarian affairs of many societies will only continue to grow as a function of their rising powers and their budding strategic rivalries. Without citizens, this region will in all likelihood find itself increasingly torn along sectarian lines.
A second reason why making citizens is so urgent is the enormous power and influence in the region of radical and utopian ideologies—including, most notably, the various strands of Islamism. When it was first launched in 1928 Egypt, a big part of the popular draw of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as the “mother of all Islamist movements,” was focused on restoring the honor and piety that it felt the Arab-Islamic world had lost. Embedded within this social mission, however, was a deeply political and utopian desire to create an “Islamic State”—the actual constitution of which has never actually been worked out. Moreover, the Brotherhood’s highly regimented way of organizing its members—which originally included an armed militia—seemed more intent on raising revolutionary cadres than teaching society about religious piety and virtue. In time, modernizing elements within the Brotherhood may well have given way to a more pragmatic orientation, but after decades of repression in Nasser’s Egypt and elsewhere, the Brotherhood became deeply enmeshed in Tyranny Culture. It naturally withdrew from society, and became even more inward-looking. It also grew more hateful. This hate was directed at the Arab Tyrants, at Israel, at the West, as well as at Muslims, and it seemed only to grow among the Islamists themselves as a function of their relentless bickering over why their efforts at creating utopia failed. This is one reason for the factions and diversity within Islamism today.
After 2011, Islamists of various stripes and persuasions have come to occupy central stage. Some, most notably those affiliated with the broader Islamist Revival movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, have formed political parties which now have more influence over the future direction of politics in this region than ever before. We’re just now getting a glimpse at how they might behave. The first worry associated with Islamist parties is that they will, should they assume power, bring a halt to elections and seek to banish their opposition, by force if necessary. Rather than competing with other parties over issues and over how best to rebuild after tyranny, Islamists may find it easier to attempt to build majorities on the basis of sectarian identities. Another related concern is that Islamist parties will become proxies of foreign powers. We cannot rule these scenarios out; all would be catastrophic for the pursuit of citizenship and a just, democratic political order.
Thus far, however, Islamist parties have embraced parliamentary politics. This is a positive development, and should be encouraged, but with a clear eye to what is happening within these parties internally. Many people believe the Islamist embrace of parliamentarianism will lead to greater pragmatism on their part—or, alternatively, that the Islamists will fail to govern well, and thus be voted out of power. This kind of speculation is an indulgence for analysts in Washington where I live, but it does a gross disservice to people here in the Middle East who may be forced to live under Brotherhood rule. We are right to worry that the Islamist embrace of parliamentarianism reflects merely a tactical shift on the part of Islamists for seizing power. Moreover, even if Islamists wanted to contribute to the building of a genuinely free and prosperous society, there is good reason to doubt that the Islamist movement lacks the indigenous intellectual resources to overcome the Tyranny Culture by itself, and reform its ways. Such reform, in my view, will likely only occur if Islamism opens up and accommodates itself to more liberal teachings about religious freedom, government, and economic life.
This brings into focus the deeper challenge that Islamism’s essential utopianism poses to future efforts to make citizens and develop free and prosperous societies here in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, we should remember, began as an educational movement whose purpose was the creation of a “New Muslim” capable of leading a worldwide Islamist Revival and the creation of a new “Islamic Order.” Such a person, by his or her very own self-understanding and self-definition, is a sectarian creature devoted to a utopian struggle and cause, and not a democratic citizen capable of or, for that matter, even interested in Self-Government. We have no evidence that the Brotherhood has reformed this educational philosophy. In fact, while Islamist parties have shown some willingness to play by the rules in the halls of parliament, Islamists have assiduously worked in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere across this region to open new schools, establish their dominance in the mosques, and position themselves in offices to assume the reins of national educational policy. Should they succeed, this will have severe consequences for all future efforts to develop citizens in this region.
The challenge of making citizens, therefore, lies at the very heart of the competition which has been unfolding across this region between, on the one hand, the forces of democracy and liberalization and, on the other, the various movements of utopianism, radical sectarianism, and anti-democracy. If democracy is to take root, and grow, sectarianism and utopianism will have to accommodate themselves to a new politics rooted in citizenship and an ethic of civic and political responsibility. Only by making citizens, can the revolutions of 2011 give way to a more democratic and secure and prosperous future for everyone.
How, then, should people here in this region begin to think practically and creatively about this necessary and urgent work of making citizens? The study of modern transitions to democracy may be of great help in answering this; as I suggested earlier, the examples of men like President Wahid could also point us in the right direction, especially for insights into the kinds of ideas and institutions which are useful to making citizens in a diverse, multi-confessional and economically and politically developing part of the world.
The founders of the American Republic also thought about this question deeply. They provide, in my view, perhaps the best place for anyone interested in the modern problem of making citizens to begin, not least because they were the first to succeed at forging a modern democratic polity of citizens—a polity that has managed to overcome the profound defects of its founding, and grow larger, and more liberal, with time.
America’s founders understood that making citizens was as much (if not more) a function of soul-craft as it was of political leadership. We can see in their writings three areas, broadly construed, which play an important role in the cultivation of citizens: These areas include one) politics and law and public institutions, two) the public and private institutions devoted to education, such as schools and the media, and three) perhaps most importantly, the informal institutions which make up Culture and Society, such as religion and the family.
All of these areas provide launching points for people in this region to begin to think critically and creatively about their own political cultures and about the kinds of reform that democratic development will require. It is useful, for example, to ask whether existing practices or ideas in any one of these or other areas are actually supportive of the cultivation of citizens—or whether they are harmful or dangerous to the pursuit of citizenship. The next step is to think about what kinds of institutions and practices and ideas are best suited for cultivating citizens and advancing Self-Government.
Thinking in this way may at first be somewhat counterintuitive, even unnatural. Take, for example, the idea of federalism, which is commonly understood here in Iraqi Kurdestan as the decentralization of power. This minimalist understanding is certainly a correct one, and it also helps to explain the powerful attraction of federalism to many here who suffered horrifically under the harsh rule of Saddam’s tyranny. But America’s founders understood federalism wasn’t simply about limiting centralized rule; instead, it was also good for the positive work of making citizens because it provided people with the ability to practice being citizens, to build their own local institutions, and thus to become better at Self-Government. Indeed, if federalism is implemented smartly and prudently, I suspect it could be tremendously useful for societies which are struggling to cope with sectarian and utopian forces of the post-2011 era. Combined with prudent economic liberalization, it can also play an indispensible role in overcoming Tyranny Culture. For example, the advance of Self-Government needs, and can even help produce, more diversified local economic development, and so in this way, can contribute to an overcoming of the dependencies on the State which so many tyrants have fostered in this region. We can already see the merits of federalism in the revival and dynamism of Kurdish society here in Iraq, and I think the Iraqi Kurdish experience over the last twenty years provides useful lessons for others in Iraq and across the region going forward.
In the search for new sources of citizenship here in the Middle East, we should be prepared to be surprised, too. No one, for example, will claim that a tribe is a democratic institution; tribes are not voluntary associations, and members of a tribe are not citizens. What is also clear, however, is that, first, tribes and tribalism are an important part of the political reality in the contemporary Middle East, and second, that not all tribes are the same. I have met with some tribal leaders who seek to play an active role in the formation of new state institutions and in the rebuilding of the Iraqi Nation. Some tribes reach across religious and ethnic lines; they include Sunni and Shia, as well as Arab and Kurd. In the years ahead, we can expect to see new conflicts emerge in Middle East societies between tribal and state authorities, and between tribal interests and the various requirements of state formation.
But perhaps we’ll see not only that. What role, for example, might the tribes of this region play in reducing sectarian tensions? How might they help to ensure that society as a whole doesn’t succumb to what George Washington described as the “insidious wiles of foreign influence”? Over time, how might tribes contribute to, rather than detract from, the emergence of a common, non-sectarian civic culture? How might tribes come to play a constructive part in the cultivation of a responsibly engaged citizenry?
Perhaps the two most crucial areas for new thinking in the Middle East about citizenship and its requirements are religion and the family. Without the nourishing support of religion and the family, the making of citizens, and democratic life more generally, would be impossible. Discussing both religion and the family in the Middle East in light of citizenship’s requirements should not be exclusively, or even primarily, the job of state authorities, but it is an urgent task for civil society as a whole. What role might Islam and also Christianity and the other faiths of this region play in making citizens in the post-2011 era? Certainly such Muslim values as honor, self-restraint, and honesty are crucial qualities which all citizens of a democracy should ideally possess. A number of scholars of Islamic thought including University of Virginia Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina and my colleague Dr. Hillel Fradkin have described how Quranic teachings on justice and equality can support and nourish a pluralist democratic politics. Many others including Dr. Abdou Filali Ansary, mentioned earlier, have also argued that Sharia, rightly understood, was revealed as a way of restraining the tyrannizing impulses which are natural to mankind.
If the Sharia is to be understood not (as Islamism contends) as a source of politics and law, but rather as a revelation which offers ethical teachings about how to limit and channel the human will, then can the Sharia— in time, and aided by enlightening reflection on human nature and history—contribute to the emergence here in the Middle East of a new Islamic tradition of democratic citizenship?
A great deal of this region’s future politics will turn on these and related questions. As I suggested earlier, making citizens who are capable of liberty and self-government is, of necessity, long and never complete. Without citizens, democracy is not possible, nor will it endure. It seems especially fitting, then, to be having this conversation about citizens here at this university, which was established to provide “practical training” and “liberality in learning.” Indeed, liberal education is the best education for the cultivation of citizens, and this institution could serve no higher purpose than the making of Iraqi citizens. In creating this university, few have shown as much civic far-sightedness as the AUIS Board of Governors and, of course, the university’s administration and faculty. Clearly, this city of Sulaymaniyah is in a safe and vibrant corner of Iraqi Kurdestan. But this area is also situated in a part of the world that is, frankly, dangerous and notoriously inhospitable to liberal institutions. When I first visited this campus two years ago, I asked Dr. John Agresto and Dr. Joshua Mitchell how they could ensure an institution so exceptional and potentially liberating as AUIS could last in this neighborhood. Their reply was that “foundings matter.” And they do. It will fall to future generations of AUIS students to take responsibility for the growth and deepening of the democratic conversation which was begun with the establishment of this university. I will add that, for as long as this university’s purpose remains the cultivation of Iraqi citizens, it will have friends among the citizens of the United States willing to help out.
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