Will History Repeat Itself in the Muslim Spring?
by Stephen Schwartz
The current series of successive mass protests and "regime changes" in the Muslim lands has an important precedent. First tsarist Russia and Persia, in 1905-6, then Turkey in 1908, and ultimately non-Muslim but despotic China, in 1911, experienced revolutionary transformations, although all of them, in one or another way, failed in their first cycle. Still, these were profound phenomena unlike the coups and intrigues that brought nationalist cliques to power in some Arab states during the 1960s.
Sociology reasserts its importance here because of the special role of intellectuals in each of these Eastern movements of a century past. The term "intellectual" is defined differently now than it was then, when it referred primarily to working journalists and other participants in the open marketplace of ideas, rather than to academics and established authors. Faith assumes a role because all four countries were dominated culturally by traditionalist religious hierarchies rooted in or contaminated by despotism: Russia by Orthodox Christianity, Persia and Turkey by apparently-conservative forms of Islam, and China by Confucianism. The most significant aspect of the early 20th century "chain of Eastern revolutions" – as today – involved the question of whether the faith of Muhammad and democracy are compatible.
Some say Islam and democracy cannot be combined. In reality, numerous partisans of change in the Muslim empires embraced, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, a modernizing, rationalist, reformist, and positivist Islamic vocabulary. Turkish enlighteners, in particular, equated progress with a Muslim spirit, finding inspiration in the Quranic principle of enjoining good and avoiding evil. Marx had written of early 19th-century Spain, the decadence of which he equated with that of Turkey, that "Napoleon, who, like all his contemporaries, considered Spain as an inanimate corpse, was fatally surprised at the discovery that when the Spanish State was dead, Spanish society was full of life, and every part of it overflowing with powers of resistance." If one changes the label of the "Spanish state" to "the Arab and Muslim states" the same description now applies exactly.
Islamic clerics were more active in the democratic movement in Iran than in Turkey. Still, years before the imposition of militaristic secularism by Mustafa Kemal (who called himself "Atatürk," or "father of the Turks"), progressives forced the Ottoman state to reduce the salaries of Islamic religious functionaries. Of course, as we see in hindsight, the Eastern democratic revolutions of 1905-1911 were destined to ruin. Russia eventually surrendered to Leninism, Turkey to Kemalism, Iran to the monarchy of the Pahlavis and then to the Islamic Revolution of Khomeini, and China to Maoist Communism.
The historian of Islam Charles Kurzman, in his 2008 volume Democracy Denied, 1905-1915, has outlined some factors that would make these failures inevitable, including the hostility of the great powers. The imperialism of rich nations clearly provided one obstacle to the consolidation of democratic rule in Turkey, Persia, and China.
Some of these countries, with Iran in the forefront, show persistently that the consequences of unsuccessful democratic revolutions remain with us. Russia has come under the command of a new aspiring strongman, Vladimir Putin, and may be said to have suffered multiple failed democratic attempts. The fall of the Ottoman sultan had consequences in the Middle East and the Balkans that are still felt, and remains a matter of convoluted and acrimonious debate in Turkey at present. The Chinese Revolution, in some sense, never ended – although it passed through and exhausted its (brief) democratic and (long) hard-Communist phases, its process of modernization remains turbulent, with consequences for the rest of the world.
Kurzman has pointed out correctly that the Russian uprising of 1905 was "the first revolution covered 'live' by international telegraph services." This was repeated in each of the crises, and created connections among the political struggles in all four countries, where local journalists found parallels with distant colleagues. "Thus began," Kurzman writes, "a global wave of democratic revolutions." In addition to democratic ferment in the press, the general populace in each country was suddenly drawn into debate about the future. Once the term "democracy," translated into the various languages, began to be discussed, ordinary people took it up, sometimes resulting in popular stories and jokes. A poor Iranian thought democracy was a kind of food, and complained he had received none.
Russian socialist theoreticians, including Lenin and Trotsky, paid close attention to the "chain of Eastern revolutions," which led Lenin to proclaim a new alliance of radical labor movements in the West with anticolonial revolutionaries, and Trotsky to view the planetary sweep of radicalism as the underpinning for his theory of permanent revolution. But while it may be folly to recommend a rereading of Russian radical leftist thinkers, they perceived something that explains the collapse of the revolutionary upsurge of 1905-1911 and includes cautionary examples for the protestors involved today in the Muslim Spring. Kurzman notes that Lenin called these early phenomena "bourgeois-democratic revolutions," but Kurzman also observes that Iran had almost no bourgeois class, that elsewhere the bourgeoisie failed to assist democratic movements, and that, in many cases, the bourgeoisie opposed democratic efforts.
The paradox of "bourgeois-democratic revolutions" without well-organized, self-conscious bourgeois classes and parties was crucial to the stillbirth of these premature democratic revolutions 100 years ago. Lenin and other Marxists did not use the term "bourgeois-democratic revolution" to mean that the business classes would necessarily lead a democratizing struggle or consolidate a new, liberating regime. Instead, the concept proposed that such movements would aspire to "bourgeois-democratic" reforms rather than socialist revolutionary demands. To be sure, every commentator at the time believed that for a revolution to reach bourgeois democracy it had to produce a credible bourgeois leadership. Even Japan achieved a "capitalist revolution from above" at the end of the 19th century because its ruling elite forged such a leadership.
A conflict between the West and Islam is widely imagined, on both sides of the divide, as motivated by the nature and content of Muslim belief. Muslim radicals view their religion as a unique embodiment of purification and moral excellence in a decadent world that undermines the family by protecting homosexuality, exploiting sexuality, promoting alcoholism, and otherwise encouraging vice. Westerners are frightened and intimidated by an Islamic global community that appears exploding (literally) with a zeal and intolerance supposedly commanded by theology, and a sense of a unified purpose, in confronting the West. Non-Muslims and some "Muslim dissidents" often criticize a weakening of Western resolve.
Yet the confrontation between the West and Islam is much less a matter of religious extremism than a reflection of the internal crisis of Muslim societies, which we now see exposed in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. Despotic rulers and demagogues from Mauritania to Malaysia, and from Syria to Somalia, have used religious pretexts to maintain themselves in power and stir their people against Western "enemies." Some have borrowed the methods and vocabulary of the newer despotism represented by Soviet communism. Muslim radicals like the late Osama bin Laden and his allies and peers in the Taliban, the Iranian clerical dictatorship, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also represent despotism, and fight in defense of the tyrannical, reactionary utopias of Saudi Wahhabism and other varieties of Muslim fundamentalism. A desire for freedom among Muslims suffering under these regimes or threatened by terrorism is both "liberal" in the original Western sense and Islamic.
While Syrians, Iranians, and North African and Gulf Arabs, as well as Turks, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Pakistanis, and even Saudi subjects, increasingly clamor for democracy, Westerners are frequently reluctant, if not embarrassed, to assert any claim for the universal liberal principles they take for granted. Westerners also appear hesitant to defend the cultural attainments of their societies. Similar issues present a challenge to the exercise of Western military and political power. Western leaders often appear motivated by, at least in public, an uncritical view of Islamic history, combined paradoxically with an urge to "repair," under difficult conditions, Muslim societies like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the Palestinian territories. But the liberation of these societies cannot be accomplished without, much less against, Islam. In all these places Muslims necessarily emerge as leading allies in U.S.-led policy options, of which military intervention is not the sole recourse.
Political correctness joins with Islamophobia to undermine Western morale. In both discourses, Islam is viewed as an unstoppable leviathan, a uniform, undifferentiated and extremist faith which will not entertain dialogue and cannot be defeated. Western liberals often prefer a "conversation" about radical Islam to determined defeat of it. Islamophobes do the Muslim radicals the incalculably gigantic favor of certifying their narrow and intellectually-bereft form of Muslim affirmation as "the real Islam."
The fanaticism of Muslim radicals cannot conceal the absence from most Muslim societies at present not only of liberal concepts of individual freedom and respect for the rights of others, but also of broad economic prosperity. Westerners who mainly know Islam by second hand theorize that the religion of Muhammad differs profoundly from the other monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Christianity – that it is a more violent and repressive, primitive atavism. But in theological terms Islam and Judaism are almost identical, and Islam in its classic form was sympathetic to Christian practices. Even the ideology of Muslim radicals reflects, as is often pointed out without much elaboration, modern habits of mind – mainly rejection of traditional Islamic precedents as well as of secular institutions, in the name of existential authenticity.
A West subdivided into a multitude of interest groups is dumbfounded by Islam, which appears (although inaccurately) as welded together by the thing Western liberals gave up first – religion. The Western rationality that the sociologist Max Weber seemed to justify, if not celebrate, is said to be missing in Islam and to have prevented the entry of Muslims into "modernity." This absence of rational calculation appears to support a force of belief among Muslims that leaves Westerners shocked that such a deep religiosity still exists alongside the disenchantment, desacralization, and relentless practicality of the contemporary world.
Many other paradoxes trap and confuse whoever would try to correlate Western and Islamic history. Numerous commentators have asserted that Islam is now undergoing a "reformation" that must necessarily be long and bloody, but, like the Protestant Reformation, will end in an Enlightenment. Too often, those who hold "Reformation" up to Muslims as an ideal to be imitated forget that the leading personalities of the early Reformation were radical, violent, and intolerant. Still, it is dangerous to equate superficially Judeo-Christian and Islamic history. The East remains the East, and history and social development in Muslim Asia and Africa have followed a different path from that in the West.
History now repeats itself in a "chain of revolutions" in the Muslim lands – but, to paraphrase Marx, as tragedy, farce, or successful democratization?