Evolutionary biology teaches us that, similar environmental forces applied on related species result in similar outcomes. The societal parallel case in point is the evolutionary path of the various Asian and African countries, under the colonial, economical and political influences of the 20th century. The study of this historical trend is of value for plotting and predicting the developmental trajectory of the Middle East (ME) countries, and our own.
Historically, the quasi-stable form of governance in ME was the personal tyranny of a ruler, “assigned” by a god (religion) and rooted in the six thousand year old Mesopotamian traditions. That form was only semi stable, because the absolute rule of a man has never been stable – not through the different phases of the tyrant’s life, and certainly not during the inevitable periods of succession fights. However, after each chaotic period, due to the king’s inevitable corruption and/or the princely wars of succession, that same tyrannical form was able to reconstitute itself. The cycle reproduced itself, as though destined by a social DNA forged in the womb of Babylonian empire.
Beside the tyrannical social form, two other types existed from the antiquity. The more backward form, likely the precursor of the ME tyranny, was tribal rule – as witnessed in most of the black Africa. The more advanced form, commonly known as the Greco-Roman republic, has been associated with the bulk of modern Western civilization. Like tyranny, the tribal form is deeply rooted in the family ties of a small ruling clan, which is in constant but irresolvable fights with other clans. In contrast, the republic is run by the majority vote of free citizens, with frequent election of the top leading positions. For evolution to the republic state, the national psyche has had to mature enough to believe in its own creative power and free will, and to understand and fear the inevitability of its own tyrants’ corruption and oppression.
Up until the 17th century, those three forms of government mostly coexisted, albeit in regular acrimony. The game-changing event, which totally disrupted the global state of affairs, was the Western advancement towards the Industrial Revolution. Guns, ships and steel allowed the Europeans to fully colonize the African continent, and dominate Asia. Medical advancements enabled the Western population to overcome the local and foreign germs, so that they could settle and breed in every land, from Americas to Australia.
In a number of occasions, the Western powers brought their elective forms of governance to where they landed. However, suffrage was only granted to the wealthy free citizens, and little representation was set aside for the locals. Hence, the indigenous population of the colonized lands turned into the proletariat of the colonies, who lived on the same land, but had no systematic impact or vote on its governance. In the minds of the colonizers, that system was justified as a better rule-of-law for the backward natives, and in the mind of natives, it was the will-of-god (or demon) imposed by the superior whites.
At the time of Western expansion, our neighborhood was dominated by three Turkic empires – Uzbek in the east, Safavid in Persia and Ottoman in the west. However, by the end of 19th century, the Uzbek dominion was mostly captured by the Russians, the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the British, and Persia was half-and-half shared between Moscow and London. But the colonizing forces of ME could not subjugate the local will for long – as the locals were capable of learning many Western ways and tools, and could create a defendable socio economic perimeter for themselves.
In the space between the two World Wars, the independent Middle Eastern politics germinated with a number of traditional looking kingdoms, from Libya to Afghanistan. After WWII, with the retreat of Western powers from Africa and Asia, the independence movement went into full bloom. However, despite the natural historical pull towards their traditional social-forms, the previously colonized countries tried, but could not simply revert back to the past and “be at home” again.
During the Western reign, the local populations of Africa and Asia had dramatically grown in number and knowledge – thanks to the new medical advancements, public education and communicative media. Therefore, the ancient regimes had difficulty re-establishing themselves after the Western pull out. Since then, the story of many third world countries has been the societal and cultural struggle between their backward but familial past, versus the advanced but foreign Western legacy.
The Western legacy itself has had two contradicting effects in relationship to the host colonies. On the one hand, the Western ways are desired, for achieving the same level of advanced and civilized lifestyle. At the same time, the Western values are rejected, due to the ingrained mistrust and hatred invoked by the memories of colonial dominance. This love-and-hate relationship is more pronounced wherever the host culture is less robust and secure within its own merit and value system. Such insecure societies have often been unable to assimilate the needed ingredients from the West for augmenting their own cultural edifice. Instead, they tend to swing between a childish mimicry (Westoxication) and a juvenile angst (Fundamentalism).
To further complicate matters in the former colonies, the internal soul searching that has been going on for the last two generations, is also being played under the great influence of regional and global powers. With globalization, no country’s politics is a simple set-piece game with well behaved contenders. All political players have to deal with a three-dimensional real-time global competition for resources, industry and wealth. Therefore, the 100+ freshly minted countries of Asia and Africa have had to deal with both domestic challenges and major foreign issues.
For the ME countries, the key domestic issue past WWII was ineffective traditional monarchies, and the main foreign challenge came through the Cold War polarization between US and USSR. As most of the corrupt kings were unable to adequately address those challenges, their reigns in many ME countries were cut short and replaced by various republics. This clear turn away from the traditional form of monarchy and towards the Western model of governance was however tentative and superficial. Most of the new republics were unable to break their natural cultural tendencies towards the tyrannical past, and instead of establishing a voter-based regime, fell back into the tried and true Eastern tyrannical traditions.
The reversion to the “traditional ways” was not unique among the ME nations. For example, the African countries took the same initial turn and ended up with many republics. Unfortunately, most of those republics soon proved to be nothing but brutal military dictatorships. In the past three decades, so many African nations have collapsed back into the tribal savagery, which makes that continent’s situation the most heart wrenching.
The greater the educational Western influence in the host country and the greater the native aptitude to assimilate the democratic values, the better has been their chances of traversing the transitional choppy waters and emerging as a viable open society. However, evolution is a combination of gradual improvements and violent upheavals, as the ancient seldom gives up without a fight. Even the rock-solid surface of our earth is evolving and shifting all the time. However, the gradual movements compress one formation against the other, increasing their competitive tension to dominate the same space. When those stresses reach a critical point, it often requires a massive quake to move the old and bring the new.
Sadly, in case of ME countries the rate of evolutionary success has been low. ME nations reside in a most dangerous neighborhood, where anger and fighting reign supreme, and progress is often illusive. It is only the windfall oil wealth, which is keeping the region relatively prosperous and governments financed, despite a dearth of aptitude and rationality. Therefore, it is no surprise that tyranny has often been the winner, and democracy a mirage. Add the corruption of dictatorships to 50% of proven world petroleum reserves and the longest stretch of head-to-tail wars since 1914; and we have a region where regimes seldom last for more than one generation, and chaos is becoming the norm.
In case of Iran, despite the first constitutional revolution in ME (1906) and the first elected parliament, the one-man reign has proven most difficult to change. Even a cursory comparison between the last Shah and the first Imam shows very little difference in the barbaric ways of government – with both men claiming direct and absolute rule as ordained by the same vengeful god. Both could not tolerate disobedience, free press and anything but a semblance of democracy. Hence, it is so precarious that today in Iran; the Green Movement is once again aiming to challenge “our historical fate” to life under tyranny.
The evolutionary road for Iran lies in the winding and dangerous struggle between modernity and tradition, authority and freedom, vengeance and tolerance. Many Iranian scholars and statesmen, from doctors Arani to Shariati and premiers Amini to Bazargan, have tried to build a bridge across that treacherous breach, in order to bring a sense of stability to an unstable nation. Still, Iran remains a country of contradictions, which yesterday was Western on the outside and Muslim inside, and today is the other way around. It is a highly educated nation governed by religious fanatics, and is dangerously maneuvering towards another sharp turn in its evolutionary road.