Prof. John Donohue: The notion that Arabs are not ready for democracy is nonsense


Sometimes it may seem that things have not changed very much since the 10th century. Leadership tends to become personal rather than institutional. Citizens, instead of relying on law in a state based on the rule of law, are at the mercy of the leader’s whims. There is an evolution of institutions in process but it is slow. The regional situation does not help much still we should never lose hope.

INTERVIEW with RN Board Member Father John J. Donohue, June 2011

Q: You are a superb storyteller – and this is selfish – but would you begin with an early impression or memory of Baghdad from around the time you arrived to the Middle East in 1953?

I first arrived in Beirut in 1953 with five other Jesuits and we took the Nairn desert bus to Baghdad to teach at the secondary school run by the American Jesuits, Kulliyyat Baghdad. I got a new perspective on the world. Things certainly look different from Baghdad than from Worcester or Boston. The sounds and the scents were different. The Tigris like the Danube was not blue and though the days were stifling hot, the nights were cool. Like all the Baghdadis, we slept on the roof. All those differences seemed to fade into the background as we made new acquaintances and started teaching. The Baghdadis are really hospitable. I studied Arabic for two of the three years of my first tour in Baghdad. When I returned in 1966 after studies in theology and Islamic history things had changed with the revolution, but the Baghdadis were still the same. Then 1967 changed things even more. The rise of the Ba’th Party in Baghdad spelt our demise. They were opposed to private educational institutions. We were sent home in 1968 and 1969. We were extremely sad leaving Baghdad. Our graduates have stayed in touch over the years and we get together from time to time.

Q. In addition to being an expert scholar, historian, and linguist of the region, you have been a keen analyst of Middle Eastern politics and societies. Will you first comment generally on the revolutions underway? What factors you see as predominate catalysts in the uprisings?

The revolutions underway are exciting and will have an effect ultimately even though in the short run they may be co-opted by the military or religious factions. In the past, the left set off the movement in Iran and later in Lebanon in 1983 then the religious moved in and took over. I think I perceive a slow development in attitudes. 48 brought on the military who were going to set things right. 67 spelled their failure. Governments became more interested in internal security than in righting the wrongs of 1948 and 1967. Then came movements for Human Rights and Civil Society and in 2005 the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon. These developments, with the help of internet, have set off the recent unrest. People are against corruption and vested interests protected by tired old men preparing their sons to take over. The republics of the earlier revolutions were becoming hereditary monarchies.

Q. As close witness to extraordinary periods of global change that until now seemed to highlight that Arabs were ‘missing their appointment with destiny’ - where do you see the planes for optimism in the current situation?

It is true that the disarray of the Arabs has prevented them from asserting their demographic weight and Arab governments have been unable to absorb the graduates that Arab universities produce, but the fact is that the Arab governments have been continually kept off balance by the U.S.-Israeli tandem. The present unrest is for internal change and a more open society. That I find very positive. The notion that Arabs are not ready for democracy is nonsense. It may still be a long process because the more intelligent elements are not as well organized as the religious or the military but I am happy to see some movement.

Q. Recently (3 June 2011) the Jesuits in Syria issued a statement calling for national unity, dialogue and freedom of expression, and rejection of violence; it affirmed that the “laws of the land should conform to the feeling of the citizens in respecting individual liberties” and elsewhere in the text that there are “efforts to foment trouble leading to a religious war which threatens to disintegrate our society”.  The nonviolent revolutions are widely analyzed as predominantly driven by democratic and economic aspirations not religious arguments or ideals. As an expert who has written extensively on the subject of secularism and religion in the region, what is the most enlightened role for spiritual institutions/authorities in the evolving Middle East?

Christians in the Middle East are extremely vulnerable. Al-Qaida in Iraq is a vivid example of how the opposition attacks the weak points (the Christians) to unsettle and embarrass governments. It is true that strong, security oriented governments provide more security for religious minorities, but an open society would be even more desirable for all. Unfortunately religious extremism is making the process towards an open society more difficult and some Christian authorities have hesitations concerning the present unrest. Far be it from me to advise them on the positions to take. Still, I think there is an evolution in process which will continue. The Syrian Jesuit statement was nuanced. I am hoping for the best of outcomes.

Q. Do you have particular concerns for minorities including Christians in particular in light of the situation in Iraq and more recently Egypt? Should minorities be searching for constitutional guarantees and if so could you suggest a model?

I imagine you are thinking along the lines of the new Iraqi constitution and federalism. For Iraq this may be a realistic model: Kurds, Shiites, Sunnites. But this does not help Christians or Sabeans. Obviously minorities should be searching for constitutional guarantees. Most constitutions offer these guarantees but Constitutions are often dead letters with dictatorial governments. Lebanon has a working model which is often criticized as being “confessional.” History and a large percentage of Christians are at base of the Lebanese model. Still, many Lebanese are yearning for a truly secular model. The Lebanese model is open to criticism, but it works. “Secular” is a bad word for most Muslim leaders. Nonetheless, discussions about a secular society are on-going.

Q. Is there a notable intellectual debt of the nonviolent nature of the current revolutions to Arab thinkers, writers, or others and if so who would you acknowledge? Are there specific texts on nonviolence you consider were forward thinking at the time?

The current revolutions seem to have come out of the blue. The movements in Egypt, for example, which were crucial in the demonstrations, were not very well known (Kifaya and April 6). There were bloggers mobilizing thought and harassed by the authorities. Along with the change in attitudes I mentioned above, there certainly was non-violent thinking in their operation. Did it come from Lebanon? The “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon certainly demonstrated possibilities and then the writings and work of Chibli Mallat could have encouraged the organizers. They had no arms and little organization other than internet but they trusted that their non-violent demonstrations could mobilize the people. According to reports the leaders in Tunisia offered advice to those in Egypt.

Q. You collaborated in publishing an updated English version (and in parallel a digital database) of the most important catalogue of contemporary Arabic literature.  Would you suggest several must-read books as entry points to the region?

The publication of CEMAM and the OIB presented 380 authors. Our selection was limited to belles-lettres. We did not include historical, political and ideological works. There is so much published on the Middle East these days it is not easy to make a short list. I would recommend:

David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace;George Antonius, The Arab Awakening; Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East; Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle For Power in Syrian: Politics and Society Under Asad and the Ba’th Party; Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples; Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem Until 1948. Institute for Palestine Studies

There are also some good studies in Arabic but this is not in easy reach of most readers.

Q. Recently a young activist affirmed in less than flattering terms that the widespread feeling amongst the youth is that the ‘older’ academic/intellectual generation is utterly disconnected from the reality on the ground in the region and therefore not well suited to make decisions, manage transitions, or even give advice. Why should they listen and any ideas on bridging that gap?

That’s a normal reaction. Young people aren’t always conscious of history and the evolution of society. It is also true that many of the intellectuals were anxious to support leaders and movements that fizzled.

Q. Your seminal book on Iraq in the 10th century is subtitled: “Building institutions for the future”. How do you connect past and present for such long stretches of history and memory that are characteristic of the Middle East?

Sometimes it may seem that things have not changed very much since the 10th century. Leadership tends to become personal rather than institutional. Citizens, instead of relying on law in a state based on the rule of law, are at the mercy of the leader’s whims. There is an evolution of institutions in process but it is slow. The regional situation does not help much still we should never lose hope.


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