Blogs > Cliopatria > IT'S 1868 IN ARABIA?

Dec 31, 2003 3:20 am


Reading Kenneth Pollack's survey of the Middle East I was reminded, a little, of the Meiji Restoration in Japan in 1868. Pollack says the Middle East suffers from a surplus of educated but useless males, disrespect for the rule of law, failed pseudo-socialist economies, kleptocratic leadership, terrorism, and the only apparently viable alternative is Islamicism and Islamic fundamentalism. In mid-19th century Japan there was an archaically-educated and underemployed hereditary elite, divided into roughly 250 highly independent clans and living on shrinking government stipends, a relatively weak legal tradition (again, about 250 independent systems), a tottering pseudo-monarchical Shogunate, and widespread disaffection with Japan's position in the world. A relatively small group of mid-rank radicals -- classically educated, with strong clan loyalties, pro-Imperial, anti-foreign -- engineered a coalition of regional powers and a small corps of troops using modern weapons and methods that forced the Shogunate to initiate reforms (as well as crackdowns because of the steady stream of assassinations and terror and infighting coming from the pro-Imperial factions) and eventually forced the Shogunate into total collapse. I wouldn't want to push the comparison too far: Japan had a dynamic mercantile economy (though it got a little creaky when foreign goods started to come in and Japanese silk started to go out) and strong middle class. Japan had only a small fundamentalist problem (and most of them were working on the side of the reformers, at least initially).

But the whole process, from the initial contact with Commodore Perry to the Meiji Restoration (named after the reign-name of the pro-Imperialists Emperor who conveniently took the throne that same year) took only fifteen years. Then, having toppled the Shogunate, the pro-Imperial samurai leaders of Japan proceeded to undertake a thorough and radical revision of Japanese society, economics, politics, law and culture. Within twenty years, Japan was playing an active role in regional politics; in forty, Japan was the leading nation in Asia. (And in eighty, Japanese Imperialism had led to the US atom bombing and occupying Japan and again reforming Japanese politics and society, so the story isn't entirely positive, but there's time for that later.)

So it wouldn't be entirely surprising to see a radical, but practical, Arab nationalism take hold and lead the Middle East through extensive and positive changes. If it follows the Japanese model: the movement will be led by middle and low ranking bureaucrats, competent but frustrated at the failure of opportunity; the ideology of the movement will be divisive, starkly nationalistic and a little frightening, but ultimately more focused on internal reform rather than lashing out. The initial moves of the movement, after seizing power, will be to break down traditional barriers (clan, state) to"national" identity and unity, as well as to jettison counterproductive traditions and entitlements (for example, the Meiji state legislated the samurai class out of existence). Ironically, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference seems to actually fit the bill pretty well.

So, in a round-about way, I'm starting to think that Pollack is right when he argues that success in creating an independent liberal democracy in Iraq is vital to our national interest (I already thought it was a good thing, by the way, but for different reasons, mostly having to do with the joys of living in a liberal democracy.). Given how powerful and threatening Japan became after its Restoration revolution, what would the world look like half a century after an Arabian Restoration?

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David Hulbert - 1/5/2004

An interesting comparison,and some things I didn't know about mid-19th Century Japan.

It seems to me though that even envisioning(as the Bush folks do)a Pan-Arab region of free market democracy is still linked inexorably to the fate of those forlorn people without a state to call their own-the Palestinians.The Bush administration was optimistic that they could achieve a Hussein free Iraq while brokering an agreement for a Palestinian state.The latter seems more out of reach than ever,and I laughed out loud when I heard the Pope advise once again that the players in the region should form a peace agreement.

It used to be that priming the pump of the Palestinians'discontent served the purpose of various Arab governments in their on-again-off-again war with Israel.Most of these states seem weary of it now,but the Palestinian shadow still casts over the region,no matter what we achieve in Iraq.

Dave Livingston - 1/1/2004

One little point missed by Pollack is that the armed forces of the various nations absorb a percentage of the better educated in the hard sciences. It takes a certain competence to teach the operation of modern weapons systems to the troops.

If Pollack is correct the Arab universities generally do not teach subjects that prepare young people to prosper in the modern world young people start with the added disadvantage that there are in thge entire Islamic world but 430 universities, according to President Musharraf of Pakistan as reported in the MSN story "Musharraf Seeks Muslim Investment" dated 2/16/02.

While tempted to say "Pollack's assessment applies to Nigeria too, that's why so many internet scams coming from Nigeria are to be found online, it isn't true. In Nigeria the problem seems to be the economy simply
cannot absorb all the bright, well-educated young people entering it each year.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/31/2003

Book? Sorry, I don't have that kind of time.">Pollack is over on the HNN article page. It is interesting, the attempt to distill and generalize. There's invariably errors in doing that, details that get glossed over, but it also makes thinking about things more interesting.

I'm not entirely sure that the "Arabian Revolution" will be a democratic one, though. The">Meiji Constitution is a masterpiece of democratic appearance, but it took twenty years for a functioning democracy to emerge and the military still managed to hijack the process in the 1930s. And they never amended the constitution the whole time, because the document's Imperial center was sufficiently vague.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/31/2003

Fascinating thoughts. I will have to check that book out, if this is the sort of thinking it encourages.

One place where the Japanese experience may depart from a potential Middle East transformation is that Japan was the only Asian country that accomplished this--at least in the short run. And its transformation was economic and technological as well as political.

Japan's success separated it from its neighbors in fundamental ways while cultural and geopolitical issues kept Japan from considering itself a firm part of the Western Imperial World.

This was the source of support within Japan for it to take the lead in creating an "Asian" sphere distinctive from the Western sphere, with all the unfortunate results alluded to above.

Of course any middle eastern transition would not be occuring in the same milieu. In Turkey there is a sustained polity that is largely democratic. The current Iranian regime provides, at minimum, a demonstration of the difficulties in wedding deomcracy to clerical dominance. In many of these nations there is considerable industrial activity.

In short, if democratic transformation in Iraq takes hold, it will have fewer temptations to get imperial.

Except, of course, for oil.