Islamic movements come to dominate the political landscape of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the last thirty years?
Why have democratic advances been so limited in these two countries? Is there any relationship between these two trends or are they independent of each other?
In both modern Iran and modern Saudi Arabia, over the past thirty years, two fundamental forces have dominated the discourse of these nations -- that of Islamic Fundamentalism and a hatred of Western, specifically American intrusions of 'modernity,' in cultural and political forms. In the absence of the ability to compete, technologically with the West, or culturally on a global level, these nations have turned inward, and some historians might say 'to their pasts' and attempted to create Islamic rather than secular renditions of modernity. However, because of the corresponding lack of democratic structures within these referenced traditional Islamic political modalities, and the association of the West with democratic advancement, both these nations have been quite unwilling to make use of the discourse of 'rights' and 'representation' largely associated with the secular discourse of the West.
In his book A History of the Modern Middle East William Cleveland offers an important caveat, however, to both of these nations' apparent fundamentalist and complete rejection of Western modernity and secular democracy. Cleveland states that although most residents of the Middle East define themselves as anti-Western, this should not be taken to mean that innovation or change of any kind is impossible within these nations. Most residents of Saudi Arabia and Iran, he asserts, do not wish to return to a falsely idealized ancient Islamic past. Rather, they wish to create their own form of modernity in the future. Cleveland suggests that those in the Middle East who reject the West do not crave a return to the indigenous traditions of their ancestry, but rather seek a future generated by internal cultural principles and forces.
The rejection of democracy is partly associated with the West. However, it is feared that to adopt Western traditions means a rejection of a strong voice in the world, as neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran will be able to compete with the West and specifically with America, on American terms. Democracy is rejected because of its association with the West, and also because fundamentalism, until recently, has provided a voice associated with Arab nationalism, in the case of Saudi Arabia, and an articulated class identity of the impoverished and politically disenfranchised, in Iran.
The argument of Cleveland's that Islamic fundamentalism is not a retreat to a false past is particularly convincing in regards to Saudi Arabia, where the presence of oil has created a strong economy but seemingly done little to penetrate the country culturally and politically on an internal level. The economic and political currency garnered by Saudi Arabia on a national level, even after the retreat of OPEC as a dominant political force on the global political and economic marketplace, has also meant that this nation has been able to maintain the semblance of a hereditary religious oligopoly in its leadership position, cloistered itself in its diplomatic relationships with the West in the cloak and rhetoric of Islam, yet also been able to select with a great deal of scrutiny, which economic aspects of the West it sees as attractive and coherent with Islam. Saudi Arabia has defined itself as a wealthy nation, and an international force, without adopting Western political traditions. Its rejection of democracy and rights and embracement of a monarchy has been rendered, within its internal political discourse, as a symbol of the nation's Islamic and Arab strength in opposition to the West.
Saudi Arabia's incredible wealth of oil has given it international as well as regional importance, and even some of its Arabic rivals look upon this with pride. "Beneath the sands and seas of Saudi Arabia and these eleven Gulf states" lay fifty percent of the world's proven reserves of oil. (Cleveland 443)
Iran, of course, has notable oil reserves as well. "Led by demands from the shah of Iran, prices began to edge upward in the late 1960s," causing the United States to attempt to befriend that leader, despite his autocratic nature and his incredible unpopularity amongst many of his people, particularly those of the lower and politically and socially disenfranchised classes. (Cleveland 442) It was these classes whom were to form the core of the Islamic fundamentalist Shiite revolution there, led by the Ayatollah.
The political example of Iran, a nation that completely shirked its Islamic identity under the ruling hand of the Shah, thus presents a far different case study than Saudi Arabia, which, although a monarchy, was not nearly as socially stratified when it was politically fragile and lacked a corresponding charismatic political presence to form an opposition to its royal leaders. Despite the United States' backing of the Shah to secure lower oil prices, the Shah was a widely unpopular dictator. In Iran, the Western rendition of modernity and a tyranny in the form of a secular 'cult of personality' became associated with the Shah's control. In contrast, the royal Saudi house was able to associate itself with an evolving political Islamic tradition in opposition to the West.
Although "the late shah of Iran tried to calm the growing opposition to his rule by proclaiming his attachment to Islam" this proved unconvincing to his disenfranchised, dispirited people. (Cleveland 430) Thus, the attraction of Islamic fundamentalism as a political as well as a cultural force in Iran partly came from the association of cultural, Western secularism with a retreat from a uniquely Muslim, Iranian identity and mentality, including the precepts of Islam.
But even in this case, the trappings of the Iranian revolution should not be perfectly paralleled with a return to an Islamic past. Even something as symbolically central as the veiling of women, for instance, was not endemic to early Islamic culture. It was "introduced after the Arab conquests of Byzantium and Iran, societies in which middle- and upper-class women wore veils to distinguish themselves from the lower classes." (Cleveland 36) Even the language used to decry the Shah was politically coded: it was asserted that "the shah was illegal" and that to serve him "was to betray Islam." (417) Islam offered, in Iranian political discourse, a new, political legal code in opposition to the unfair, socially exclusive code of the Shah that reeked of decadence and was associated with bowing to American whims.
Saudi Arabia, in contrast, although once dominated by cultural forces from the West, never presented such a cultural choice to its people. The royal house of Saudi Arabia did stand up to the United States from time to time. Moreover, it was always exposed, given its geographic centrality, to various different cultural and nationalist forces within the Islamic community. It is true that the nation had been adversely affected by European circumstances in the past -- for instance," the war years were terribly difficult for Saudi Arabia, as the number of persons making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca declined precipitously, causing revenues to plunge." (Cleveland 228)
But subsequently, Faysal's reign from 1964-1975 transformed Saudi Arabia's administration, armed forces, educational system, and regional stature after the discovery of oil. (Cleveland 438) As a result of this reliance on low-cost petroleum, Saudi Arabia supplied 21.6% of Europe's oil requirements in 1972 and 13% of the world's total production of crude oil. (Cleveland 442) In contrast to Saudi Arabia, Iran was a non-Arabic republic, although Islamic in nature, and thus had less ties to the region ethnically and culturally, than did Saudi Arabia, located at the 'crossroads of the world.' The Shah could not stand up to the United States in the same way Saudi Arabia could, under a Nasser-like stance of Arab cultural unity.
Although "the Saudi Arabia of the early 1980s appeared similar to Iran in the final years of the shah's rule" because "both countries experienced extensive economic, educational, and military development without" a corresponding democratic political and institutional component, Saudi Arabia's united front with the Arab world, its openness to other Muslim peoples, and its ability to delicately balance an Islamic identity with an expanding economy enabled it to weather the difficulties the growing Israeli-Palestinian conflict produced diplomatically, and the economic difficulties of the dissolution of OPEC. (Cleveland 445) Gilles Kepel has called this "Building Petro-Islam on the Ruins of Arab Nationalism." In other words, Islam and Oil were now the new creed of the region, not simply a return to Islam.
Once again, this suggests a different and evolving form of Islam, rather than a pure return to an outmoded tradition. This helps answer the question of why a purer form of democracy did not assert itself in response to the autocratic Shah, much less in response to Saudi Arabia's challenges? In Saudi Arabia, a new and royal form Arab nationalism and economic strength garnered through oil was posited against adopting Western modalities of politics. In Iran, democracy was negatively associated in the…