Richard W. Bulliet
Professor of Middle Eastern History, Columbia University
The Middle East is experiencing political turmoil of historic significance. The recent events will likely prove to be the most significant moment of fundamental change since decolonization. What direction this change will follow is still an open question and will remain so in the near future. However, it is equally certain that things will not be the same whether or not Arab regimes survive this wave of demonstrations and instability. What are the possibilities and limitations of political change in the region? What actors are likely to play a crucial role in individual countries? What kind of a regional re-ordering could be expected? Are we to finally see the emergence of a “New Middle East”?
by Maggie Simon
Bulliet began his lecture by noting that he had been asked to speak in Washington, DC in 1991, and at the time he had predicted that, similar to 1989, there would be a year of regime collapse in the Middle East like what is now being seen in the Arab Spring. Bulliet contended that the origins of the recent collapse of governments in the Middle East can, in fact, be traced to Islamic world of the 12th and 13th centuries. The speaker explained that the source of legitimacy of rule in the Muslim world changed from the caliphate to the Mamluk model, which depends upon “facilitating Islamic life,” such as supporting the pilgrimage, and protecting the Muslim world from non-Muslim invaders. From this foundation, Bulliet proposed his theory of the Neo-Mamluk government in the modern Middle East. According to the speaker, these governments are based on groups of military officers who rise to power, with one officer in particular becoming the primary ruler. When that officer dies or is overthrown, another takes his place, further maintaining the military ruling class. Bulliet added that this results in a “kleptocracy of spectacular proportions” in which military officers, their families and cronies become deeply entrenched in multiple areas of the economy, and, in order to protect their economic interests, the governments become very risk-averse. In the modern Middle East, Bulliet named Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the Sudan as examples of Neo-Mamluk governments.
Bulliet went on to say that the credibility of the officers in power has been compromised due to a number of events over the last 20 years. He claimed that major changes began in 1991, including war in the Middle East and the beginnings of a peace process with Israel, went against the original foundation of the Neo-Mamluk government. From 2000 to the present, these governments were further de-legitimized by the profusion of Al-Qaeda’s propaganda and the US war on terror, which brought to light the connections between the US and the Neo-Mamluk states. Bulliet explained that these changes compromised the governments’ rhetorical claims to legitimacy as protecting the populace from non-Muslim invaders. All these factors culminated in the overthrow of some of the Neo-Mamluk regimes. The speaker emphasized, however, that the military officers and their economic interests do not simply disappear with the government. Bulliet questioned how long it would take to ease the army out of these regimes, and, based on the example of the Turkish military’s political involvement, he speculated it would take approximately 50 years. Bulliet contended that the monarchies of the Middle East were relatively more stable because, unlike the Neo-Mamluk governments, citizens of the monarchies were never promised fair elections and democracy, and so they were not disappointed when they never occurred.
Bulliet discussed Turkey’s history of military intervention in politics, claiming that Turkey under Atatürk was effectively a Mamluk state, in that it was risk-averse and the military was deeply embedded in the economy. Ultimately, Bulliet suggested that it may now be possible for the Turkish military to peacefully coexist with the government. When asked about the role of the US, Bulliet contended that the foreign policy of the US toward these Neo-Mamluk regimes actually contributed to their downfall. He claimed that it is not in US interests to oppose Islamist governments, pointing out the erroneous assumption that religious activists are more likely to create religious states, and he gave the example of Erdoğan as a political leader from a religious background who has been popularly elected to a secular government. Bulliet ended the discussion by suggesting that, in the future, Islam may become a purely national phenomenon that exists as a semi-independent entity within a secular state.
Richard W. Bulliet is Professor of Middle Eastern History at Columbia University where he also directed the Middle East Institute of the School of International and Public Affairs for twelve years. Born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1940, he came to Columbia in 1976 after undergraduate and graduate work at Harvard and eight years as a faculty member at Harvard and Berkeley. He is a specialist on Iran, the social history of the Islamic Middle East, and the 20th century resurgence of Islam. His most recent scholarly work is Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History (2009). His earlier books include Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers (2005), The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (2004), Islam: The View from the Edge (1994), Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period(1979), The Camel and the Wheel (1975), and The Patricians of Nishapur (1972). He has also written five novels, beginning with Kicked to Death by a Camel (1973) and ending with The One-Donkey Solution (2011), and is co-author of a world history textbook The Earth and Its Peoples (5ed. 2009).