Though the Middle East is often characterized as fertile ground for oppressive regimes, the region has a long tradition of liberal movements, Columbia University's Rashid Khalidi said at a lecture Thursday in McCormick Hall.
"Many people think [the Middle East] has never had any experience with democracy," Khalidi, the director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, said. "And while it is particularly undemocratic in some ways, democratic ideas have existed there."
Khalidi, who specializes in the history of Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, criticized American laypeople, experts and journalists for considering the Middle East to be inherently inhospitable to democracy.
"The bulk of the Turkish and Arab elites were deeply affected by European liberalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries," he said, arguing they facilitated the "incredibly rapid" growth of modern education throughout the region and the expansion of communications networks.
British and French colonialism, Khalidi said, weakened homegrown movements for democracy during the interwar period. He argued that military support of Israel by Western powers has further weakened Middle Eastern liberalism.
"Interference of the great powers rarely produced liberal democratic outcomes, and generally had the opposite effect," he said.
Khalidi's address Thursday comes at a time when Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) has been embroiled in controversy. A Jewish group released a film last October accusing Columbia professors of discriminating against Israelis and other students who support Israel.
Though not a member of MEALAC, Khalidi has drawn the ire of some for calling Israel a "racist" state and publicly defending his colleagues in the department. A Public Safety officer stood outside the lecture hall while Khalidi spoke.
An ad hoc committee at Columbia issued a report Thursday stating that charges of anti-Semitism were unfounded.
Though Khalidi conceded that tyrannical states have shackled democratic development in the Middle East, he said democratic ideals have yet to be realized in the United States.
Experts and non-experts alike have tried to implant the American ideal of Jeffersonian democracy in the Middle East, Khalidi said. But the democratic ideal "doesn't really exist in the U.S. either," he said, leaving Westerners to foist an unrealistic political vision on Middle Eastern societies.
In Thursday's lecture, "Democracy in the Middle East: Historical Observations," Khalidi said the Middle East should "move toward an accepting of democracy, constitutionalism, the rule of law."
Khalidi specializes in the creation of the modern Middle East, the problems of Middle East historiography and the role of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1980s. His recent scholarship focuses on Palestinian identity and American policy in the Middle East.