Engaging Mesopotamia's "Primitive Democracy": Re-thinking the Democratisation of the Middle East
The issue of Middle Eastern democracy has long inspired lively academic debate and research from across the ideological and political spectrum. Largely this work can be separated into two categories: those who believe that democracy will not succeed in the region and those who avidly support the 'shift'. Despite their differences, much of the work on both sides of this dichotomy has served to further entrench the binary oppositions between East and West by measuring the successes and failures of Middle Eastern democracy against the Western model. More recently scholars such as Jack Goody (1996) have argued that in order to eschew these discourses of opposition, humanities and social science research must instead emphasise the common heritage of both parts of the Eurasian land mass, namely the urban revolution of the Bronze Age and the subsequent development of the early city-states across ancient Mesopotamia. Overwhelmingly, the history of Mesopotamia tells us of the megalomaniacal kings and their grand, menacing empires that rose out of these early developments to conquer and rule the region by fear, bloodshed and domination. However, there is also a growing understanding that the history of modern thought - usually understood to have begun around 400 B.C. in Greece - can be traced further back to early Mesopotamia. Of foremost relevance here is the governance of Mesopotamia's early city-states by a political system that Jacobsen has termed 'Primitive Democracy' where "嵬timate political power rested with a general assembly of all adult freemen" (1977 -b: 128). This paper therefore begins by reviewing the current literature on democracy and the Middle East from across the aforementioned political and ideological spectrum. It continues by detailing the extensive examples of 'Primitive Democracy' found throughout the region's history, from early myths such as Enuma Elish through to the grand empires of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians and Phoenicians. In the interest of fostering a liberal, democratic and egalitarian Middle East, this paper concludes by suggesting that one strategy for re-thinking the Middle East's democratisation is to engage the powerful discourses of Mesopotamia's ancient, and democratic, past.
Middle Eastern Studies