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Over the last hundred years, the Middle East has been one of the most troubled regions in the world. According to the Economist, “With barely an exception, [the Arab world’s] autocratic rulers, whether presidents or kings, give up their authority only when they die; its elections are a sick joke; half its people are treated as lesser legal and economic beings, and more than half its young, burdened by joblessness and stifled by conservative religious tradition, are said to want to get out of the place as soon as they can. ” However, at one time, the Middle East eclipsed the West in intellectual, scientific, and literary achievements.
To examine what factors contribute to the Middle East’s present circumstances, a team of scholars, headed by Egyptian sociologist Nader Fergany, published the Arab Human Development Report 2002, an analysis of the Arab world’s strengths and weaknesses. The study found three key attributes for success in the modern world that the Arab community lacks: freedom, knowledge, and womanpower. According to the study, the absence of freedom is most visible in the region’s absolute autocracies, sham elections, and restrictions on the media and on civil society.
The authors contend that “the [global] wave of democracy that transformed governance . . . in the 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab states. ” Most Arab countries have the trappings of democracy–elections are held–but, more often than not, they are riddled with corruption. According to the study, people are given jobs because of whom they know, not what they know. Consequently, Arab states are plagued with an unmoving, unresponsive central authority and an incompetent public administration.
As stated by Haidar Abdel-Shafi, former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, “In some Arab countries, the absence of democracy-based participation . . . and free and honest periodic elections has formed an obstacle to the development process. ” Moreover, freedom of expression is sharply limited; according to a study by Freedom House, an American-based monitor of political and civil rights, not one Arab country had a completely free media in 2001. Another obstacle to development in the Middle East, according to the study, is the shameful state of the education system.
The authors allege that illiteracy rates in the Middle East are higher than the international average and even higher than the average in developing countries. Sixty-five million adult Arabs are illiterate, and nearly two-thirds of them are women. Approximately 10 million Arab children receive no schooling at all, and those who do demonstrate high failure and repetition rates. The most important consequence of this crisis in education is the system’s inability to provide students with the skills necessary to participate in the development of Arab societies.
According to the study, the quality of education is so poor that students emerge from school unprepared for the rapidly accelerating change produced by the world’s increasing reliance on technology and the emergence of a global economy. These generations of inadequately educated Arabs harm the Middle East as a whole because young people are unable to compete in the international market. The Arab world is also harmed, according to the study, by the systematic repression of half of its population–women.
According to the authors, Arab women live under the control of a patriarchal society that relegates women to maternal figures without a place in the political or economic arena. Women’s participation in the region’s political and economic life is the lowest in the world, evident in the low number of women in parliaments, cabinets, and the workforce. Moreover, one in two Arab women can neither read nor write. In fact, the authors contend, Arab countries place a much lower premium on female education than they place on male education.
The result of this inequality is that “society as a whole suffers when a huge proportion of its productive potential is stifled, resulting in lower family incomes and standards of living,” as stated by the study. According to the Economist, it is unclear how the Middle East reached such a troubling state. However, the Arab Human Development Report does offer solutions to reverse the deficits of freedom, knowledge, and womanpower, such as drastic improvements in elections, schools, and the treatment of women.
However, these improvements require years of social, political, and economic change and the cooperation of the Arab world. Only time will tell whether the study’s suggestions will be implemented successfully. The authors in the following chapter debate what other factors contribute to conflict in the Middle East. Islam Causes Conflict in the Middle East In the early morning hours of January 22, 1997, in Cairo, Egypt’s crowded capital, security forces conducted a series of house-to-house raids, detaining at least seventy-eight young Egyptians.
Such mass arrests are not uncommon in that country of 60 million, where the state’s war on Islamic fundamentalism has resulted in the arrest of hundreds–if not thousands–since 1981, most from villages in the Egyptian hinterland or from Cairo’s slums, where angry young men with little hope and few prospects often turn to Islam for comfort. Police routinely arrest individuals on the mere suspicion of Islamist activity. It is often said that a beard–the universal sign of Islamic zealotry–is all it takes to arouse such suspicion. But the men arrested on that January morning were not typical of Islamic fundamentalists.
They were not poor, bearded slum dwellers but the well-groomed children of some of Egypt’s most prosperous families. In fact, they were not Islamic fundamentalists at all. Their crime was “Satan worship” and “contempt” for Islam, the state religion. The evidence against them, though not an abundance of facial hair, was equally flimsy: a taste for black clothing and heavy- metal music. Their case caused a major stir in Cairo. Egypt’s state-appointed mufti, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassil, urged the “Satanics,” as they were called, to repent or face the death penalty for “apostasy” in Egypt’s Islamic courts.
The president of al-Azhar university–the country’s top Islamic institution–declared Satan worship part of a Zionist conspiracy to corrupt Egypt’s youth, and an Egyptian author published a study linking Satanism to the popular dance, the Macarena: “I noticed that each time they played the Macarena columns of smoke filled the discos and that the movements of the dance were part of Satanic rites. ” In the end, the suspects repented, declared their faith in Allah and His prophet, and were released. To the casual observer, this is both tragic and comic.
One would think a state that arrests people for listening to rock music must be having some difficulty coming to terms with things Western. But if we dig deeper, a glaring contradiction becomes evident: Islam is both avowed enemy and jealously defended state religion. Police routinely arrest Muslim radicals who would overturn the political order and establish a state based on their faith; but they also arrest those who would offend that faith. This is not merely a case of the Egyptian government throwing its Islamist opponents a few bones in an attempt to quiet them down.
It is part of a repressive state’s attempt to make up for what it lacks in democratic legitimacy by wrapping itself in the mantle of Islamic legitimacy. The result is the strengthening of radical Islam, its anti-Western agenda given credence by the very government that is trying to eradicate it. By setting itself up as the guardian of the faith, the government invites itself to be judged by its fidelity to it. But the Egyptian state, like all states, is a classic accumulator of power; it acts in its interests, and to do so, it must be flexible, free from the shackles of religious certainty.
Invariably it must act in a way that affronts the faith-making peace with Israel, aiding the United States against Iraq- and when it does, the faithful protest furiously. University students take to the streets, and groups like the New Jihad and the Gama’a Islamiya wage a terrorist war that today threatens to rend asunder Egypt’s social fabric. This disturbing phenomenon is replicated throughout the Arab world: in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, in Libya and Iraq. All these regimes seek Islamic justification for their rule.
Some, like Egypt, Libya, and even Iraq and Syria, do this by seeking Islamic cover for their policies. Others, like the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, pursue a more direct relationship to the creed, ruling by dint of their claim of descent from Islam’s prophet, Muhammed. In all of them, a battle is fought between the faith and the state on two fronts: on the one hand, the state tries to force Islamic radicals to respect its power and recognize its sovereignty; on the other, it contends with them to prove itself religiously purer, more Islamic–and thus more deserving of public fealty.
But when the game of politics is played by the rules of Islam, governments, which by necessity must make bargains that offend the morally consistent, are ill-equipped to win. As Francis Fukuyama has most recently noted, “All regimes capable of effective action must be based on some principle of legitimacy. ” This legitimacy can take many forms. In revolutionary Egypt, for example, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the fiery exponent of Arab nationalism, ruled by virtue of what author Max Weber called “charismatic legitimacy.
” Charismatic leaders “in times of spiritual, economic, ethical, religious or political emergency were neither appointed officials nor trained and salaried ‘professionals’. . . but those who possessed specific physical and spiritual gifts which were regarded as supernatural, in the sense of not being available to everyone. ” But this kind of legitimacy is obviously not sustainable for long periods of time; it is a purely personal phenomenon and cannot be passed from one leader to another. Weber suggests two additional and more durable forms of legitimacy: “rational-legal” and “traditional.
” Writer Milton Esman, in a recent restatement of these Weberian categories, argues that these include: a democratic mandate, usually a victory at the polls in a free and fair election; the ability to meet public expectations for individual safety and the security of property, and the ability to provide the public with goods like food, shelter, health care, education, and ample opportunities to earn a decent livelihood; and identification with the society’s norms and values. The most legitimate governments score well on all of these measures; the least legitimate score poorly, and thus need to rely on coercion and force to maintain power.
Though we live in what author Fareed Zakaria has called the “democratic age,” the first foundation of legitimacy–namely, democracy–seems to have eluded the Arab world. Of the twenty-one states of the Arab League, not one could be called democratic or liberal. In fact, in its annual survey of political rights and civil liberties entitled Freedom in the World, Freedom House ranks six Arab states (Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Syria) as the world’s worst in terms of political freedom.
And unlike in China or Russia under communism, there is no great grassroots movement for democracy in the Arab world, largely because democracy does not resonate with the average Arab. It has no basis in the Arab past and is tainted by its association with the West. Though many Arab governments hold sham elections in which the leader is swept into office with 99. 99 percent of the vote and 99. 99 percent voter participation, such displays are done mostly for the outside world. When Iraq’s “parliament” last winter passed a resolution refusing to respect the U.
S. imposed no-fly zones over the northern and southern parts of the country, the move was recognized as a poor attempt by Saddam Hussein to paint his transgressions as a function of popular will, and thus as somehow more legitimate. One perceptive observer of the Middle East has noted that leaders like Hussein have no idea how real democracies work and do not realize that those accustomed to holding elections would find such shams offensive. Meanwhile, to the people of the region, they are an irrelevance.
Other Arab governments, such as the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, naturally find any traffic with democratic symbols distasteful, and thus try to build legitimacy by providing significant material benefits to their people. The Gulf states have been particularly successful in this regard, using their oil wealth to create massive cradle-to-grave welfare states. For example, Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars to give its citizens free education and health care, as well as subsidized housing and utilities.
But this kind of mass bribery can only go so far, and poorer states like Egypt understandably find it unfeasible. Thus Middle Eastern states turn to the third traditional measure of legitimacy–emphasizing shared values. And in the great proselytizing culture of the Arab world, the most overriding public value, that which can immediately claim sympathy from all segments of the population, is Islam. Islam has served as the basis for political legitimacy in the Arab world ever since the death of the prophet Muhammed in the seventh century A. D.
Until the early part of this century, the Islamic world was united under a series of successive caliphates, the leader of which, the caliph (or khalifah, in Arabic), was considered the prophet’s temporal and spiritual successor. The first four caliphs, men who had known the prophet during his lifetime and who were each selected by learned men of the community, are referred to today as the Rightly Guided Caliphs. In the annals of Islamic history, they are considered the most legitimate of rulers, truest to the prophet’s legacy, and their period is considered a kind of Islamic utopia to which the Muslim world still aspires.