The Arab world must find its own way

Two weeks ago I wrote a long essay on Israel, which focused mainly on the Israeli government and its wider network of support. But Israel is simply an actor in a wider drama centred on the Middle East. Today I want to look at this wider drama, and to focus on the Arab world. That is because this drama has drawn in the Western democracies, and we need to see a bigger picture. My main message is that we must find a way of stepping back, and letting events take their course, apart from clear humanitarian interventions.

Who are the Arabs? The narrow definition encompasses the native peoples of the Arabian peninsula, and their descendants, such as the Bedouin tribes that are scattered across a wider area. But I will opt for the wider version, for whom the Arabic language and Islamic religion are the defining characteristics. These are spread across North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, and then through “Greater Syria”, which includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, and then, of course, the Arabian peninsular.

The heyday of these Arabs was an era that I will loosely call the Caliphate, when, in the Middle Ages the Arabs could claim to be the centre of the civilised world. They constituted an empire ruled by people who could trace their succession back to the great Prophet. This empire collapsed, most notably with a Mongol invasion and the sacking of Baghdad in 1258. In due course the Arabs came to be ruled by the Turkish Ottoman empire. This empire weakened progressively through the 19th Century and finally collapsed in the First World War. It was replaced by period of European colonialism of varying degrees (deep in Algeria, largely absent in the central Arabian peninsular). The modern era begins as this colonial rule was shaken off, but succeeded by a series of states whose boundaries were defined by the colonial powers.

Things have not gone particularly well for these countries in this modern era. In spite of their great inheritance, their economic development has lagged. While they do better than the African countries south of the Sahara, Turkey and the European parts of the former Ottoman Empire have mainly done better. They have usually been ruled by strong men in highly paternalistic and corrupt regimes, with or without token references to democracy. Many have been marred by civil war, of which the worst were in Lebanon, Algeria, and, ongoing, in Syria. The western powers have been unable to resist the temptation to meddle, most egregiously with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These wars mark a struggle for identity after the Ottoman and colonial eras. This has two aspects in particular. The first is the obvious one that Arab countries want to become strong, prosperous countries, like their European neighbours – but have unable to do so largely through the ineptitude of their rulers. Some Arab countries are very prosperous, of course, courtesy of oil and gas resources. But high average wealth in these countries masks otherwise underdeveloped economies. This underdevelopment has caused frustration and a crisis of confidence.

Enter the second theme: the Islamic faith. The Arab world is not completely Islamic, but Islam is central to their identity. And so, with the failure of secular, nationalist dictatorships, Arab peoples have been drawn to an identity that is more explicitly based on their faith. Fundamentalist interpretations of the faith have been gathering momentum, marked by a return to traditional practices, such as the closeting of women and brutal punishments. Fundamentalism has been promoted by Saudi Arabia, using its oil wealth. This has been based on their highly traditional Wahhabism. But this has spiralled out of their control, as extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Isis have taken these ideas to a logical conclusion, but without reference to the Saudi state, which they regard as corrupt and hypocritical. I will call these groups Jihadis. We need to be a little careful here. The Christian equivalent of the Islamic doctrine of Jihad is a crusade. The correspondence between the two terms is rather good – conveying as it does anything from an entirely peaceful campaign to deal with mundane problems like litter, to a full-blown war. Jihad itself is a perfectly functional part of the architecture of Islam that has much positive potential. But not if it translates into eulogising violence, as the Jihadis do.

But the Jihadis are by no means the only form of militant Islam, and Wahhabism by no means the only fundamentalist one. Three other groups are worth mentioning. The first is based on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement of Egyptian origin which includes Hamas, which rules Gaza and which is propagating war against Israel. This has its origins in the early to mid 20th Century. It has developed highly secretive practices, from generations of evading state suppression. This makes the movement particularly difficult for outsiders to grasp. One of the unfortunate aspects of this is that it impossible to take the statements of their leaders at face value. They have a long record of saying one thing and then apparently changing their minds – something which undermined their credibility when they briefly took power in Egypt under President Morsi. A further Militant movement is based on Shia Islam (all the rest are Sunni); this includes the highly effective Hezbollah in Lebanon. Shias are a minority in the Arab world (though a majority in Iraq), but they draw strength from backing by Shia (but non-Arab) Iran – and this movement is clearly well-led and effective. Finally it is worth mentioning Salafism, a Sunni fundamentalist (but not militant or Wahhabi) movement particularly strong amongst the rural poor cross North Africa. Salafists advocate a return to highly traditional Arab practices, but their methods are peaceful persuasion and politics, not the violence of the Jihadis.

Ranged against this assortment of fundamentalists and militants are the Arab strong men, who seem to be able to rally all those who fear the politicised Islamic movements. They make full use of state structures and institutions, like armies and secret police. By and large they remain in power. But at the cost of corruption, oppression and continued economic underdevelopment.

The problem for us as westerners is that there is almost no room for movements that we find congenial. Ordinary Arabs (to generalise absurdly) seem to see the western powers as part of the problem. Westerners seem both decadent and contemptuous of the Arab Islamic heritage. Their identification with Israel and colonialist days does not help. The fundamentalists see democracy as a means of seizing the reins of power, but not as a thing of value in itself. The strong men see democracy as in a similar but opposite light: a threat to their regimes.

So what are we supposed to do? The strong men are asking us for military support, because they brand the Jihadis as a terrorist threat to the West. They have support within our security services, for whom these militants are seen as the main enemy. And yet the Jihadi threat to the West seems to be diminishing. They gain little from their terrorist assaults in Western countries. They would rather their recruits came to the Middle East where the real war is being waged. Excessive Western involvement simply increases the flow of recruits. Now that our troops are finally pulling out of Afghanistan, the Western effort should mainly focus on propaganda – to show disaffected Muslims that these wars are brutal affairs that are not their business, and to persuade them of the opportunities they have as constructive members of our own societies. We need to move away from the idea of war. Funnily enough, the media savvy of Jihadis like Isis is playing to our advantage. It is easy enough to use their own material against them.

Is there hope? I think there is. As the Western powers withdraw, it is becoming clearer to Arabs that their problems are largely of their own making – and that a culture of victimhood, however much it is apparently justified, is getting them nowhere. Fundamentalist and militant Islam is step in the wrong direction. They need to forge a new understanding of the Islamic religion that is more workable in the modern world, but still confident of its heritage. One that embraces democracy, accepts diversity and celebrates the equality of women. We might call it liberal Islam. But we liberals have to be very careful. The Arab peoples need to feel that these ideas are a natural progression of the Islamic faith – and not an import. We can’t help them with that. Something like this a slowly taking shape in Tunisia, and we have to wish them well. I firmly believe that the tenets of Islam are susceptible to this form of interpretation.

The Western world must stand ready to provide humanitarian support for the inevitable series of disasters that the region faces. We should provide logistical support to any efforts that promote a peaceful resolution of conflicts. But we should back off from military interventions and seeing the Middle East as one front of a “War on Terror”. It will take time, but the Arab peoples really need to work this one out for themselves. And the sooner they understand that their fate is in their own hands, the sooner any resolution will arise.