Leading Article: The Arab world's problems are more fundamental than religion

Share
Related Topics
At first glance the slaughter in Luxor seems triumphant vindication of the Huntington thesis. A few years ago, Professor Samuel of that name, of Harvard University, wrote a celebrated book predicting that after the demise of Communism, conflicts would be generated by clashes between civilisations, first and foremost between the Christian West and Islam. And now 58 Swiss, German, British and Japanese tourists have been gunned down by Islamic fundamentalists in the Valley of the Kings, just when the Arab world is seething at America's refusal to bring Israel to heel, and the firepower of USS Nimitz and George Washington is pointed squarely in the direction of Saddam Hussein. Are these not precursors of still worse to come? The short answer is: not necessarily.

Undoubtedly, the mood in the Arab world is as combustible as at any time since the last Arab-Israeli war. But Islamic fundamentalism is caused not by the excesses of Zionism but by the failings of the societies in which it has taken root - from Algeria to Afghanistan by way, most visibly, of Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These failings include poor economic performance and the concentration of wealth in a few hands, manifest corruption and the long-standing inability of most Arab governments to respond to the will of their peoples. Then there is the generational chasm. Across the region the same men have been in power for decades, backed by more or less overt military regimes. Take Colonel Ghaddafi, among the youngest of them: he has ruled Libya for 28 years. Beneath this gerontocracy, however, bubbles a cauldron of youth. More than half the region's population is under 18, far less impressed than their elders by Islam's traditions of respect and deference to those in authority. And their economic prospects are grim. In Egypt itself, for instance, there are 2 million unemployed graduates. Once Nasser's Arab nationalism or Arab socialism would have provided solace. But these movements failed, while communism, that other refuge for the disaffected, has been terminally discredited. Small wonder the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism.

To these grievances must be added a sense of inferiority - that Islam is in a siding of history, and that the region counts only because of oil and gas. Oil, the Arab world knows full well, was why America put together the coalition to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. And the crushing defeat he suffered, though welcomed at the time by most of the Arab world, has left its own legacy of impotence and humiliation. And here certainly, the Israel factor is important, as Saddam's prestige begins to recover. Why, it is legitimately asked, is he held to the letter of every UN resolution and his suffering people held to the rack of sanctions, while Israel is allowed to ignore similar resolutions, not to mention the Oslo accords, with impunity?

But Israel is only a pretext - or rather a painful scab on a body riddled with a very different disease. The temptation to see the scab as manifestation of the underlying illness is naturally very strong, and its removal undoubtedly would temporarily reduce the patient's fever. But even a lasting settlement of the Palestinian question will not put the Arab world lastingly to rights. That Islam must do itself.

Curiously perhaps, the most farsighted of Arab statesmen have been two of the oldest of its rulers, the Kings Hussein of Jordan and Hassan of Morocco, who have partly opened their political systems to admit some elements of opposition. Otherwise, however, a vicious and depressing cycle is setting in. Before Monday's atrocity, Islamic fundamentalism seemed on the ebb in Egypt, and one faction at least was angling for a ceasefire. But these hopes have now been dashed, as was surely the intention of the perpetrators of the massacre. No matter that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians have reacted with horror and outrage to what has happened. President Mubarak has little choice but to respond to the violence of terrorists with the violence of the state. But repression will only breed more resentment, more despair and more violence. The West in turn will be less inclined than ever to offer the investments and long-term commitment which might help turn the economic tide. Israel's argument that it is the one safe bet in a dangerous region will be more persuasive than ever.

And here we come back to the notion of democracy - not the precise Western model of democracy necessarily, but some mechanism to make regimes more responsive to their subjects. Only in this way will Arab acceptance of Israel be fully legitimised. Even more important, the regimes will be under genuine pressure to provide their people with a decent level of prosperity and social justice - instead of masking their shortcomings by blaming everything on Israel and the West. If so, then the Islamic countries may be able to separate religion and politics, and create the stable secular institutions they so badly need. But as Luxor shows, the immediate prospects are bleak indeed.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
 

Costa Rica’s wildlife makes me mourn our paradise lost

Michael McCarthy
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence