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

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The Independent Online
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.