April 17, 2024
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The Arab Downward Spiral

The rapid rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) to global notoriety has taken observers of Middle East politics by surprise. All of a sudden, a new Islamist political movement has stunningly upstaged former global public enemy number one al-Qaeda and establishes an Islamic state, a caliphate encompassing lands in both Iraq and Syria.

ISIS sees itself and its newly declared cali­phate as revoking the historic deals that were struck between European imperial powers after World War I, which gave us most of the Middle Eastern borders we know today.

Nothing symbolizes the sorry state of Arab politics more than the march of ISIS. The Arab world at large appears to be fast de­scending into a political quagmire, only a few years after the euphoria of the so-called Arab Spring. The unraveling of old dictator­ships in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria has opened up a Pandora’s box of sectarian, eth­nic and tribal divisions, old fault lines that have persisted under the heavy hand of po­lice states for the last century.

And the more chaotic the region be­comes, the more desperate and frustrated the search for a meaningful explanation.

Bad governance

From the perspective of many western gov­ernments and much of the western media, many Arab countries have never been able to govern themselves effectively. They lack struc­tures for effective democratic governance and rule of law; they are bedeviled by corruption and are too influenced by Arab or Islamic tradi­tions which favor paternalistic or patronage sys­tems of rule.

The rise of ISIS, meanwhile, is yet anoth­er example of how many Arab states, who never really saw their independence-era na­tion-building projects to completion, are still being buffeted about by the whims of modern-day feudal warlords.

In this sense, ISIS embodies the re­gressive and reactionary nature of “po­litical Islam.” The Arab world is of strate­gic interest to the West thanks to oil; at best, wealthy gulf countries fund football clubs, car and horse racing, and London sky­scrapers—but beyond this, at least viewed from the West, it’s hard to see what the Arab region stands for in the world today.

But in the region itself, that narrative is read very differently indeed.

Too much intervention

Arab politicians and current affairs com­mentators alike have a fondness for con­spiracy theories. Many of the woes the Arab countries have faced are often blamed on American-Israeli and perhaps also British plotting against long-term stability in the Arab countries; the old colonial “divide and rule” tactics have not been forgotten.

Much of this thinking stems from the tension between various states and move­ments (Syria, Iran, and the Lebanese Hezbol­lah) and Israel, with the conflict over Pales­tine now at its most heated for years.

In their eyes, much conflict within the Arab region (and between Sunnis and Shi­as in particular) is the latest in a long line of plots to weaken anti-Israeli sentiment and embroil the Arab world with internal con­flict—and eventually to dismantle the resist­ant states and Hezbollah. In this scenario, the dark side of Gulf wealth is the funding of radical movements like ISIS.

The situation, then, is that many Arab peoples are so busy fighting and killing each other they are not attending to the real so­cial challenges which are causing them real social harm: disunity, unemployment, pov­erty, and social inequality.

Better policy needed

This is the biggest missing link in the me­dia and political debate over the ISIS crisis. Modern Islamist social movements often proclaim that “Islam is the solution” to all the social and political woes of Arab popula­tions. This reflects the fact that under dicta­torship, the only viable platform for political protest in the Arab world was Islamic iden­tity; there could be no civil society and no freedom of association; after dictatorship, religious identity was the inevitable fall-back position for political organization.

The pressing social problems facing Arab and Muslim populations are often over­shadowed in Western media coverage by the problem of “political Islam.” Arab coun­tries have some of the highest levels of un­employment in the world; they have not in­dustrialized sufficiently (or at all, in some cases) to develop their workforces’ skills and knowledge base.

Worse still, their reliance on income from oil, gas or foreign remittances attached to those industries has lead sluggish eco­nomic growth and kept human capital poor.

The motivating thrust of political Islam is a sense of social dislocation, and a search for the identity and independence of the Arab nation. But the convoluted politics and thwarted economics of Arab countries make any such search terribly myopic, even disre­garding the ideological extremism of Islam­ist movements.

For too long, the question of social poli­cy in the Arab countries has been sidelined by raging political disputes, and these states badly need to start using policy to articulate a lost sense of the common good. An essen­tial dimension of this governance reform would require Arab countries renegotiating their place within the wider political econo­my, and being less hostage to outside polit­ical influence of ally states (both within the Middle East and the West) and more recep­tive to the will of their people.

Until that happens, the reign of terror will prevail.

DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: Rana Jawad receives funding from the ESRC. The Con­versation is funded by the following univer­sities: Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff, City, Durham, Glasgow Caledonian, Goldsmiths, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, The Open University, Queen›s University Belfast, Salford, Sheffield, Surrey, UCL and Warwick. It also receives funding from: Hefce, Hefcw, SAGE, SFC, RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation, The Wellcome Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Alliance for Useful Evidence

By Rana Jawad/www.theconversation.com (Lecturer in social policy at University of Bath)

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