A Long Road
The Arab world took its first steps towards modernization in the early part of the 20th century. Egypt led with the Nahda movement and the Levant. These promoted liberal concepts of modernizations such as women’s rights, empirical science, public education and open society.
But an opposite school of thought also emerged. It prompted the return to pure Islam and the ways of the early Muslims and gave rise to Salafism. It is this that forms the crux of Jihadism.
Jihadism wasn’t destined to win from the start. When the Europeans pulled out of the Arab states after the 2nd World War, militaries or military-backed royalty assumed power. These strong-armed states controlled broadcasting, schools and the flow of capital. Creating a paternalistic approach to modernization.
The leader was the father figure, guiding the country through obedience. The government would defend the country, preserve its culture and mechanize farming while developing heavy industry. Regimes chose loyalists to run these businesses. Downplaying ethnicity and sect. Expecting loyalty from their citizens in return for development.
A particular path
Arab modernization began with force and with educated strong-men and loyal circles of elites.
The rulers retained the colonial system of administration and governance. Populations were illiterate and rural and easy to control. Colonial police forces continued their role of stifling dissent. More concerned about this than fighting crime. Over time the circle of loyalists grew smaller and more susceptible to corruption. The incentive to serve the public weakened and the education system in particular suffered.
Against this grim background political Islam began make in-roads. Repressive regimes clamped down on these movements wherever they rose. It was the experience of prison and torture that led many to declare a holy war against the ‘infidel’ Arab regimes.
Over the decades economies floundered while repression grew. Islamists offered a genuine alternative to corrupt elites.
The hatred of Israel only added to the mix, building on the bitter colonial legacy. Israel’s creation moved many Arab countries into an anti-western group during they cold war. The Arab monarchies remained aligned to the West, but with the world divided they came under no pressure to reform. Allegiance was prioritized.
This model of development fell apart in different places at different times. With the slump in oil prices in 1980, Algeria faced one of its biggest crises since becoming a socialist nation. A growing population was troubled with a huge unemployed youth. Rigid socialism was unable to provide jobs.
Other countries faced similar crisis over the years. The biggest has come in recent years. The Arab Spring was fuelled by unemployment and new media technologies that allow Arabs to see what has been possible elsewhere.
The problem is one of a strong regime and weak state. Without basic employment and amenities there is discontent and space for Islamist groups. Police focus on protecting the government and allow petty quarrels to foster. Some grow into sectarian clashes. Anger at widening wealth gaps creates social tensions which feeds religious strife. Islamists exploit this to expand their base.
This is a failure of the autocratic model of politics. Closing minds and politics only leads to disaster. Without change another backlash is only a matter of time. Yet all is not lost just yet. If only the leaders and militia can come to see the opportunities. The Arab nations have the resources that can make them great again. They sit across trade routes and are close to Europe. They have oil, archaeology and great rivers and beaches. And they have rich scientific and intellectual traditions. If only their rulers could see it.