The Sykes-Picot agreement was signed by the European nations on May 16th, 1906. It demarcates borders for states that we know as the Arab countries of today. The countries of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Egypt and others were the outcome.
The colonizers left behind a land prone to wars and coups, secret police and torture, held together by oil. Foreign soldiers supported this system. During the Cold War the Americans and Soviets deployed troops to the region using the Arab states as proxies.
Arabs suffered in the midst of plentiful oil. They suffered poverty and oppressions in the name of greatness. A land of great monotheistic religions now brings forth many who kill in the name of God.
This dystopian world is being swept away. But something worse is replacing it.
The jihadists ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or Daesh control much of Syria and Iraq. Elsewhere civil war or military rule is underway.
For a long time many have wondered what has gong wrong.
Some political scientists put the blame on the Arab ruling class. Oil wealth allowed elites to extract wealth for themselves while paying their citizens to stay silent. Obviating the need for consent to rule.
Sociologists blame a patriarchal culture. Deference to elders, and clan or tribal loyalties as well as a distrust of outsiders.
Demographers point to the Arab populations rapid expansion and note that in cities millions of displaced peasants struggle to cope with daily life.
Historians blame Western imperialism. Colonization caused a disconnect between the Arab ‘westernized’ elite and the rest of the population. The imposition of borders created unwieldy states that struggled through violent transitions to stability.
The creation of a Jewish state in Palestine imposed a wedge between countries and provide an excuse for national militaries to dominate Arab states.
Although most academics do not like to blame Islam for the failure of the region to modernize, some do. And not only Western ones. Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American economist believes Islam’s egalitarian inheritance rules have hampered industrialization. And there has been no resolution of the issue of proper relations between Islam and the State.
For most of the time since the demise of Prophet Mohammed in 632, Arab governments have endorsed the dominance of Islamic religious law over those created by judiciaries, although in practice they have often ruled as they liked.
In the 19th Century countries such as Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt reduced the control of Sharia law and its judges. They realized that it was a deterrent to the successful growth of a country. The courts unpredictable rulings an obstacle to governance as well as business.
The spread of Islamism as a political expression of Islamic thought has created another set of problems. The texts of the religion are open to interpretation. Different groups do so in different ways. How can there be a fixed, immutable template for life and government if so many people disagree.
And the idea of divine command sits ill at ease with modern democracy. Parties are likely to use any dominance they achieve as a mean to silence their rivals. The process is a never ending cycle in a contest for greater religious ‘authenticity’.
Despite being reactionary, Islamism is a product of modernity. Receiving a boost from the increase in Arab literacy. This has risen from just a one-third a couple of generations ago to three quarters today. As was the case with Christian Reformation in Europe around the 16th century, the first choice for reading has been the Holy Scriptures.
But readers don’t just have one Holy Quran to read. Instead there are many different interpretations from various groups. Among those, the most prominent has been ISIS. It has mastered internet branding and is all over twitter.
While all the above explanations have some merit they are not enough in themselves. None of the explanations is unique to the Arab World. Almost a third of the world has been through the clutches of colonial rule. Patriarchy is a problem in many places. Many countries have overcome theses problems and built themselves into successful nations.
So have some Arab states. Morocco and Jordan are two such examples. Lebanon is as mess but it’s always been that way and for the most part people get on with their lives. Then there are the Gulf nations, such as Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia. These are financial paradises for their residents. As well as millions of foreign workers. Although they offer no democratic political choice.
The diversity in the evolution of the various Arab states suggests that the reasons cited above and by most academics for Arab woes are not enough. To understand their contemporary problems you have to look how modernity unfolded in each of its states. Many took a particular path that has lead to their present day failure.