The six worst violence hotspots on the planet at the moment (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia) seem hopeless and the search for solutions seems futile. But when you step back and take a closer look you find that all these countries have lots in common, aside from being “failed states.” All are largely Moslem and all have serious problems with governing themselves. This spotlights the fact that Moslems in general and Arabs in particular have developed a peculiar relationship with democracy in an attempt to cure these longstanding problems.
This democracy movement has grown since the 1960s as many more Moslems were able migrate to the West. Because of that millions of Moslems have come to understand democracy from personal experience. They did this either by moving to the West or being visited by family or friends who had and were eager to explain this curious but wonderful form of government in great detail. As a result of this opinion polls in Moslem countries have shown a growing approval of democracy, at least in theory. This was especially true in 2011 after the Arab Spring uprisings. But since 2011 that approval of democracy has dimmed a bit as Moslems unaccustomed to running a democracy found that doing so was not easy. A majority of Moslems still think democracy is the best form of government, but a quarter of Moslems also believe that democracy may be unsuitable for Moslem countries at this time. This disappoints and confuses many Moslems. They can see that democracy creates superior results where is has been established, but the process of getting democracy to work reliably is a lot harder and more difficult than many Moslems originally believed. This is largely because of some unique problems in Moslem states.
One of the unique problems is opposition from some Islamic conservatives. This is made worse because many Arabs believe what al Qaeda preaches, that the world should be ruled by an Islamic religious dictatorship, and that this must be achieved by any means necessary (including force against non-Moslems and Moslems who don’t agree.) This sort of thinking has been popular with Islamic conservatives since Islam first appeared in the sixth century. Since then, it has periodically flared up into major outbreaks of religious inspired violence. But that’s not the only problem. Arabs, in particular, sustain these outbursts with their fondness for paranoid fantasies and an exaggerated sense of persecution and entitlement. For example, most Arabs believe that the September 11, 2001 attacks were not carried out by Arabs, but were a CIA scam, to provide an excuse for the West to make war on Islam. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. U.S. troops in Iraq were amazed at the number of fantastical beliefs that were accepted as reality there. Currently it is popular to believe that ISIL was created by Israel and the United States and is still supported by those two countries.
Then there is the corruption and intense hatreds. It’s a very volatile and unpredictable part of the world, and always has been. This has resulted in Arab states failing to achieve the same prosperity and other social, economic and educational achievements found in the rest of the world. In first decade of the 21st century if became popular to call many of Moslem countries that were having trouble establishing democracy "failed states." This became the generic term for unstable countries that were prone to rebellion and civil disorder. What they all have in common is a lack of "civil society" (rule of, and respect for, law), and lots of corruption. The two sort of go together.
The best example of a failed state has long been Somalia, and that's largely because the concept of the "nation of Somalia" is a very recent (the 1960s) development. It never caught on. Same could be said for the Palestinians. Sudan is accused of being a failed state, but it isn't in the same league with Somalia. Sudan has had central government of sorts, on and off, for thousands of years. Not so Somalia.
Another common problem in failed states is a large number of ethnic groups. This is a common curse throughout Africa, which is why the majority of the worst failed states are there. Europe, and much of Asia, have managed to get past tribalism, although that has not always resulted in a civil society. Tribalism has kept most African and many Arab nations from making much economic progress. The top failed states tend to be African, Moslem or both. Somalia is also unique in that it is one of those rare African nations that is not ethnically diverse. Instead, Somalia suffers from clan animosities and severe warlordism.
There's a similar problem in the Middle East. For example, three current hot spots, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have long been torn apart by tribal and religious animosities. Same with the Balkans and parts of India and Pakistan. Perhaps the most glaring example of a failed state caused by too much diversity is Papua New Guinea, on the eastern portion of the island of New Guinea (north of Australia). Papua New Guinea has over 800 languages (and even more tribes.) It has been in chaos, of one form or another, since becoming a nation 35 years ago. There is no Islam involved here as most of the locals are Christian or pagans.
No one has come up with a quick, or easy, solution for failed states. It's all a matter of effective local leadership, and that frequently fails to show up. There has been some success in helping good leaders develop, by assisting with installing a democracy. But just letting the people vote often leads to someone, who looked like a good guy, turning into a dictatorial "president for life." Haiti has, for two centuries, trying to develop a civil society, and for over a century has been using democracy in that effort. Has not worked, and prospects are bleak.
Iraq is being keenly watched by the Arab world. It's one of only few Arab states to have held free and fair elections lately. Iraq, however, is in the center of the Arab world, and its success, or failure, as a democracy, will determine how well democracy will fair in the region. Thus the current struggle with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) takes on an added urgency.
The consensus so far is that the old reasons (outside interference) for the poor government in Arab states no longer apply. Since the 1950s, centuries of Turkish, and, more recently, a few decades of European rule, were to blame. Tiny Israel also got some blame. But it's become obvious that the Turks, Europeans and Israelis are not the cause. The problems are internal, and the search is on for workable solutions.
One exemplary leader can make a difference. Examples abound. Kemal Ataturk, more than any of his close followers and advisors, turned Turkey from a medieval monarchy into a functioning democracy. India also had a handful of strong leaders early on who achieved what many believed impossible, and created the world's largest (over a billion people) democracy. Neither Turkey nor India are as efficient and prosperous as many older democracies. But compared to many of their neighbors, Turkey and India are beacons of hope in an otherwise dreary political landscape. Alas, they are the exception, not the rule, and this sorry state of affairs will continue for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile many Moslem leaders have absorbed all this and come up with their own solution. This has not been easy. For example, for years the king of Saudi Arabia has been telling other Arab leader that they are the problem and you can take that as a sign of progress. But real progress it ain't. Arab leaders are victims of their own success. Their rule is based on corruption and police state tactics. Think East Europe before 1989. Big difference is that, although the populations of East Europe then, and the Arab world now, were both fed up with their leaders and governments, the Arabs were not willing to make as painless a switch as the East Europeans did in the 1990s. That's because the East Europeans had two choices; communism or democracy. The Arabs have four; despotism, democracy, tribal factionalism or Islamic dictatorship.
In Iraq and Gaza we see how the Islamic radicals react to democracy. They call it un-Islamic and kill those who disagree with them. The Arabs have to deal with this, and in Iraq they are. In Gaza they aren't. But the violence in Iraq has revealed another Arab problem. Even if you remove religion from the equation, not all Arabs are keen on democracy. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab minority believe it is their right (or responsibility) to run the country. This is a common pattern in Arab countries. One minority believes they are rulers by right, and that democracy is an abomination and un-Islamic (or at least inconvenient for the ruling minority). This is the pattern in nearly every Arab country.
Like South Africa, India and a lot of other places where "democracy won't work," it does. Not democracy like in the United States, or Europe, or anywhere else. Every democracy is different, just like every culture is different. Democracy is a messy, inefficient form of government, but compared to all the others, it tends to be preferred by most people.
Arabs, even Arab leaders, know they need democracy. They have tried everything else, and nothing else works. But democracy is strong medicine for Arabs, and many would rather just talk about it, and go no further. And that is the problem in the Arab world. Islamic terrorism is the result.