Why do some parts of the world seem to defy efforts to achieve any degree of unity and peace? Not just for years or decades but for generations or as long as anyone can remember. The worst of these nations (like Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia) seem to actively avoid peace, prosperity and unity and finding solutions for their problems 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. The list of failed states grows longer if you include those who, on paper, maintain their unity but are chronically chaotic and unpleasant (or worse) to live in. These include Sudan (and the recently created South Sudan), Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, most African nations and, in the Americas, perpetually chaotic Haiti.
Many of the failed states were never unified nations with effective governments. Most African nations never existed as such in the past, but were created after a century or so of European colonial efforts that ended in the 1960s and 70s. The colonial powers leaving, usually willingly as they came to realize that these colonies were expensive to administer and would take a long time to develop prosperous enough economies to be self-sustaining. Unity was an even more difficult problem. When the Europeans left there were nearly a thousand different tribal/linguistic/cultural groups in sub-Saharan Africa. This plethora of cultural identities was the main reason there were few unified states, like ancient Ethiopia, in the region. There had been local kingdoms but they rarely lasted long because of the preference for kin-based government based on clans or tribes. Nations with borders were considered a novel, and alien, idea. But the colonial period showed it could work and since the 1960s several African states, like Botswana and the island state of Seychelles and Cape Verde, have remained unified, peaceful and prospering. Island states have an easier time of it in general and among those hundreds of separate cultures in Africa, there were many that absorbed the lessons of successful statehood their European colonizers offered. These were the groups that supplied many of the skilled workers, clerks and soldiers the colonials governments sought to recruit locally. But there were never enough of these bi-cultural locals to replace the colonial experts who tended to leave once independence was achieved. The Europeans were always considered outsiders no matter how much they absorbed the local culture and even married local women. Outsiders can overcome this. The Arab Moslem colonialists who preceded the Europeans by about a thousand years (coming overland from the north) made this acculturation process work but it takes centuries to complete. At that point, the Arabized Africans are often rejected by Africans and Arabs for not being African or Arab enough.
The failed Moslem states were another matter because they had a lot of cultural unity but forming effective (prosperous and stable) governments was another matter. Moslems tried and discarded socialist dictatorships (modeled on the Nazis, not the godless Bolsheviks) after World War II. There followed a democracy movement that grew after the 1960s as many more Moslems were able to 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 seemingly successful 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 it 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 these intractable problems is opposition from some Islamic conservatives. This is made worse because many Arabs believe what Islamic terror groups preach; that the world should be ruled by an Islamic religious dictatorship and that this must be achieved by any means necessary. That includes using lethal 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 religiously inspired violence that seriously damages the nation it occurs in.
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 that ISIL continues to survive because of continued support by Americans and Israelis.
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 the first decade of the 21st century, it 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 at the expense of everything else. 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 a 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 are not ethnically diverse. Instead, Somalia suffers from clan animosities and chronic 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, tried 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 still being keenly observed by the Arab world. It's one of only a few Arab states to have held free and (by local standards) 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 kings of Saudi Arabia have been telling other Arab leaders that they are the problem. 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. The 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 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. That is the problem in the Arab world. Islamic terrorism is the result. The periodic outbreaks of Islamic radicalism have been around a lot longer than modern democracy and much more resistant to change.