August 10, 2012: Recently, an American politician visited Israel and was asked why he thought terrorism was so popular among the Palestinians. The reply included references to cultural differences. That was immediately jumped on by political demagogues and media pundits as a racist remark. But it wasn't, because Arab leaders have been openly discussing the same problem but those discussions are ignored by the demagogues and pundits. More's the pity.
There is a cultural crisis in the Arab world in particular and the Moslem world in general. The crisis is expressed by a lack of economic, educational, and political performance. By whatever measure you wish to use, Nobel prizes, patents awarded, books published or translated, GDP growth, the Arabs have fallen behind the rest of the world. Part of the problem is the Arab tendency to blame outsiders and to avoid taking responsibility. Tolerating tyranny and resistance to change doesn't help either. Those attitudes are shifting and for most of the last decade the war in Iraq became the center of this cultural battle.
The shift began with the 2003 invasion, which was reported by the Arab media as a great defeat for the Western "crusader" army. Until, that is, it was all too obvious that American troops had battled their way to Baghdad in three weeks and were quickly defeating Iraqi forces defending this cultural capital of the Arab world. This triggered a debate in the Arab world, one that got little coverage in the West. It began when some Arab journalists openly pointed out, in the Arab media, that Arab reporters had not only been writing fantastical stories that had no relationship to reality, but that this sort of thing had been going on for a long time and, gosh, maybe it had something to do with the sorry state of affairs in the Arab world. That particular debate is still going on, largely unnoticed in the West. This is the real war against terrorism because the terrorists represent the forces of repression and backwardness in the Arab world.
Some Arab leaders have been particularly outspoken. Five years ago, at a meeting of the Arab League, the king of Saudi Arabia told the assembled rulers that the biggest problem in the Arab world was poor leadership. This was a bold statement but not unusual for the senior people in the Saudi government. These princes have also been supporting the Arab Reform Movement, which is based on the idea that most of the Arab world's problems are internal, not the result of outside interference. Actually, most educated Arabs will readily admit that their leaders have been less than stellar and largely responsible for the corruption and bad decisions that have put the Arab world so far behind the West, and every other region, except Africa, when it comes to economic growth.
But knowing and admitting to the problem does not solve it. The United States found that out after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party dictatorship was overthrown. Iraqis eagerly embraced democracy, only to find that the people they elected were not a big improvement over Saddam. Some of Iraq's new leaders backed terrorists. This was especially true of Iran backed Shia factions, which unleashed death squads six years ago that killed thousands of Sunni Arabs. Some of the Sunni Arab leaders supported terrorists who targeted Shias. And then there was the corruption, with billions of dollars of government money missing.
This incompetence is also, as the Saudi king likes to point out, the cause of the Islamic terrorism that is growing in the Islamic world. Indeed, these terrorists only began attacking kafirs (non-Moslems) in the 1990s, when they realized Islamic terrorists were getting shut down in Arab countries. In Egypt, Syria, and Algeria Islamic radical attempts to toss out corrupt governments all failed. While Arab leadership may suck, Arab leaders had certainly mastered the art of running a police state.
But attacking non-Moslems, outside of the Moslem world, brought into play the Western media. This was important because the Western media now had 24 hour, world-wide (via satellite) outlets. All the people that mattered could now see what the Islamic terrorists did. Before, terror attacks inside Arab countries were largely ignored by the rest of the world. The publicity was important because there were millions of Arabs living in the West. These people were making more money than they were back home and that's one reason they left. Fed up with the corrupt and incompetent leadership back home, they moved. This Arab Diaspora provided a refuge for Islamic militants. Another benefit was the appearance of Arab language satellite news services in the 1990s. Terrorist movements thrived on publicity and the more news channels there were out there, the more attention terrorist attacks would get.
All that terrorism is a sign that some Arabs are very unhappy. For decades, the powers-that-be refused to acknowledge why the kids were pissed off. Thanks to all those suicide bombs and breathless news reports, the family secret was out there for the entire world to see. No, not the al Qaeda "the West is making war on Islam," canard, but an earlier al Qaeda call to overthrow the corrupt leaders of the Arab countries. Al Qaeda had to come up with the "war on Islam" angle to justify September 11, 2001, and earlier attacks. But the root cause is bad leadership at home.
So when the king of Saudi Arabia tells the assembled Arab leadership 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. 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 are 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 three: despotism, democracy, or Islamic dictatorship.
In Iraq 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. 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.
But there is hope. Many more members of the Arab League are trying democracy, despite all the problems with corruption and the difficultly in compromising. There are a lot of places, like South Africa, where pundits declare that "democracy won't work," yet 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 the current Arab leadership 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.