The Arabs have been on the losing side of history for over a thousand years. After hitting a pinnacle over a thousand years ago there came centuries of civil war, Mongols, crusaders, and finally conquest by the Turks. All this plunged the Arab nations into what seemed like perpetual servitude to foreigners. When European armies shattered the Turkish empire early in the 20th century, a new age seemed at hand. But the Europeans didn’t just walk away, they took half a century to finally leave. Since then, the Arab world, despite all that oil wealth, has made little economic, or any other, progress. It seems that the habits developed to help them survive centuries of subjugation have hindered them once they were free.
The problem with these traditional attitudes is that they are out of sync with the way the world is today. The Arab countries are all independent, yet many of the rulers act like foreign conquerors will return at any time. The centuries of subjugation lasted so long partly because the Turks were good at playing one faction against another. This created the habit of mistrust and deception within the Arab community. Family came first because family was all you could depend on. This caused problems when it came to selecting national leaders after the Turks were gone because these guys tended to look out for their family and friends first, and the rest of the nation was a distant second.
Al Qaeda, the Moslem Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and many other religion based organizations try to break out of the corruption and small mindedness by using religion to unify people. While it sounds good in theory, old school Islam preaches a lifestyle more in tune with the 7th century, than the 21st. The leaders of these religious groups have not found a way to overcome that problem. Worse, many of these groups have come to believe that terrorism and violence will bring victory. It won’t, and opinion surveys in Arab countries show that support for such tactics is falling.
What keeps the terrorist groups going is publicity, for they can turn even bad news about their activities into something positive. Up to a point. Al Qaeda became more hated in Iraq than anywhere else in the world because Iraqis have suffered the most from al Qaeda terror. No amount of media spin can change that. Yet Islamic terror groups survive in Iraq. The most active ones are Sunni Arab (like al Qaeda) and they thrive because the Sunni minority in Iraq used to have it all because they had run the place for centuries until 2003. After Saddam fell the majority Shia took over. They also took most of the government jobs the Sunni Arabs had, as well as the majority share of the oil income. This was a very abrupt change in fortune and many Sunni Arabs are desperate to regain their privileged position. The more practical Sunni Arabs try to do what minorities do all over the Middle East: make themselves useful and make the most of their superior education and skills. That often does not work in Iraq because the Shia don’t trust Sunni Arabs in general. As a result, many of the most capable Sunni Arabs have fled Iraq and tried to settle in the West or other Sunni Arab states that need their skills. Those who could not emigrate are left with despair and the brief elation that comes from each terror attack. Killing some of the hated Shia via a suicide bomb is seen as a victory and celebrated as such. It keeps a lot of Sunni Arabs going, albeit in a direction that does not help their economic condition.
But in many other parts of the world, especially those that have experienced little Islamic terrorism, and contain a lot of poverty stricken and badly governed Moslems, al Qaeda still appears to be a band of heroes, out to make things right for Moslems everywhere.
In addition to this reality, counter-terror efforts also have to deal with European hostility to America’s aggressive approach to dealing with the problem. There’s also an underlying anti-American attitude the Europeans have always had, which is now louder and more visible than in the recent past. The Europeans are so angry that they will even support some of the Arab fantasies, mostly in print, but sometimes in more tangible terms. Thus the war on terror has to deal with European fantasies, as well as the Arab ones.