Leadership: Why So Many Terrorists Are Arabs


August 4, 2013: Islamic terrorism has more to do with cultural problems within the Islamic world and Arab cultures than with any “war between Islam and the rest of the world.”  Islamic terrorism is actually an ancient problem. Consider that the word "assassin" comes from a group of very successful Islamic terrorists who existed a thousand years ago, who used drugs (hashish) to give suicide assassins a taste of paradise before sending out on missions that would get them killed. These guys were called "hashish eaters", and that word, when picked up by English speakers, emphasized the murder aspect and was mispronounced as "assassin."

Okay, so ruthless men have been using Islamic radicalism to create terrorists for a long time. No argument about that. But the cultural problems within the Arab world have more to do with the popularity of Islamic terrorism today than anything else. Non-Arab Moslems don’t have all the same problems and tend to suffer much less from Islamic terrorism. In Arab countries the cultural poison is so incurable that religion and terrorism seem a reasonable solution to the many problems. It’s not just a struggle between religious and secular reformers.

The result of all these ancient bad habits is a cultural crisis in the Arab world in particular and the Moslem world in general. The crisis is expressed by an abundance of corruption and a lack of economic, educational, and political performance. By whatever measure you wish to use, Nobel prizes, literacy rates, 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 exact nature of this lethal cultural miasma can best be described by enumerating the major components. Let’s start with the fact that most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority (Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, Nejdis in Saudi Arabia). All of which means that leadership jobs are assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation. This continues in democratic Iraq, where political parties or powerful politicians strive to control individual police or army units.

Islamic schools favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. Most Islamic scholars are hostile to the concept of interpreting the Koran (considered the word of God as given to His prophet Mohammed). This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab government organizations go by the book while Westerners are more likely to rewrite the book and thus be much more effective. Despite years of Western advice on this matter, many Arab officials  stick with the old, less effective, traditions.

There is little middle management (like NCOs in the military). The “ruling class” (owners, officers, or officials) and everyone else are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using what the West calls middle management. “The people” are treated harshly. Work accidents that would end the careers of Western managers, officers, or officials are ignored in the Arab world and nobody cares. This is slowly changing, with the steady growth of a proper NCO corps and middle management, plus better management attitudes towards their subordinates. But the old ways often return, with disastrous effects on the morale and effectiveness of the average Arab.

Not surprisingly, in Arab cultures the ruling class is despised by their subordinates, and this does not bother the leaders much at all. Many Arab leaders simply cannot understand how treating the subordinates (unless they are family) decently will have any benefit. This is another old tradition that dies hard.

Paranoia prevents adequate training. This is made worse by the habit of Arab tyrants insisting that their subordinate organizations have little contact with each other, thus insuring that no subordinate leader can became powerful enough to overthrow the top guy. Subordinate organizations are purposely kept from working together or communications on a large scale. Arab subordinate leaders don't have as broad a knowledge of what their subordinate leaders do, as is the case with their Western counterparts. Promotions are based more on political reliability than proficiency and efficiency. Arab leaders prefer to be feared, rather than respected, by their subordinates. This approach leads to poorly trained populations and low morale. A few rousing speeches about "Moslem brotherhood" before a national emergency boils over does little to repair the damage. Many, if not most, Arab leaders now know that the paranoia and parochialism are bad but ancient traditions are hard to abandon.

Arab leaders often do not trust each other. While an American manager or officer can be reasonably confident that the others they work with will be competent and reliable, Arabs in similar situations seriously doubt that their peers will do their job on time or accurately. This is an inefficient and sometimes fatal attitude. It's been difficult getting Arab leaders to change when it comes to trust.

Arab leaders consider it acceptable to lie to subordinates and allies in order to further their personal agenda. This had catastrophic consequences throughout Arab history and continues to make progress difficult. When called out on this behavior, Arabs will assert that they were "misunderstood." This is still going on.

While Western American middle managers (and Westerners in general) are only too happy to impart their wisdom and skills to others (teaching is the ultimate expression of prestige), Arabs try to keep any technical information and manuals secret. To Arabs, the value and prestige of an individual is based not on what he can teach but on what he knows that no one else knows. This destructive habit is still around, despite years of American advisors patiently explaining why this is counterproductive.

While Westerners thrive on competition among themselves, Arab leaders avoid this as the loser would be humiliated. Better for everyone to fail together than for competition to be allowed, even if it eventually benefits everyone. This attitude is still a factor in the Arab world.

Westerners are taught leadership and technology; Arabs are taught only technology. Leadership is given little attention as Arab leaders are assumed to know this by virtue of their social status as appointed leaders. The new generation of Arab leaders have been taught leadership, but for too many of them, this is an alien concept that they do not understand or really know what to do with.

Initiative is considered a dangerous trait in the Arab world. So subordinates prefer to fail rather than make an independent decision. Large scale enterprises are micromanaged by senior leaders, who prefer to suffer defeat rather than lose control of their subordinates. Even worse, an Arab manager will not tell a Western counterpart why he cannot make the decision (or even that he cannot make it), leaving Western managers angry and frustrated because the Arabs won't make a decision. The Arab leaders simply will not admit that they do not have that authority. The new generation of Arab managers have been sent to Western management schools, but there's still not a lot of enthusiasm for initiative (which is seen as a decadent and dangerous Western import).

Lack of initiative makes it difficult for Arabs to maintain modern equipment. Complex modern devices require on the spot maintenance, and that means delegating authority, information, and tools. Arab cultures avoid doing this and prefer to use easier to control central repair shops. This makes the timely maintenance of equipment difficult. Entrepreneurs, often non-Arab Moslems, often handle a lot of the maintenance. This is still a problem throughout the Middle East, where the oil rich nations have most of their non-government operations staffed by foreigners.

Security is maniacal. Everything even vaguely military or government related is top secret. While Western military and corporation promotion lists are routinely published, this rarely happens in Arab organizations. Officers and managers are suddenly transferred without warning to keep them from forging alliances or networks. Any team spirit among officials is discouraged.

All these traits were reinforced, from the 1950s to the 1990s, by Soviet advisors and admiration for the “success” of Soviet socialism and management practices. To the Russians, anything government related was secret, subordinates were scum, there was no functional middle management system, and everyone was paranoid about everyone else. These were not "communist" traits but Russian customs that had existed for centuries and were adopted by the communists to make their dictatorship more secure from rebellion. Arab dictators avidly accepted this kind of advice but are still concerned about how rapidly the communist dictatorships all came tumbling down between 1989 and 1991. The Russian influence is still fondly remembered, because the Russians had developed some highly effective police state methods. This made it easier for the police and military to control a country, even if despicable methods were used. While these Russian techniques can work to hunt down terrorists in a police state, it doesn't work in any other useful endeavors and that’s the main reason the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

But where did the current crop of Islamic terrorists come from? Historically, a noticeable increase in violence by Islamic radicals occurred every three or four generations, usually in response to corrupt and ineffective local government. Most Islamic countries experienced it, and some got a more lethal dose than others. The terrorists almost always lost, usually when a powerful ruler in the area launched a major military operation against the population (usually a tribe or part of a province) that was supporting the terrorists. Much bloodshed ensued. Today these measures would be described as genocide and war crimes. But in the past, the "massive retribution" approach worked and the terrorists disappeared. So the second lesson learned here is that what worked in the past won't work today because customs have changed. We have become kinder and gentler and must come up with different methods of dealing with terrorists. Where exactly did the current crop of Islamic terrorists come from? Basically, they came from Saudi Arabia in particular and Arabia in general. The Wahhabi sect of Islam had always been among the most strict and intolerant as well as dominant in Arabia. The Saud family owed their power, in large part, to a 19th century alliance with the Wahhabi sect. Holy Warriors from the Wahhabi tribes provided the crucial muscle that enabled the Sauds to conquer Saudi Arabia and establish their kingdom 80 years ago.

The Sauds realized that the more reactionary attitudes of the Wahhabis would hurt the kingdom in the long run. Many Wahhabi clerics were opposed to modern technology (unless it was a weapon). Radio, automobiles, and all manner of gadgets were resisted and the Sauds were constantly haggling with the Wahhabi clerics. Finally, in the 1970s, after a serious outbreak of Islamic terrorism the Sauds made a deal with the Wahhabi clerics. The Wahabbis could control education in the kingdom and have their own "lifestyle police" to enforce proper Islamic standards on Saudis, in return for keeping Islamic terrorism under control. This was key in spawning the current outbreak of Islamic terrorism.

Another important element was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Wahhabi preachers saw this as an assault by communist atheists (which is what Islamic conservatives considered the Soviets) on an Islamic state. The Wahhabi declared jihad against Russia. Billions of dollars and thousands of Arabs (most of them Saudis) went off to help the Afghans fight the Russians. The Pakistanis cooperated because at about the same time the generals running Pakistan had seized on Islamic conservatism as a cure for the corruption that was making the country ungovernable. The Wahhabis and their money were welcomed and exploited.

The Americans were there as well, as the "Afghan Freedom Fighters" were popular in the United States. Meanwhile, most of the money and weapons were being supplied by the Saudis. In addition to guns, the Saudis also brought in Wahhabi preachers, to set up religious schools for the millions of Afghan refugees. Pakistanis were allowed to attend these schools as well. The result was that the Pushtun tribes on both sides of the Afghan border were radicalized with Wahabbi beliefs. At this point Saudi Arabia was also exporting billions of dollars and thousands of Wahhabi preachers to many other Islamic countries in Asia and Africa. Some of that money went to Moslem communities in Europe and the Americas as well. But in the 1980s, Pakistan was where the Wahabbis were building a new generation of Islamic radicals. In the 1990s, Islamic radicals in the Pakistani military created the Taliban, by arming Afghan students in Wahhabi religious schools in Pakistan, providing some training and technical support and sending the lads off to end the civil war raging in Afghanistan. The Wahhabi clerics also infected Pakistan and Afghanistan with many of their bad cultural habits and caused all sorts of misery. The Wahhabi oppose education and freedom for women, as well as technical education in general. The Wahhabi tolerate technical progress they find useful but don’t encourage it. The same with many of the cultural norms that make the West prosperous while leaving the Arab world a backwater.

When the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the Pakistanis began to have second thoughts. In fact, by then the Pakistani generals and politicians had abandoned Islamic conservatism, for it had proved no solution to Pakistan’s problems. Too late. When September 11, 2001 came along, American troops engineered the overthrow of the Taliban government two months later. At that point the Pakistanis found Islamic terrorism had become entrenched among their Pushtun tribes and was spreading to urban areas. After al Qaeda was chased out of Afghanistan the terrorist group declared war on the Pakistani government, for siding with the Americans. That war continues, with al Qaeda losing but not yet destroyed.

Meanwhile, back in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 set off the Islamic radicals in Saudi Arabia. While the Wahhabi religious establishment did not back the Islamic terrorists, it had to come out against Islamic terrorism once al Qaeda began making attacks inside Saudi Arabia. Within two years all the al Qaeda activity in Iraq, which mainly consisted of killing Iraqis, led to a sharp drop in the popularity of Islamic terrorism throughout the Moslem world. But, because of international media networks, Islamic terrorism was no longer a bunch of separate problems, occurring in different cycles. There was now one, worldwide, movement.

As in the past, the Islamic terrorist recruits came mainly from those who felt most oppressed. These days, that includes the young population in most Arab states, which are all run by dictators or monarchs. The dictators and kings don't want democracy and Islamic radicals consider democracy un-Islamic. So the only way to vote is to set off a bomb somewhere. That somewhere, it turned out, was not at home. These Arab despots had equipped themselves with an efficient police state security apparatus, which has managed to shut down Islamic radicals wherever they have shown up in Moslem nations. That led to al Qaeda's campaign against Western nations. This was seen as an indirect way of bringing down Arab tyrants, which al Qaeda now believed were being propped up by the Western infidels. The American invasion of Iraq forced the Islamic terrorists to rush home and fight against an outbreak of democracy in their heartland. That led to the collapse of popular support for Islamic terrorists.

So how do you fight Islamic terrorism these days? Can't use the old ("kill 'em all") methods, so all you can do is keep the killers out of your own territory and wait for the madness to die out naturally, as it has done many times before. Changing the poor and misgoverned Moslem nations that generate Islamic radicalism is another option. But that takes time as well, and the current wave of Islamic terrorism may die out before good government (and a lot less corruption) becomes common in the Arab world.





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