Why are the vast majority of terrorism deaths the result of Islamic radicalism? Worse, why is that form of terrorism most common in the Middle East among the Arabs, especially those from the Arabian Peninsula where Islam first appeared 1,500 years ago? Until recently it was difficult for people in most Middle Eastern countries to openly discuss this trend much less where it came from and what could be done about it. That has been changing over the last decade and accelerated in 2017 as Arab nations, especially the oil-rich ones in Arabia, openly developed closer ties with Israel (mainly for protection from Iranian threats). A side effect of that was that it has become possible for Arab journalists and officials to openly (in the media) discuss Israel and why it is a good idea for the Arab states, who have been in a state of war with Israel since the late 1940s, to now openly treat Israel as an ally. The main reason is obvious; Israel is the military superpower in the region, despite containing only two percent of the people in the Middle East.
Worldwide, Islamic terrorism-related deaths have fallen by over 50 percent since 2014, when there were 35,000. Global deaths hit 19,000 in 2017 and under 14,000 for 2018. Since 2014 five nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan) have accounted for most of these deaths. The largest source of Islamic terror deaths during that period was ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a more radical faction of al Qaeda that currently is where the most radical practitioners of Islamic terrorism are found. Islamic terrorists continue to be, as it has been since the 1990s, the main source of terrorism-related deaths, accounting for about 90 percent of the fatalities. The remainder of the terrorist-related deaths are ethnic (often tribal) conflicts in Africa and Asia. Purely political terrorism accounts for a fraction of one percent of all terrorist-related deaths and are outnumbered by terrorism deaths inflicted by common (often organized) criminals.
Arabs don’t like dwell on their key role in creating and sustaining this scourge of terrorism. At the same time their new allies, the Israelis, have a different list of notable accomplishments, including great success in dealing with Islamic terrorism. Arabs don’t like to discuss why the Arabs and Israelis are different, at least not in public. But thanks to the Internet anyone curious about Israeli military capabilities can find out in private. What Arabs can discuss openly is the Israeli achievements in science and technology. It is no secret that Moslems, despite having a population 85 times larger than Jews, win one Nobel prize for every 33 awarded to Jews. Arab journalists place less emphasis on that and more on the fact that tiny Israel is one of the top creators of new inventions worldwide. Arabs attribute this to more effective educational institutions and policies. Arabs can now admit that their government have not been as pro-science/technology as the Israelis in particular and Jews in general. Some Arab leaders attribute the disparity to Arab engineers and scientists being lured to the West by better pay and fewer restrictions but the basic problem is there are more opportunities for engineers and scientists in the non-Moslem world.
What is still avoided is a public discussion of the 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 progress and 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, ever so slowly.
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.
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 Westerners who will look something up if they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it and pretend it's all in their head. While failure is accepted as the price of learning and success in the West that sort of thing is not an option for most Arabs. Improvisation and innovation are 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 is 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 ensuring that no subordinate leader can become powerful enough to overthrow the top guy. Subordinate organizations are purposely kept from working together or communicating 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 behaviour, 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 and not nearly enough. 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 often 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 1980s, 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 endeavours and that’s the main reason the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
These counterproductive traits are ancient and predate Islam but the nature of Islamic theology has perpetuated them in Moslem nations. While the West eventually separated church and state (helped by a few useful bits of advice in the Christian bible) that is more difficult with Islam because the word “Islam” literally means “submission” and the Moslem scripture is quite specific about Islam being a way of life and a form of government as well as a religion.
Most of these bad habits are ancient but they are not immune to change, even when Islam is involved. a quick look at the history of the Islamic world since World War II shows one constant; poor leadership. There are exceptions. Turkey, starting in the 1920s, sought to reform and modernize its governmental and cultural institutions, including a clear separation of church and state. Malaysia, after a chaotic beginning (in the 1950s), sorted itself out and created an efficient government (especially by Moslem standards) and adopted much of the English common law used when Britain was the colonial ruler of the area. This included a rather incorruptible, especially by local standards, judiciary. This gave Malaysia a big economic advantage, and led to rapid economic growth, despite some loud political squabbles. Islamic radicals never got a foothold in Malaysia, although some exist there. But Malaysians in general, and local counter-terrorism forces, in particular, are not hospitable to Islamic terrorists.
These reforms are always under assault by Islamic conservatives. The Islamic party that has run the Turk government since 2003 has become increasingly paranoid about religion and anyone not Moslem. The Turkish president has been openly accusing the non-Moslem world of making war on Islam. This is the same attitude Islamic terrorists use to justify their attacks on non-Moslem targets. Yet Turkey has remained a member of NATO and taken strong measures to shut down Islamic terrorist groups inside Turkey.
Since the 1920s Turkey has kept church and state separate but the current government wants to change that and is gradually doing so. One threat involved a proposal to undo the 1928 law that made the Roman alphabet the standard. This would be done by again teaching the Arabic alphabet in schools and eventually dropping the Roman alphabet completely. This proposal was defeated but the government did make it legal to teach the old Turkish documents using Arabic script in religious schools. In 1928 the adoption of the Roman alphabet linked Turkey more closely, culturally and economically, with the West and those connections are proving difficult to undo. Going back to the Arabic alphabet was very unpopular and the government quickly discovered that most Turks opposed this change. In response to this defeat, the government added more mandatory religious instruction (Islam only) in schools.
To make matter worse, the Turkish Islamic politicians got elected to power on the promise of cleaning up the corruption that was increasingly hurting the economy as well as politics and life in general. For nearly a decade the Islamic politicians did reduce the corruption, but then evidence began to appear that many of the Islamic politicians had themselves had become corrupt in addition to threatening to end the separation of church and state as well. The Islamic government sought to silence those who were openly criticizing bad behaviour by pro-Islam politicians. This despite the fact that ISIL considers the current Turkish government un-Islamic and wants to replace it, by force if necessary, and make largely secular Turkey part of the new caliphate. Most Turks oppose ISIL, but most Turks don’t want a civil war over the issue and are trying to settle the matter via with elections. That may or may not work depending on how many Islamic politicians agree to respect the democratic process. Yet Islamic radicals are quite certain the democracy, and many other Western customs (education for women, free speech) and un-Islamic and must be avoided. The constant in the current outbreak of terrorist violence is religion and particularly Islam. It is dangerous to point that out but, as the Arabs have discovered, even more, dangerous to try and ignore.