Rabat - Extremism is being rife in the Middle East and North Africa since the revival of Islamism following the successful Mullah revolution in Iran in 1979 and the toppling of the West-supported dictator Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (26 October 1919 – 27 July 1980) by the Shiite ascetic cleric Khomeini. It will be a gross mistake to justify this phenomenon by the nature of Islamic religion alone; there are various other reasons behind the Muslim wrath that feeds radicalism and violence generously.
Rabat – Extremism is being rife in the Middle East and North Africa since the revival of Islamism following the successful Mullah revolution in Iran in 1979 and the toppling of the West-supported dictator Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (26 October 1919 – 27 July 1980) by the Shiite ascetic cleric Khomeini. It will be a gross mistake to justify this phenomenon by the nature of Islamic religion alone; there are various other reasons behind the Muslim wrath that feeds radicalism and violence generously.
Reasons for anger and rage
The anger that is simmering in the Mideast is not a recent phenomenon, on the contrary it is as old the region itself and its various cultures and faiths and can be explained by the following primary reasons that are history-linked and reach back into the time-old animosity that exists between Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition and alliance:
However, these reasons are not the only fodder for the mounting discontent in the MENA region; there are some contemporary issues that have not been addressed, in the least, and that are, undeniably, central to the issue:
These patriarchal and tribal time-old practices have, undoubtedly, being behind the Arab Spring that started in 2010 in Tunisia and is still going on in the form of bloody and violent civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen and has spawned, as a result, failed states in these countries.
George Joffé, a Research Fellow at the Centre and Visiting Professor of Geography at Kings College, London University believes that the reasons for the rage in Arab world have always existed, though in a muted fashion:
“There is no doubt that the events of late 2010 and early 2011 that constituted the Arab Awakening were a radical departure from the superficial impression of artificial calm that had characterised the decade that preceded them. However, in the sense usually attributed to the term ‘revolution’ – “the complete overthrow of an established government or social order,” according to the dictionary – they were not revolutionary. Nor did the experience simply begin in December 2010 for, in reality, the demand for an end to autocracy and for popular participation in government had often been made before in the Middle East and North Africa. Nor, indeed, were all the demonstrations stimulated by common causes even if they did occur virtually simultaneously, nor did they provoke common responses from the regimes involved nor, finally, did they have common outcomes. The one common feature, perhaps, was the ambivalence with which they were greeted by Western states that might, from their endless discourse about human rights and freedoms, have been expected to have been enthusiastic supporters of the demonstrators’ essential demands.”
Religious extremism in the tormented Middle East has, ultimately, created a monster known commonly as “Islamist terrorism,” that initially started with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and is today represented, in a dramatic way, by ISIS based in Syria and Iraq. This violence has no face, no precise identity and no address to be dealt with effectively. It calls itself Jihad (religious war against infidels) and is transnational and transcultural.
Given the strong grasp ISIS has on the psyche of Muslims, especially among the unhappy youth, when it felt the heat coming the from international coalition fighting it, it immediately called on its sympathizers to strike at the Western enemy’s heart and, thus, terrorist attacks occurred in Orlando, USA, Nice, France, Belgium, and Germany. However, the chances are that these terrorists were more likely not trained in ISIS’s terrorist academy but were mere “lone wolves” pushing the narrative and the agenda of this terrorist organization with their acts and lives. In a word, like al-Qaeda, ISIS’s message seems to be subliminal, for some reason.
It is anachronistic that the vast Arab world in which youth is predominant in number is ruled exclusively by a gerontocracy totally disconnected from their needs and aspirations and worse governing them in time-old tribal and patriarchal fashion.
According to a publication entitled “Regional Overview: Youth in the Arab Region,” which is a Fact Sheet prepared by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and the United Nations Programme on Youth, and is part of a series of Fact Sheets developed under the coordination of UNPY to support the International Year of Youth (United Nations International Year of Youth (IYY) August 2010-2011).
This document states clearly the following facts:
The document states quite clearly that is under-representation, not to say total exclusion of the youth from decision-making has, undoubtedly, led to the Arab uprisings:[v]
“Given the recent protests and civil unrest in numerous countries of the region (e.g. Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria), it is important not to overlook Arab youth aspiration for participation in the decision-making process. More than ever before, young Arab men and women are aware of the importance of participation and its relevance for them, their societies and their future. However, entrenched institutional arrangements, dated governing procedures, and inadequate evaluation and accountability mechanisms have to date contributed to limited youth participation in decision-making processes. Youth are almost entirely excluded from participation within the parliaments of more than half of the Arab countries, reaching a low of 7% in the parliaments of Bahrain and Lebanon. Furthermore, only 4 countries (Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen) have established specialized youth-related legislative committees. xvii The majority of countries of the region tends to address youth issues by proxy, through committees on sport, culture or family affairs.”
But that is not all; the youth are, also, made by tradition to carry weights of social taboos. In some countries like Morocco this has led to a cultural revolution undertaken by the millennials.
Since its independence the Arab world has been ruled by patriarchal forms of governments that are and were of the following nature and format:
Petro-dollar monarchies: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait
These countries are oil-rich and extremely conservative. They have managed to buy social peace throughout the Arab Spring with generous cash handouts made to the local population directly. These countries have, also, known incredible modernization in terms of infrastructure and means of everyday life but have and are staying away from encroaching modernity to satisfy the conservative religious currents in the country.
In Saudi Arabia the state religion is wahabism which dates back to the 18th century when the ultra-conservative preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) started a revivalist movement in the remote and sparsely populated region of Najd. His action aimed to “cleanse” Islam from forms of shirk (idolatry); such as the adoration of saints, pilgrimage to their shrines, visitation of tombs by men and women, as well as, strict separation of men and women in public spaces and strict niqab wearing outside of their secluded homes for the latter. He formed a pact with the prominent tribal leader, then, Ibn Saud, whereby he would support him in the conquest of power, through brutal submission of the tribes, as long as it is done under the banner of wahabism.
This politico-religious alliance was maintained over 150 years until 1932 when the Saud House created Saudi Arabia and made wahabism its official religion. As the oil revenues increased dramatically in the 1970s, the country started exporting its religion into the Muslim world with the help of petro-dollars and the country’s religious clout. In 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, The Americans turned to the Saudis for help in financing and waging a holy war, Jihad, against the Soviets. Happy with this American mission, The Saudis disbursed important funds to the Saudi Islamist billionaire, Ben Laden, to recruit Muslim youth worldwide, to fight the Soviets.
Ten years later, the Mujahidin mobilized by the Saudis and trained by the Pakistanis vanquished the Russians heralding the end of the Soviet Empire and might. Realizing that these Mujahidin were a deadly threat, somehow, to Pakistan and the region, the Americans put pressure on the Pakistanis to send them packing home, thus, creating a decentralized Jihadi threat. A decade later, Ben Laden and his al-Qaeda operatives attacked America on September 11, 2001, in revenge for ungratefulness for services rendered. Following this horrible act, other dormant cells attacked other countries friendly with America and it was the beginning of the long bloody trail of Jihadist terrorism in the world.
Conservative non-oil monarchies: Morocco and Jordan
Because they are not rich like the petro-dollar monarchies, they have opted for an incremental type of democracy allowing controlled dissent and opposition. For the majority of people these monarchies, in spite of their deficiencies in terms of accountability, they are the best there is, in so much as they guarantee stability and continuity in a tormented and fractured region.
However, it must be made clear that this “stability” will not last forever if the two countries do not move fast to implement lasting reforms and curb the appetite of regime economic predators from the royal family and immediate entourage and political retinue as well as co-opted politicians.
Rage is muted in these countries for now but it could explode into violence and chaos at any moment if long –term solutions are not found sooner than soon.
Uncertain republican regimes: Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mauretania, Sudan and Lebanon
These countries are facing difficult times. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda has gone, somewhat, secular to help the nascent democracy grow and prosper, but the problem is that the radical forces lurking in the dark see things in a different light and are tempted by religious absolutism.
In Lebanon, democracy is and has always being subject to tightrope-walking in the threatening presence of the Hizbullah menace looming in the background. A mighty political and military power controlled from Tehran and used by the latter to spread Shiite religion in the Levant and Gulf. It constitutes a formidable state within a state.
Egypt, Mauretania, Algeria and Sudan are military dictatorships where any form of dissent is repressed roughly and instantly, but, in return, they all pay lip service to conservative religious in-country establishment, to stay in power.
Revolutionary countries morphed into failed states: Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen
These countries have, since the 60s of the last century, considered themselves to be the paragon of the Arab world and its standard setters because of their revolutionary history and saga financed largely by oil windfall. Syria emasculated for decades Lebanon with its strong army, ruled over Palestinian factions; Saddam in his megalomania declared war to Iran, later robbed Kuwait and threatened to do the same with the other Gulf States; and Gaddafi, with petro-dollars helping financed revolutionaries and terrorists all the way to Ireland and declared himself unilaterally “Emperor of Africa,” when his Arab peers quarantined him for his mercurial stances and policies. Today, these dictators are gone or on the way out and their countries are in the grip of protracted civil war and have become de facto failed states with a somber future.
Corruption, co-optation and nepotism
None of the above Arab regimes are ascertained democracies; they are all, in many ways, patriarchal entities that see their people as subjects and not fully-fledged citizens. So, to keep control of power they resort to co-optation of all opposition political parties and individuals and allow unlimited corruption and nepotism, denying their people equality, equity and much-needed meritocracy.
This state of being has ultimately led to the creation of two social classes: the very rich and the very poor. The very rich class made of the ruling nomenclature and the business circles benefitting from rentier economy and a multitude of advantages, in return for allegiance and unflinching support to the establishment. The very poor class is made up of state functionaries, working class and informal economy people, in addition to the millions of have-nots and helpless people.
In these countries, under pressure from the World Bank, the state disengaged from providing social services to the poor and to a certain extent even education. They were immediately replaced and supplanted by religious welfare associations and Islamist opposition parties like the Muslim Brothers ikhwan in Egypt, who stood by the poor, in return for their political support and blind religious engagement.
Steven Brooke, in a paper, highlights the importance of ikhwan’s social contribution to the wellbeing of the Egyptian poor and ensuing immense gratitude windfall for their party:
“Anwar El-Sadat’s embrace of free market reforms in the 1970s, coupled with the onset of Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Policies (ERSAP) in the 1990s have steadily shrunk Egypt’s social safety. And for decades it has been non-state providers, including Islamist groups, which have filled the gap for millions of Egyptians. For instance, in the years before the 2013 military coup the Brotherhood’s Islamic Medical Association (IMA) was serving approximately two million Egyptians annually. One patient’s complaint following the seizure of IMA facilities captured the frustration: “the government neither provides us with hospitals suitable for human beings, nor do they allow the hospitals that treat us well to continue operating!” Suddenly shuttering this sprawling network would risk provoking the very unrest that the regime intends to prevent. On the other hand, allowing this network to continue in its current form poses apparently unacceptable risks to the regime. For decades, the Brotherhood’s network of social services have deeply embedded themselves in Egypt’s cities and villages and earned the movement a reservoir of gratitude, if not outright support. So long as this network continues to exist it will serve as a potential site of opposition against Egypt’s new rulers, a place where activists from the Brotherhood can build support by leveraging their resources to help Egyptians cope with their everyday problems.”
In many cases, these poor people, in return for the help they get from the religious organizations, are used by the latter, as cannon fodder, to fight their ideological battles and swell their political, as well as, paramilitary ranks. With time, this has led to an explosion of Salafist violence in many countries in the region.
Ways to counter radicalism and extremism
Since independence, most Arab countries have invested massively in education to empower their population and allow economic development. It was, then, and still is, today, a good national cause. Nevertheless, the problem is not in the intention to do well and allow development. The problem is, inherently, in the overall system and in the approach used.
Most countries, indeed, built more schools and employed more teachers and instructors but ignored curriculum revamping, teachers training, equity and gender equality. Instead, some countries rather than teach scientific subjects and international languages, with a high potential of employability, under pressure from religious clerics, gave more time and space to religious tuition.
In Saudi Arabia, religious topics take 60 % of the curriculum, which, in the end, results in people with a unilateral view of the world and of faith, if not to say, people intolerant and unable to believe in or show any disposition of undertaking any form of inter-faith dialogue and inter-cultural communication and exchange with other cultures and creeds.
However, to attain quality education, first governments must generalize learning and ease access to knowledge by duly striving to empower people through literacy, especially in remote areas. This can be achieved by providing custom-tailored literacy courses coupled with vocational training that would, ultimately, allow the individual to subsist and survive in a very difficult environment.
Families must, also, be encouraged financially to keep their children in school through basic education and especially girls, rather than marrying them at an early age or pushing them to work as maids in people’s homes where they are subject to exploitation and sexual abuse.
Women ought, also, to be empowered through functional literacy, whereby they master the three Rs but also learn a profession which can help them feed themselves and their families, bearing in mind that many women, today, are responsible for mono-parental families and could well do with an income-earning profession rather than resort to undignified labor or prostitution.
Nowadays, many young people feel emasculated by their governments because they are unable to get a job after going through the educational system and graduating from universities. Their profiles are not attractive to the private sector, in the least. Therefore, governments must, at once, revamp their educational systems and link curriculum to the needs of the market. More, the governments ought, urgently, to pressure the private sector to sponsor some university programs as is the case in Europe and America.
It is a common belief, today, in the Arab world that governments are not that interested in their country’s public educational system because their children and the country’s elites are trained in private institutions abroad and public schools in their respective countries are mere “babysitting institutions” and grounds for training needed menial workers for the rich and cannon fodder for armies. To be honest, there is a lot of truth in such an argument because senior politicians train their offspring to take over their positions in the government unashamedly.
Quality education is about employability. Employability is about dignity and hope for a better future, for a family and for full citizenship. The question is do Middle Eastern governments provide much-needed quality education or do they continue to provide just education period?
For Muhammad Faour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on education reform in Arab countries, with an emphasis on citizenship education, quality education is a must for the Arab world:
“Quality education is necessary for economic and social development. Sustainable economic development in the twenty-first century requires certain key competencies for lifelong learning that schools should teach. Skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, digital literacy, and social and civic responsibility are a must for new entrants to the global job market. Most current Arab systems cannot adequately educate students in these vital areas. What’s more, the Arab world’s burgeoning youth population—one-third of the Arab population is under the age of fifteen—will lead and shape societies and governments in the very near future. Investing in education reform today to encourage responsible citizenship will make all the difference for Arab democracy tomorrow.”
Promotion of equal opportunity and social justice
People in the Arab world are disappointed with their leaders who have always been tribal and patriarchal and have used their countries’ resources as “spoils of war” and not as national benefits to be shared equally between all citizens.
They feel that they have been emasculated by their governments politically, economically and socially. They are only made use of as soldiers (cannon fodder) to defend the country, security forces to protect the regimes and menial workers to work in the homes or the factories of the elites. A very sad and dramatic reality leading to discontent and anger of the impoverished masses.
In this part of the world there is no justice wether social, economic or political. Some special people are more equal than the majority of ordinary people. In most Arab countries, alas, there are two classes only:
The middle class that existed in the Arab World in the 60s, 70s and 80s of the last century is now a thing of the past. It acted, then, as a shock absorber between the rich and the poor and it was basically made of the government civil servants. Since, under the pressure of the World Bank, governments are hiring less and those already employed are hardly getting any salary rises or benefits. So, as a result, they have become poor.
During the Arab uprisings, the mobs attacked the symbols of both wealth and capital in addition to symbols of power and establishment. In Egypt, the rich close to the regime of the dictator Hosni Mubarek left by planeloads to Cyprus, Greece, Europe and the US right at the beginning of the uprising, to wait for the outcome of the popular discontent.
From time immemorial, Arab systems of government were tribal in make-up and nature and patriarchal in philosophy, whereby power is horizontal and based on the patron-client system. It is hereditary and exclusively constructed on family ties and alliances along strong blood lines.
The Prophet Muhammad, aware of tribal strength in Arab culture avoided choosing a successor from his own household; instead he left the matter to the Muslim community to decide along the democratic lines of the shura system (democratic consultation and consensus.) So, after his death in 632, the Muslim community initiated the rule of the Rashidun Caliphate the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” that lasted from 632 to 661.
The Prophet Muhammad tried to build a Muslim nation on the foundation of iman “faith,” this, however, lasted during his lifetime and the rule of the Rashidun Caliphs, after 661, a civil war broke known as the great chaos: al-fitnatu al-kubra, and a great schism materialized, as a result. General Mu’awiya, a shrewd politician, great administrator and strong military leader, from the Banu Hashim defeated Ali, the cousin of the Prophet (a member of his household ahl al-bayt,) in 658. In 661 Ali was assassinated and his son Hussain abdicated in favor of Mu’awiyya, at the Treaty of Mayadin, and the latter took power and created, the somewhat secularized Caliphate of the Umayyad (661-750.) Thus, Caliph Mu’awiyya instituted the hereditary rule based on tribal system, which was to be continued in the Abbassid Caliphate (750–1258
1261–1517 (under the Mamluk Sultanate of Cairo),) and later on, in the Ottoman Caliphate (1632-1922.)
Under the Caliphate system, the sovereign is sacred because he is considered to be the representative of Allah on earth; dissent and opposition are illicit because they imply and encourage fitna, chaos and disorder, leading to in-fighting, violence and death. Because Caliphs were not elected and were temporal leaders and commanders of the faithful, they, automatically, escaped all form of accountability and easily made dictatorships into sacred institutions, where normal citizens were mere subjects; ra’iyya, with obligations more than rights.
This feudal system continued in modern times with monarchies and republican systems alike, whereby ordinary citizens had no say in politics and had, merely, any participation in the everyday running of their affairs.
Luckily, the Arab Spring opened the door for a great change that will take time to be established, after, probably, a long period of instability. Hopefully, the much-waited for change will usher in:
Democratic rule and rule of law
Many people believe that the Arab Spring has failed or gone to the dogs, the truth of the matter it has not because it has empowered, beyond belief, the Arab citizen. It has managed, successfully, to break, once for all, the wall of fear built around autocratic regimes by political police and political intelligence mukhabarat.
The Arab Spring has not gone bust or become an Islamic Spring or Arab Winter. It is offering the Islamists the possibility to contemplate, for future use, the democratic alternative, and this has already born fruit with the Tunisian Islamist Ennahda morphing into a democratic party with an Islamic referential.
Rory McCarthy explains, in The Washington Post, this unexpected shift of Ennahda both in philosophy and agenda:
“How can we explain this shift? The most common explanation is that Ennahda was simply acting pragmatically. Even if it had really wanted to apply sharia law or to take a more confrontational stance against the former regime elites, the reality of transition politics instead required compromise. After all, Ennahda’s defeat in the October 2014 elections showed it couldn’t win repeated victories at the ballot box. Perhaps there was more to be gained by settling for a second-best outcome in uncertain times, especially in a system in which proportional representation and a mixed parliamentary-presidential model meant that coalition governments were more likely than a two-party system. But this implies that the movement’s adaptation was merely presentational and only the result of the political upheavals of the past few years.”
The Arab Spring is taking some respite; the next momentum will be decisive for freedom, rule of law and democracy. Also, the next Arab Spring will be a tsunami that will engulf the whole Arab world and not just one region, because the Arab individual will want to free himself from the shackles of the past and absurd tradition, and despotism, once for all. So, Gulf regimes will not be able to buy social peace with cash handouts like they did in the past. They will have to adopt full democracy or face the possibility of being thrown in the trash can of history, forever.
People in the Middle East region are “born” shackled by a number of cultural taboos that restrict greatly their creative thinking, discerning power and evaluation capacities. Over centuries these have become tradition that has morphed into a culture, and with time have gained into sacrality, too;
“Among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the variation in your languages and your colour”. (Ar-Rum: 22)
Tribalism is very strong in this region to the extent that it has affected Islam. Wahabism which is the official version of Islam in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly the convergence of tribal supremacy of the House of al-Saud in Arabia and the austere tribal version of Islam advocated by the religious thinker and scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) since the 18th century (see above for details.)
The Middle Eastern countries have to encourage personal freedom and write it in gold in the constitutions to allow innovation, change and development. Shackling the individual with weights of religion, tradition and tribalism will kill his talent and his drive for creativity and make of him an obedient member of the community rather than a mover.
The Arab Spring of 2011 was the work of the Arab millennials who have showed, beyond doubt that they want to have a say in the everyday life of their societies and put an end to patriarchy, tribalism, and nepotism that have crippled their lives. The Arab Spring is the first move; there will be more similar moves in the future until governments make necessary changes or disappear. Religious radicalism has to be seen, also, as a form of discontent against the state of things in this area.
God has created humanity in the shape of a pair: man and woman and they both have roles to play in life. Overtime, man, because of physical strength, has usurped the important role of the woman and relegated her to the position of second fiddle: procreation and sexual enjoyment, in total obedience.
Modern society has reestablished the rights of women, after a long struggle starting with the suffragettes in the West in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
In the Middle East, some progress has been done in this area, lately, to counter religious radicalism, but there is a lot of work to be undertaken in such fields as:
Recognition of cultural and religious minorities
In the early 20th century, Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian philosopher and sociologist created the Ba’ath political movement to unite the Arabs as a cultural entity rather than a religious one. This movement ushered in Pan-Arabism, a concept of one nation from the Atlantic to the Gulf united by culture and language and opposed to colonialism and imperialism. The drawback of this movement is that it did not recognize ethnic nor religious minorities, it coalesced their identities into some sort of pan-cultural nationalism making out of Arabism a nation, a religion and a tongue.
The decline of this ideology was due, ultimately, to two factors: lack of development, lack of freedom and lack of democracy. Arabism died out of natural death with the demise of the dictator Saddam, especially after his defeat at the hands of the Americans in 2003, but, in reality, its long decline started with the Iranian Islamic revolution of Khomeini in 1979 and the subsequent revival of Sunni Islamism.
Today, due to the persistent tensions in the Middle East and the bad influence of the racist ideology of ISIS, the region is progressively losing its Christians, who are in their majority intellectuals who have defended, more than anybody else, the Islamic faith and, especially, l’Islam des Lumières, Islam of the Enlightment.
Extremism is a state of mind, a philosophy and an ideology that did not come to the Middle East haphazardly, but it is the result of many social factors and political trends that coalesced over a period of half a century to create chaos and instability.
Attention must, urgently, be paid to such areas as those given here above to establish social peace and reconciliation between the state and the citizen:
These are, certainly, not impossible actions to undertake, but they do need a concerted effort and genuine dedication from the international community for the good of all men and women in the region and elsewhere.
Last but not least, the Arabs have to take responsibility for their actions and stop blaming the other for their demise and predicament. This is undoubtedly the first step towards positive change.
[i] Regional Commissions, New York Office, Report “Full employment and opportunities for all, regional highlights” 2008
[ii] The ILO Global employment trends for Youth issue of August 2010
[iii] League of Arab States. Arab Youth Reproductive Health and Intergenerational Communication, 2007
[vi] League of Arab States, Arab Youth Issues No.3, Arab Youth Participation: Challenges and Opportunities, 2007
[v] Op. cited
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed without permission.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy