Much has been written over the past months about the necessity to counter, militarily, the threat that ISIS and other Jihadist groups pose to the Middle East and beyond. Less attention has been devoted to addressing economic and educational structural factors plaguing the Middle East, which allow fanatical groups like ISIS to recruit a steady stream of disaffected youth to their ranks.
It was therefore significant that in his September 24 speech to the UN General Assembly, American President Obama said: “we must take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated fanatics, and the trends that fuel their recruitment…[since] in the Middle East and North Africa…a quarter of young people have no job; food and water could grow scarce; corruption is rampant; and sectarian conflicts have become increasingly hard to contain.”
He added: “If young people live in places where the only option is between the dictates of a state, or the lure of an extremist underground – no counter-terrorism strategy can succeed. But where a genuine civil society is allowed to flourish – where people can express their views, and organize peacefully for a better life – then you dramatically expand the alternatives to terror.”
No wonder Obama spoke of the struggle against fanaticism being “generational,” one that, no matter what assistance the West provides, can be addressed only by Middle East countries themselves.
Unfortunately, prospects for adopting the requisite structural reforms in the broader region appear dismal, all the more so as Libya, Syria and Iraq shatter into warring ethno-religious sects.
Population growth continues to far outstrip economic measures and job prospects, especially for the critical “youth bulge.”
Back in 2002, the UN-sponsored Arab Human Development Report, written by Arab scholars, examined why the Arab world lagged so significantly relative to international development standards.
Last month in Politico, Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, wrote an unusually blunt critique of the failure of the Arab world to address this disorder. Under the title, “The Barbarians within Our Gates“, Melhem spoke with despair of the “chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down”:
“Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”
“With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world,” Melhem noted.
Sadly, even those Gulf states are anything but bastions of enlightenment. Qatar has supported ISIS and Hamas; Saudi Arabia, now part of the anti-ISIS coalition, has, for years, underwritten Wahhabi fundamentalist madrassas throughout the region – including in Pakistan – inspiring a generation of youth prone to extreme intolerance, even to fanaticism.
“No one paradigm or one theory can explain what went wrong in the Arab world in the last century,” Melhem claims. Arab nationalism in its various forms, Arab socialism; the rentier state and rapacious monopolies, various Islamist movements have all failed “leaving in their wake a string of broken societies.”
Melhem concludes bleakly: “As terrorist organizations, al Qaeda and Islamic State are different from the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative movement that renounced violence years ago, although it did dabble with violence in the past. Nonetheless, most of these groups do belong to the same family tree—and all of them stem from the Arabs’ civilizational ills. The Islamic State, like al Qaeda, is the tumorous creation of an ailing Arab body politic. Its roots run deep in the badlands of a tormented Arab world that seems to be slouching aimlessly through the darkness. It took the Arabs decades and generations to reach this nadir. It will take us a long time to recover—it certainly won’t happen in my lifetime.”