David Goldman, aka Spengler has previously made the point. I have reported his views on the blog.
Looking at the Middle East, Spengler sees evidence of the decline and fall of Islamic civilization. At the least, it’s tragic. The remaining question is: whose tragedy will it be?
The Economist picks up the theme this week:
A THOUSAND years ago, the great cities of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo took turns to race ahead of the Western world. Islam and innovation were twins. The various Arab caliphates were dynamic superpowers—beacons of learning, tolerance and trade. Yet today the Arabs are in a wretched state. Even as Asia, Latin America and Africa advance, the Middle East is held back by despotism and convulsed by war.
As you know, Bernard Lewis famously suggested that Islam went wrong because it failed to separate mosque and state. It did not have the concept: render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s; render unto God that which is God’s.
The Economist asks:
Why Arab countries have so miserably failed to create democracy, happiness or (aside from the windfall of oil) wealth for their 350m people is one of the great questions of our time. What makes Arab society susceptible to vile regimes and fanatics bent on destroying them (and their perceived allies in the West)? No one suggests that the Arabs as a people lack talent or suffer from some pathological antipathy to democracy. But for the Arabs to wake from their nightmare, and for the world to feel safe, a great deal needs to change.
Some, like Philip Zelikow, have suggested imposing a quarantine on the Middle East. Perhaps, there is nothing the rest of the world can do to stop the decline, but one doubts that the contagion can so easily be contained. Terrorism is easily exportable and Muslims in Europe have shown a propensity to bring the war to their new countries.
The Economist follows Lewis in asking what went wrong:
Why Arab countries have so miserably failed to create democracy, happiness or (aside from the windfall of oil) wealth for their 350m people is one of the great questions of our time. What makes Arab society susceptible to vile regimes and fanatics bent on destroying them (and their perceived allies in the West)? No one suggests that the Arabs as a people lack talent or suffer from some pathological antipathy to democracy. But for the Arabs to wake from their nightmare, and for the world to feel safe, a great deal needs to change….
One problem is that the Arab countries’ troubles run so wide. Indeed, Syria and Iraq can nowadays barely be called countries at all. This week a brutal band of jihadists declared their boundaries void, heralding instead a new Islamic caliphate to embrace Iraq and Greater Syria (including Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and bits of Turkey) and—in due course—the whole world. Its leaders seek to kill non-Muslims not just in the Middle East but also in the streets of New York, London and Paris. Egypt is back under military rule. Libya, following the violent demise of Muammar Qaddafi, is at the mercy of unruly militias. Yemen is beset by insurrection, infighting and al-Qaeda. Palestine is still far from true statehood and peace: the murders of three young Israelis and ensuing reprisals threaten to set off yet another cycle of violence (see article). Even countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria, whose regimes are cushioned by wealth from oil and gas and propped up by an iron-fisted apparatus of state security, are more fragile than they look. Only Tunisia, which opened the Arabs’ bid for freedom three years ago, has the makings of a real democracy.
The magazine echoes Lewis’s idea:
Islam, or at least modern reinterpretations of it, is at the core of some of the Arabs’ deep troubles. The faith’s claim, promoted by many of its leading lights, to combine spiritual and earthly authority, with no separation of mosque and state, has stunted the development of independent political institutions. A militant minority of Muslims are caught up in a search for legitimacy through ever more fanatical interpretations of the Koran. Other Muslims, threatened by militia violence and civil war, have sought refuge in their sect. In Iraq and Syria plenty of Shias and Sunnis used to marry each other; too often today they resort to maiming each other. And this violent perversion of Islam has spread to places as distant as northern Nigeria and northern England.
More significant, I suspect, is the absence of free enterprise:
The absence of a liberal state has been matched by the absence of a liberal economy. After independence, the prevailing orthodoxy was central planning, often Soviet-inspired. Anti-market, anti-trade, pro-subsidy and pro-regulation, Arab governments strangled their economies. The state pulled the levers of economic power—especially where oil was involved. Where the constraints of post-colonial socialism were lifted, capitalism of the crony, rent-seeking kind took hold, as it did in the later years of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Privatisation was for pals of the government. Virtually no markets were free, barely any world-class companies developed, and clever Arabs who wanted to excel in business or scholarship had to go to America or Europe to do so.
As for solutions, The Economist believes that Arabs will have to sort it out themselves. Perhaps Western intervention will always be tainted by memories of colonialism. Perhaps, Arabs will not be able to take responsibility for their civilization’s failure as long as they can blame someone else:
But only the Arabs can reverse their civilisational decline, and right now there is little hope of that happening. The extremists offer none. The mantra of the monarchs and the military men is “stability”. In a time of chaos, its appeal is understandable, but repression and stagnation are not the solution. They did not work before; indeed they were at the root of the problem.
The legacy of Iraq is that no one wants to get involved in the Middle East again. Call it benign neglect, if you like. And yet, for the state of Israel, quarantining Arab cultural pathologies is not an option. And as long as Israel remains a permanent reproach, a shining example that contrasts with the failure of Islamic cultures, it will be in danger.
On the other hand, civilizational decline can be managed effectively or can be mismanaged. Whatever the wisdom of the Iraq War, the aftermath was initially mismanaged by the Bush administration. Perhaps, the Bush “surge” helped to set Iraq on a better course, but, by now, the question is moot. Iraq has been mismanaged into non-existence. Clearly, the Arab Spring was mismanaged, in particular by the Obama-Clinton foreign policy team.
If quarantine were really possible, we would happily join The Economist and Philip Zelikow in saying that we should just wash our Western hands of the whole thing. And yet, one suspects that the contagion will keep spreading and that Islamic civilization will go out with a bang, not a whimper.