Al Jazeerah

The Crisis Within the Crisis

In the wake of 9-11 and the war with Iraq, the U.S. and the wider Islamic world stand at a point of historic and dangerous crisis. For example, in a survey of Muslim countries, only 4% in Saudi Arabia have a favorable opinion of the United States, 6% in Morocco and Jordan, 13% in Egypt, and so on. Similar patterns hold across the rest of the Muslim world, from Indonesia to Pakistan. In turn, a growing percentage of Americans are increasingly suspicious of Islamic countries. A recent poll, for example, found that the number of Americans who fear Islam encourages violence has doubled in just the last year.

Perhaps most illustrative of the problem is that what America describes as the ?war on terrorism? has become broadly interpreted as a ?war on Islam? by much of the world?s Muslim community. We are now at a situation where suspicion and hostility plague the relations between the world?s dominant state power and the world?s community of over 1 billion Muslim believers, to the benefit of neither. Indeed, the only ones who profit are the extremists on both sides. As someone who lost friends on September 11th, a young Muslim couple and their baby, this development is both saddening and frustrating.

Mistakes made by the U.S. government share a great deal of responsibility for this precipitous loss of goodwill and sympathy so soon after the tragedy of 9-11. Some of them include:

  • The Bush administration has too often had a shortsighted approach to the issues, failing to look at the long-term implications. For example, blanket changes in student visa restrictions were made to shore up homeland security, without examining the effect in shutting down a critical connection of amity between the U.S. and future Muslim leaders.

  • Likewise, the President has waffled between sometimes carrying himself with compassion towards the Islamic world, such as praising moderate Muslim-American leaders during respectful visits to mosques, while sometimes doing otherwise, such as putting polarizing figures like Daniel Pipes up for government positions.

  • Administration actions have also relied far too much on the vast American superiority in the military realm, but have not been matched by equivalent action in the political or economic spheres. The lack of proper follow-through in post-war Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate.

  • The Bush administration?s strategy was unduly unilateral and ignored 50 years of American engagement with the international community. While people can disagree about the various rationales for the Iraq war, it was saddening to see how many officials in the Administration went out of their way to antagonize and sunder longstanding alliances and isolate American policy from the world.

  • America has had an overly monolithic policy. It has too often lumped the Islamic world together as one ?failing to appreciate the diversity and need for nuanced policies between places like Indonesia and Egypt. Similarly, many have improperly lumped together the varied Islamist and radical groups. Al Qaida, Hizbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood are quite different and demand quite different American policies towards them. It has often forgotten the issues and concerns of Muslim minorities, who make up over 1/3 of all the world?s Muslims.

  • Finally, the Bush administration took far too long to respond to the continued violence between Israelis and Palestinians. While it is understandable that he would want to avoid the quagmire that consumed the last months of the Clinton administration, Middle-East peace is of such widespread and deep concern, that the President should not have waited to engage the issue almost 2 years into his term. Until it is resolved, it will overshadow all other polices towards the region.

    However, for all these mistakes, dynamics within in Islamic world are also at play. Perhaps the most worrisome are the underlying issues identified by the UN Development Program?s Arab Human Development Report, an amazing document written by Arab scholars for the Arab people. The report reveals a crisis within the crisis: how the Arab world is falling behind not just the West, but now also other developing regions, generating tension, humiliation, anger, instability and violence.

    • In the education realm, illiteracy rates are growing, especially among women. Out of 280 million Arabs 65 million adults are illiterate. Once the guardians of knowledge during Europe?s Dark Ages, Muslim countries are now found to be at the bottom of international mathematics and science studies. For those students lucky enough to go to university, few receive training in modern skills in business and technology that will make them able to compete with the rest of their generation on the world market.

    • In the development realm, 54 million lack access to safe water, 29 million lacked access to health services, more than 50 million people breathe dangerously polluted air. The Arab region has an access to Information Technology at a level even lower than sub-Saharan Africa, despite having much higher income levels. This means that it will likely become a victim, rather than beneficiary, of globalization.

    • In the economic realm, Arab states are experiencing a two decade long economic decline, with standards of living decreasing by 1, 2 % per annum. Unemployment levels are growing and productivity levels are declining. This means that for the first time, fathers will be better off than their sons.

    • In the governance realm, international surveys have found the Arab countries to have some of the highest levels of corruption in the world and minimal public services, which too often break down. This results in negligible foreign investment outside the oil sector and, even worse, capital flight (i.e. the local rich would rather park their cash in places like Switzerland than invest at home).

    • Finally, in the human rights realm, while the last few decades saw a momentous global movement towards freedom and democracy, the Islamic world was generally left behind. Common freedoms of opinion, expression, association, gathering, movement, residence are all too frequently abrogated. Indeed, only 1/5 of those countries with Muslim majorities are democracies. Not one of the Arab states have governments that are chosen by their own people. As a result, there are also higher levels of repression and lower levels of human rights in the Islamic world, relative not just to the West, but now to other parts of the world.

      The danger of these dynamics lie not just with the failings status quo, but the threat that the future brings if we do not alter courses. Muslim states are in the midst of some of the world?s most rapid growth in population, such that youths under the age of 24 now make up 50%-65% of the population of the Middle East. In an ideal setting, this generation would offer the chance for a great leap forward, as a bulk of the population will enter the prime of their productivity. For example, countries like Taiwan and South Korea were able to leverage similar population patterns in previous decades to jumpstart their economies. However it appears that the ruling regimes in the Arab world will be unable to do so, primarily because of their shortsighted failures to invest in their own people?s human capital.

      Our supreme fear must be that this generation will grow up disconnected, unemployed, humiliated, and increasingly angry. Not only will this anger express itself in greater violence towards the West, but it also appears that its rage is expanding towards internal targets. The recent attacks in Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and of the UN and Jordanian embassies in Iraq all bode the latest trend of terrorism, with Muslim cities and regimes being added to the hit list. Indeed, when a young al Qaida killer, recruited from local slums, slits the throat of a Muslim security guard, so that he can explode a bomb in a restaurant filled with well-off Muslim diners (as happened in Casablanca), the contours of a new and even more violent instability are drawn.

      In sum, the crisis is not just that of U.S.-Muslim relations that should scare us. It is a crisis within the Islamic world as well. It is driven not just by U.S. policy, but also by a crisis of opportunity, which has served to limit the hopes of the Islamic world and now sustains the forces of radicalism and chaos. Indeed, even we get to the end of the ?road map? and all our hopes of peace in the Middle East were achieved, much of the tension might be lifted, but the underlying social, economic, and security problems would remain.

      It is for this reason that a new cornerstone of U.S. relations with the Islamic world is needed. To be successful, we must locate our policies on the side of change, not the failing status quo. We must identify ourselves with the positive, supporting prosperity and opposing repression. In short, our goals must be to meet local needs and close the crisis of opportunity that is holding us all back.

      An important realization is that needed change is not simply about changing regimes through invasion. To be self-sustaining, a vision cannot be imposed from the outside, but must create local opportunity and support those positive forces on the ground that are pushing for progress. An excellent starting point for the U.S. is to seek a partnership based on answering the various needs identified by the Arab Human Development Report. The U.S. strategy towards success would seek to aid Muslim communities in the development of human capital that will make them winners in the competition of globalization. Programs such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative and expansion of free trade zones are nice starts, but must be expanded if we are to get serious.

      In conclusion, what is striking is about all these vexing challenges is that they are shared. While relations between the U.S. and the Islamic world are increasingly strained, we have a joint interest in resolving them. This makes them more difficult, but also perhaps ultimately more manageable.