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Political, Cultural, and Religious Diversity in the Arab World, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

As the Industrial Revolution arose to shape the course of the 20th Century for much of the Western world, the United States and other nations developed inextricable ties with the oil-rich nations in the Arab world. Money flowing into the region from the U.S. and other petroleum-dependent countries allowed the leaders who ruled the oil-producing nations to consolidate the wealth, and with it, their power over the people. Over the course of the century, the relationship between the West and Arab nations has at times been characterized by conflict, from the oil production embargo and the Iran hostage crisis in the 1970s to a series of terrorist attacks on U.S. and other Western interests over the next several decades; the attacks by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 fomented calls for war among many Americans. While many of these same Americans see Arab nations as a homogenous bloc, the truth is that there is a wealth of differences among the nations that make up the Arab world.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., much of the political and social discourse regarding what had happened –and what should happen- revolved around discussions of Islam. The Western world has a long, notorious history with Islam, dating back centuries. In the minds of many, the then-current climate was simply another example of the circumstances that have defined that age-old history.  To many Americans, Muslims were simply the “other;” like the perception many have of a homogenous “Arab region,” so too do many Americans see all Muslims as sharing similar religious views (Smidt, 2005). In fact, Islam is a world-wide religion, with millions of adherents living in nations outside of the Arab region, and just as many millions holding divergent, diverse views about what Islam is and how Muslims should exemplify the tenets of their religion.

There is no question that a movement exists within the overarching Muslim religion that promotes the idea of “jihad” against non-believers, most notably those from and in the Western world. This subset of Islam –given labels such as “the Islamist movement,” “Islamofascists,” “Jihadists,” and so on- promotes what many say is a sense of nostalgia for an Islam that never really existed. For the purposes of this discussion this movement will be referred to as the “Islamist movement,” the Islamists in this movement profess to wanting to see Islam become the world religion, with all people living according to a strict, severe interpretation of the Islamic faith. It is this strict interpretation of Islam that adherents say we must return to; opponents of this view assert that there is nothing to which Muslims can “return,” as Islam has never manifested in any culture or nation in the manner that the Islamists proscribe.

The Islamist movement is actually a relatively modern phenomenon, arising from the teachings of several Muslim clerics in the 20th Century. Islamist philosophies seem to have informed the sensibilities of notorious terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden; as they see it, the presence of Westerners, specifically Americans, in the Middle East is an affront to the teachings of Allah. Without becoming entrenched in detailing the history of Western dealings in the Middle East –many of which have been identified by Islamists as the justifications for their anti-Western terrorist attacks- it is the anti-West, anti-American sensibility of the Islamist movement that colors the perceptions of many in the West where Islam is concerned.

While the “Islamic world” or the “Arab nations” may be seen by many in the West as monolithic blocs where all people share a common mindset, the reality is that, like the diversity of Muslims, the “Arab world” actually consist of a diverse group of nations, with populations that demonstrate a variety of different attitudes and beliefs about politics, religion, and perspectives on the rest of the world. To illustrate this diversity, it may be simplest to briefly examine several different Arab nations, looking at their political structures and cultures. Further, a discussion about how people in different Arab nations see the concept of democracy may serve to illustrate the diversity of Arab nations, and Arab people.

Afghanistan and Iraq were the two nations uppermost on the minds of the American people in the period after the 9/11 attacks.  According to the U.S. government, the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan was complicit in the 9/11 attacks, as they provided a haven for the Al Qaeda terrorist organization that plotted the attacks. The Taliban government arose in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s protracted, and utterly failed, occupation of Afghanistan. The resistance movement that opposed the Soviet occupation, the mujahedeen, espoused an Islamist cultural identity as the central force of that opposition (Ryan, 2010). After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban government enforced strict interpretations of Islam on the people of Afghanistan. In recent years the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan sought to establish a representative democracy in the nation; this new government has managed to maintain a somewhat turbulent hold over the country over the last few years (Ryan, 2010).

While the Afghan people saw significant changes in their leadership over the last few decades, the people of Iraq lived under the same strict totalitarian regime for decades. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, known for his brutality and harsh treatment of Iraqi citizens, kept an iron grip on the nation until being deposed by the United States and coalition forces in 2003. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush made a concerted effort to associate the Iraqi leader with the attacks of 9/11, despite a near-total absence of evidence to support any such connection (Smidt, 2005). Numerous polls have shown that a great number of American people came to believe that Saddam Hussein was both associated with Osama bin Laden and was at least partly responsible for the 9/11 attacks (Smidt, 2005).

Despite public perceptions in the U.S., Iraq and Afghanistan could not have been farther apart in terms of their respective governments. While Afghanistan, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, was run by the fundamentalist Taliban, Saddam Hussein’s reign over Iraq was secular; Islam may have been the dominant religion, but it was not reinforced through the mechanics of government. This distinction seemed lost on a great many Americans who were quick to believe that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden had conspired to carry out the 9/11 attacks.

The nation of Saudi Arabia is one of the largest oil-producing countries in the world, and is a leading supplier of petroleum to the United States. While the Taliban government was defined by its adherence to strict interpretations of Islam, and Iraq was defined by the decades-long dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia has been governed as a monarchy for eight decades (Tessler, 2005). The Saudi Royal Family, while nominally Muslim, are members of a small sect of the religion, one that is not considered legitimate by many Muslims (Ryan, 2010). The government of Saudi Arabia has established a welfare state, as oil revenues have provided the means to ensure that most Saudis have access to the necessities, as well as education, solid infrastructure, and other public and social amenities paid for with the money generated by the country’s oil reserves (Jamal and Tessler, 2008).

The nation of Somalia is characterized not by its governmental system, but by its lack of one. Since the 1990s, Somalia has lacked a central, federal government. What governmental systems do exist are able to exert little control over the nation, and much of the country is entirely lawless. Somalia is considered a failed state; the nation is characterized by its lack of public services, widespread criminal activity, famine, lack of water and other natural resources, and health issues (Fauzi, 2005). While the American people may understand that Somalia is a largely lawless region, that understanding has done little to temper public perceptions that the entire Arab world is one homogenous bloc.

The nation of Egypt has undergone numerous changes to its systems of government over the last century. Egypt has had a long history of involvement with the West, characterized in the early 20th Century by the influence of British dominance in the region. As the leadership struggled to throw off the shackles of British rule in the early 20th Century, Britain responded by putting pressure on the nascent political movement (Amin, 2011).  The first stirrings of what would become known as the Muslim Brotherhood would arise in this period; the Muslim Brotherhood was actively supported by the British, who saw it as a means of undermining the growing democratic movement (Amin, 2011).

By the end of World War I the region was a hotbed of conflicting political forces as the West and the Soviet Bloc each sought to extend their reach and firm up their grasp on Middle East resources. The British grudgingly supported an Egyptian dictatorship in the late 1940s, though this dictatorship would be short lived; a growing resistance movement led to elections in 1950 that established a semblance of democratic rule in Egypt (Amin, 2011). A coup in 1952 established dictatorial rule in Egypt, one form of another of which remained extant until the recent deposing of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Though different in structure from the monarchist government of Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian government, like the Saudi government, managed to infuse their public rule with elements of Wahhabi Islam while maintaining a semblance of secularism in their system of control. Islam was the central religion of Egypt, but it did not define the system of government as it had in Afghanistan.

In what appeared to many people in the West to be a sudden movement –but one that was bubbling beneath the surface of the Egyptian police state for some time- was the massive youth-led movement that became known as “the Arab Spring.” Millions of demonstrators took to the streets of Egypt demanding an end to the rule of Hosni Mubarak and the establishment of a democratic system.  The movement was often referred to as “the facebook revolution” as that site and other social-networking media were used by organizers to spread the word about planned events and to disseminate ideas. 15 million people would eventually participate in the revolution, and Mubarak’s rule came to a rather swift end (Amin, 2011).

The crucible of the Arab Spring movement in Egypt serves as a perfect example of the disparate forces and attitudes that drive the people of that nation. As is the case across the Arab world, there is no homogenous bloc of people behind the revolution; those who sought to overthrow Mubarak did so for a variety of reasons. While the youth movement that lit the fuse of the revolution made up a significant component of those aligned against Mubarak’s government, so too did a large part of the Egyptian middle class (Amin, 2011). At the fringes of the movement were Islamists, Socialists, Communists, and members of other political groups. While many of the young people involved in the revolution wanted to see a strong Socialist component to any new government –i.e.- one that would provide social services like health care and college education along with a semblance of democracy- the middle-class revolutionaries were concerned primarily with democracy (Braizat, 2010).

Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood initially opposed the youth movement, largely based on the movement’s Socialist underpinnings (Amin, 2011). The Muslim Brotherhood, far from agitating for an Islamist regime, are, like their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, eager to maintain their involvement in the world marketplace (Amin, 2011). The Muslim Brotherhood had long been a component of the Egyptian government, extending their reach into public education and the state control of religion. Despite initially denouncing the drive for revolution by the youth movement in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood are now moving into the leadership vacuum left by the removal of Mubarak (Amin, 2011). At this time it is simply too soon to tell how Egypt will fare in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

What became clear during the Arab Spring was that many people in Arab nations wished to see democracy established in their respective nations, or if not democracy, then at least something different from the dictatorial regimes that had controlled so many Arab nations for so many decades. A series of studies conducted from 2004 to 2006 attempted to determine what prevailing attitudes about democracy were held by people in different Arab nations. Respondents in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco were asked various questions about their current systems of government as well as questions about democracy. The positive responses to democracy were all quite high, ranging in percentages from the mid-80s to the high-90s in each nation (Tessler and Gao, 2005; Jamal and Tessler, 2008).

In the nations that rate democracy highly, many respondents seem more concerned with what they perceive as the economic advantages to democratic rule –such as the manner in which the tax base from capitalism can pay for social services- than they are about elections or representative rule (Tessler and Gao, 2005). These responses may indicate a less-than-complete understanding of how democracy –as manifested in the current economic climate, anyway- actually functions; it seems that many respondents are simply chafing against governmental systems that seem to offer little to the average person, rather than specifically seeking democratic rule.

In resource-rich nations like Saudi Arabia the positive numbers for questions about democracy are much lower than in other Arab nations (Jamal and Tessler, 2008). This statistical difference between nations such as Saudi Arabia and those that rate democracy more highly is sometimes referred to as “the resource curse;” while the people of Saudi Arabia may resent the excesses and extravagances of their leaders, they have most of their vital needs met by the government (Jamal and Tessler, 2008). While many of these people may support the idea of changes in their government, it does not follow that they wish to see the establishment of democratic systems, but rather just more equitable distributions of national wealth.

While support for democracy among many Arab people seems to be high, the fact remains that none of the 22 Arab states has a democratic government. Several theories have been advanced about why popular support for democracy has not manifested into the establishment of democratic rule in any Arab nations. One theory is that Islam and democracy are incompatible; as this theory goes, the patriarchal underpinnings of Islam are antithetical to democracy (Tessler and Gao, 2005). While there may be some truth to this theory, it does not account for the diverse ways in which Muslims actually practice their religion throughout the Arab world.

What seems a more likely explanation for the absence of democratic governments in the Arab world is simply that most Arab nations have been governed by one form or another of autocratic rulers; whether monarchies or outright dictatorships, the rulers of the Arab world have largely managed to maintain tight grips on the control of their respective nations. In the instances where Arab nations have few resources, such as Somalia, the governments were not replaced by democratic systems, but rather they simply disintegrated, replaced by nothing.

Questions about why democracy has not taken hold in the Arab world are not easily answered. Any effort to pinpoint a single reason is inherently futile; there are simply too many conflicting forces at work to assert that any one factor is the main stumbling block for democracy in the Arab world. While the West may view the Arab world as homogenous, it is the very diversity of the Arab people that is likely keeping a unified democratic movement from arising. Islam, for example, is practiced in different ways by different sects and sub-groups, and these groups are often contentious with each other (Ryan, 2010). In some nations, tribalism provides further divisions among people; in others, life may be more “modern,” but the dominant governmental structures have provided little breathing room for any democratic movement to take hold, let alone flourish (Ryan, 2010).

The revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere appeared to many in the West as if they were about to usher in a wave of democratization in the region. Some even saw this movement as a vindication of the policies of U.S. President George W. Bush, who asserted that his foreign policy actions in the Middle East would foment a democratic movement that would sweep across the Arab world (Ryan, 2010). The post-Arab Spring reality is that democracy is not sweeping across the Arab world. It may simply be that the entrenched forces that have kept democracy from taking hold in Arab nations –as disparate and diverse as those forces are- may have been in place so long that any growth of democracy will be a long time in coming.

The implications of the diversity in the Arab world for U.S. policy are, by nature, quite complicated. While it may have suited the Bush administration’s agenda in the post-9/11 era to pain the Arab world as monolithic and intractable, the reality of the situation dictates that a one-size-fits-all policy is neither useful nor possible. U.S. support for the Arab Spring movements was strong, though it remains to be seen whether this support will pay off for the U.S. While there were some indications that the newly-established government in Egypt would be willing to work well with the U.S., the arrest last week of several Americans by a suddenly-defiant government does not bode well for the future. So too is the post-Ghaddafi situation in Libya playing out with some difficulty, as loyalist forces clash with Islamists, Socialists, and supporters of democracy.  The only thing certain about the future of the Arab world, it seems, is uncertainty.

 

 

Works Cited

Amin, Samir. An Arab Springtime? Monthly Review. 63.5. October 2011.

Braizat, Fares. What Arabs Think. Journal of Democracy. 21.4. October 2010. 131-138.

Fauzi, Najjar. The Arabs, Islam, and Globalization. Middle East Policy. 12.3. Fall 2005.

Jamal, Amaney; Tessler, Mark. Attitudes in the Arab World. Journal of Democracy. 19.1 January 2008.

Ryan, Patrick J. Islam & Modernity. Commonweal Foundation, New York. 137.15. 10 September 2010. 10-13.

Smidt, Corwin. Religion and American Attitudes Toward Islam and an Invasion of Iraq. Sociology of Religion. 66. 3 Fall 2005. 243-261.

Tessler, Mark; Gao, Eleanor. Gauging Arab Support for Democracy. Journal of Democracy. 16.3. July 200

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