Political Ferment in the Muslim World | Shahid Javed Burki

The world of Islam is not a homogenous place, not even in the way religion is practised in its many parts. To better comprehend the phenomenon of the rise of militant Islam in the Middle East and parts of South Asia, the Muslim world should be divided into several constituent parts.

The total world Muslim population is estimated at 1.6 billion, of which only 400 million live in Arab countries. The rest are in Central Asia, South Asia and East Asia. The differences among these separate groups of people are not just in the way religion is followed. There are also important differences in the state of political, social and economic development. The Middle East is the most backward Muslim region in terms of the development of political structures and social values. Its underdevelopment can be attributed to the fact that for centuries, it stayed under colonial rule — first the Ottomans and then Western Europe. When colonial powers withdrew, they left the reins of government in the hands of a small elite, mostly belonging to the military.

There are, at this time, five raging civil wars in Muslim countries. The worst of these is in Syria followed by the one in Yemen. Several competing groups in Libya are fighting it out among themselves for controlling the state. Iraq, unhinged by America’s 2003 invasion of the country, has, at its hand, a sectarian conflict of huge proportions. Most serious analysts have concluded that notwithstanding 14 years of efforts to build an Afghan nation out of so many disparate parts, Kabul is nowhere near bringing several powerful warlords under its control. Not only that, the Afghan Taliban continue to harass the Afghan Army, whose mobilisation and training cost tens of billions of dollars to the United States.

Four years ago, when the student-led middle class revolt in Egypt threw out the long-enduring authoritarian regime headed by Hosni Mubarak, there was hope that the Arab Spring of 2011 would bring democracy into the Arab world’s most populous country.

But that did not happen. In this sorry state of affairs, a few Muslim countries in the western part of the world of Islam seem to be making political progress. They, in alphabetical order, are Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey. To a varying extent, they have succeeded in dealing with the problems that have kept back the political development of Muslim nations. In all three, elections have led to peaceful and orderly transition from one set of rulers to another.

Both Bangladesh and Turkey have made notable advancement in keeping the men in uniform out of politics. In Pakistan, the military, while accepting civilian authority in most areas, has retained the ‘right’ to provide guidance in matters pertaining to national security. Bangladesh has made progress in keeping religion out of politics; so has Pakistan, but to a lesser extent. In Turkey, one of the most secular states in the non-Arab part of the Muslim world, has slipped back towards politics tinged with religion. Again, Bangladesh has made the most noticeable progress in dealing with minorities. This is neither the case in Pakistan nor in Turkey.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 persuaded several scholars to conclude that mankind had found, in liberal democracy, the most suitable way of being governed. But voters the world over are losing faith in democratic institutions. As Robert Foa and Yascha Monuk point out in a recent article, “rising income inequality has transformed the views of the rich more radically than those of the poor. In egalitarian societies, elites identify with the middle class, and believe that uncorrupted democratic institutions serve their economic interests. In oligarchic societies, economic elites share few material interests with ordinary people and have much to lose from policies that improve their lot.”

This view is not simply academic conjecture. It is supported by surveys. For instance, World Values Survey, which studies representative samples of citizens in almost 100 countries found erosion of support for democracy, especially among those born after the Second World War and among these, especially those born after 1980. Only a little over half of Americans born in the post-war boom gave maximum importance to living in a democracy. Among those born since the 1980s when economic inequality became an important feature of the political landscape, less than 30 per cent did.

In the days of social media, ideas travel fast and over long distances. Behind the Arab Spring of 2011 were millions of young people who had bought into ‘the end of history’ type of arguments. They were able to bring about revolutionary change in several Middle Eastern nations, but that change persevered in only one country — Tunisia. In the remaining, the collapse of authoritarian rulers was either reversed (Egypt) or led to civil wars (Libya, Yemen and Syria). The youth are alienated and disgruntled again, and are picking up the questioning of democracy as the preferred system of governance. They are looking for alternatives: among them is Islamic extremism.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 28th, 2015.

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