Monday, September 15, 2014

The Arab world has big deficits to address, and they are not the kind that can be paid for in oil.

Tony Abbott was mocked for saying that Syria's civil war was a case of "baddies versus baddies" during the election campaign in September last year.

"We've got a civil war going on in that benighted country between two pretty unsavoury sides," said Abbott. "It's not goodies versus baddies - it's baddies versus baddies."

The regimes that repressed the Arab world for so long were "the hothouse in which the current bitter tree grew," says Basharat, an Israeli Arab. And those violently oppressive regimes were the just the latest in a long line of repressive forces stifling the Arab world.

Four hundred years of Turkish rule was followed by decades of western European colonialism.

Then the superpowers of the Cold War followed up by sponsoring autocratic rulers across the Arab homeland. The oppressors of the Arabs were tremendously successful in their primary goal of holding power. They stifled dissent and crushed the hopes of new generations. They infantilised the Arab peoples.

One measure of their success was that while the number of democracies in the world trebled in the 30 years to 2005, none of the new democracies was in the Middle East, according to Freedom House.

Democracy flowered around the world but only a bitter tree of frustration and disenchantment grew in the Arab world.

And economic opportunity for ordinary people was stunted in most Arab states. The imposed backwardness of the Arab condition inspired a group of Arab intellectuals to write the Arab Human Development Report in 2002 setting out an agenda for a civilisational renaissance

The report distilled three debilitating deficits that needed to be overcome: a freedom deficit; a knowledge deficit, where education systems ill-prepared the young for the modern business world; and a deficit of women's empowerment. Those deficits are deeper and starker than ever.

The US and its allies have helped remove the dictators of the key former Soviet client states of Iraq and Libya. Chaos ensued. The excited aspirations of other Arab peoples led them to rise up in a hopeful moment briefly known as the Arab Spring, but chaos and new repressions have been the wintry outcome for most.

The extremist Islamists who stalk the counterterrorism assessments of the Western world today grew directly from this long repression.

The point of origin for so-called Islamic State was the Muslim Brotherhood movement founded in Egypt in 1928, invigorated by Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s and '60s, metamorphosing into the al-Qaeda group, which branched off into the Islamic State in 2004.

It is, at core, a resistance movement to fight back against the long stagnation and repression of Arabs. An Oxford historian of the Arab world, Eugene Rogan, has described the philosophy of the movement's intellectual giant, Qutb, as "a true liberation theology."

Abbott has set aside the cautiousness of his earlier stance. His gritty realism has turned now to soaring idealism. As he sends Australian forces to fight one set of baddies, he has conjured a golden future for the Arab world:

"Over time, I would hope to see a world where the golden ethical rule, "Do to others as you would have them do to you", is better accepted. I would like to see, over time, an understanding by all people, and cultures, and religions, that there should be separation of church and state, that there is a sense of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's," he told ABC radio on Monday.

Ridiculous? It's actually very close to Basharat's prescription and the vision of most enlightened Arab intellectuals: "The challenge of the Arab world is to dry up the swamps that produce these sicknesses, by introducing social justice, democracy and human rights."

But approaching this halcyon vision would require wholesale revolution in the Arab world. The barbarians of IS must be defeated; the Arab regimes understand the threat and are moving to act under US leadership.

But going beyond to find a real solution will demand a maturity and enlightened leadership that these regimes have never managed. The Arab world has big deficits to address, and they are not the kind that can be paid for in oil.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

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