To an extraordinary degree, global politics and U.S. and European foreign policies have been shaped and driven by events and forces in the Muslim world of the Middle East. Beginning with the 9/11 attacks the effects have been strikingly negative and costly. The most dramatic example at the
moment is the tidal wave of desperate refugees sweeping into Europe from Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa. This has produced an increasingly divisive debate in Europe. But it is worth remembering that none of this is Europe’s doing; it is the result of the pathologies and failures of the mostly Muslim, mostly Arab societies of the Middle East. It is a measure of the magnitude of the migrant crisis that it has pushed the ongoing civil wars in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan out of the headlines. In recent weeks, we have witnessed an attack on civilization itself of a kind that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago when the so-called Islamic State systematically destroyed some of the most iconic archaeological sites on the planet.
All this provided a backdrop to the ongoing congressional debate over whether to abrogate the recent nuclear agreement signed between Iran and the United States (and five other major powers). King Salman of Saudi Arabia paid a visit to the White House where he was given a notably warm and
respectful reception by the President. It was an occasion for the King to officially announce Saudi Arabia’s support for the nuclear agreement — setting aside the kingdom’s well known doubts.
Meanwhile the grim news just keeps coming. Egypt’s military regime becomes more autocratic and repressive despite Washington’s pleas for restraint. An Israeli-Palestinian settlement appears more remote than ever, and the war against the Islamic State (including U.S. airstrikes) seems bogged down in an at least short term stalemate. The catastrophe that is Syria gets worse by the day; Libya is without a functioning government, and the elected officials in Iraq have proved far more skilled at stealing from the treasury than administering the country. Tunisia, a democratic bright spot, is providing a steady flow of radicalized recruits to the Islamic State. It is a profoundly discouraging picture. Decades of international diplomacy and foreign aid dedicated to bringing peace and development to the region
have come to less than nothing. Where once great civilizations flourished, we now have armed fanatics deliberately destroying even the record of those civilizations.
What explains a man-made disaster of this magnitude? Entire libraries could be devoted to addressing that question. All we can do here is suggest that the overarching problem is the inability of Arab societies to come to terms with two ideas: (1) science and (2) political democracy. There is a compelling literature investigating how the West made the transition from medieval obscurantism to modern science and technology. One of the themes is the work of a handful of remarkable men in 14th century Italy who became determined to recover the largely lost intellectual traditions of classical Greece and Rome. This turned into an obsessive hunt for lost manuscripts — most of them in forgotten corners of medieval monasteries. By finding, restoring and translating these documents, the towering intellects of the classical world were brought back from the dead.
And what these seminal minds revealed was a way of thinking that we would call modern — secular, rational, empirical, deductive and inquiring. It sought to understand how the world worked (“the nature of things”) based on reason and observation. This directly challenged the authority of the
medieval church that answered such questions by referring to sacred texts and church doctrine. This clash produced such iconic moments as the Vatican trial of Galileo for heresy. But the seed of modern science and the mindset it requires were planted.
This fundamental way of thinking, this intellectual revolution we call the Renaissance, has been effectively rejected by the dominant clerical and political authorities in the Muslim Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a dramatic case in point. These comments come from New York Times columnist Tom
Friedman: “Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested into imposing the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand
of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.” It is little wonder that when the United Nations measures progress toward modernization and development (literacy, research universities, patents in science and technology), the Arab Middle East ranks near the very bottom. But it is
worse than that. The 9/11 attacks, the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and numerous other forms of jihadist fanaticism spring from this same root.
The other key idea that underpins what we think of as progress is a political one — participatory democracy. Democratic polities mobilize the energies of their entire citizenry, they give governing regimes legitimacy, and they foster open intellectual inquiry. Arab elites give frequent lip
service to democracy but it is usually no more than that. The idea that an all-powerful autocrat would voluntarily submit his political future to an honest election and actually respect the results of that election if he loses is profoundly alien to the elite culture. And clerical authorities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere will declare such a process un-Islamic.
As a result of all this, the beleaguered citizens of a failed region wash up on the shores of Europe as desperate human flotsam.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.