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The Arab World and the Future of Freedom

What do the past 50 years say about the progression and future of Arab civilization?

June 29, 2003

What do the past 50 years say about the progression and future of Arab civilization?

If one looked at the Arab world in the middle of the 20th century — newly independent of the colonial empires of Europe — one would not have thought it was destined to become a swamp.

Other Asian countries, such as South Korea or Malaysia — in far worse shape back then — have done much better. Few would have predicted these outcomes in 1945.

In fact, many observers at the time noted that, compared with other decolonizing countries, the Arabs were doing well. Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad were more cultured, more commercial, more progressive than most Asian and African capitals.

It made sense. The Arabs, after all, belonged to a great civilization, with a long history of science, philosophy — and military success.

They invented algebra, preserved Aristotle when he had been forgotten in the West — and won wars against the greatest powers of the day. Islamic art and culture were sophisticated when Europe was in the Dark Ages.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there was much hope in the Arab world that it would recapture its past glory. During that period — even though these countries had the usual post-colonial suspicion of the West — they looked up to the United States.

Egypt's most famous journalist, Mohammed Heikal, explained, "The whole picture of the United States was a glamorous one. Britain and France were fading, hated empires. The Soviet Union was 5,000 miles away — and the ideology of communism was anathema to the Muslim religion. But America had emerged from World War II richer, more powerful and more appealing than ever."

These new elites had a modern, secular attitude toward religion. In 1956, the Arab intellectual Ishaq Husseini wrote in a survey for the Atlantic Monthly, "Today, Islam is moving toward a position more like that of Western religion — with separation of church and state."

However strange it seems now, it was an accurate representation of the conventional wisdom of the time.

Something happened between then and now. In order to understand the contemporary crisis in the Arab world, we need to understand this downward spiral. We need to plumb not the last 400 years of history — but the last 40.

Arabia was like many non-Western lands. Having seen the rise of the West, the civilizations that were left behind — China, India, the Ottoman Empire — wondered how they could catch up. For much of modern history, Islamic elites seemed more eager to do so than most.

But the new politics and policies of the Arab world went nowhere. For all their energy, Arab regimes chose bad ideas and implemented them in worse ways.

Socialism produced bureaucracy and stagnation. Rather than adjusting to the failures of central planning, the economies never really moved on.

Instead of moving toward democracy, the republics calcified into dictatorships. Third World "non-alignment" became pro-Soviet propaganda. Arab unity cracked and crumbled — as countries discovered their own national interests and opportunities.

An Arab "Cold War" developed between the countries led by pro-Western kings (the Gulf states, Jordan) — and those ruled by revolutionary generals (Syria, Iraq.)

Worst of all, Israel dealt the Arabs a series of humiliating defeats on the battlefield. Their swift, stunning defeat in 1967 was in some ways the turning point — revealing that behind the rhetoric and bombast lay societies that were failing.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he destroyed the last remnants of the pan-Arab idea. Since then, things have only gotten worse.

Look at Egypt today. The promise of Nasserism has turned into a quiet nightmare. The government is efficient in only one area: Squashing dissent — and strangling civil society.

Meanwhile, the Gulf sheikhdoms — which were once ruled in a relaxed Bedouin fashion by monarchs who had limited power over their nomadic people — now are rich states. They use their wealth to build police forces, armies and intelligence agencies — all of which exercise tight control over their people.

Even in the rich Gulf states, one senses the frustration and anger of a populace that has been given some wealth but no voice — locked in a gilded cage.

Most Americans think that Arabs should be grateful for the U.S. role in the Gulf War, which saved Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Most Arabs, however, think that the United States saved the Kuwaiti and Saudi royal families — a big difference.

By the late 1980s — while the rest of the world was watching old regimes from Moscow to Prague to Seoul to Johannesburg crack — the Arabs were stuck with their corrupt dictators and aging kings.

Regimes that might have seemed promising in the 1960s were now exposed as tired kleptocracies — deeply unpopular and thoroughly illegitimate.

In an almost unthinkable reversal of a global pattern, almost every Arab country today is less free than it was 40 years ago.

There are few places in the world about which one can say that.

Adapted from “The Future of Freedom” by Fareed Zakaria. Copyright © 2003 by Fareed Zakaria. Used by permission of the author.