Anis Amri, the small-time criminal without a German residency permit who turned into a jihadist assassin in Berlin, was originally from Tunisia. Tunisia of all places! Tunisia, the country the West has praised as a model of democracy after the Arab Spring and the overthrow of the Tunisian autocrat, Ben Ali. Tunisia, the Arab country seen as an island of stability in the midst of Middle Eastern chaos. Only one of all those things is true: In Tunisia, moderate fundamentalists and forces of modern democracy were willing to cohabit in the administration.
They adopted the only Constitution in the Arab World that deserves to be called democratic. But that administration didn’t bring the country real political stability. Terrorist attacks by the extremist group known as the Islamic State on tourists saw the most important pillar of the Tunisian economy crumble. An already high unemployment rate went up even more and poverty increased further.
The result was a rapidly surging sense of desperation at the lack of prospects, particularly among Tunisian youth, who felt themselves cheated out of a future. Since democratic freedoms and constitutional rights couldn’t fill their empty stomachs, these youths became more and more susceptible to the jihadists’ radical messages of salvation.
The main beneficiary has been the Islamic State, or IS, group which to date has recruited more followers from Tunisia than from anywhere else in the Arab world. With 7,000 IS members, the ten-million-strong country has the highest rate of jihadist worldwide per capita. Tunisia proves one thing: When social inequality and abject poverty persist, even a hard-won democratic order offers no guarantee in neutralizing jihadists.
Tunisia’s chronic crisis is similar to that of many Arab states.
Germany is paying the price for decades of wishful thinking about the Middle East and North Africa.
The Islamic world in the Middle East and North Africa is working its way toward social and governmental implosion. Almost all of the countries between Pakistan and Morocco continue to stagnate and deteriorate. Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya are failed states. Although there is no threat of the state collapsing in Egypt or Tunisia there is the danger of revolution because of the decrepit state of the economy and thus the prolonged domestic destabilization associated with that.
And the West, and Germany? They are not up to the challenge. Germany’s political class and media elite are having to pay the price of having indulged in wishful thinking about the Middle East and North Africa for decades. For example, they not only failed to recognize how fragile these nation states were, most of which were created after 1918 by Europe’s colonial powers, but also the degree to which those in power lacked legitimacy and were only ruling through brute force, intimidation and never-kept promises of healing the economy.
Moreover, they led themselves to believe that the Western style of social modernization and secularization had already started to penetrate Muslim societies, when in reality it was only a superficial veneer. Instead, they held onto the idea that these states could be stabilized through economic cooperation and, if need be, through political and military aid. But that was overly optimistic, delusional and in fact, a denial of reality. That idea is now passé.
The dream that democracy is an easily exported force that can smooth out the stubborn patterns established by history, religion, culture and tradition, is one that is shattered by Middle Eastern reality. The naive hope, that the nations of the Islamic world would align with the democratic West sooner or later, in the wake of technical progress and globalization and an open Internet, remains an illusion.
Even in places where democracy succeeded to some extent, such as in Tunisia, the model is fighting to survive. And where it has existed for some time, as in the case of the Turkey, it is being transformed – into a presidential dictatorship. Instead of democracies, authoritarian and highly-repressive nationalistic military regimes rule, conservative monarchies govern with a heavy hand, or, as in Iran, theocracies are in charge. There are also many small regimes run by local warlords and tribal allegiances, as in Libya and Yemen.
Add to that the factor that just exacerbates the whole situation. The sectarian conflict between the region’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims is becoming critical again. It has fanned the flames in other conflicts, which have become more brutal as a result. Fundamentalist regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the traditional bases for Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam respectively, have a historical rivalry that is being played out in the region.
This religious cold war between irreconcilable antipodes will intensify over the coming decades. At the same time, the Iranians have chalked up a number of successes recently. They have become not only the most influential foreign power in Iraq, thanks to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but they have become an indispensable supporter of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad and have also secured decisive influence in Lebanon.
The struggle between Riyadh and Tehran benefits an enemy, who has sworn to destroy both: the IS group. Since 2013, the group has been the most powerful and dangerous jihad organization with a global reach. The extremist group may have lost some territories in Syria and Iraq since the end of 2015, but it is far from defeated.
Moreover the IS group continues to be attractive to countless millions of disillusioned youths, who feel betrayed by governments who have made pacts with the West. For them, it’s the theology of force, based on an extremely radical interpretation of holy war, and it is all too attractive. According to it, the whole world is divided into two camps, the true believers, meaning the followers of the IS group and the unbelievers, whose fate must be submission or death.
There is little hope: The economic situation in most Arab countries is disastrous, with no positive trend in sight.
What has been helping IS in recruiting young men is an increasingly orthodox climate in many parts of the Islamic world, characterized by mounting intolerance and a tendency toward disassociation from other religions as well the hated West. This, in turn, strengthens Salafism, an extremely fundamentalist school of thought which is promoted by Saudi Arabia and has spread at the expense of more centrist Islamic thought.
It is Riyadh that is spreading Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative Saudi version of Salafism, through its worldwide missionary work and by dispensing billions of Saudi petrodollars annually to various militant groups.
On balance there is little hope: The economic situation in most Arab countries is disastrous, with no positive trend in sight. One reason for that is the menacing population explosion in the region. For example, the population in Iraq, Iran and Egypt has more than doubled in the last 30 years, a trend that continues unabated. However, too few jobs are being created.
At the same time, those in power, an extremely egoistic elite, are primarily responsible for the widespread corruption and mismanagement, from which they themselves profit the most. They don’t undertake genuine political and economic reforms out of fear of undermining their own monopoly. Instead they rely on harsh repression – a repression aimed at both democratic dissidents and oppositional fundamentalists – which ultimately benefits the extremists of the IS group the most. They fill the political and religious vacuum created by a state that drives more and more radicalized supporters into their arms.
The result is catastrophic. A political, cultural and social climate that is dominated by hopelessness and growing violence. Europe must quickly prepare itself, not only for an increasingly difficulty to control flood of refugees, but it must also prepare to become the stage upon which terrorist activities will be carried out. The extremists are bringing this conflict to us, all the way to Breitscheidplatz in Berlin.
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