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Self-Inflicted Wounds

Foreign intervention isn't what keeps Arab countries lagging behind.

12:00 AM, Aug 5, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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A few years ago at a meeting in Amman, Jordan, a Bush administration official suggested the time might be ripe for an Arab "democratic spring"--a flowering of democratic institutions in the Middle East. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, delivered the predictably gloomy forecast: "There will be no spring or autumn or winter or summer without solving the Palestinian problem. We want our friends in the United States to know that this is the consensus in the region."

The consensus is holding. The result is that the 22 member states that make up the Arab League retain their status as some of the most economically backward, politically corrupt, and socially repressive countries on the planet. That's the implicit message of the most recent Arab Human Development Report, "Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries," released last week by a group of leading Arab intellectuals. It is more or less the same conclusion reached by the editors at The Economist, who devoted a special edition of the London-based magazine to examine what ails the Arab world.

There's a good deal of candor to these reports, including a willingness to admit that authoritarian rulers--aided by "flawed constitutions" and "unjust laws"--are a major reason for social instability and economic decline. Yet both reports suggest a baffling ignorance of the political principles essential to healthy, democratic societies. To wit: Neither the seven-part critique by The Economist nor the 200-page study by Arab intellectuals breathes a word about democratic ideals such as freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

The latest Arab Human Development Report (AHDR)--the fifth in a series sponsored by the United Nations--identifies numerous threats to "human security" in Arab states. They include everything from climate change to poverty to "outside intervention" from hostile forces (read Israel and the United States). One is left with a sense of skewed priorities and confusion about the deepest obstacles to human flourishing.

To be fair, there's a measure of self-criticism, including the fact that flawed economic policies have saddled Arab countries with the world's highest unemployment rate, about 14.4 percent, or more than twice that for the world at large. The report does not blink in describing the plight of "abused and subordinated" Arab women. It cites the problem of legalized discrimination, "honor crimes," and state-sanctioned sexual violence, including rape. "One of the most violent, intrusive and traumatic threats to women's personal safety continues while society averts its eyes," the report says. And there's at least a confession that many Arab states ignore the human rights provisions of international charters to which they are signatories. The AHDR also delivers probably the toughest criticism of the Sudanese government uttered by Arab leaders, agreeing with U.N. reports that the regime is guilty of summary executions, torture, and other crimes against humanity. Better late than never.

Missing from the analysis, though, is any exploration of how Islamic religious values might be causing, or exacerbating, the problems. Nowhere in its treatment of Darfur, for example, does the AHDR mention the principal culprit in the humanitarian catastrophe: the radical Islamist ideology of the Sudanese government. Nowhere do we learn that the violent repression of Arab women is upheld by Muslim clerics making appeals to the Koran. Similar omissions by The Economist taint its overall critique. One might read both reports and not realize that political Islam represents the greatest threat to freedom and security in the Arab world.

This sanitizing approach to intensely religious societies is not only bizarre, but misleading: By failing to see the fundamental political and theological defects in Arab culture, it cannot chart a convincing way forward.

Consider the AHDR's view of the source of stability in the multi-cultural West. "In western political history," the authors say, "the normative concept that has contributed most to the management of ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is that of citizenship." There is even mention of the need for a renewed "social contract" in Arab societies. These might be useful concepts if the authors understood them in their fullest historical contexts--but they don't. Neither, sadly to say, do the reporters at The Economist.