As the industrialized West fights with declining birth rates, threatening the capacity to maintain pensions and adequate health care as life spans expand and families have less children, a different phenomenon is taking place in the Arab world and northern Africa. In Egypt half the population is under 24. In Saudi Arabia the median age is 25, 22 in Jordan, 20 in Iraq, 21 in Syria, and in non-Arab Iran it’s 26. For comparison, the median population age is 37 in the US, 44 in Italy and Germany, and 40 in France and Great Britain.
And in the Arab world population has grown dramatically, and will continue to do so as those entering their twenties start having children. The population explosion and massive shift to youth in that part of the world has profound political implications.
For the past forty years, the US has pursued good relations with authoritarian leaders in northern Africa. After Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, the US has heaped aid upon Egypt, even as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, rules with an iron fist (and a faint illusion of democracy). He is currently grooming his son to take his place. Egypt is more like North Korea than the US. The Saudi royal family maintains its deal with the extreme Wahhabi religious sect of Islam, to the point that before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Saudis were considered more repressive than Saddam’s Iraq. Syria’s Baathist regime also maintains a tyrannical iron grip.
If you look at rankings of democracy and human rights, the Arab world is last, making the least progress in moving to democracy or respect for human rights. Only Israel and Iran boast democratic governments, though Iran is really only a semi-democracy due to the power of the clerics in the Guardian council. The US learned how resilient such authoritarian repression can be when after overthrowing Saddam, massive amounts of aid and support could not build a functioning democracy in Iraq. Iraq is now less democratic than Iran, riddled with corruption as more often than not local thugs run things on the ground.
The reason is obvious. The Ottoman Empire, which came to power in the wake of numerous attacks on the Islamic world from the outside, put together a ruthless military dictatorship. To support it they pushed aside Islamic rationalism — an interpretation of Islam which, if followed, could have catapulted the Islamic world into the modern age, and brought back a rigid, fundamentalist doctrine. To be sure, the Islamic rationalists did reach the West, studied by Thomas Aquinas, laying the ground work for Europe’s move to modernism.
This took what had been a progressive, tolerant civilization and put it in the deep freeze, with religious fundamentalists deifning Islam in a way that arguably veers wildly from what the Koran teaches. In exchange for granting them that religious clout, the clerics gave unconditional support to the Ottoman Empire. When the “young Turks” tried to reform it in the 19th Century, even as it was evident the empire was anachronistic and collapsing, they couldn’t. It took World War I to finally bring the Ottomans down.
The corrupt and ruthless culture (by the end assassination was a common form of advancing ones’ career) they left behind is evident in the styles of Saddam, Assad, and even the Saudi royal family. It is a very conservative, traditional and repressive approach to politics and life, rationalized with religion and custom. It has continued despite globalization and outside pressure, in part because oil wealth gave the rulers the capacity to buy support.
However, modernism is a force that is hard to halt. The youth of the Arab world (and in Iran) are not satisfied with their corrupt governments, and as their population swells, the old corrupt elite are not going to be able to maintain power. After events last week in Tunisia surprisingly brought down a corrupt and brutal government, calls started to mount for Egypt to have its own revolution.
These weren’t calls from radical anarchists or anything, but included Mohammad El-Baradei, former head of the IAEA, and partial winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. Whether or not this will lead to anything, it’s clear that change is going to force itself onto the Arab world, and the youth will not be kept down forever. They are inundated with modern ideas, and the pace of change in such rapidly growing societies has already weakened tradition and custom. It is only a matter of time until something gives, and it’s unlikely the corrupt leaders will have the capacity to hold back the storm. In retrospect, the Arab elites of today may look a lot like the European aristocracy of the 18th Century – apparently on top of the world, but doomed by the trajectory of history.
What will this mean? Although people like Osama Bin Laden have tried to feed off the discontent and the inherent anti-Americanism in that part of the world (our support for their corrupt leaders is pretty well known), he’s anti-modern. He’s trying to fight against change. Symbolically he’s fighting against the French revolution and the rise of reason and rational thought. For him Medina in 622 AD is a model of how life should be today, western secularism, liberty and moral laxity are evils to be rejected.
Most young Arabs don’t think that way. A few extremists will join that kind of cause, but what’s really impressive in the years since 9-11-01 is how little traction Islamic extremism has gotten in the Arab world. The youth are unlikely to embrace puritanism and religious devolution as their future, especially as modern influences grow.
There is a danger, though, that if the US remains too associated with the hated regimes that have created this stagnant mess, anti-Americanism could be a unifying force, and that could prove harmful to US interests down the line. If that isn’t tempered, anti-Israeli sentiment could be a unifying factor for these young people, as Arabs tend to see their defeats to Israel as humiliating and unjust. Certainly the Israelis realize that the ticking demographic time bomb could be a real threat to their existence as a state if radicalism of any sort unites the Arab world against them.
We should find a way to get on the right side of history here, recognizing the inevitability that change and modernity will sweep the Arab world. One clear way is to embrace respect for Islam; President Bush had the right tone when he proclaimed Islam “a religion of peace,” realizing that opposing and dissing a peoples’ faith is not a way to win friends.
President Bush also had one thing right in his choice to go to war in Iraq. The old order cannot survive, and it would be best if democracy and markets could flourish. He and his advisers under estimated the difficulty of pushing for change, ignoring both the power of culture and the inability of military power to effectively shape political and cultural outcomes. But if war isn’t a way to bring positive change, then perhaps engagement and cooperation will be. Moreover, this need not be governmental, it can be through citizens groups, non-governmental organizations and interfaith communities.
Because change is coming. There will be revolutions of some sort. The current order cannot last. Perhaps if we can play a positive role we can repay an old debt. Not only did Islamic rationalist philosophers point Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle, starting the move to modernism in the West, but Islamic ideas from Moorish Spain sparked the renaissance in Italy. If not for Islam, the West might never have modernized.