Three Spectres

25 October 2011


In today’s Financial Times David Gardner wrote a piece titled The Three Spectres at the Arab Feast. Political commentators seem to have a soft spot for groups of three (like the mysterious aliens of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Rendezvous with Rama), and so these “three spectres” immediately reminded me of the “Three Evil Forces” that members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have pledged to combat.

Gardner’s “Three Spectres” are Islamism, sectarianism, and populism. His concern is that these forces will derail the hopes that the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa have for their region in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Gardner is wrong to name Islamism among the worrisome forces in the region. Assuming by “Islamism” he means “political Islam,” this is inevitable in a part of the world where the population is probably 99 percent Muslim. Political Islam will be a fact of life in the region — regardless of who rules — for centuries to come. In the coming future career of political Islam — for as much as we have heard about Islamism it has not yet had its day, precisely because it has been suppressed by the dictators who have been running this part of the world — the movement will not be able to remain monolithic but will split along sectarian lines. Rather than naming Islamism as his first concern, Gardner should have said militany, for militancy is a different matter entirely. A person might be a fervent Muslim and very much in support of political Islam, but have no interest in militancy, and it is militancy that is the threat to the peaceful development of the region.

Sectarianism is inevitable, and because it is inevitable it ought to be embraced. In fact, it will be embraced by the leaders who will emerge in the region, because this is the way that things will be accomplished. Thoroughly pragmatic, ambitious, and self-seeking politicians who have no intrinsic interest in sectarian squabbles will exapt sectarian movements and slowly transform them into political parties. We should recall that the Founding Fathers in the US warned of the dire consequences of sectionalism, but they couldn’t get along among themselves and eventually founded the first political parties. Political parties — i.e., sectionalism — remain central to the democratic process in the US today. So, as I see it, sectarianism is no more a threat than Islamism. Both, on the contrary, are inevitable and will be inevitably co-opted.

Since only a couple of days ago I wrote about populism in Argentina, and indeed suggested the likelihood that the populist model emjoying popular success in South America will be adopted elsewhere in the world, populism definitely strikes me as more than a spectre, and a force that could well lead to the continued economic stagnation rather than an economic “breakout” from a pattern of stagnancy that has held back the region. An economic breakout of North Africa or the Arabian Peninsula could potentially affect the world economy almost as much as the rise of China, so this is no small opportunity to let slip from their grasp. Furthermore, a game-changing economic breakout of the region would do more for long term peace, stability, freedom, and development than an attempt to export the revolutions of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

My clear choice of a political danger for the region, then, in populism. If I had to formulate a list of three spectres parallel to Gardner’s, I would say terrorism (or militancy), populism, and state-sponsored conspiracy theories. If the last has to be an “ism” I would call it “conspiracism.” The Arab world has long had its attention diverted from truly pressing issues by state-sponsored conspiracy theories. There are millions of people in the region who don’t even know what it is like to have a real debate in the press over substantive issues. This is slowly changing, due to political change, the rise of social media, and hopefully in the near future the need for accurate information for a growing economy will feed the growth of real news that will eventually completely displace propaganda. But there is a lingering appetite for demonizing propaganda.

Propaganda and conspiracism are the lazy man’s way to a Weltanschauung, and it will always have its appeal to the intellectually lazy, regardless of circumstances. But in the Arab world this natural human tendency for lazy thinking received a boost for several decades by the retrograde tyrannies that ruled the region, which would allow no comment on their rule but would allow the press to escalate the darkest fears of their people.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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