How to beat terrorism: lessons of an Arab journey

Rami Khouri
21 July 2005

In the last seven weeks I have had the opportunity to make working visits to seven different Arab countries and to engage in political and intellectual discussions with local officials, academics, journalists and opposition activists. The experience has been instructive, simultaneously heartening and depressing. It has suggested obvious opportunities and dangers in the dual quest to respond to the rights of Arab citizens and defeat the global terror plague.

A clear conclusion emerges from my visits and discussions in Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Morocco, and meetings with colleagues from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Kuwait. There is a common mood across the Arab world: the prevailing status quo is neither satisfying to the majority of citizens, nor sustainable for the rulers in its current state, but neither is it on the verge of revolutionary or violent change.

Also by Rami Khouri in openDemocracy:

“Abu Ghraib in the Arab mirror” (October 2004)

“Democracy from America? An Arab’s advice” (March 2005)

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The overarching trend throughout the Arab world is that of citizenries and ruling elites that are worried by the status quo, but unsure of how to change it. In every Arab society, demons from the past – a harrowing litany of excesses and errors – now haunt the rulers and the ruled alike:

  • tens of millions of young men and women - educated but in unfulfilling jobs, unemployed, restive and frustrated - have given unnatural birth to thousands of active terrorists and anarchists, targeting our own and foreign lands
  • a deep distortion of traditional Islamic and Arab values is manifested in a desperate, violent, criminal search for revenge against the domestic and foreign forces that have degraded the last three generations of Arabs
  • urban environments are exploding in uncontrollable spontaneous growth, with increasingly negative impacts on water, arable land and other vital natural resource bases
  • drug- and corruption-based criminality is the new pan-Arab growth industry, expanding on a regional and global scale
  • tens of millions of armed men and women in official military, police and security establishments have brought neither palatable security nor even the more modest goal of honourable national self-respect to the Arab region as a whole
  • some desperate lands in our midst are ruled like private fiefs by thugs, killers, former cops and men of very limited abilities, in some absurd cases men who have remained in power for three or four decades without interruption – and in all cases without any formal, credible ratification by their own citizens

The Arab conversation

Everywhere in the Arab world, the calm on the surface is tenuous and vulnerable. Pressures for change emanate from within the Arab countries, and equally from external pressures. This is driven by economic stress and a deeper sense of the average citizen’s indignity at living in societies where power is neither accountable nor contestable, and where citizen rights are neither codified nor respected.

But these are visceral, not constitutional, societies, and verbal, not digital or parliamentary, societies. Body language rules here more than the eloquence or principles of national founding fathers. So do not look for signs of stress or change in polling data, legislative votes or political party activity. Those superficial imports from retreating colonial European powers three generations ago have little anchorage or meaning in most Arab societies. Here, power relationships are negotiated over coffee, meals, chance encounters and leisurely chats – and they are constantly, perpetually renegotiated and reaffirmed, day after day, year after year, generation after generation.

This is what is going on now in every Arab country. Arab rulers and ruled alike fervently but quietly search for the mechanisms of orderly change, aware that the traditional social contract and power equation that have defined this region since the 1920s are on their last legs.

The common phenomenon I have witnessed around the Arab world is that growing majorities of ordinary citizens seek peaceful but effective ways to challenge, and change, state structures and the use of power – because these state structures mostly do not offer their people sustainable security, expressions of their real identity, freedom of choice and speech, relevant education, or minimally attractive job prospects.

A very small minority of violent Arab men and women has turned to terror as an instrument that expresses their demented frustrations and desperation; more significantly, the vast mass of Arabs have learned from the mistakes of the secular and religious political movements that challenged the modern Arab security state using violent means starting in the late 1970s.

Citizens throughout this region now challenge their ruling elites and foreign interference more peacefully, but also more directly and vocally. They demand more equitable treatment by their own ruling authorities, less corruption and abuse of power, and a clearer sense of equal opportunities for all citizens, rather than privileged access to power and wealth by a small, often family-, tribe-, ethnic-, or sect-based elite that may include a criminalised component.

This article was also published in the International Herald Tribune and the (Beirut) Daily Star.

Citizens non-violently but explicitly challenge the legitimacy of their rulers in some cases, and the conduct of their own security services in others. The first wave of responses from the befuddled Arab security state – a thin sliver of reforms dressed up in limited media liberalisation – has been unconvincing to savvy Arab citizenries that expect a much more significant acknowledgement of their humanity, and of their human and civil rights.

The opportunity and the danger

Both the opportunity and the danger for the Arab world seem rather clear. The opportunity is to engage and empower the vast majority of Arab citizens who actively and peacefully seek a better, more humane and accountable, political order, through orderly and incremental change. Tens of millions of upright, wholesome, ordinary men and women throughout the Arab world cry out for decency in their political order, inspired by the deep righteousness of their faiths and the strong moral values of their cultural and national traditions.

The parallel danger is that Arab and foreign officials will allow themselves to be so mesmerised and distracted by the criminal antics of the few terrorists out there that they end up perpetuating the three basic mistakes that have plagued Arab, American, British and other anti-terror policies in recent years:

  • misdiagnosing the root causes of terror
  • exaggerating the religious and minimising the political dimensions of terror
  • responding mainly with heavy-handed political and military policies that, astoundingly, only fuel the criminal hormones of the terrorists themselves and also further alienate the hundreds of millions of already fearful ordinary Arabs.

The demand of these Arabs to live as dignified, respected citizens of humane and responsive modern states is, in the end, the only sure way to defeat terrorism.

This is the simple but profound lesson that I have learned in my travels and conversations across the Arab world in the past seven weeks. If you seek stability and an end to terror, mobilise the Arab masses through democratic transformations that respect their rights as citizens. Do not alienate them through American, British and other military fantasies in foreign lands that only degrade the Arab people’s already thin sense of self-respect in the face of their own bitter modern legacy of homegrown autocrats and western armies.

The copyright of the article is held by Rami G Khouri. It is distributed by Agence Global.

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