By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
11 March 2016
Turkey and Malaysia have long been regarded as the most developed countries in the Muslim world. Through a historic commitment in the C20th to modernisation and development, they have achieved standards of infrastructure, education, healthcare but also industrialization and economic output that compare favorably to that of many of the newer members of the European Union.
They were not, of course, the only countries in the Muslim world to have attempted such development. But they have been by far the most successful. They were also quite fortunate to not end up as collateral damage in the Cold War struggle between the USSR and the West – as some other Muslim countries have been.
But ultimately, one feels that much of their success is down to their respective determination to build integrated, inclusive nations. Unlike in Syria, or Iraq, in Turkey one is not, first and foremost, a Sunni, or a Shiite, or a Christian. One is, before anything else, a Turk.
In Malaysia, the ethnic group of every citizen is something that is acknowledged and celebrated. But unlike in Afghanistan, the competition and the conflicts between groups is not settled through tribal warfare: it is settled through the political process. And when specific ethnic groups have been historically disadvantaged, like for example the indigenous Malays, this is acknowledged and there are quotas in place for access to higher education or to the institutions of political administration to redress historical imbalances in the representation of their interests.
But right now, unfortunately, both of these countries are sliding backwards. And this time, I am afraid to say, the West is not to blame.
Turkey has been steadily becoming more and more illiberal in the last 14 years in which President’s Erdogan AK Party have been the dominant political force in the country. Press freedom, for example, has been eroded to the point where, in this past week, the government could simply take over the administration of the country’s largest opposition newspaper, Zaman, followed swiftly by the Cihan news agency. Any independent-minded journalists can expect to be sacked if they choose to not toe the party line. And now people are going to prison for the crime of “offending the President”.
Meanwhile, Malaysia is being ruled by a prime minister who has distinguished himself through incompetence in public administration. Though it does seem that Najib Razak is quite able to line his own pockets an investigation by the Wall Street Journal and Sarawak has found that the PM may have managed to pilfer as much as $1 billion from Malaysian state coffers. Though, of course, this is just the tip of the corruption iceberg. In Malaysia, it seems, corruption is systemic, and the people are largely resigned to this fact.
Five years ago, the Islamic world was brimming with the hopes of the Arab Spring. Even though the rot at the heart of Turkey and Malaysia has been in place for well over 10 years, other Muslim and Arab countries were looking forward to a brighter future, as they sought to rid themselves of the same kind of authoritarian or corrupt leaders that the most Westernised countries in the Islamic world now tolerate.
But it was not to be. Libya and Syria are examples of how badly wrong things can go if you get rid of some of these corrupt leaders, and how badly things can go wrong if you do not. Tunisia stands alone as the only success story of the Arab Spring; at least for now. But ISIS already has it in their sights. And the internal politics of the country, though they have remained largely civil so far, are still volatile and can erupt into state-destroying conflict just like they did in neighbouring Libya.
Note, however, what proportion of these woes affecting the Muslim world is in fact to do with the West and how much more it has to do with local or transnational Muslim factors. The most frequent problem is corruption and economic mismanagement. Very often, there is a huge problem with large, young populations with poor education and virtually no economic opportunities.
Very many Muslim countries also have fractured populations who put parochial or tribal interests well above collective national concerns. And if that was not enough, you have militant Islamists, very often foreign, barging in left, right and centre and blowing things up. Is it any wonder that states in the region are so fragile? Is it surprising that so many have failed or are failing?
Everyone likes blaming the West for all this, of course. But if the West just suddenly stopped existing tomorrow, would any of this get any better? The West is responsible for plenty of debacles and foreign policy blunders in the region. But it cannot be held responsible for the fact that so many Muslims there cannot abide to live in peace and justice just because they are a different tribe, or sect, or have a different political ideology.
You have proper societies when you have a group of people who will work hard to live in peace and harmony with each other. There are virtually no societies left in much of the Muslim world and Muslims have only themselves to blame for that.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
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