Like so much of our breaking news, reports of the beheading of a British citizen by ISIS extremists broken on Twitter long before the mainstream media began their reports. The brutal murder further underlined the brazen savagery of a group whose creed and actions are alien to secular Western audiences that we have a hard time comprehending them.
Medieval societal ideals and practices combined with a twenty first century media savvy that some governments would envy has set ISIS apart from groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army or the Shining Path. The genesis of the ISIS menace tells us much not only about the group which may number 30,000 fighters, but also the environment that incubated and succoured it.
A youthful and often highly educated population, such as the Middle East, should be a boon to a region. But not the Middle East which has sunk into decades of kleptomaniac leaders, corruption on an almost comedic scale, decrepit state run industries shielded from competition and reform by political connections and petty nationalism, and of course the curse of oil which has allowed governments the luxury of a regular income without having anything approaching a functioning economy. All this while Eastern Europe and especially Asia have seen GDP and living standards sore. This may not have mattered when despots and kings could shield their people from the world, but technology has given their captive populations a window to the bigger picture. Tech savvy young Arabs are daily reminded how little the status quo has to offer them.
Arab states simply do not have an outlet for so many bored, restless, educated and often ambitious young people. Political Islam in the Middle East is a violent reaction against a world that has left it behind. Of course political Islam is not new, but what is new is its make up. Self-proclaimed warriors of God are no longer cranky middle aged men from backwater villages pining for by-gone and rose-tinted glory days. Islam as an ideology is now promulgated by young, well educated Arabs who’ve been exposed to an outside world dominated by western culture, the same western world order which propped up compliant Arab strongmen and whom they blame for their people’s miserable lot.
This brings us on to the failure of the Arab Spring: With the very questionable exception of Tunisia, the toppling (or in Assad’s case the weakening) of the established political orders has not resulted in the emancipation of the region’s downtrodden, or a new age of reform and enlightened openness. Libya is now a loose confederation of city states. Egypt stunted democratic experiment was so poorly managed its found itself under military junta bent on finally crushing the Brotherhood. The carnage of Syria is self evident on our new screens. And for the Gulf States not rich enough to bribe citizens into compliance, there is always the default option of further suppression and clamp downs on latent human rights groups and democracy activists. The tragedy of the Arab Spring’s legacy will not be measured in lives lost, but rather in the missed opportunity to give the Arab world an alternative between the dead hand of authoritarianism and the blood soaked nihilism of Jihad.