Leading Article: The Arab World's Problems Are More Fundamental Than Religion

Article excerpt

At first glance the slaughter in Luxor seems triumphant vindication of the Huntington thesis. A few years ago, Professor Samuel of that name, of Harvard University, wrote a celebrated book predicting that after the demise of Communism, conflicts would be generated by clashes between civilisations, first and foremost between the Christian West and Islam. And now 58 Swiss, German, British and Japanese tourists have been gunned down by Islamic fundamentalists in the Valley of the Kings, just when the Arab world is seething at America's refusal to bring Israel to heel, and the firepower of USS Nimitz and George Washington is pointed squarely in the direction of Saddam Hussein. Are these not precursors of still worse to come? The short answer is: not necessarily.

Undoubtedly, the mood in the Arab world is as combustible as at any time since the last Arab-Israeli war. But Islamic fundamentalism is caused not by the excesses of Zionism but by the failings of the societies in which it has taken root - from Algeria to Afghanistan by way, most visibly, of Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These failings include poor economic performance and the concentration of wealth in a few hands, manifest corruption and the long-standing inability of most Arab governments to respond to the will of their peoples. Then there is the generational chasm. Across the region the same men have been in power for decades, backed by more or less overt military regimes. Take Colonel Ghaddafi, among the youngest of them: he has ruled Libya for 28 years. Beneath this gerontocracy, however, bubbles a cauldron of youth. More than half the region's population is under 18, far less impressed than their elders by Islam's traditions of respect and deference to those in authority. And their economic prospects are grim. In Egypt itself, for instance, there are 2 million unemployed graduates. Once Nasser's Arab nationalism or Arab socialism would have provided solace. But these movements failed, while communism, that other refuge for the disaffected, has been terminally discredited. Small wonder the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism.

To these grievances must be added a sense of inferiority - that Islam is in a siding of history, and that the region counts only because of oil and gas. Oil, the Arab world knows full well, was why America put together the coalition to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. And the crushing defeat he suffered, though welcomed at the time by most of the Arab world, has left its own legacy of impotence and humiliation. …