The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization

Lieutenant Colonel James G. Lacey, U.S. Army Reserve

Proceedings, September 2005

Slender minarets with muezzins calling the faithful to prayer symbolize the stability and timelessness of the Muslim world. This one in Rabi'ah, a small town on the Iraqi-Syrian border, is a classic—and the Muslim faith is flourishing. Arabs, however, most of whom are Muslims, are not.

If a country wants to be on the winning side of history it first and foremost must get its grand strategy right. With that done, it can make any number of operational mistakes and weather many a setback and still walk away a winner. In the Cold War, our grand strategy of containing the Soviet Union eventually won the day despite many tribulations over the fifty years it was in place. Diplomat George Kennan's famous "X Article," anonymously published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1947, became the conceptual pillar of Cold War strategy and withstood a decades-long assault by critics until eventually vindicated by the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Was the containment theory hurt by the vitriol of its critics? I would argue the opposite is true. Criticism forced the supporters of containment theory to examine and hone their arguments. In order to properly answer their critics, supporters of containment were forced to continually evaluate their strategic models under regularly changing conditions. The end result was a strategy that proved adaptable to shifting circumstances and able to garner the support of the bulk of public opinion.

Today, however, more and more of our strategic judgments are being built upon the untested edifice of two books: Bernard Lewis' The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror and Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. While there have been a few critical reviews of both works, for the most part they have become the basic canon of 21st century strategic thought with very little serious negative commentary. In military publications and briefings these works are now cited repeatedly and uncritically as authoritative support for developing strategic concepts.

Both books paint a dismal global picture. Huntington argues that for centuries civilizations have been kept apart by distance and serious geographical obstacles. However, modern technologies are eroding these obstacles and as civilizations begin to interact on a more regular basis they will find each other so repugnant they will be unable to resist trying to slaughter one another. Bernard Lewis is not as pessimistic about the global environment. Rather, he focuses his dire warnings on just the Muslim world, which appears to him on an irreversible road to doom.

It amazes me that Huntington's theory of civilizational war ever gained the traction it did. I had always assumed that everyone would awake one day and discover Hindus were not planning the annihilation of the Mongols, that Africans were incapable of getting together to fight anyone, and that Europeans have lost the will to fight about anything. Maybe, just maybe, some Arabs would like to take on their neighbors. But let's assume for a moment that all twenty-two Arab nations put aside their considerable differences and raise a military force to take on the world, what would that force look like? Well, with a combined GDP a bit less than Spain's, it probably would not amount to much. The combined conventional military power of a united Arab world is not likely to keep Pentagon planners up at night. Lewis, on the other hand, makes a good argument for the collapse of the Islamic world. Unfortunately, by accepting his thesis the United States is put in the unenviable position of confronting a religion in what may be a prolonged conflict-prone situation. Do we really want to make war on a religion? The major flaw in Lewis's argument, though, is in the title of his book. Islam is not in fact in a crisis state. From a purely religious point of view things have not looked this good for the Muslim faith in hundreds of years. Mosques are full, new adherents are pouring in, and the cash coffers are being filled with donations. If this is a religious crisis it is one most of the world's other faiths would envy.

A more accurate understanding of events leads to the conclusion that Arab, not Muslim, civilization is in a state of collapse, and it just happens that most Arabs are Muslims. In this regard, the fall of the Western Roman Empire was a collapse of Western Europe and not a crisis of Christianity. The next question is, how could the world have missed an entire civilization collapsing before its eyes? The simple answer is that no one alive today has ever seen it happen before. Well within living memory we have seen empires collapse and nation-state failure has become a regular occurrence, but no one in the West has witnessed the collapse of a civilization since the Dark Ages. Civilizational collapses take a long time to unfold and are easy to miss in the welter of daily events.

Interestingly, on the Arab League's website there is a paper that details all of the contributions made by Arab civilization. It is a long and impressive list, which unfortunately marks 1406 as the last year a significant contribution was made. That makes next year the 600th anniversary of the beginning of a prolonged stagnation, which began a dive into the abyss with the end of the Ottoman Empire. Final collapse has been staved off only by the cash coming in from a sea of oil and because of a few bright spots of modernity that have resisted the general failure.

Statistics tell an ugly story about the state of Arab civilization. According to the U.N.'s Arab Human Development Report:

There are 18 computers per 1000 citizens compared to a global average of 78.3.

Only 1.6% of the population has Internet access.

Less than one book a year is translated into Arabic per million people, compared to over 1000 per million for developed countries.

Arabs publish only 1.1% of books globally, despite making up over 5% of global population, with religious books dominating the market.

Average R&D expenditures on a per capita basis is one-sixth of Cuba's and less than one-fifteenth of Japan's.

The Arab world is embarking upon the new century burdened by 60 million illiterate adults (the majority are women) and a declining education system, which is failing to properly prepare regional youth for the challenges of a globalized economy. Educational quality is also being eroded by the growing pervasiveness of religion at all levels of the system. In Saudi Arabia over a quarter of all university degrees are in Islamic studies. In many other nations primary education is accomplished through Saudi-financed madrassas, which have filled the void left by government's abdication of its duty to educate the young.

In economic terms we have already commented that the combined weight of the Arab states is less than that of Spain. Strip oil out of Mideast exports and the entire region exports less than Finland. According to the transnational Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), regional economic growth is burdened by declining rates of investment in fixed capital structure, an inability to attract substantial foreign direct investment, and declining productivity — the economic trinity of disaster.

Economic stagnation coupled with rapid population growth is reducing living standards throughout the region, both comparatively and in real terms. In the heady days of the late 1970s oil boom, annual per-capita GDP growth of over 5% fueled high levels of expectations. GDP per-capita grew from $1,845 to $2,300. Today, after adjusting for inflation, it stands at $1,500, reflecting an overall decline in living standards over 30 years. Only sub-Saharan Africa has done worse. If oil wealth is subtracted from the calculations the economic picture for the mass of Arab citizens becomes dire.

Things are indeed bad in the Arab world and will get much worse.

This statement should not be read as mere opinion. While predictions of the future are usually fraught with peril, those based on demographics are, barring some unforeseen plague or truly catastrophic war, uncannily accurate. Using even the most optimistic assumption—that fertility rates drop by fifty percent in a generation—the respected Population Resource Center, based in Princeton, New Jersey, expects Arab populations to grow from 280 million to almost 460 million by 2020 and to over 600 million a generation later. On the face of it the Arab world is staring political and economic disaster in the face. Arab governments and institutions are already failing to meet basic human needs in many Arab countries. It is hard to imagine how they will cope with the stress of such a massive population increase.

The percentage of the population under age 15 is double that of Western Europe and those under age 24 make up 50% to 65% of Middle East countries—an astonishingly young population. This youth bulge is already beginning to rock the foundations of Islamic society. Upheaval and revolution are the likely results of a massive number of youth confronted by stagnating or collapsing economies as they enter adulthood.

A youth bulge has always correlated strongly with increased levels of violence within a society, from terrorism to war. Massive youth violence is predictably more likely when lack of economic opportunity stunts ambitions for a satisfying job, a good marriage, and a home. A 2004 study by The World Bank calls this combination of a youth bulge coupled with poor economic performance an "explosive combination." In socially and politically repressive societies, found throughout the Middle East, there are very few outlets for pent-up frustrations except for violence or immersion into religion—a combustible mixture. In the Middle East, it is evident that terrorism and especially suicide operations are a phenomenon closely associated with youth. Youthful involvement in terrorism can be viewed as the extreme end of a broader youthful attraction to violence more generally. Additionally, this attraction is being reinforced within a generation that is being radicalized by an environment featuring high levels of violence, radical religious ideology, and growing anti-Americanism.

One serious question that requires an answer is why youth are attracted to Islamic organizations, which to Western eyes appear to be extremely repressive to many of the aspirations and desires of typical young men and women? In a 2003 Brookings Institution paper, Graham Fuller, a senior resident consultant at the RAND Corporation, provides this answer:

. . . the religious activism of Islamism in the Muslim world is not politically conservative at all: it calls for change to the status quo that is broadly hated. Much of the youthful spirit of rebellion against the status quo can thus be readily harnessed by the Islamist movement, both violent and non-violent. They provide a channel for the expression of discontent, blessed and legitimized by powerful religious tradition that incorporates nationalist impulses as well. It is noteworthy that Islamism serves as a vehicle of protest everywhere except where it is in power, such as Iran and Sudan. It is the status quo that is the major target of anger. (Author's emphasis)

A youth bulge is always destabilizing, but it can often be managed if a society is able to properly educate its youth and provide them with adequate economic opportunities at the end of the education process. Arab nations are failing in both areas.

As I see it, the overarching cause of civilizational collapse is that culture and institutions of that civilization can no longer adapt to external stresses. This assertion is grounded in my interpretation of the writings of Will Durant, Story of Civilization, John Roberts' The Rise of the West, and Fernand Braudel's A History of Civilizations. The tyrants and dictators who have long ruled the Arab world have proven unable to implement the changes required to reverse the trends of collapse. Unable to reverse economic and societal ills, and unresponsive to the mass of the Arab population, these rulers instituted polices of strong internal oppression, which further closed off Arab society from the adoption of new ideas and methods.

Populations that were unable to influence their governments found that some methods of expression were still allowed within the context of Islam. Working within this framework radicals found that they could shelter their activities within a religious infrastructure, while at the same time religious leaders realized that they were gaining enough strength to make a grasp for secular power. This was a struggle that went on in the West for a thousand years after the fall of Rome until finally won by secular authority during what is now called the Age of Reason.

Still, Islam is not the root cause of collapse. For instance, it has not stood in the way of economic advancement and societal adaptation in Asia. It is more accurate to say that fundamental failure of Arab culture is causing people to begin looking backwards at the golden age of their civilization. Two things ring out to them from those past centuries: Arabs were powerful when they were united and when their faith was new, vital, and fundamental.

A lot of the evidence that Huntington presents for his theory of civilizational war makes more sense when viewed through the prism of the collapse of Arab civilization. Global maneuvering that Huntington interprets as preparations for a new round of world conflict are in reality the spontaneous adjustments that other societies are making in reaction to the collapse of a neighboring civilization. By accepting that we are facing the collapse of Arab civilization we can, for the first time, create a grand strategic concept for success. We no longer have to engage in a war against terrorism, which is a method of fighting and not an enemy. Additionally, we now have a strategic explanation for what is going on that does not make Islam the culprit. Hence we do not have to fight a religious war to win.

The grand strategic concept that provides the best chance of success is the one that served us so well in the Cold War—containment. No matter what else we do we must position ourselves to contain the effects of the complete collapse of Arab civilization. Already 10 percent of the French population is from Muslim North Africa. Europe's ability to assimilate a larger flood of economic refugees is questionable. And mass migration is just one effect a total collapse will have. Containment will mean adopting and maintaining difficult policy choices, which include:

None of the above policy prescriptions will be easy, nor can they be achieved overnight. Most of them require the support of other nations, which may be problematic. Many of these nations have not recognized the risks they face from Arab collapse and see no reason to take preemptive measures. It is easy to say that we need to work closely with Europe to secure its southern border. In reality, that task will be devilishly hard, not least because the Europeans appear very reluctant to take any measures to protect themselves that might give even a whiff of intolerance. Furthermore, American diplomacy, as of recent decades, has not shown it is up to accomplishing many of the recommended tasks. For instance, all attempts to engage Iran since the fall of the Shah have been a debacle. Unfortunately, as the Iranian nuclear crisis unfolds there is no indication we have gotten any better at it. Do we have the wherewithal to engender a democratic society in Iran and then to engage its support in our common interests? Can we deal with an increasingly autocratic and threatening Russia? Can we manage China's emergence as a superpower so that it can be peacefully integrated into the global political system? The answers to these questions are still unknown. However, because containment of a civilizational collapse cannot be done by the United States alone finding the right answers is critical.

By accepting that we need to contain the effects of a failing Arab civilization we are then free to adopt one of three basic approaches:

  1. Attempt to accelerate the collapse and pick up the pieces, akin to letting an alcoholic hit bottom.
  2. To contain the effects, but not to interfere with the fall for good or bad.
  3. Reverse the tide when and where we can.

For a number of ethical and practical reasons the third choice is the one that should and is most likely to be adopted, keeping in mind that resisting the macro-forces of historical change will not be easy.

By adopting the third option we can craft policies to improve economic conditions and help specific regions within the Arab world adapt to encroaching modernity. The United States must be able to spot shining lights in the Arab world and work to protect them even as we help to expand their influence. Discarding the theories of two men as eminent as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis is not a matter to take lightly. History may even prove both men right and my analysis to be well off the mark. However, the almost blind acceptance now being given to these men's ideas is a dangerous trend. As military leaders build the strategic plans and policies that will guide our forces for a generation or more it is best to be skeptical of all underlying assumptions. This article is designed to strike at the foundation of the two most widely accepted arguments in the current forum of ideas. If they are correct and sturdy then my position will not topple them. In fact, like Kennan's X article they will be made stronger by having to defend themselves against criticism. If they are weak, then it is best to discard them now.

Lieutenant Colonel Lacey is a Washington-based writer focusing on defense and international affairs issues. He was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division during the war in Iraq. He served on active duty for a number of years and later edited journals on international finance.