THERE is ferment in the Muslim world as the people seek a more democratic dispensation. There is also a dangerous turbulence. Ostensibly, the turbulence flows from a revolt against dictators who have kowtowed to the West to remain in power and whose corrupt regimes have accumulated ill-gotten gains at the cost of the people.
Theoretically, all the protesters were united in seeking to overthrow dictatorships and to create governing structures responsive to the needs, economic and political, of all people. In practice it is a turbulence that has brought to the fore the divide between the extreme Islamists and the moderate interpreters of Islam, divisions among sects in Islam, the divide between Muslim majorities and minorities and that among various ethnic groups and various tribes.
In Egypt, there is a divide between the Islamists and the liberals, between the Muslims and the Copts and perhaps most importantly between the military and the people. The military’s efforts at manipulation continue and make uncertain the prospect of presidential elections in May.
In Syria, the divide is between the minority Alawite sect and the majority Sunnis, with the orthodox Shia falling somewhere in between. Syria may overthrow Bashar al-Assad but it is not at all clear that democracy for all Syrians will come about. In both countries, the economic situation is deteriorating.
In Iraq, there is the divide between the Shia majority and the Sunnis who had traditionally wielded power and between the Arab majority and the Kurdish minority whose aspirations for independence may appear closer to realisation. However, this would threaten to tear apart the state structures of the entire area including Turkey, Iran and Syria all with substantial Kurdish minorities.
In Jordan, concessions by the ruling family have ensured relative peace but this remains threatened as much by internal tribal and ethnic fissures as by the ripple effect of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.
In Yemen, the overthrowing of a dictator has not resolved the tribal divides. Good leadership under President Hadi may succeed in resolving this issue by power-sharing arrangements but the terrorists of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will make this difficult as will the army which will be needed to fight the group.
In Libya, tribal and territorial divisions — Benghazi vs Tripoli — and the absence of administrative structures has made the success of the Libyan revolution problematic. In each of these countries there is both revulsion against the West and the hope that the West will somehow help realise the democratic aspirations of the people.
One could go on to detail the problems in other parts of the Muslim world but one hopes the point has already been made that this is a familiar litany because in Pakistan, the second most populous country of the Muslim world and its sole nuclear-weapon country, we have all and more of the problems that afflict the Muslim world.
Everyday we lose dozens of people because of sectarian and ethnic strife. Everyday some Baloch say their grievances cannot be resolved within a united Pakistan. Everyday incidents such as the Bannu jailbreak show that the terrorists, both foreign and local, are becoming more powerful. Every other day we see stories of discrimination against minorities and of forced conversions. Every other day we see evidence of the collapse of the public-sector organisations that swallow the lifeblood of the economy. Everyday we see evidence that we remain at odds with our western neighbour and while good steps are being taken in terms of our eastern neighbour we still seem to allow our policies to be determined by illusory threat perceptions and unworthy and unrealisable ambitions.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, lying on the periphery of the heartland of the Muslim world, appear to be islands of stability in the stormy sea that is the Muslim world. There we have seen relative stability come after wise political leadership and good governance has brought under control the various evils that afflict the other parts of the Muslim world.
Malaysia’s ethnic harmony between the indigenous Malay and the Chinese and Indian minorities came after years of able leadership and affirmative actions, which brought the Malays closer to par with their Chinese and Indian counterparts. Indonesia, after years of fruitless efforts, under successive military-supported dictators, to expand its territorial limits eventually not only gave up such ambitions, but even ceded part of the territory it held and granted greater autonomy to other areas. It could then reduce the influence of the military in politics and get on with the job of exploiting its rich natural resources to usher in an era of prosperity and economic well-being for the people.
Are there lessons to be learnt from the experience of these countries? Clearly, the chief lesson is that we must have stable and able leadership which even while looking after its own interests frames policies, both domestic and foreign, to serve the domestic agenda of promoting the economic well-being of its people and eliminating the causes of ethnic and sectarian strife.