This is the biggest missing link in the media and political debate over the ISIS crisis. Modern Islamist social movements often proclaim that “Islam is the solution” to all the social and political woes of Arab populations. This reflects the fact that under dictatorship, the only viable platform for political protest in the Arab world was Islamic identity; there could be no civil society and no freedom of association; after dictatorship, religious identity was the inevitable fall-back position for political organisation.
The pressing social problems facing Arab and Muslim populations are often overshadowed in Western media coverage by the problem of “political Islam”. Arab countries have some of the highest levels of unemployment in the world; they have not industrialised sufficiently (or at all, in some cases) to develop their workforces' skills and knowledge base.
Worse still, their reliance on rentier income from oil, gas or foreign remittances attached to those industries has lead sluggish economic growth and kept human capital poor.
The motivating thrust of political Islam is a sense of social dislocation, and a search for the identity and independence of the Arab nation. But the convoluted politics and thwarted economics of Arab countries make any such search terribly myopic, even disregarding the ideological extremism of Islamist movements.
For too long, the question of social policy in the Arab countries has been sidelined by raging political disputes, and these states badly need to start using policy to articulate a lost sense of the common good. An essential dimension of this governance reform would require Arab countries renegotiating their place within the wider political economy, and being less hostage to outside political influence of ally states (both within the Middle East and the West) and more receptive to the will of their people.
Until that happens, the reign of terror will prevail.