The Middle East's Future?

We have received a few different emails from long-time, long-suffering readers of Three Worlds Diary wondering what our take is on the situation in Egypt.

We are not going to be responding to that situation directly because we have friends in Egypt holding many differing opinions.  One of the dangers of revolutions is that they can drive a wedge between neighbors, long-time friends, even churches.  As a new reality is introduced overnight, people's political views suddenly become front and center.  Conversations that wouldn't ordinarily happen, suddenly do.  And the level of mistrust can grow dramatically.  So we don't plan to jump into the fray, but would rather focus on the Lord's work.

Middle East Coverage in General

On a more general level, I do have this to say about the media coverage everywhere----CNN, FOX, Al-Jazeera, BBC and on and on on as it has to do with the Middle East.

The words "Democracy" and "Islamic Fundamentalism" get thrown about in the most general, dualistic ways on the news and in discussion.  As if the choice in every Middle Easter country is between U.S.A.-style democracy and Al-Qaeda/Iranian Islamic Fascism with nothing in between.  Over the past 20 years, what many countries in the Middle East and the Islamic World (from West Africa to Eastern Indonesia) AND elsewhere long for is higher economic living standards, human rights, the rights to political dissent, freedom of the press and other basics of what we call Liberal Democracy.

Democracy can advance and it can retreat.  Just since I left high school, it's hard to believe the many places democracy has advanced.  Eastern Europe is the most obvious place.  But what about Latin America?  Many predicted that Latin America would not be able to have real democracies.  Today, not only is Latin America highly democratic, but it has had its fare share of women Presidents.  Who would have thought that this area known for perpetual warfare and military/authoritarian rule would have had growing economies and women at the helm.

Democracy:  Many Models to Choose From

In Faith in the Future (2008), I argued that Globalization and Al-Jazeera  are windows into a world that many Islamic nations did not have previously.  Like them or hate them, they are offering a new view to places that for so many years only saw one thing.  Their view of the world was totally cut off by people like Saddam Hussein, or Ayatollah Khomenei or Colonel Gadaffi.  More and more people see what it's like to live in societies were women have rights, where living standards are raising rapidly, and where there is freedom of expression.

What is currently happening is that due to globalization, countries that want to connect economically (get rich) can only do so by being inter-connected to the rest of the world.  If you want a totalitarian state (total control of the people), you have to follow the North Korea, Iran, Burma option of just cutting off your people and country from money, technology, and everything else global.  The inability of most countries to completely disconnect from the rest of the global world, means that people are seeing that liberal democracy (or some form of it) is an option.

Democracy Growing

One-hundred years ago, there was not a single democracy by our current standards.  Today there are 119 countries (or 62% of the world) that allow adult citizens to vote.  Amongst those democracies are many types of democracy:  Presidential democracies, parliamentary democracies, parliamentary republics, constitutional monarchies--and other types.

As Egypt or other Middle East countries chart their future, there are many kinds of democratic systems they can choose from if they want.

Sweden is a democracy and its socialist.

The U.K. is a democracy and has a queen.

Costa Rica has long had democracy--and it has a mostly gridlocked government.

In 2004, the most populous Muslim country in the world (Indonesia) continued its path toward Democracy by allowing everyone to vote for the President ( But oddly you never here "Egypt will be the next Indonesia!").

There is great skepticism about democracy in the Middle East and in Egypt.  Egypt, it should be noted is not an Arab state.  Egyptians are not Arabs, but Egyptians.  Neither Egypt nor many Arab states have had experience with Democracy.  It will not be an easy task, but we can be assured that even if democracy took root in these countries it would not look like what we in the West expect.

Messy Democracy

There's a lot of piling on about poor governance in the Middle East, but we don't have a problem with the messy democracies of our friends--such as Japan or South Korea---where a few large companies (and usually one party) dominate the country for decades.  Mexico is a very messy democracy, at times being a one-party state, at other times verging on being a narco-state.

Even in the United States, we've come to find that our politicians on all sides of the aisles are a lot more corrupt than we thought and a company like Goldman Sachs wielded an enormous amount of influence on what people think they are most in control of--their own money.

Democracies can be dangerous.  Hitler's Germany was a democracy and so is Iran today.  But Iran's Islamic regime has also become a poster child for bad government around the world.  Islamic theocratic rule can be the quickest path to delegitimizing Islamic governance.

Islamic Fundamentalism and "Muslim Countries":

The post-9/11 world  brought the power of religion to affect global politics into the forefront.  This was a mixed blessings.  On one hand, religion was often marginalized, particularly by academics, as something not worth paying much attention to.  Now, it seems like it's all they pay attention to.

The downside, however, is that nuance has gone out the door and there's a theocratic Iran behind every Islamic country.

For starters, when we talk about "Muslim countries" this is like calling Europe, Canada, and the USA "Christian Countries" and Japan, China, Vietnam, and the Koreas "Confucian Countries."  Does anyone think that North Korea and South Korea have the same inclinations despite their Confucian heritage?  No.  One is a confucian-based, democracy with a booming economy.  The other is a confucian-based society with a totalitarian ruler who is a fruitcake.  Countries can have civilizational or religious underpinnings without being totally dominated by those underpinnings.

We make the same mistake with the label "Muslim countries."  Some Muslim countries have roots in Islam because no other religion has had any greater impact on the society.  The USA is not a Buddhist country.  It's obviously been primarily affected by Jude0-Christian ideas.  The same holds true for Finland and Norway, but those countries have no desire to talk about Christianity in politics the way Americans do.

An Islamic Country?

How Islamic is Islamic in an "Islamic country?"  In some countries, like Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a secular/non-religious party controlled the country.  In some "Islamic countries" the people are very secular or tired of religion.  In others, they may primarily practice African folk religion.  In others, they may be experimenting with allowing other religions to exist peacfully (Malaysia).  Or in the case of the world's second most populous "Islamic nation" India...the hundreds of millions are under a party that is Hindu.

Are the Muslims in the "Islamic country" Sunni, Shia, Sufi or some other variation of Islam?  Do they have a secular constitution like Turkey?  Are they a theocratic country like Iran that actually has a population that is sick and tired of Islam? Were they governed so long by an atheistic government (like the Soviet Union) that they really no longer understand Islam?

A One World Islamic Rule or Secularization

The biggest fear is that someone like Osama Bin Laden will convince all the world's Muslims to drop everything and make every country in the world Islamic.  Two reasons why this will never happen:

1) money


2) porn (I'm using hyperbole here folks...laugh).

It's funny, but I am making a serious point.  Anyone who argues against materialism and sex has a tough road ahead making converts.  If the whole world turned into Iran that would be a lot of people not making money and not getting to look at porn---and humans tend to rebel against things like that.  The broader point is that religious discipline is difficult for all human beings.  It's difficult for Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus.  And this current round of globalization has a secularizing force that is able to compete with the religious impulse brought about by rapid change.

If trends continue, Muslim birth rates are going to drop dramatically.  They already are in many places.  The newest Pew survey results show that worst case scenarios for Europe's future puts the Muslim population at between 5% and 10% in the countries with the most immigrants.  In the United States, the Muslim population will only reach 2% in the next few decades. Demographic straight-line projections have a bad track record.  The USA was supposed to be overrun by Chinese people---in 1880.  Protestants were supposed to completely supplanted by Roman Catholics.  Didn't happen.  The dirty Italians and Irish were going to over-populate the USA in the 1920's.  Sadly, it was often the Protestant church that led the charge of catastrophic, demographic projections.

Even if Islamic populations were to grow, Osama Bin Laden's brand of Fundamentalism will be hard pressed to be attractive to multiple-generations.  And if Islamic parties continue to enter politics, it tends to lead to less religious adherence not more.  Why because religious political parties make mistakes that disillusion the believers (See Iran).

Osama Bin Laden's dream is most people's nightmare.  Convincing them to give up not just money and porn, but interaction with the rest of the world, the ballot box, growing economies, Desperate Housewives, inter-faith marriages, women in the workforce, women driving to the grocery store, friendships with people of other faiths, and millions of other things that don't fit into their cave-man worldview will not be easy.

We somehow think the Gospel of Jesus Christ is incredibly attractive, yet we admit that belief in Christianity is in steep decline in Europe, Canada, and the USA.  So this Christian faith is amazing, but it is declining due to secularization.  Christians  can admit that all the time.

At the same time we are somehow willing to believe that wearing a burqa and having your children blown up will be incredibly appealing to hundreds of millions of people in the future.  Really?  That might not wear thin after a while?


Trans-national terrorism will continue.  There are always terrorists and they always lose whatever cause they are fighting for.  Recently we saw the terrorist Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka completely wiped out after more than 25 years of trying a tactic which didn't work--terrorism.  It will probably be a small minority, but terrorists will continue to commit atrocious acts and they will have a few big victories and millions of failures.

The point of all of this is that Egypt, Tunisia, and any other country that chooses to break from its past in the 21st Century has a myriad of options to pursue.  They may chose wrong or they may choose right.  In the end, it's hard to avoid bad government as most of the world is finding out right now.  From Ireland to the USA, to Iceland to Bolivia---governments are making big mistakes--and now the people are paying.  The U.K. has made some terrible choices that it will now have to begin paying for.  Good governments may be a long way off for many regions of the world.

If you're looking for a really well-run government try Singapore.  But there's not much USA -style freedom there.  That in itself is one of the possible models for the future (the authoritarian, market-state).

At the same time, countries that we've thought of as being "basket-cases" have made huge strides in the past decade.  The Economist Intelligence Unit included Egypt among these following former basket-cases as economies to watch in the future due to their extremely fast economic growth mirroring Brazil, China, India, and Russia.  These countries are:

Columbia (a former nacro-state), Indonesia (A predominantly Muslim nation formerly ruled by a dictators for decades), Vietnam (still run by the Communist Party), Turkey (a secular state with Muslim leadership and the 11th largest economy in the world), and South Africa (until 1994, a racist state dominated by whites).  All of them have been growing their economies at a sizzling rate, throwing off years of mismanagement in the process.  None are perfect, but they have surprised us all.

Egypt, Columbia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey, and South Africa.  Who would have thunk?  All of them doing well, all of them still with severe problems to overcome.  Welcome to the real world.

The point of all of this is that in the 21st Century, there are too many variables to make easy future projections about the governmental system that 1.57 billion Muslims are going to choose in the future.  There will be good governments, there will be bad governments---but overall, there will be a lot more choice.  And there will be a greater ability to compare their system with other systems.

And that, my friends, is very bad news for Osama Bin Laden.