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Published : 2013-02-21 19:26
Updated : 2013-02-21 19:26

Sen. Lindsey Graham said it best.

Talking about the challenges the next secretary of defense will confront, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, warned that he will face “a world on fire.”

So true, and the Middle East along with the larger Islamic world are the perfect demonstration. When have we ever seen such widespread turmoil, destruction and death as we are witnessing right now?

Every day we hear about the continuing violence in Syria, Pakistan, Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria and elsewhere. Overlooked now is the fact that, until recently, many of those nations were ruled by dictators. The world was jubilant, myself included, when several of them lost power in the Arab Spring.

But hard as it may be to admit today, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and others did maintain policies that were effective ― though often cruel ― in keeping ethnic, religious and social divisions under control.

Look at Iraq right now. In recent days, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been staging massive demonstrations against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Some journalists and politicians are calling this Iraq’s Arab Spring.

But that’s not the situation at all. The demonstrators are Sunni; Mailki’s government is Shiite. That’s Iraq’s principal ethnic fault line, one that has existed since the state was born. On Sunday, four car bombs in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad killed at least 21 people and wounded 125 more. And Maliki complains, probably correctly, that the demonstrators are upset only because they no longer control the government.

And what about Egypt, now home to rampaging protests and demonstrations almost every day? Here, too, we are looking at a religious-social divide. While the Mubarak government held power, the Muslim Brotherhood won support among the masses by providing food and social services. Now the country is riven by conflict between Brotherhood supporters and secular urbanites.

And in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in 2010, the nation is falling back into chaos after the murder early this month of Chokri Belaid, an opposition politician who was shot dead as he was leaving his house. Belaid had been a leading critic of the Islamist-led government. Tens of thousands took to the streets again, laying bare that state’s political-social fault line.

Before the revolution just over two years ago, Tunisia had been a bastion of Arab secularism, enforced by Ben Ali. Now Islamists dominate the government, and the leader of Ennahda, the state’s Islamic party, blamed “the French model of secularism” for the new violence. Tunisia was a French colony until the mid-20th century.

At the same, all of this instability in so many nations has given Islamic extremism room to spread like malignant cancer cells. Look at what has happened in northern Mali, where French troops drove out extremists, only to find that they have left behind a guerrilla war between Islamist and secular Malians.

In Syria, members of al Nusra, an Islamic terror group, are flooding into rebel-controlled areas and actually slaughtering secular rebels. And of course, who can forget the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last fall ― and the raid in Algeria that left at least 38 hostages dead? Algeria fought a bloody war against Islamists 20 years ago and has maintained a repressive government since. But obviously the religious-ethnic divisions have not faded away.

What do we take from all of this?

All of these countries were led by men who actively repressed their nations’ social and religious divisions. But after the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring revolutions, those divisions sprang up once again in full force. Repressing them for all those years did not extinguish them.

The problem now is: In each state a leader representing one side or the other has taken power ― Shiites in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamists in Tunisia and Libya.

Is there any solution? None that the West can impose. But soon enough, perhaps, the people of these states will realize that they need a technocrat government, one that concentrates its efforts on economic development and social equality ― and doesn’t try to promote the interests of one ethnic or religious group over another.

Facing governments that hold a broad popular mandate, Islamic extremists will find it difficult to attract followers. Instability is the extremist’s friend.

Until that day comes, that part of world is fated to remain “on fire” ― the needs of its people totally ignored as self-interested leaders fight to keep their sect in power.

By Joel Brinkley 

Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times. ― Ed.

(Tribune Media Services)

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