Many have attributed the spread of religious extremism today in countries like Egypt, for example, to external factors, such as foreign incitement and foreign financing of extremist movements in general, and of fundamentalist Islamic groups in particular. This attribution is extremely dangerous: by presenting the issue of religious extremism as a security problem - to be dealt with by the police and other security bodies – it removes it from the realm of problems amenable to political solutions. Those who are quick to point an accusing finger at external forces should realize that if Egypt had been a haven of social tolerance, brotherhood and peace, it would not have been susceptible to interference from abroad. This means that other local factors have created a favorable climate for such attempts to succeed.
Over the last few decades, many societies in Islamic countries were subjected to various types of despotic rulers, governing their countries with an iron fist in a setting of widespread autocracy. The most dangerous of the many negative effects of political oppression is the impediment of social mobility: it impairs the opportunity for the most qualified citizens to rise to leading positions in various fields.
The disappearance of a healthy process of social mobility makes for a static situation in which inept and mediocre persons come to occupy top positions by dint of accepting, indeed, of supporting, oppression through unquestioning loyalty to their superiors. This occasions a downward spiral that I call "the equation of destruction": Oppression and autocracy produce followers, not competent people. Lack of social mobility destroys competence across the board at all societal levels. Lack of competence, in turn, results in the collapse of all institutions and in widespread mediocrity which then becomes the norm. This engenders a powerful subversive energy of despair and rage, which breeds the mentality of violence. That mentality devalues the worth of human life, whether of one's self or of others, as well as spreading a desire for revenge. This acquired "mentality of violence" has come to permeate many of these societies.
By the same token, oppressors prevent the growth of civil society, widen incompetence and divide political life into two levels:
- a level above ground (which belongs exclusively to the rulers and their cohorts)
- a level below ground (which belongs to symbols of Wahhabi, Qutbi, or other such versions of Islam, who receive the best possible training in the art of growing underground in secrecy).
No sooner are there changes causing the downfall and removal of the despotic ruler in these societies (Suharto in Indonesia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq), than there emerge on the scene representatives of the fanatical interpretation of Islam by the only political force which existed underground, and who now put themselves forward as saviors. However, they will only succeed in leading their societies to greater depths of backwardness, distancing them still farther from the modern age and sinking them even deeper into social problems. Some people are fooled into thinking that these fanatic representatives are the only political power produced by those societies, when in fact this state of affairs is produced by the despotic rulers and their autocratic regimes who kill social mobility.
Both sets of oppressors, those operating above ground and those belonging to clandestine underground organizations, are products of this equation. A valid question is: Why is this the only model that emerges whenever an oppressive regime falls in a Muslim or Arab country? The answer is simply that this is a natural result of the widespread despair felt by those living under an autocratic regime that allows no political activities above ground. Hence, the only organizations that can survive in its shadow are those operating underground. The cure must start with the first link in the chain, not with the last. The educational and media institutions are incapable of redressing this disaster: they too have been corrupted at the hands of incompetent leadership.
Part II: Wahhabism and Tribal Values