Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

Western strategies and the prospect of reforms in the Middle East

July 2003

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


Reforms in the Middle East have been on the agenda of almost all relevant international organizations and political actors during the recent years. This has been due to the concentration after 9/11 on the domestic conditions in the Muslim world as a source of radicalization. Concentration of domestic problems is a positive step as it has broadened the discussion of sources of security threats and questioned the current policies towards Middle East states and societies. In the public debate the security threat posed by Muslim terrorism to the international community is still largely analyzed out of the domestic context. Western policies and the Israel-Palestinian conflict are seen as the primary reason for radicalization. Muslim relations to the West as well as the issue of Israel surely have their part to play in the domestic setting of the Middle Eastern states and societies, but most analysts and even Islamists themselves agree, that American and Israeli politics – or indeed any other external factors – explain very little of the support for Islamism or radicalization. Instead the radicalization originates in specific political and socio-economic problems in the Muslim countries and the phenomena must be therefore seen as part of intra-Muslim political grievances. External reasons can only add to these already existing internal problems.

The political and socio-economic problems in the Middle East Muslim countries are due to a failed modernization process that has created weak states, which have failed to satisfy the needs of the populations with regard to public services and political system. The weak states are able to retain monopoly over resources and violence, but they have not been able to ensure health, welfare and education services or modes of political participation, legitimacy of decision-making processes, stability of political institutions, rule of law and effective and accountable governance. By this definition Middle Eastern states such as Saudi-Arabia, Egypt and Syria are “weak”, even though they are seemingly “strong” by their power and resources. Islamist movements respond to these deficits of a state as a revolutionary ideology of a population that has suffered from economic decline, political repression and corruption. The movements mobilize civil society against the authoritarian state and give a channel for political expression; they work in the area of social services and fulfill the vacuum in health care, education and social security. In addition, Islamist political activity and radicalization works as a vehicle to address several types of conflicts that the weak state could not have been able to respond to. These are, for example, conflicts between central authority and local governance, conflicts between different social classes and ethnic groups and conflicts caused by sectarian governance.