The one aspect of life that Arab dictators could not ban was religion, so Islam had become the language of political opposition. As the Westernized, secular dictatorships of the Arab world failed — politically, economically and socially — the fundamentalists told the people, “Islam is the solution.”
The Arab world was left with dictatorships on one hand and deeply illiberal opposition groups on the other — Hosni Mubarak or al-Qaeda. The more extreme the regime, the more violent the opposition. This cancer was deeper and more destructive than I realized. Despite the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and despite the Arab Spring, this dynamic between dictators and jihadis has not been broken…
What did I miss in that essay 13 years ago? The fragility of these countries. I didn’t recognize that if the dictatorships faltered, the state could collapse, and that beneath the state there was no civil society — nor, in fact, a real nation. Once chaos reigned across the Middle East, people reached not for their national identities — Iraqi, Syrian — but for much older ones: Shiite, Sunni, Kurd and Arab.
I should have paid greater attention to my mentor in graduate school, Samuel Huntington, who once explained that Americans never recognize that, in the developing world, the key is not the kind of government — communist, capitalist, democratic, dictatorial — but the degree of government. That absence of government is what we are watching these days, from Libya to Iraq to Syria.