The old Soviet Empire came to an end in 1989. In February of that year, Soviet troops were pulled out of Afghanistan, signalling the end of Russia’s last attempt to expand its influence; in August, Hungary opened its borders with Austria; and on 9 November, East Berliners were allowed to pass freely through the Berlin Wall.
These changes meant that great new opportunities were opening up for the people of Eastern Europe. China was already moving towards a form of capitalism and opportunity for its people. (India was soon to follow suit.) In Southern Africa, the ban on the African National Congress was lifted, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, in February 1990 – signalling an opening up of opportunity for black Africans.
In short, repressed peoples all over the world suddenly had much greater opportunity than ever before. But there was one glaring exception – the billion people in the Arab-Muslim world. Not only were the old, repressive regimes firmly entrenched but those regimes were being supported by the rich Western powers. American troops were even soon to be stationed in the holy land of Saudi Arabia.
Ironically, the situation had arisen because of the oil wealth of the Arab countries. Oil meant that the ruling elites could amass unimaginable wealth and the means to secure their position against popular uprisings and that their regimes were supported by the Western powers fearing that any “instability” could disrupt their supply of oil. At the same time, these ruling elites of the oil-rich states saw no need for industrial development or a modern economy. But the ultimate result was that the Arab states fell behind – which was a bitter pill for Arab pride.
For almost a thousand years prior to the Industrial Revolution, the Arab-Muslim civilisation had been amongst the most advanced – leading the world in many ways including science. Yet now the Arab nations have an average of just 371 research scientists and engineers per million people compared with world average, including “backward” African and Latin American countries, of 979 per million. In all of the two decades of the 1980s and 90s, the Arab nations registered just 171 international patents; in the same period, South Korea alone registered 16,328. Arabs represent 5% of the world’s population but produce just 1% of the world’s books – and most of those are religious tracts. Only 1.6% of Arabs have Internet access.
When people’s opportunity for advancement is blocked, they react in one of three ways – the vast majority will try to ignore the constraints and get on with their lives, some will try to bring about change within the system and some will lash out and try to destroy the privileges of those who are more fortunate.
Those who fight for change, whether positively or negatively, are frequently well-educated, ambitious, middle-class young men who have been educated abroad. Historical examples include Gandhi, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and Pol Pot. It should come as no surprise that, then, that this is the group from which terrorism comes. But those who succeed in achieving revolution are those who return to their society to fight for change – not those who merely blow things up!
The key to success in the 21st century is creativity. And creativity requires freedom. Any regime which denies any group of its people the freedom to follow their beliefs and to develop and profit from their skills can expect to face violent opposition and to inspire violent outbursts against those elsewhere who are more fortunate.