By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News
What should Arabs do to meet the challenges they face in a world not made by, and for, them? The question, debated in many Arab countries since the middle of the 19th century, has been posed with even greater urgency since the 9/11 tragedy which persuaded many in the West to regard all Arabs as enemies.
It is remarkable how the answers given today are more or less the same as they were 150 years ago.
A second answer, promoted by Jamaleddin Assadabadi (a.k.a. Al Afghani), was that the best hope for Arabs, indeed all Muslims, lay in finding a benevolent despot who, rather than spend time enriching himself, would lead them into creating a modern society.
The third answer, as fashionable today as it was decades ago, is that the secret of Arabs' "decline" lies in the fact that they have distanced themselves from Islam.
The problem with all three views was that they were based on an assumption that could not be verified: that there was an ideal form of government which could be adopted by any society at any given time.
In other words what was lacking was a pragmatic approach. Before asking whether something was good or bad, right or wrong, modern or traditional, we have to ask whether or not it works.
Applying that rule to Arab states today, we will find a range of experiences. There are Arab systems that, although, based on our ideological beliefs, we might not like them, do work.
How do we know if a system works or not? Many tests could be suggested. But let us limit ourselves to just three.
The first is that the system in place should allow for a measure of opposition within society itself. Thus, societies where the opposition is in exile are those that do not work.
The second test is whether or not the system, in order to survive, needs to imprison large numbers of its political opponents.
The third test relates to the degree of violence and counter violence that affects the country's political life.
Thus, the most successful Arab countries, those that work, are ones where there are no exiled opponents, no prisoners of conscience, and no politically motivated violence and counter violence.
Going clockwise, we find few Arab countries that pass all three tests: Oman, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait.
Iraq has few political prisoners and allows much space for dissent inside but fails the test of violence.
Egypt fails two of the tests, the existence of political prisoners and violence, although it is making significant progress on both accounts.
Sudan and Somalia, both technically part of the Arab League, fail all three tests. They could be regarded as failed states, although the recent advent of oil in Sudan has given its system a respite.
Libya fails two of the tests, on political prisoners and internal dissent, but passes the one related to violence, as it has not suffered any major insurgency since the 1990s. A similar judgment could be made of Tunisia, although it faces a stronger exile opposition.
Without trying to draw too many lessons from generalisations, it is important to note two facts. The first is that most of the relatively successful Arab states are those with the most traditional forms of rule.
In most cases, it is actual or threatened violence that forces the state to close the internal space for dissent and drive its critics into exile.
Iranian author Amir Taheri was the editor-in-chief of Kayhan, one of the most prominent newspapers under the Shah. He now lives in exile in Europe and is a member of Benador Associates.