Any good puzzle is built upon the notion that the correct construction and alignment of key components will result in a whole, either static or dynamic, that can perform a function the individual pieces could not. For some, it is the creation of an image. For others, it is the assembly of an engine capable of generating power. Importantly, one can have all the individual pieces to a puzzle and attempt to assemble it in other ways – puzzle pieces can be forced together to attach in ways other than what they were originally designed for. But in a dynamic instead of a static system, for example an engine designed to operate at full capacity without an ability to cool itself, a dynamic puzzle mis-assembled can have disastrous consequences. The intentions with which it was constructed, and the initial theories about its capacity to run itself cease to be important when the engine begins overheating and exploding, causing real damage to real people.

Churchill’s claim of democracy being the worst form of government (save for the others that have been tried) is well-publicized. Less known is that he prefaced this statement, made to the House of Commons in 1947, with “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise”. Democratic systems rely upon being governed by the will and choices of those elected to represent the people, but in the reality we exist in, it is not all the people who wish for the same outcomes. And the notion of liberal democracy is equally context-dependent – if the people do not wish to have a society built upon liberal values, choosing instead secularity or familial ties, then by it’s very definition liberal democracy is not what will be chosen.

Cut to the Arab World. A previous post has documented the notion of Islamic Exceptionalism, built upon the idea that Islam is different. With political parties and public opinion often leaning towards the implementation of Sharia Law as the law of the land and a view that the laws of the Koran are constitutional in nature, it is undeniable that the laws of Islamic faith are often intertwined with those of the state. Parties in current democracies, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are defined as Islamist, wherein a platform is built upon the idea of forming an Islamic state and being policed by Islamist militia groups. This post is not claim that democracy in the Islamic world is impossible, nor to claim that Islamic parties are incapable of being effective at holding elected office (see Tunisia and Morocco). But it does ask a question: if the majority of situations in which a system is implemented result in a greater than normal failure rates (or at least a longer, less-clear road to success), what is an alternative that could feasibly function more effectively in this context?

The first step to understanding what system would work is to better understand the context in which our solution will be implemented – what do the people living in Islamic nations hold as values? For this, we can look to two structures: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the World Values Index, which is categorized along the same structures as the former. The strongest instances of survival values (emphasis on physical and economic security, paired with low levels of trust) are found in Islamic states. The structure of the World Values Index Questionnaires is such that respondent data is placed upon a spectrum wherein survival values are at the opposite end from self-expression values. But this does not mean they are opposites – only that an individual concerned with the physical safety of their children and their families is perhaps otherwise preoccupied to be dealing with concerns around gender roles in society. Islamic nations also scored highly on holding traditional values (prioritizing family units and traditionalism, again indicators of low trust levels) over more liberal ideologies. The intertwining of Islam holds an influence here: institutional faith that may be lacking in the government or judiciary might otherwise be placed in religious institutions, given that at least one can be certain every adherent happens to be reading the same text.

Now if those are the values held by the people, what are the examples of effective governance that have both improved their livelihoods and held true to those beliefs? A few exist in unlikely places – Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. The Balkh province of Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurdistan and Somalia’s region of Somaliland are each examples of regions with higher than average levels of security, public infrastructure and even examples of democracy. Each region holds lower than average statistics for child mortality, school enrollment and access to clean drinking water. It is tempting to place these regions in a different standard due to geographical factors, but these regions all hold other similarities as well: Leaders have risen from within their communities, meaning they are trusted. Because of their local ties (often ethnic or familial), they lack federal ambitions, ensuring they plan for their communities for the long-term as they intend to remain there. This results in a preference for institutions, such as formal taxation, over looting and bribery. Another key success factor is how these governments make decisions – often informally, through collaboration and discussion within their communities. Coercion and co-optation are commonplace, but free press and political opposition are typically tolerated.

Contrast this with an American attempt to install a system in 2010 after evicting the Taliban from the Afghani province of Helmland. Upon the Americans selecting a new district governor and funding local services, the system still failed, primarily due to incompetence by bureaucratic officials. But another key indicator emerges: a lack of trust amongst the populace. Had the governor been one of the people, he may have been given time to fail and learn from his mistakes. Instead, because of mistrust upon entering office, he lacked public support for his initiatives and was forced to turn to more traditional tactics to push forward his agenda. Contrast it again with a more eyebrow-raising example: regions taken by the Taliban have reported of communities being governed rather than ruled over. In return for occupation and adhernence to Islamist principles, the militia provides access to clean drinking water, an education system and protection from other local militias. An anarchic system ruled over by local warlords? Without a doubt. But in a region where survival is not guaranteed and mistrust is more rampant than anywhere else in the world, one cannot afford to be picky about who is protecting your family if the cost can be bore.

Addressing these issues is no small task. Local or regional leaders are not a panacea – in fact they often present their own risks – but people living under anarchy are safer if living under a stationary rather than a roving ruler. To begin addressing the systemic issues that exist within the Islamic world, one must first acknowledge the context: democracy only functions if the people share the values of their leaders and trust them. Supplanting liberal democracy a-la-carte fails on both counts. A more effective approach could be the promotion of decentralization and regional leadership. The lines drawn on the map of the Middle East by the Sykes-Picot treaty have only exacerbated existing issues, and dealing directly with regional actors has proven to be a more effective solution in the past – rebel groups are often recruited by Western armies to fight alongside them against a shared enemy. Kurdistan, the Balkh and Somaliland have proven invaluable to fighting ISIS, the Taliban and Al Shabab. Pulling away foreign aid, or redirecting it for greater efficiency, may also prove wise – governments supported by foreign aid consistently rank as less trusted amongst their citizens given that power structures are then typically centralized within national-level governments instead of trickling down. But a dynamic system, with this many moving parts, will require a defter hand than a few simple fixes. But the way the pieces have been assembled thus far has cost lives – it’s time to start thinking less about what it looks like and more about how it will actually work.