fb-pixel Skip to main content
OPINION | Scott Gilmore

Why is the Islamic world still torn by war?

Smoke billowed from oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants fleeing from the Qayyarah region of Iraq in August.
Smoke billowed from oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants fleeing from the Qayyarah region of Iraq in August.SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time in history, the Western Hemisphere is at peace, an epochal milestone that has not attracted enough attention. The last ongoing conflict in the Americas was in Colombia. But, after four years of negotiations between the government and the FARC guerrilla movement, a cease-fire was signed in August. And even though the peace agreement was defeated unexpectedly in this month’s referendum, the cease-fire holds and both sides remain at the negotiating table.

The end of war in the Americas is part of a larger global trend. According to data collected by the Human Security Project, since the end of the Cold War, the number of armed conflicts has fallen by almost half. Peace is breaking out everywhere.

Everywhere, that is, except in the Islamic world. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, now that there is peace in Colombia, there remain only six civil wars in the world. Five of those are in Islamic nations. Similarly, all four of the current sectarian wars involve Islamic groups, and all five of the ongoing transnational terrorism conflicts involve militant Islamic groups. All told, of the 28 remaining global conflicts of all kinds being tracked by the council, 22 involve an Islamic state or faction.


This demands the question, if the world is entering a new era of peace, why are Islamic nations still racked by war? There could be a few answers.

First, let’s discard the idea that Islam itself is inherently more violent. The vast majority of wars over the last century have been fought by Christian nations. And, as the writer Steven Pinker has pointed out, around the world, the large majority of intentional killings are at the individual level, and the homicide rates in Islamic countries are typically only a third that of the non-Muslim world. By comparison, Louisiana, one of America’s most religious states with 90 percent of the population identifying as Christian, has a murder rate 50 percent higher than Afghanistan’s.

There are other more likely explanations, resources being one of them. Many of the current Islamic conflicts involve oil-producing nations, which may be suffering from the “resource curse.” Economists have noted that countries with an abundance of natural resources can paradoxically have less economic development, weaker institutions, and greater inequality than countries with fewer resources. This is because the fast money that comes from oil is hard to manage and can easily distort the economy and destabilize society.


Another clue may be found by looking at why other nations are at peace. Consider the growth of democracy, for example. It’s been widely noted that democratic nations rarely go to war with each other. Not coincidentally, as the number of international conflicts plummeted after 1989, the number of democratic nations almost doubled. And in the Islamic world? The only healthy democracies are Bangladesh and Indonesia, both countries at peace.

There has also been a global rise in communications — it is harder to vilify the nation next door if you’re reading their books, sharing ideas, or simply vacationing there. Here, too, the Islamic world has fallen far behind everyone else. For example, the Middle East lags every region in the world except Africa when it comes to access to the Internet and connection speeds. Muslim nations publish scientific papers far less frequently per capita than most other regions of the world. And citizens of Islamic states (as defined as members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) are permitted visa-free travel by fewer nations than any other region including Africa. The cumulative result is Islamic countries are relatively more isolated and disconnected than the rest of the world.

Another global trend that is bypassing Muslim nations is social and economic development. The last 50 years have seen the largest reduction in global poverty in history, and with this has come improved education, better health, and a stronger civil society. But, the Islamic world has advanced much more slowly. The Social Progress Index tracks dozens of indicators such as infant mortality rates, access to education, and gender equality. If you group together Islamic nations, they rank last behind every other regional grouping, even Africa. Without development, instability and war become far more likely.


There is hope, though. The global trends toward interconnection, economic growth, social progress, and stronger civil society have not completely bypassed the Islamic world. These changes are just happening much more slowly. Some academics have predicted we will see an end to extreme poverty within the next 20 years. It is too much to hope we will see an end to war by then, but it is entirely conceivable we could be the generation that finally sees genuine peace. Until then, we can celebrate the (tentative) outbreak of peace in the Americas, as the globe tackles the end of conflict one hemisphere at a time.

Scott Gilmore is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the founder of the nonprofit Building Market, and a former Canadian diplomat.