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Averting the Clash

Since Sept. 11 the U.S. objective has been to “drain the swamp.” It’s a good metaphor that conjures up images of vermin left stranded on dry land, exposed, out of their element. It is exactly what we want to do to terrorists and their infrastructure, but the strategies so far seem like fishing with hand grenades, stirring up creatures great and small and arousing the suspicions of game-keepers all over the world. Occasionally a dead snake floats to the surface and a stunned alligator is caught, but the swamp remains and becomes murkier as more grenades are dropped.


If the creatures we want to net are Islamic terrorists, then the swamp is the universities, mosques, banks, bazaars, armies, and neighborhoods within the Muslim world where these people are known and where they operate. And the professors and students, the imams, shopkeepers, army captains, and police colonels; the brothers, sisters, cousins, and childhood friends who inhabit the swamp are all our enemies. We have no choice but to direct American wrath against them because we are locked in a mortal struggle with Islamic-based terrorism.


But if there is another way to stop terrorism, a way that did not entail the horrors of perpetual warfare, then we must give it a serious look. After more than 35 years of observing the Islamic movement and the larger Muslim community, I suggest there is a way to get the terrorists without a Crusade.


There are two pillars of Muslim hostility toward the United States: our uncritical support for Israel and our opposition to Islamic law, or Sharia. Our political, financial, and military support for Israel appears immutable, but it is worth noting that, prior to 1968, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all lent moral and political support to Israel while prohibiting Israeli acquisition of U.S. weaponry.

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The other pillar of resentment is U.S. opposition to Sharia. If this issue is addressed, the swamp can be drained with the willing collaboration of Muslim populations. But if we do not modify our policies toward Sharia, we can dig in for the war of civilizations. Based on thousands of conversations I have had with Muslims of all stripes about the Palestinian question and the issue of Sharia, there is no question that Sharia is the most toxic, but it is also something that can be fixed.


When the Europeans abandoned the white man’s burden of bringing civilization to the Fertile Crescent, they left as their legacy four intractable problems. To summarize, conferences among European powers had drawn arbitrary lines to delineate spheres of influence that became borders of equally arbitrarily defined nation states. Independence meant transfer of power to elites who had gained education, wealth, and power during colonial occupation. Different religious, ethnic, and tribal groups were thrown into a cockpit to fight for ascendancy in centralized nation states, a concept essentially alien to the region. The Islamic legal system, the foundation of legitimacy, shaping and shaped by human culture and civil society over more than a millennium, was suppressed and replaced with hybrid Western-derived regimes lacking in legitimacy and popular acceptance.


We Westerners roll our eyes at the failure of these states. We speculate on flaws in the character of these Arabs and their retrograde societies. We superimpose the template of Western ideas about human progress and posit solutions like “democracy” and “church-state separation.” But, composed of competing groups without a shred of common national identity, ruled by conflicted, and often self-hating elites, and stripped of access to a unifying, socially coherent, and legitimate system of governance, the amazing thing is that places like Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia manage to muddle along at all. Is it any wonder that the really rough neighborhoods like Iraq, Algeria, and Yemen fall to the most ruthless and best-organized gangs of thugs?


By contrast, consider the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, or even Iran. Despite considerable problems, these are essentially successful. Is that because of oil? Iraq and Algeria have oil; Oman none. In pre-colonial days, Yemen was prosperous and cosmopolitan as anyplace in the world. Successful Arab states share amorphous and permeable borders, decentralized power, thoroughly indigenous elites, and, above all Sharia and the legitimacy that it confers upon governance in the Muslim world.

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MacArthur’s genius in the restructuring of postwar Japan lay in his understanding of legitimacy in Japanese society. He believed if he kept the lynchpin of legitimacy—the Emperor Hirohito and the Imperial system—dramatic reform was then possible. We know he was right, yet consider the pressure he was under to do otherwise. The radicalism of that decision in the context of its time is stunning. In the mind of America, and in the minds of MacArthur’s own soldiers, Hirohito personified the enemy. The collective expectation was clear: Hirohito would go. But MacArthur knew better and stood his ground. Failure to apply lessons from MacArthur’s success can beget failure in Iraq as stark as his achievement was sensational. And in the Islamic world, though it is as reviled in some quarters as Hirohito in 1945, the “Emperor” is Islamic law.


In the hands of extremists, Sharia is construed in ways that are brutal and devastating to women, minorities, and the rights of citizens. On the defensive for 200 years, and under assault for the last 30, it is the extremists who now hold sway and if they succeed, the dark age of the Taliban will reign throughout the region. But the vast majority of Muslims, who want Sharia, do not want the Taliban, and we could use our leverage to empower them in their battle with the extremists and to midwife a rebirth of Islamic law that gives Muslim peoples peace and meets world standards for protection of minorities and the rights of citizens.


That Sharia, the foundation of legitimacy for 1.2 billion people, and a cornerstone upon which rich and varied civilizations have flourished for more than a millennium, is in such disrepute says more about the ethnocentrism of our intellectual life than it says about Sharia. It is worth examining the sources of these views, and the agendas that come into play.


When I began studying Islam in 1966, Sharia was considered non-Western, not anti-Western and certainly not any threat to Western society. In the secularized world of 1960s American academia, interest in Sharia was arcane; suggesting its re-emergence bordered on foolishness. When the Iranian revolution burst on the scene in 1978, academia was caught completely flat-footed, and the embarrassment was profound. Its self-serving response to this demonstration of the bankruptcy of its analytical models was telling: professors, think-tank experts, and scholars who provided advice to policy-makers had no way to illuminate these events, so they summoned all the gravity and sagacity they could muster and agreed with each other that this Iran business was scary. And nothing could be scarier to secular intellectuals than Jerry Falwell with a turban and an AK-47. Hence the label: Islamic fundamentalism.


The failure of the intellectual community to provide the ballast of scholarship, context, and perspective left the Iranian-American relationship adrift and subject to the winds of political expedience, squalls of media-generated emotionalism, and waves of event-driven public anxiety. Any reconsideration of the movement for restoration of Sharia must recognize that the breakdown of American scholarship in this instance was total, its consequences severe and enduring.


In this vacuum, the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Islamic society in Iran and elsewhere became subject to interpretation by journalists, politicians, and interest groups, each particularly ill-equipped to shed light on something this volatile and complex. Distant, alien, and dangerous, and with no conceivable domestic constituency, Islamic fundamentalism became a political football with virtually magical properties in the hands of politicians whose basic ignorance of Islamic society was exceeded only by their eagerness to toss the magic football and score every time.


Already demonized, the Islamic movement became the perfect foil for post-Watergate investigative journalism. The U.S. press corps has pursued the fundamentalist menace with relentless fervor and without interest in nuance or differentiation among the elements of the Islamist movement and their vastly different aims and methods. The actual reasons underlying Sharia’s appeal to overwhelming majorities of Muslim peoples are never explored, and the reader is invited to infer that these populations are just crazy, defective, or evil. The objective is to unearth conspiracies using sources most like the journalists themselves: secular, Westernized elites. In rare instances where an Islamist leader is actually interviewed, the purpose is to bait the interviewee into the most inflammatory quote and frame it to maximize titillation.


Even Islamic fundamentalists read their press notices. As I found in Cairo in 1985, people in all elements of the movement to restore Sharia, and Egyptians in general, were fed up with the U.S. press corps. With good contacts and a non-confrontational approach, I easily obtained interviews with people from all sectors of the movement, from Muslim Brotherhood professors and parliamentarians to clandestine meetings with hard-core Islamic Jihad and Gammiat leaders. Since I was not there to do a hatchet job on Islam, co-operation, even from the Egyptian government, was extraordinary. But unsettling, and more important, was how ordinary Egyptians, from hotel clerks and shopkeepers to army officers and businessmen, came out of the woodwork to express and explain their support for the restoration of Sharia and their distrust of the American press—a loathing remarkably similar in rationale and intensity to our justifiable feelings about those hate-mongering Saudi schoolbooks.


Back then there were seven bureaus of American media organizations in Cairo. Six of the bureau chiefs were either female or Jewish or both. I’m sure the stateside editors who configured things believed they were making important didactic statements, confronting lesser folk with the virtues of pluralism and the evils of prejudice. But whatever their point, the mission was not journalism. Whether the agendas of the journalists or the resentments of the locals caused the most problems is moot. Both presented obstacles that made reporting, in the sense of cultivating broad-based sources, contextualizing events, and informing the public in a dispassionate manner, impossible. To characterize the bulk of what Americans have read regarding the Islamic Middle East as yellow journalism insults the statesmanship of William Randolph Hearst. But the agenda-driven stigmatizing of peoples, with whom there are inflammatory issues to dump gasoline on, is the same.


With academia in bitter default and the press baying like the hounds of hell came various interest groups to aggrandize themselves by vilifying Islam, usually by blurring the lines between Sharia and terrorism or identifying Sharia with human-rights problems that have far more to do with specific cultures or conflicts.


First among these would be the Likud government of Israel and the various lobbying groups associated with it. Certainly Yigal Yadin and perhaps Ben Gurion would not agree, but the Likud calculus is simple and demonstrated with remarkable consistency: if the Arabs want something, then it must be bad for Israel.


As George Shultz’s memoirs demonstrate, his brief regarding the Islamic movement was essentially transferred to Israeli Ambassador Benyamin Netanyahu during much of the Reagan administration. My puzzlement about why many of the Foreign Service and intelligence officers—who, unlike the journalists, at least had a clue what was going on—were unable to affect attitudes in Washington was answered by a senior FSO in Amman. He told me in frustration that anything of significance he sent home would be passed by the Israelis, and to deviate in any substantive way from their line, given their influence in Congress and the bureaucracy, was career suicide. I thought that was over the top until I read Shultz’s own account of how he did business.


Twice during the 1980s, Egyptian President Mubarak attempted to organize referenda on the gradual reintroduction of Sharia, to the relief and approval of the Egyptian people—shared by some in the U.S. Embassy. Both times, he was summoned to the State Department and told that if he proceeded, U.S. aid would be stopped, throwing the fragile Egyptian economy into chaos. Egyptians know this story well; they resent it enormously.


But the Egyptians are lucky compared to the Algerians. In 1992, the first genuine democratic elections in that country were being swept by a coalition campaigning on reintroduction of Sharia. The U.S. and France engineered a coup that aborted the process. Ten civil-war-ravaged years and 100,000 corpses later, Algerians still have no idea why we did this. When it turns out that the Algerians don’t like us, pundits blame them and maintain that they hate us for our freedom and high-mindedness. (Unlike Americans, Arabs are well informed about acts of various U.S. administrations over the last 20 years.) It is this kind of interference, far more than Israel, that engenders such widespread anger toward the U.S. in the Arab world.


For decades America was presented to Soviet citizens through a montage of grainy footage depicting black sharecroppers, lynchings, and the KKK. Though these images were composed of real pictures and facts, they monumentally distorted American life. The beheading of a Saudi princess some years ago was as appalling as any 1920s lynching, and the miserable plight of burka-clad, cowering, furtive, Afghan women under the Taliban is as reprehensible as segregation. Unfortunately these images have gained currency as stereotypes that terribly malign life in the Islamic world. One could more fairly condemn Southeast Asian Buddhism based on the Khmer Rouge. Promotion of these stereotypes would be relatively innocuous fundraising opportunities for women’s groups, human-rights organizations, and lobbyists if the price of such distortion were not paid in blood. And blood will continue to flow in Nigeria, one of the most horribly malformed colonial legacy-states, where Muslims, Christians, and animist tribes have amply proven themselves equal-opportunity butchers as they battle for dominance. Sharia, manipulatively trotted out as a tool by reactionary mullahs, has no direct bearing on either causes or solutions to this strife, but rights groups, lately come to the situation, exacerbate the situation by railing about Sharia and thereby alienating all Muslims.


Considering these stereotypes, I’m reminded of conservative women throughout the Islamic world who have no problem asserting themselves and sharing their critique of the commercial and sexual exploitation of women in the West. I recall an anecdote related by a British colleague who watched a female member of the Iranian parliament, in the midst of a heated debate, bop a senior cleric with her purse and knock his turban off. He apologized for his intemperate remarks, and the debate went on. In our stereotypical view of Iran, how many Americans know that there are plenty of women in parliament and government? How many know there’s a parliament in Iran at all or that women hold many senior positions in the Iranian bureaucracy and society?


Part of the problem in evaluating Sharia is that the most familiar example we have, Wahabbi Saudi Arabia, is also the most extreme, and Wahabbism certainly devastated Afghanistan, where an entirely different school of Sharia is normative. Yet we have managed 70 years of mutually beneficial diplomatic and economic relations with the Saudis. This is hardly because Wahabbism is more compatible with the West than other variants of Islamic law. It is because Sharia-based Saudi Arabia enjoys a measure of legitimacy and is therefore not a failed state. As such, it can conduct itself in its own interests with consistency and realism and act responsibly, if imperfectly, as a member of the community of nations. This illustrates how our problem is not with Islamist governance per se; it is with Islamic-fundamentalist terrorism in the context of failed states.


There are four quite different variants of Sharia codified in the Sunni tradition, as well as a Shi’ite version. These systems have provided stability, cohesion, and legitimacy for an astonishingly diverse array of peoples—including substantial Jewish communities—from Morocco to China; from Central Asia to sub-Saharan Africa; from the Adriatic to the Philippines for more than 1,300 years. Yet, in thrall to stereotypes and in love with vacuous but important sounding labels like “theocracy,” our pundits muse darkly that such a system cannot possibly be compatible with “tolerance,” “diversity,” or “pluralism.”


We talk of imposing “democracy” on the “theocrats” of Muslim civilization. Yet whose “democracy” are we talking about? From our past policies and current public discourse we can conclude that it is not a “democracy” where open elections are held. And what is a “theocracy”? A system where someone purports to receive revelation from God and then dictates to society? Or a place where the head of state is Defender of the Faith, like England. These nuances are important if we are to provide our people in Iraq the flexibility they need to create order in an Islamic society.


When thousands of Muslims pour into the streets of Iraq demanding an Islamic state, they are not proposing to install someone who talks to Allah and then tells everyone what to do. They seek the restoration of a system of laws and governance that are time honored and legitimate to them. Some contemporary form of democracy will very likely follow—that seems to be the way to success in the modern world—and Sharia-derived concepts of ijma (progressive consensus) fostered public participation in governance hundreds of years before there were any parliaments in Europe. But as in postwar Japan, or Thailand, or any number of other successful states in the non-Western world, stable contemporary democratic institutions will only develop in the context of popularly accepted sovereignty. Similarly, human rights and protection of religious minorities can best be assured by applying our enormous leverage to broker reform in Iraq in a context acceptable to the Iraqi people, not by storming into forbidden women’s quarters in a futile hunt for weapons, one AK-47 at a time.


MacArthur overcame our aversion to legitimacy wrapped in an Emperor of divine descent, steeped in religious symbolism. Crass, acquisitive, corrupt politicians and generals in Thailand show how—absent the mystical aura of a similarly sacred monarchy—peaceful, stable, prosperous Thailand is just another Burma or Cambodia or Vietnam. The trappings of legitimacy are precious, peculiar, and specific to societies. They are often difficult for others to understand, and the legacy of failed states in the post-colonial period shows how little this is appreciated.


Now that we have plunged headlong into the swamp, we have opportunities equal to the risks. If we can replicate MacArthur’s achievement—democratic, humanitarian reform in the context of legitimacy—we can drain the swamp and transform the Middle East. Legitimate states are successful states, and successful states can defeat terrorism. Police colonels, mullahs, bankers, shopkeepers, professors, and army officers can collaborate with us and end it. Families, wives, and girlfriends of the terrorist cadres can bring them home or turn them in, as happened in Europe when what was perceived as an endless wave of Bader-Meinhof and Red-Brigade terrorism ended with barely a whimper when the people who knew the terrorists became fed up and the swamp dried up.


It is ominous that in all the discussions of our War on Terror, we hear only of decades of perpetual war. Reference is never made to terrorism’s eradication elsewhere. It’s puzzling that we are not pouring over history’s examples, finding what worked and applying lessons learned. Similarities among al-Qaeda, the Red Brigades, the Bader-Meinhof gang, and Thai terrorists include underemployed, overeducated, hyper-idealistic children of elites; organization and methods; operation in a society where their identities are known to family, friends, mentors, and others who essentially acquiesce to the status quo. We should be looking for ways to seduce these people into the kind of collaboration that occurred in Thailand and Europe. Instead we now demand it and punish inadequate compliance, but whoever expects genuine co-operation needs to be cloaked in real legitimacy. We cannot continue opposing Islamic legitimacy and expect the co-operation that is the one proven way to end terrorism.


The question of state-sponsored terrorism yields to similar logic and scrutiny. Doubtless, the Iranians and Syrians have a powerful incentive to desist. But there is a precedent from which lessons can be drawn. It is true that the air raids on Tripoli in 1986, particularly the attack on Qaddafi’s compound, induced him to reconsider his behavior. It is less well known that, around the same time, Qaddafi reintroduced Sharia. It is no coincidence that his newfound legitimacy enabled him to retain power while abruptly abandoning the underpinnings of his regime to that point: Arab revolutionary, terrorist kingpin, and bête noire to the Western world. We don’t like Qaddafi, and he doesn’t like us, but nobody now seriously believes we need to destroy Libya.


If we do not learn to identify and collaborate with legitimate authority in the Islamic Middle East, “destroy” is the operative word. There is not much ground between liberating and subjugating a country, and that ground is occupied by turning over governance to people and institutions regarded as legitimate by the population. Attempting to impose legitimacy is something else: it’s called colonialism, and it’s been tried. It is instructive to recall how the British, retreating from empire, left robust little parliamentary democracies in places like Burma, Uganda, and Iraq. But these did not long survive their essential disconnect from any of the trappings of traditional legitimacy in those societies, and the consequences are well known. If we fail to work with bona-fide representatives of the Islamic leadership in Iraq, that outcome is the best for which we can hope.


Unfortunately, there may be even darker forces at work here. The Bush administration has shown an inclination to repress anything labeled “Islamist.” Some officials appear to take the approach that the U.S. is omniscient and well intentioned enough to replicate the colonial experience without the mistakes. Others subscribe to the idea that there is something inherently wrong with Islam that must be forcibly delegitimized and Arab culture and society fundamentally transformed if the West is not to be imperiled.


The ambition of this exceeds anything attempted by 19th-century European colonialism. From history’s little book of fun facts and lessons, recall 16th-century Spain and the “transformation” of the New World. History’s reviews are scathing; little more than wanton pillage and destruction. But that’s only how it turned out; it was never intended that way. Contemporary documents reveal only reasonable motives: securing the Spanish state, providing benighted native peoples with the benefits of civilization and commerce, and, above all, saving humanity from religions that were fundamentally flawed. The problems occurred because the Indians did not buy into this and reacted, as history shows people do when their belief systems and culture are threatened, by forcing the Spanish to keep killing.


Muslims react no differently when they perceive their religion and culture under assault. Disparities in technology, organization, and capability dramatically exceed those of Cortez and the Aztecs, but like the Aztecs, Muslims will not get the message until the belief-system that motivates their resistance is spent. We will call that resistance “terrorism,” and, since we are out to defeat terrorism, we will not stop killing them until they stop throwing themselves on our sword. That’s the way of wars of religion when people lack any other capability to defend themselves. And Islam is an awfully old and powerful religion.


So when Islam is neutered, what will replace it? Those promoting war would need to have a trick or two up their sleeve that has not yet been seen by history. Societies can overcome tremendous whippings and bounce back, but when their culture and belief-systems are wrecked, they do not recover. This, not body count or cities destroyed, is the difference between defeat and annihilation. If we take on Islam, the result will be the same kind of catastrophe that has utterly crushed societies before when culture and belief are eviscerated.

When MacArthur entered Tokyo, he brought little with him except his vision of what to do, the courage to do it, and the authority to make it stick. One thing he did not have was a posse of Westernized Japanese exiles vying for ministerial appointments or politically connected corporate heavyweights brandishing billion-dollar contracts. We now enter Baghdad without anyone of MacArthur’s stature or independence, surrounded by seekers of various sorts—sound-bite-driven politicians, compensating academics and experts, and proselytes for democracy and human-rights non-profits—all with their own agendas, none of which involves restoring legitimacy of governance to Iraq. It’s possible we will overcome this, but not very likely. If we don’t, people will continue to resist, and we will crush them—until we get tired of trying to drain the swamp and just poison it and come home.   

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Jim Pittaway is a freelance writer who has lived and worked in the Middle East. His work has appeared in the Washington Post and the Atlantic Monthly.