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Islam Isn’t a Peril

America keeps trying to see conflicts with the Muslim world through the failed lens of ideology.
islam jordan wall

In early 1993 then-Foreign Affairs managing editor Fareed Zakaria asked me to write a commentary for the magazine based on a policy analysis that I had published as a research fellow at the Cato Institute. In the policy analysis, I challenged the thesis that Islam was replacing communism as the top ideological challenge to the West while at the same time, Iran was supposedly emerging to replace the Soviet Union as a leading global strategic threat to the United States.

My subsequent Foreign Affairs article, “What Green Peril?” drew a lot of attention at the time but was displaced as a foreign policy Big Think piece by another Foreign Affairs essay, “The Clash of Civilizations,” in which the renowned political thinker Samuel Huntington contended that political Islam, together with other civilizational entities, would pose long-term perils to U.S. global interests.

In any case, the arguments I had stated in my earlier Foreign Affairs piece continued to haunt me through the years, first, in the aftermath of 9/11 when some of my critics, especially on the political right, suggested that my thesis was now overrun by events that supposedly demonstrated that the notion of Green Peril was not a figment of imagination of frustrated Cold Warriors.

More recently, I contended that the failures of American democracy promotion and “nation building” project in Iraq, as well as those of the Arab Spring, to deliver on liberal-democratic promises made it obvious that the values of the Enlightenment project were not compatible with those of contemporary Islam. I was then criticized by some on the left for bashing Islam, if not exhibiting—Allah Forbid!—a certain level of Islamophobia that seemed to contradict the positions I laid out in “What Green Peril?”

But in fact, as I revisited my old Foreign Affairs piece, I discovered that my main thesis remains basically intact. If anything, 9/11 and the ensuing “war on terror” coupled with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq only strengthened it by demonstrating that the United States and the West were facing neither an ideological challenge nor a strategic threat from a unified and monolithic Islamic ideological bloc a la the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War.

First, contrary to the neoconservative axiom embraced by the second President Bush, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were not part of a grand strategy advanced by a global Islamofascist alliance of states and movements intent on defeating American interests and Western values.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath make it clear that there is neither a cohesive Iraqi nation nor a united Arab people, but it also exposed the deep sectarian, ethnic, and even tribal divisions in the Arab Middle East and the entire Muslim world, especially between Sunnis and Shiites. These tend to override in many cases the traditional opposition among Arabs and Muslims to American and Western intervention in the Middle East.

To use the historical analogy of the Cold War, it took us quite a while to discover that the Soviet Bloc was not homogenous; that the Vietnamese, Koreans, and even Cubans were driven by nationalist sentiments as opposed to communist ideology; and that the Chinese and the Russians hated each other more than either despised the United States.

But it didn’t take us longer than a Baghdad minute to find out that there were actually no ties between Iraq’s Baath regime and al-Qaeda; that Saddam Hussein was a secular leader who represented the interests of the Sunni minority in Iraq and counterbalanced Shiite Iran—as opposed to the secular Baath regime in Syria that represented the interests of the Shiite minority and was allied with theocratic Iran; that the Kurds were also Muslims but supported the United States, as did theocratic Sunni Saudi Arabia. We discovered all of this and much more in the first two or three years of America’s war against so-called Islamofascism.

As I pointed out in my Foreign Affairs piece and subsequent articles published after 9/11 and the Iraq War, the Muslim Middle East is a mosaic of ethnic, sectarian, and tribal groups and regional players that are driven—including in their attitudes towards the United States—mainly by interests and not ideology. This is true whether it was communism during the Cold War or Islamism today, although secular and religious ideologies can help mobilize public support and provide a sense of legitimacy to those in power as well as to those who oppose them.

Hence, the United States wasn’t becoming a target for attacks by some Muslims because its values were not compatible with theirs—which would require a major ideological effort to promote American values in the Middle East—but as a result of specific policies that the United States was promoting in the region, including an alliance with the ruling regimes, but support for Israel, etc.

We may conclude that those policies do advance U.S. interests and continue to pursue them, but we shouldn’t be surprised if and when we experience the inevitable “blowback” in response. And we certainly shouldn’t assume that converting our Muslim opponents to our secular and liberal values would change their attitudes towards us, even setting aside the impracticability of such a plan.

Indeed, one could even make the argument that American ideological “victory” in the Cold War, followed by Russia’s adoption of electoral democracy and China’s embrace of capitalism, failed to change the fact that the United States experiences geostrategic tensions with those powers that reflect incompatible national interests.

That became even more obvious during the so-called Arab Spring, when not unlike during the short life span of the so-called Freedom Agenda, American pundits and officials adopted a narrative that reflected their wishful thinking, and assumed that American power and ideas can help remake the Middle East. Under W. it would involve the use of American military to achieve “regime change,” while under Obama—with the exception of the deposing of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi—it would be achieved through an alliance with the young Arabs with Facebook accounts and “moderate” anti-government insurgents.

But as I pointed out in TAC,

In reality, the so-called Arab Spring consists of a mishmash of anti-government demonstrations triggered in most cases by police over-reaction and fuelled by economic hard times (Tunisia and Egypt), ethnic and religious tensions (Syria and Bahrain) and tribal rivalries (Libya and Yemen) as well as by growing public perception that the global hegemon – the United States – that was helping keep ruling regimes in place is losing its power.

From that perspective, there wasn’t much difference between the grand narratives that Bush II and Obama applied to the broader Middle East, both of which seemed to be based on the expectation of a linear progression towards liberal democracy in the Muslim world.

The main difference had to do with the means to achieving those goals, with the Republican president’s preferred modus operandi being a mix of force and persuasion, and his Democratic successor seemingly counting on diplomacy and the power of his personality and rhetoric to win the minds and hearts of Muslims everywhere.

In some respect, these contrasting attitudes have been recycled in recent months against the backdrop of terrorist acts in Europe and elsewhere perpetrated by either Muslim “lone wolves” or by those with links to radical Islamic groups. Conservatives seem to be trying to revive the post-9/11 notion of a global Islamic threat that the Islamic State supposedly represents, which would require once again the use of American military force to defeat it. At the same time, President Obama and many liberals assume that Muslims are just “like us” and that if they would be provided with the right incentives and opportunities, they would end up rejecting anti-Western radicalism and terrorism.

Conservatives once again seem to overlook the reality in the Muslim world where many Muslims not only reject the Islamic State’s ideology and methods, but in the cases of the Kurds, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Saudis, are willing to use their own forces to fight it. President Obama seems to get it and to recognize that a wider American military in the Middle East only creates disincentives for these regional players to do just that.

But President Obama may be deluding himself if he thinks that the relative success of Muslim immigrants to integrate in American society suggest that what took place under the very unique political and economic conditions of this country could be replicated in Europe or in the Middle East when the “root causes” of Muslim radicalism are eliminated.

But political Islam, especially in its more radical manifestation, remains a powerful political and ideological force and represents a set of values that on many levels—freedom of expression is just one example—isn’t compatible with contemporary Western beliefs, especially in their postmodern incarnations. Hence while in Europe and the United States we are debating the issue of same-sex-marriage, in the Muslim world homosexuality isn’t only illegal but also can be subject to harsh punishment, including death.

There is nothing “Islamophobic” in admitting that wide civilizational differences exist today between the West and the Muslim world, or in concluding that they won’t be bridged anytime soon. Nor is it Islamophobic to acknowledge that a certain “cultural segregation” may be inevitable when dealing with Muslim government and societies, including Muslims who want to immigrate to the West and are not willing to adhere to the standards of conduct, like free press, women’s rights, and religious freedom, that are practiced in America and Europe.

At the same time, it’s time for us to abandon the various crusades to liberalize and democratize, reform and remake the Muslim world, and time to base our policies on considerations of national interests, which should exhibit a certain benign neglect and a hands-off approach to the crises that will continue to plague the Middle East in the coming years. It’s a mess out there, but we turn it into a “Peril” only when we think that we have the power and the knowledge to change it.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.



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