Why the Arab World Fights
Since the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in the First World War, Arab Islamic civilization has been deep in a crisis that can only be resolved from within. Its character is both political and religious and might be compared with the Thirty Years’ War in Europe that ended in 1648 in the Westphalian Settlement, which created a new international system of national sovereignties and, in religion, acceptance of the Augsburg principle (1555) of cuius regio, eius religio. Roughly speaking, these terms have prevailed in the West to the present day, notwithstanding a sinister 20th-century totalitarian interlude.
The unexpected appearance of what claims to be the new Islamic Caliphate—sweeping all before it, its atrocities demonstrating its power and ruthlessness, its avowed destiny the restoration of an Islamic Golden Age—should not be seen as anything new in imperialist and post-imperialist history. It is astonishing that the debate in Western circles on what (or what not) to do about ISIS has seemed largely innocent of history and indifferent to the pattern of consistent futility and failure in the West’s efforts to impose its will on the non-Western world. A new movement that claims to restore the lost power and glories of Islam, however unconvincing this claim may be, is actually the ultimate stage in the crisis that has afflicted the Arab Muslim civilization since its loss of unity in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the last political manifestation of a united Islam.
One is constantly told that history must be consulted in order to understand the present, but in practice that rarely is done with an open mind.
The rise of a radical popular movement demanding that a lost golden age be restored to a fragmented and culturally distraught society occurred at least twice in 19th-century China (the Taiping and Boxer rebellions) and in colonial India (the so-called Sepoy Mutiny) and Sudan (with the Mahdi Mohamed Ahmed, a messianic purifier of Islam who captured Khartoum in 1885 and murdered General Charles Gordon), to take only the best known instances of such uprisings against imperial powers.
The phenomenon has appeared in post-colonial Africa: what else is the terrible Lord’s Resistance Army of children in Uganda, or other radical movements such as Boko Haram, classified in Western capitals as merely “terrorist”? Their power lies in that they are motivated by versions or perversions of religion.
All are political expressions of probably the most important recurrent phenomenon of history itself: the search for the key to the Millennium, common to sophisticated as well as simple societies throughout history. What do people think Communism was, and in fragmented forms remains today? It proposed a method for engineering what Communists—the Comintern and the Soviet and other governments—promised, and indeed believed: the coming of the Great Day when virtue incarnate would manifest itself in a transformed future condition of permanent happiness conferring justice and happiness upon an afflicted people. It is secular religion.
This is a modern phenomenon. In the West during the medieval Age of Religion the promised paradise was held to exist outside of time and would only be opened at the end of the dolor of earthly existence by the arrival of the Messiah. The Millennium marked the end of secular time, when human history would have run its course and the “Thousand Years” of heavenly reign begun—as promised in the Book of Revelation. Marxism was the secular translation of that religious promise, promulgated by the new prophets: Marx himself, Engels, Mao Tse-tung. A secularized prophecy was necessary because God had been assassinated in the European Enlightenment.
That is not the view held in Islam. The Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, supposedly Islam’s new caliph, awaits fulfillment of the promises of the Prophet Muhammad, which like those of Christianity are intemporal.
The Islamic Caliphate proclaimed in August declares itself eager to attack the West and especially the United States, as well as the West’s heretical Arab allies, notably the American-linked Shia state of Iraq and the established Sunni claimant to Wahhabi primacy, Saudi Arabia. The Sunni-Shia conflict inside Islam is widening and increasingly embittered, promoted by big and rich Islamic states, Sunni Saudi Arabia, Sunni Qatar, and Shia Iran among them. There is plenty of war now in the Middle East, but it currently is nearly all confined within Islamic society and is mainly generated by the ancient religious dispute over the true doctrinal legacy of the Prophet, with subsequent and subordinate political motivations. It is better to leave it there.
Why have American opposition politicians been determined that Barack Obama show his mettle by going to war again? Iraq and Syria in their civil struggles, Hezbollah against Israel, Sunni rebels and Alawite rulers in Syria, all have by now demonstrated that they are formidable fighters against their enemies. The only one recently to fail was the new Iraq army, after a decade of American training: undoubtedly the result of the Iraq government’s incapacity to establish the loyalty and national conviction that bind an army to a state and its people. This is a political failure, a consequence of the George W. Bush administration’s witless destruction of the secular Iraq that existed before 2003.
The contemporary crisis of the Arabs began following the Great War when the winners, the principal European imperial powers of the time, disposed of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, using their new instrument, the League of Nations, to issue mandates of supervisory control over the new monarchies and other territorial authorities recognized in the war settlements. The quest nonetheless persisted to reunite the people of Islam, a single if theologically divided people, united by the Koran and by the Arabic language in which the Koran was written and still is read.
The Ottoman system that had replaced the great Arab Caliphates was destroyed in the 19th and early 20th century by resistance within the Slavic European parts of the empire and then by the collision of the Ottomans with modern, industrial Europe in the World War. The intellectual and theological challenge that had been provoked by the European Enlightenment had inevitably influenced Islamic thinkers, producing the precursor reform currents of the Young Turks’ movement in the empire.
Following 1918, ageless, Islamic but non-Arab Egypt remained a monarchy, but under British “protection.” Persia, also non-Arab, another ancient independent monarchy, had fallen under an informal British ascendancy after the discovery there of oil to fuel the Royal Navy. Syria, Iraq, and Transjordan had Hashemite Arab monarchs bestowed upon them—Iraq to be ruled by Faisal, who had led the “Arab Revolt” with T.E. Lawrence as his British military counselor, and who was initially made king of Syria until displaced by the French colonial authorities.
Syria and Transjordan were made mandated states by the League of Nations, respectively under French and British control. Palestine—as everyone knows—was also placed under British Mandate but with no provision made for fulfilling Britain’s wartime promise to establish a Jewish National Home there (on condition, as the Balfour Declaration specified, that the rights of the existing non-Jewish communities of Palestine would be respected).
What at the time was tribal Arabia was in the course of being conquered by the puritanical Wahhabi movement under Ibn Saud, his conquered territories being proclaimed independent “Saudi Arabia” in 1932, while present-day Yemen remained under tribal rule.
The European colonial governments were accustomed to rule “lesser” peoples beyond Europe’s frontiers and beyond the seas in what they considered to be their subjects’ as well as their own best interests. Now they did so under the unimpeachable authority of the “international community,” as the League of Nations would be considered today, destroying the expectation the Arab peoples had of unity and genuine independence.
The new monarchies in Iraq and Syria fell to nationalist or military movements in the 1920s and 1930s. The modernizing and secular pan-Arab Baath party eventually took power in both countries, influenced by the Christians of Lebanon, who feared finding themselves isolated in some new Muslim pan-Arab nation. The closest thing to the pan-Arab ideal—an “Arab Nation”—was achieved after 1953 by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who introduced “Arab Socialism” into Arab politics and achieved ephemeral unions of Egypt with Syria and Yemen. The sectarian radicalism of the Muslim Brotherhood—founded in Egypt in 1928 but opposed by Nasser—was and remains a pan-Arab movement with multiple manifestations and probably an important future ahead of it, despite its rout in Egypt.
Three decades after the Great War’s armistice, the newly created United Nations, a Western institution dominated (as still is the case) by the United States, partitioned British Mandated Palestine in order to establish the Jewish National Home promised in the British government’s Balfour Declaration of November 1917, thus creating a permanent conflict with the Palestinian possessors of the land. Since then there has been a constant struggle between American-backed Zionists and the existing Arab occupants of Palestine. This has inflicted a politico-psychical transformation upon the general Arab consciousness, reanimating the sensibilities of the Crusades, the great Caliphates, and the Ottoman period when Muslims ruled Balkan Europe from Greece to Vienna. On both sides, the Palestinian conflict has acquired the quality—to borrow the adjective contrived by Israeli politicians—of an “existential” struggle. Death to the loser.
The independent initiatives of the post-Second World War period meant to unify the Arabs—the war against the partition of Palestine and creation of Israel, Arab Socialism under Colonel Nasser, the secular Baath party in Syria and Iraq, religious initiatives such as the Muslim Brotherhood—all eventually failed.
In this political climate of Arab national failure and, as it seemed, irresolvable Israel-Palestinian conflict, the United States determined that it was capable of imposing a new order. This had been implicit in America’s overall wartime and postwar world policy. There were two foreign-policy objectives to achieve in the Middle East. The first was to assure American access to energy supplies. This had been done in a wartime agreement between Franklin Roosevelt and Arabia’s Ibn Saud, directly exchanging permanent access to Saudi oil for permanent U.S. protection. The second was to find an Arab-Israeli solution. Had Washington been willing to impose one in the 1950s—the creation of two permanent states underwritten by the United States—the region would have been spared 60 years of war, open and covert. That was not done, and Israel was eventually confirmed in its impulse to possess all of the Holy Land, at whatever cost to the Palestinians, initially dismissed in Israeli propaganda discourse as an insignificant body of wandering tribesmen. America found itself bound by domestic pressures to defend the consequences of this fiction.
A permanent obstacle to American regional success arose in Iran in 1951, when a popularly elected populist prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalized British oil interests against the will of the Shah. The Shah fled. But in 1953, a coup overthrowing the prime minister by street agitation, mustered by British and American intelligence agencies, restored the Shah. The Nixon administration later anointed him America’s ally and order-keeper in the Gulf region. However in 1979, after another period of internal disorder, he was forced to flee a Shia fundamentalist religious coup d’état, which included capture and internment of the U.S. Embassy staff and humiliation of the United States government. This produced the enmity towards Iran that has motivated American policy ever since.
The major result was Iraq’s subsequent attack on Iran, concerning territorial issues, which enjoyed unspoken American support. The war lasted eight years, and its savagery has been compared with that of the First World War. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait—another territorial claim—and a U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait and its oil in the so-called Gulf War. The United States then resolved to keep permanent bases in Saudi Arabia, despite Saudi objection to the presence of such installations near the Muslim holy places. After its 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the al-Qaeda movement, composed in significant part of Saudi Arabians, explicitly stated that its motive had been to impose God’s wrath upon the blasphemies of the United States in the Middle East. President George W. Bush reciprocated with his assertion that the jihadists of al-Qaeda embodied Evil.
The American invasions of Afghanistan and Arab Iraq were animated by revenge for the 9/11 attacks and rationalized by a fiction about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and by the self-serving American chimera of “democratizing” those two societies and eventually the rest of the region’s Arab and Central Asian Islamic states—assumed to be candidates for integration into a Washington-dominated liberal regional system.
The “New Middle East,” officially proclaimed by NATO at the end of 2003, has conspicuously failed to appear, but it remains a goal of the expansionist neoconservative visionaries among the makers of American policy. In Bush’s government, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2008, “Democratic state-building is now an urgent component in our national interest” reflecting a “uniquely American realism” teaching that it is America’s job “to change the world,” and in its own image. On September 11, 2014 the eminent dean of the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University, Vali R. Nasr, wrote in the New York Times that America “must rally the whole region to support power-sharing—and nation building. This is a tall order. But the crises facing America demand a grand strategy…” A decade of failures has passed, but the grand design has not changed.
President Obama has declared that the jihadism of the new “Islamic State” is itself an incarnation of evil that must be deterred and destroyed. The two sides in this renewal of George W. Bush’s War Against Global Terror—Jews and Christians in the West and their Arab enemies—both consider themselves “people of the Book” and descendants of the Prophet Abraham. They have now become in their own minds actors in the apocalyptic destiny described in the Book of Revelation. Many American Evangelical Protestants have convinced themselves that contemporary American foreign policy can only be understood in such a context.
Obstacles to success in Washington’s renewal of war in the Middle East are that the American political model is no longer widely convincing or respected in the region; quite the opposite is true. Moreover, Washington’s conduct since the 2001 attack by Islamic radicals on New York and the Pentagon has undermined or deliberately subverted institutions of international order to which, in the past, the United States was a leading contributor. The codes of international justice and morality, developed in the Western community of nations since the 17th century, have when expedient been disregarded or rejected, with demands that the United States be exempted from the jurisdiction of international law and even from what until recently were accepted norms of international morality concerning human rights and national sovereignty.
Thus the foreign policies of the United States have been stripped of a vital part of their assumed original moral content. An assimilation of modern totalitarian influences, values, and practices occurred in the United States after 2001, with state assassinations, selective drone killings, disregard of due process, torture, and permanent incarceration without trial justified by American leaders in their conduct of what has amounted to a war, not really of religions, as such, but between absolutisms, the one religious, and the other, ours, a political culture of extreme and solipsistic millenarian nationalism.
One recalls the theory Samuel Huntington announced late in his career that the “next world war” would be a war of religions rather than states. The present writer dismissed this at the time as a simple projection into the future of 20th century experience and the conventional American foreign-policy thinking of the 1990s, notably that promoted by the aggressively anti-Islamic Washington neoconservatives.
The theory’s implausibility was augmented by its argument that China (regarded in Washington, then as seemingly even now, as a future enemy) was to be part of a “Confucian-Islamic military connection… to counter the military power of the West”—an alliance, if it were indeed to exist, one would think of no great use to China, a nation with a scattered and ill-treated Muslim minority of less than 3 percent of its population and little to gain from involving itself in Muslim conflicts with Washington.
The main effect of the Huntington thesis at the time it was promoted in the United States was to increase anti-Arab prejudices, especially among friends of Israel. It contributed to a climate among policymakers that made the Bush administration’s vengeance for the 9/11 attacks seem an inevitability. It had an even more significant influence in Islamic intellectual and ideological circles and among Arab governments because of its Harvard provenance, the eminence of Professor Huntington himself, considered the dean of the American academic specialty of political science (which emerged in the 1930s out of the behaviorist movement) and for years a leading academic influence on Washington policy-making. Was he proposing a Western attack against the Muslim world? (He was not; the article was published in 1993, two years after the coalition attack on Iraq because of its seizure of Kuwait; the U.S.-UK invasion of Iraq and the “Global War on Terror” occurred only a decade later.)
While Chinese-Arab military alliance seems hardly a threat today, the Huntington thesis of a new religious war has been taken seriously in some quarters since the 9/11 attacks made on Wall Street and the Pentagon and the rise of Islamic parties and the new wave of jihadism. In 2014, within days of the proclamation of the new Islamic State, the new Caliphate, the drumbeat demand had begun in congressional and think-tank Washington for an attack upon ISIS (or ISIL, or the new Arab Caliphate, or in Arabic DAESH, as it is variously known), together with criticism of Barack Obama for his initial reluctance to act.
But why? The previous interventions in the Middle East have proven futile and damaging to both sides. Americans have attempted to make themselves oligarchs of the modern Arab Islamic world, introducing invasions and wars whose actual effect has been to envenom an immense part of the Arabs of the Middle East and validate the vengeance they and their leaders have sought to inflict on us. Barack Obama ran for office with a promise of ending two wars, work that he has yet to complete, but now he is responding to the taunts and murders by which ISIS wishes draw the United States into further revenge killings, thus justifying its own actions and ambitions.
This is a war essentially within Islamic civilization, with religious, ideological, and political causes sprung from inside that society, as well as from the external provocations it has endured. It can only be settled by the people of that civilization. Another foreign military intervention is the last thing it needs. The first of the post-1918 imperial interventions by Britain and France shattered Islamic unity as it had existed in the late Ottoman period when the Sublime Porte was a major European as well as Mediterranean power. The major nations parceled the region up until after the Second World War, when successive Arab efforts to recreate the visionary ideal of the Arab Nation were thwarted.
The American attempt to make the Shah of Iran its plenipotentiary and his state the agent of American power in the Middle East ended in provoking a fundamentalist Iran that became the most important American enemy in the region. The American invasions of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Sunni-ruled Iraq turned both into ruined and corrupt puppet regimes. One might think any new American strategy to reform the Middle East would universally be regarded as folly, even in Washington. What the previous attempts accomplished was destruction and the generation of seething hatred of the United States in much of the Islamic world—and as well, if you will, the “New Caliphate.” Washington has now appointed itself leader of still another and predictably unsuccessful military intervention, in which tens or hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, if this continues, may eventually die.
The Saudi monarchy and the United States, as sponsor of what now is the remnant of Iraq, have announced themselves defenders against the would-be successor to the major Sunni powers, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—proclaimed the New Caliphate of Islam—implicitly demanding the right to possess the holy places.
By joining the United States in a coalition to battle the New Caliphate, Saudi Arabia and the rest of its Arab members have once again announced their dependence upon a foreign and interventionist power to defend their own integrity, an admission of impotence to restore to the Arab Islamic world the wholeness and integrity it possessed during the Ottoman period, a confirmation of their capitulation to partition and imperialism in the 20th century, as well as their unwillingness or inability to restore the unity of the past, the task to which a new and barbarous Sunni movement now has committed itself—whatever the cost of its actions to Islamic civilization.
It has infrequently been commented upon that the secular political ideologies dominating post-Enlightenment Western political thought have all been intrinsically incredible, even absurd by the standards of common sense, when they have not been sinister and also unachievable—notions of utopian worker paradises, “perpetual” revolutions, Nordic rule of the world with extermination of the racially unfit, perfectly harmonious economic realms of self-correcting markets and perpetual growth, a reordered Islamic civilization, global rule by the most powerful with oppression of the rest—thus redirecting man’s efforts to the exploitation of his most backward and cruel energies. Marx said that history sets no problems that it does not resolve. I suppose that is true in the sense that all problems of history eventually are resolved one way or another; but this is no excuse for folly nor consolation to those who suffer the consequences.
William Pfaff’s latest book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy.