There has been a lot written lately on what should be done with the growing threat of terrorism sponsored by the Islamic State and about Islamic radicalism generally. I don’t imagine I have anything significant to contribute to this discussion but here are some thoughts, for whatever they are worth.
One reason for the appeal of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East that doesn’t seem to get much attention is that the recent history of the Islamic world, particularly at its Arabic speaking core is largely a history of repeated failure. Generally, the Middle East has had a very difficult time adjusting to the modern world. With the exception of Israel, which doesn’t really count since it is a Western transplant, the countries of the Middle East are backwards and poor with repressive, corrupt governments. They produce almost nothing the rest of the world wants in trade, except for oil. They contribute little to the progress of science and technology. Their militaries may be well equipped with purchases from the United States and Russia, but they are ill trained and not very effective, particularly against any Western power. It must be very humiliating, since Islam promises that the Muslims are the best of men who enjoy Allah’s favor, to see the infidel West enjoying success and prosperity while they languish in poverty and powerlessness, especially for proud, young men.
This may be part of the reason there is so much hatred of Israel among the Arabs. Israel is in the same part of the world, has much the same resources and geography though without oil, and even some of the same culture among the Jews from the Middle East, yet Israel is a vibrant, prosperous country that has contributed far more to the world than one might expect from a country of its size, more than the entire rest of the Middle East combined. There might be a good deal less hatred of Israel if Israel were just another third world sewer.
It is not that the Muslims haven’t tried to modernize. For most of the twentieth century,
various Muslim countries have attempted modernize, secularize, and westernize themselves, with varying degrees of success. Kemel Ataturk in Turkey, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, the Communists in Afghanistan, and others such as Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi all tried to transform the states they ruled. Unfortunately, these Muslim leaders picked up all the worst ideas that the West had to offer, such as socialism, communism, militant nationalism, and others, combined with traditional Middle Eastern despotism created nothing but a series of repressive failed states. Modernization and westernization didn’t seem to work. It is not too surprising that many people began to believe that the Middle East was going in the wrong direction. . Maybe the failure of the Islamic world was due to them abandoning the ways of Islam.Maybe instead of becoming more Western, they should become more Islamic. One by one these secular dictators have fallen, to be replaced by Islamic rulers. Turkey is something of an exception since it has long had the forms of democracy if not always the realty. However Ataturk’s secular legacy has been increasingly challenged over the last decade with the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party.
It is also worth noting that all these twentieth century efforts to modernize the Middle East were largely the top down efforts of a small, educated, westernized elite and enacted by force, while the more religious and traditional majority have been indifferent or actively hostile to efforts to modernize and westernize their countries. It doesn’t seem as if the westernized elite spent much time or effort trying to educate or change the minds of the masses in the Islamic world nor to try to achieve some sort of synthesis between Islamic and Western values. They have remained nominal Muslims while trying to undermine the influence of Islam in the people’s lives. It should not be surprising that the majority of people throughout the Middle East have tended to resent these efforts as an attempt to force an alien, irreligious culture on them. To make matters worse, the secular modernization efforts don’t seem to have worked. Countries like Egypt, Iraq or Iran have not become as wealthy and powerful as Western nations despite any attempts at westernization. The Westernized elites and despots have failed them.
Considered this way, the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East is not really that different from the revolts against the elite in the West. ISIS and al-Qaeda are not that different in principle from the TEA Party in the United States or the UK INdependence Party in Britain or any of a number of other populist movements throughout the West. ISIS and the TEA Party both seek to revive a former greatness by going back to fundamentals. What makes all the difference is that Tea Partiers study the constitution and run for office. Radical Muslims study the Koran and engage in terrorism. What makes this difference? In the West, we have learned to settle our differences more or less peacefully. In the Middle East, they seem to have not.
It is often said that the Middle East is a tribal society and that is the cause of so much violence in the region. Maybe, but the West is tribal too. Look at a map of any major city in the United States and you may still find neighborhoods labeled “Chinatown”, “Little Italy” or the like, a relic of the days when immigrants came and settled among people of their own nation, or tribe. Every human society is prone to factions. Why is it that in the West the tribes have somehow managed to learn to live in peace and even to blend together while in the Middle East old hatreds continue for generations to the detriment of the common good?
Part of the appeal of Islamic radicalism, as well as the original appeal of Islam in Mohammed’s time, is that it promises to surmount these petty differences between tribes and nations carved out from colonial empires and create a united kingdom under the rule of God. No doubt many Muslims feel that the disaster began when the Islamic community began to fracture into competing sects and empires. In the twentieth century, there was a strong pan-Arab nationalist movement promising to unite the Arabic people. If Arab nationalism didn’t unite the Middle East, perhaps Islamism might.
I don’t think it is very useful to blame one president or another or one policy or another for the rise of ISIS. Something like ISIS would have happened regardless of what we have done. It is tempting to believe that a superpower is the cause of everything that happens in the world but much is beyond our control. The cultural attitudes and societal trends that have led to present conditions have been occurring for a very long time and much depends on how the people in the region resolve, or fail to resolve their problems. Ultimately, we cannot solve their problems for them.
The West has had a violent, tumultuous history on its path to to liberty and democracy, and perhaps some parts of Europe have not quite completed the journey. It took periods of terrible bloodshed, the Wars of Religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Napoleonic Wars of the nineteenth century and the World Wars of the twentieth century to make Europe what it is today. It maybe that the Middle East must go through a generation of bloodshed to convince the people to live in peace. If so, than the only thing we can or should do is leave them alone to fight it out, taking care that the conflicts do not spill over outside the Middle East. It may also be that allowing a generation of Muslims to live under an Islamic State is the only way to sour them on the whole idea. The people in Iran do not seem to be very enthusiastic about Islam these days. They have lived under their own Islamic State and they are sick of it. We would like to think that we can solve the world’s problems, but maybe this time we can’t . Maybe the best we can manage is to protect ourselves and hope for the best.