Last week we posted a piece on the Orthodox Church and Russia’s relationship with the West. Now, an insightful piece has been published in the Christian Science Monitor by correspondent Fred Weir on the OC’s backing of Russia’s intervention in Syria.
In Canada’s Globe and Mail a few weeks ago I made the argument that as the battle for Tikrit raged, the world badly needed to break its track record of invasion followed by inaction. Now, Tikrit is taken and the countdown to Mosul is on.
But this is not the battle for Kobani, a city overwhelmed by nearly 400,000 refugees. Mosul is a major city of the Middle East, a city of 1.8 million at its height. Its humanitarian catastrophe has been compared to the Nazi regime in the Second World War. The postwar reconstruction plan we need should be taken from the same playbook. The Middle East needs a Yalta and a Potsdam: a postwar order before the victory march; a plan for how to bring people home.
A post-IS order, in other words, is not the panacea for the Levant. In fact, in an interview, Gen. David Petraeus outlined what he called worse concerns about the region than IS: “I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by – and some guided by – Iran.”
As IS is rolled back by coalition forces – including in some cases Shiite militias – the danger of kidnappings and reprisal killings, mass evictions, and the corrosive abuses that so often follow on the heels of the politics of past evil is real and present.
The problem of what political scientist Daniel Philpott calls unjust peace, and the cycle of violence after mass atrocity, will persist long after a group calling itself IS is pushed back and defeated.
That problem is as much about how the militaries and militias conduct themselves in the now-and upcoming campaign to retake ISIS-controlled Iraq as when and what comes next. As coalition forces move forward, will the international community prove complicit in the kind of reprisal and revenge killings to come? Or is there a role for countries like Canada, not merely in the form of boots on the ground, but as partners in rebuilding a just peace that, even in the merest act of our presence, may prevent the worst of post-war reprisals?
Any just peace needs a plan of return, one which includes not only security, governance, and economic development, but reconciliation. We need a plan for people to come back to their homes, to their villages, safely, reclaim ownership, and somehow restore a sense of normalcy to life.
Christians, Yezidis, and – it must be remembered – an overwhelming number of Muslims have suffered terrible persecution under IS. The blood of martyrs soaks this region. Sadness saturates the soul. IS can and will be beaten, but we need to know what comes next. We need a practical plan to take us beyond the trauma. And we need that plan taking shape now, as part of, not secondary thought to, counter-invasion.
The counter-invasion may come as a rescue, but the larger part is a restoration. The harder part is the return. The region itself needs to take leadership on security and economic development, and the world needs to anticipate a better future. In the heart of Europe’s darkest hour the Allies planned an audacious postwar plan on the back of presumed victory. The Levant badly needs that audacity today.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s gradual but unmistakable centralization of power continues apace. Turkey, Egypt, Iran – all have at various times tried one kind or another of hybrid between Islamism and democracy. Which raises what may be the most vital long-term political question for Muslims: Is Islam compatible with democracy? The question is vital not just because non-Muslims frequently put it to Muslims. It also is the case that people the world over, including a vast majority of Muslims, aspire to live in democracies. More than two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of History” thesis declared liberal democracy the winner in humankind’s age-old contest of ideas. Fukuyama’s declaration was premature at best, but it remains true that words such as “democracy” and “freedom” continue to have a grip on billions of people. The late Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi probably spoke for most jihadis when he rejected democracy as “a religion and disbelief.” But in most majority-Muslim countries, people emphatically reject the Zarqawi thesis: they say they want democracy (even if they do not trust the United States to help them achieve it).
As anyone who lives in a democracy knows, however, the word “democracy” is, empirically speaking, a container into which all manner of content can be poured. Some (too few) social scientists, such as Frederic Schaffer, have explored the subjective aspect of democracy – how people in different times and places mean different things by it. Precisely what various Muslims mean by it is in need of further investigation. But it is clear that for at least large numbers of devout Muslims, liberal democracy, at least as currently practiced in the West, is a stumbling block.
When North Americans, Europeans, and, increasingly, Latin Americans say “democracy,” they mean “liberal democracy.” Liberal democracy takes various institutional forms across countries, but in general it is an attempt to marry individual rights and popular government. As has been pointed out many times, both of these things cannot be maximized all the time: sometimes the majority wants to violate individual rights, and sometimes certain notions of individual rights go against popular opinion. In such moments, a polity must choose one or the other. But it is the sustained, consensual attempt to keep individual rights and majority rule together that defines liberal democracy.
Already, some cultures have difficulty with liberal democracy for its attachment to individual rights – as opposed to group rights, or to a strong notion of rights at all. Lee Kwan Yew, éminence grise of Singapore, is famous for saying that Westerners value individual freedoms, whereas Asians value honest and effective government.
The matter becomes even more complicated for many faithful Muslims when individual liberties are interpreted in the 21st-century Western manner. When the United States was founded in the late 18th century, the chief threat to liberty was thought to be government, which possessed coercive power and tended toward centralization. Thus the American Bill of Rights lists rights of individuals against the state. In the 21st century, by contrast, most Western elites hold that the chief threats to individual liberty come from society – traditional institutions such as churches, families, even cultures – and that the state ought to safeguard liberty from those things. Hence the culture wars that we are perpetually reassured do not exist.
A traditional Muslim may want to have a guaranteed voice in who governs, but will likely not want to live under laws and courts that seek to weaken the role of Islam – including clergy, mosques, and schools – in public life. Democracy, then, must take on a different modifier – perhaps constitutional, which denotes the rule of law.
I consider this question, among many others, in my new book Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past. By “West’s past” I mean not encounters between the Western and Muslim “worlds,” but rather the West’s own internal ideological struggles over the past 500 years – between, among others, monarchism and republicanism in the 19th century and communism and liberal democracy in the 20th. One lesson is that hybrid ideologies and institutions may emerge from a long struggle. Such happened in the late 19th century as “conservative liberalism,” a fusion of monarchism and republicanism, emerged in most European states. We may hope for another kind of fusion – Islamic democracy – in the Middle East. But the degeneration of democracy in Turkey over the past two years bodes ill.
In order to understand the thugs trying to control northern Syria and Iraq today we need to recognize that they themselves consider what they are doing Islamic. Yet trying to make sense of their self-understanding does not mean one has to grant them the recognition, especially religious credibility, they crave. The ongoing name-jumble in the media for trying to find a way to refer to this group indicates that these thugs are failing to establish the prestige they crave in their claim to speak for Islam and in their claim to be a new player in the international realm of states. Muslims and non-Muslims alike scoff at the claims that they represent either the religion of Islam or a state, to say nothing of a budding empire.
Here is a guide to this name-jumble.
ISIS: Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (often mistakenly called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). “Sham” refers to the Levant, a region larger than just the modern state of Syria. I admit to schadenfreude with the name ISIS, enjoying the irony that radical Islamists would found a “state” named after a pagan goddess from a polytheistic era.
ISIL: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Same as above, with Levant being the English translation of the Arabic term Sham.
IS: Islamic State. This is the name these thugs prefer, but mainstream Muslims reject the claim that this is “Islamic” and not a soul in the international community recognizes this as a “state”. I think National Public Radio has been wise to establish a policy of referring to this as “the so-called Islamic State”. Also the Associated Press has chosen well in calling them “the Islamic State group”; calling them a group cuts them down to size – they are just a group, no more. I await the day we can put “IS” in the past tense and call them “WAS”.
DAESH: This is the Roman script adaptation of the acronym from the Arabic name of ISIS. AP reports the fighters hate being reduced to an acronym and even have threatened those in the territory they control who use this acronym. In this we see a reminder of the totalitarian nature of their enterprise: they are obsessed with trying to control language in order to control thought. They feel they need to control language because they cannot win over hearts. This reminds me of my experience as an undergraduate at the Karl-Marx-University in Leipzig, in the former East Germany, where I studied in 1986-1987 during my sophomore year abroad from Stanford. I chose to enroll in the core Marxism-Leninism curriculum, a six-semester core required of degree-seeking students. Some of the students, the habitually rebellious Polish students and me among them, referred to these classes as “M-L,” since after all the German phrase “Marxismus-Leninismus” is a bit of a mouthful. Yet some of the students who were loyalists to this ideology took offense at this and considered our use of the acronym “M-L” an insult. They wanted to drill into our heads that this was about Marx and Lenin by constant repetition of these names. But when living in a dictatorship one savors every moment of rebellion possible, no matter how small it might seem. We stuck with M-L. I tip my hat to those reducing these thugs to the acronym Daesh.
Caliphate: Those controlling this territory across Syria and Iraq have declared that they have created an, or perhaps the, Islamic Caliphate, or what Sister Maureen Fiedler, SL, in her informative interview about the significance of this has dubbed “Caliphate Fantasy.”
Caliphake: A clever friend of mine suggested the best name I have seen yet, namely a riff on the term caliphate combining it with fake: call them a Caliphake. Or for a double-jab call them the Daesh Caliphake.
As séances go, says Timothy Larsen in the latest issue of Books & Culture, most tend to be awfully one sided: a question, a gust of wind, a tap on the desk, a flicker of the lights. Not much of a dialogue, he says, which sadly tends to be the way we deal with the dead even when we’re using the tools of history and not a Ouija board.
The pillaging of the past for clear and unambiguous stories that make sense of the present day is not a new problem, but it’s earned a special place in the conflagration in Iraq in the last month. Yesterday, the New York Times ran some easy reading on how “Longtime Rivals Look to Team Up to Confront ISIS,” a feel good round up about how pretty much everyone in the region is grudgingly putting aside old enmities to face ISIS/ISIL together. “I don’t think there’s been anything like this since the seventh century,” quoted one former American ambassador. It’s a delicious piece of journalistic overstatement, but it also fingers the pitiless, and instrumentalist, way the history of the region is often picked over in the moment to score today’s talking points.
There has, in fact, been something like this since the seventh century. The now accepted truism that Shia and Sunni Muslim traditions are nearly eternal and intractable enemies neglects not only the basic political-theological history of a region, often defined by its mutual vulnerability to external threats (say, the Mongol demolition of central Asia), but also long histories of exchange and dialogue between groups that might alarm us. S. Frederick Starr in his important new book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane makes a long point that not only did scholars and theologians across ‘long time rival traditions’ engage in regular debate and dialogue, but that dialogue was itself the fruit of a great deal of scientific, philosophical, theological, and medicinal innovation. Further, he speaks at length of the central Asian legacy of these achievements, not only their Islamic origin, harkening both to Zoroastrian and Buddhist roots of what only retrospectively gets called the Islamic renaissance of culture and science. We hear stories about paper making in Khwarazm, of that jewel of trade and culture Samarkand, the astronomical sophistication of Balk, and the urban academies of Merv.
But to read (some) political commentary on war in the region today would convince you that rival political-theological traditions of Islam have been making total war on each other since the first Fitna (656-661). This is true in the same way as the wars of religion in Europe (1618-1648) were an uncomplicated contest between Protestants and Catholics, an easy history which all but the most committed dogmatics have long since abandoned. In fact, the history of central Asia is replete with historical facts on both sides of the argument – of fitnas and dynastic war, but also of interreligious, scientific, and cultural renaissance.
It serves present-day sensibilities, and sensationalism, to give a picture of a region/religion that is hopelessly and eternally divided, driven to aligning tactically on the back of the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL. Tactical alignment, as Nasr says, may be a present reality, but it is neither a first, nor last time, something like that has happened in a region, one time Center of the World, one time home of the world’s greatest, most enduring empires. Dan Philpott writes about the global resurgence of religion that the more interesting question is not ‘why religion is back’ but ‘why we [in the West] ever thought it went away.’ Larsen might say a version of that question is the more interesting for central Asia too. The more interesting question is not ‘why regional interests have aligned for the first time since the seventh century’ but ‘why we ever thought they hadn’t before.’
ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is a thing we have not seen before. Not only is it carrying out a reign of terror in Iraq and Syria: it also governs territory, has plenty of funding, and is displaying impressive military and logistical prowess. ISIS members have directly threatened Europe and North America. The threat is real, possibly dire, and Westerners are going to have to adjust, again, to many months of high alerts and possibly some attacks.
Expect, too, shifts in our discourse about jihadist terrorism and religion more generally. It is arguable that the catastrophic attacks of September 11, 2001, made Westerners more receptive to arguments against religion. It may not be coincidental that 9/11 was followed by the marked rise of so-called New Atheism – led by aggressive religious skeptics such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett – and of the percentage of Americans who identify as non-religious.
The decrease in incidence of terrorism in the West, and the American-led wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, drew our attention away from jihadism and its meaning and causes. Now we must pay attention again, and we can expect, once again, the predominance of three opposite views, all too simple.
First is the view that the fundamental problem is not religion at all, but material deprivation; poverty, many maintain, is the root cause of terrorism. Empirical social science has thoroughly debunked that claim, but many have not gotten the word. Second is the view that the fundamental problem is Islam. Yes, Islam has much violence in its history and the Quran has passages that can incite violence. But the same is true of other religions. Third is the view of the New Atheists and others that religion itself – which entails metaphysical beliefs not susceptible to empirical demonstration – is the problem. But of course religious people are often peacemakers and work for justice or freedom, sometimes in times and places when non-religious people fear to tread.
Better to see radical jihadism as produced by a conglomeration of forces, one of which is not Islam or religion per se but a religious ideology, Islamism. That ideology builds upon Islam but is particular to our historical moment. Islamism arises out of traditional Islam’s ongoing encounter with modernity as carried by Western imperialism and Muslim secularizers of the 20th century. As an ideology, Islamism is defined in opposition to various kinds of secularism. As an ideology, Islamism is, in some ways, much like ideologies that roiled the Western world in decades and centuries past. I will have more to say about this in the coming weeks and in my forthcoming book Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past.