Isis and the natural order
A.J. Deus, September 11, 2014
One of the biggest opportunities in history to shape a lasting peace for the Middle East and to shape a positive legacy for Barak Obama’s presidency is being missed. So is the opportunity to re-establish America as the friend of all world’s nations.
Portraying ISIS as a reaction to liberalism, democracy, or the United States is an overstatement. Since the First World War, the world’s superpowers have tried to stem the natural order of the Middle East by imposing artificial border lines and supporting dictatorial minority regimes. If there will be no cooperative solution found among the nations, by the end of 2016, the Islamic State will have grown to include at least the majority Sunni territories of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen. Superpowers need to take the accusations of imperialism seriously and support the natural evolution of the Middle East with a patient, long term approach towards helping to modernize the Muslim world. More of the same will lead to more Muslims longing for the rewards of Paradise through martyrdom.
Most of the terrorist attacks since 2011 have occurred among Muslims who remain divided along sectarian lines, in particular Sunnis (ISIS, Hamas, Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda) against Shi’ites (Iran, Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah) and to a lesser degree against the Jewish state of Israel. The Sunni-Shi’ite divide predates democracy by 600 years and liberalism by 1200. There has been no extended time of peace in the Middle East since the birth of Islam without oppression of one group by another. In fact, a fusion of Sunnis and Shi’ites into one strong voice perhaps represents the worst case scenario in Jewish and Christian eyes. The hatred against the Jews is anchored in the Bible and is documented from the moment they appear in the historical record through to modernity.
The division between Sunnis and Shi’ites is believed to rest on a dispute over the succession of Prophet Muhammad, supposedly a rich merchant believed to be the author of the Koran and founder of Islam. Ever since, the children of both sects are raised to hate their brothers in faith. Most Muslims are unable to explain why they hate each other and the Jews. They just do by force of their religion. It needs to be understood and discussed in the open that ‘peace’ is a grandiose word in a religious context that includes only those that are of the same sect and thus of the same world view. Others are to be excluded, missionized upon, converted, or, in the worst of interpretations, terminated because of their differing beliefs. We can continue to pretend that religion has nothing to do with the turmoil in the region, but this is religion at it strongest, and it becomes ever more stubborn the more it is pressurized.
The lesson from the Arab Spring is that no matter what kind of government is in place in any of the Middle Eastern areas, it will be Muslim for the next generations, except for Israel, which will be of the Jewish religion for the foreseeable future. As elsewhere in the region, the tumults have nothing to do with the state’s shortcomings in providing services to its population. Since the religions in the area are not fractured enough, attempts to democracies in the Middle East will inevitably end in Muslim states, and despots will lead or oppress Muslim majorities. Since their common political identity is Islam, countries with majority sects are not ready for secular democratic processes. Their majorities neither understand nor wish to engage in Western style democracy.
The Arab Spring has highlighted what people do not want. However, no vision or unity emerged as to what the people actually wanted, and the Muslim Brotherhood stood out as an exception. Egypt has awoken from its euphoria of its liberation from Hosni Mubarak’s regime and finds itself ruptured by democratic secularization, Sunni religious fundamentalism, and a rule by the armed forces. It highlights the difficult choice between a theocracy and a military state. It also reminds moderns why our forefathers had imposed ruthless leaders. In contrast to the common people, heads of religions know exactly what they want, how they want it, and when they are ready to move, or when they need to engage in mass manipulations. In fact, religious organizations have parallel legal and governmental structures in place across the globe that can replace secular structures at a moment’s notice, and they are not subject to democratic processes. These leaders tread prudently when representing a minority but boldly when in charge. Bombing them prompts them to hunker down for prayers, only to mushroom fully radicalized when opportunity strikes.
The missteps of the American involvement might too easily distract from the natural forces at play: After the First World War, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was divided by the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations. In the wake of the Second World War, Israel was established amidst a sea of hostile neighbours. By sheer ignorance of the realities of Islam nations, the United States had acted as the de facto protector of many authoritative regimes of the Muslim world and had provided training that today’s terrorists deploy across the world. For example, before Saddam Hussein was ousted, America sided with him; before President Obama hounded bin Laden through the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, his predecessors trained and supported him against the Russians until America lost the political will to do so. Since 2006, Iraq is led by a democratically elected Shi’ite coalition between the Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. While their proclamations may initially have been otherwise, they returned back to being oppressive toward minorities. A similar evolution could be witnessed in Egypt, where, out of the Muslims, the al-Qaeda terror organization was born. It advocated an aggressive jihad against the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak — heaved out of office by public uproar — which was viewed as conspiring with Israel and America, which supported him. It might thus falsely be claimed that the rise of ISIS is a direct consequence of American involvement in the Middle East.
In reality, a strong religious power struggle is at work: Neither Shi’ite nor Sunni layers of religious leaders can be content with being marginalized by either sectarian, secular, or oppressive politics. Hence, new blood rises with ambitions to overthrow an unjust, or worse, an unholy government. After mass arrests in 2013, Sunnis started to openly or quietly support the advance of the Islamic State, now encompassing more than a third of Iraq and parts of Syria roughly along the Euphrates and Tigris River. The aim of the Islamic State is in its name, and the civil war in Syria that has been fuelled by American, Israeli, Iranian, and Arab interests since 2011 is its midwife.
These new, most radical and ruthless elements, seem to spring from in between the divisions. Those are the ones with a good chance to end up ruling, since their brutality and focus as well as anti-Vatican and anti-American posturing helps them scoop up the disenfranchised across the planet. Further up north, in the triangle between Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, sit the Kurds with their own ambitions for a new nation that have been boiling for a century. They too realize their opportunity at hand with their southern parts
weakening and falling into their hands almost without extra efforts. Israel’s hunger for more of the Promised Land (according to Genesis 15:18–21 and Joshua 13:2, this includes everything west of the Euphrates River down to the Sinai), cannot have escaped anyone.
The renaissance of Sunni and Shi’ite Islam in the last fifty years delivers a paradoxical sign of hope. In a series of events comparable to those found in the history of Christianity, the fundamental religious elements of Islam are fighting the secularization of their faith and their sectarian foes. The West can probably help this process by educating itself about Islam and by supporting reforming parties. However, a reformed Islam will not be one without Muslims, meaning that reform does not equal Christianization or secularization. In Muslim eyes, that would be a step backward.
The Muslim world is sorting out a larger conflict between the desire to democratize, the drive to establish ethnic nations, the force of ultraconservative Muslims, and the voiceless masses walking down the middle of the road. The Muslims will eventually but inevitably shift toward secularization and democracy in a lengthy and painful evolution. By carefully studying how the Catholic Church evolved through the ages, a lot can be learned about that process.
This boils down to the need for recognition that a strengthened Shi’ite Iran in between ISIS and Pakistan can hopefully prevent the creation of a nuclear Sunni superpower. A strong Kurdish state might stop its advancement north and possibly also its spread through Turkey and Greece. Strong North African nations, in particular Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, can perhaps prevent ISIS from aspiring for Spain or Italy. The creation of a two state solution with Palestine and Israel could defuse anger in this area, although Muslims would prefer the non-existence of the Jewish state. On the other hand, when ISIS will take control of a moderate Syria, it may face internal tensions to a point where the radical state has to significantly soften its approach. The reality of economic despair will contribute to this process. Bombing Libya, Syria, or Iraq only puts fire into the fuel of the radicals who will be able to enrage growing masses. If ISIS gains momentum, they can run ever faster.
With brokered deals for arms controls, recognition of Israel, and (religious) freedom, as well as equal rights for minorities, a number of befriending steps could be taken by the international community, led by President Barak Obama:
- Help establishing a Kurdish state with parts of Iraq, Turkey, and Syria
- Put Syria and the Iraqi Sunni territories under Turkish protection by exchanging Kurdish territories for Syria and parts of Iraq (establish a path to full autonomy; protect the language interests of Syrians and Iraqis)
- Put the Shi’ite territories of Iraq and Afghanistan under Iranian protection
- Appeasing, accepting, and strengthening Iran as a power balance in the Middle East
- Put Libya under Egyptian protection
- Help strengthening Tunisia and Morocco
- Force implement a two state solution upon Palestine and Israel (an unhappy compromise is better than an eternal disaster)
- Restrict Israel to its 1967 borders, and provide an accelerated path for Palestinians to return to Israel as full citizens
- Put Yemen under the protectorate of Saudi Arabia
- Coordinate joint moves in order to drive back the ISIS, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda
- Put economical pressure on the Middle East by shifting away from (their) oil and pushing much harder for new sources of energy
Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and Israelis would probably not be happy with this proposal. However, under ISIS rule, they will be even less happy or no longer alive. Iran is the enemy of Israel, not of the United States. America is at liberty to be friends with both.
What ISIS represents – a Sunni state – cannot be erased by war. It can only be pushed for further radicalization, which will inevitably lead to a third World War. These people operate with an ideology that speaks to the beliefs of most Sunnis that find themselves in minority positions. It even attracts Jihadists from around the world. The countries with Sunni majorities that are most destabilized fall willingly or unwillingly into the hands of a Sunni leader, likely a theocrat. These include Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen, and they are ready to fall fast, even without extended battles.
President Barak Obama faces an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the Middle East for peace. If he remembers the power his own words and the promises made in Cairo in June 2009, he can.