Arab Anomie: Ideology in the Middle East

With the West still reeling from the Brussels attacks and the war in Syria launching 320px-aqmi_flag-svganother refugee crisis, the Middle East and radical Islam remain constant features of headlines. An underappreciated fact about current events is the role of ideology, and how nationalism has given way to political Islam in much of the region. To understand the motivations of Islamists and the failure of liberals to triumph in the wake of the Arab Spring, it is valuable to look at regional history and understand how the decline of pan-Arabism and the poverty of liberalism has combined into the rise of Islamism and, in extreme cases, jihadism. Such examination shows that many of the present problems cannot be attributed to Islam or even political Islam as an ideology, but the ignorance of the West of its errors and its unwillingness to reign in local actors who are using sectarian and ethnic conflicts for their own benefit in a scramble to accumulate more influence.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire instituted the Tanzimât reform era, bringing about a constitutional system followed by political liberalization. These political developments inspired Al-Nahda, the “awakening,” an intellectual movement that spread throughout the Middle East. The Lebanese author Jurji Zaydan wrote a plethora of historical novels meant for ordinary people. These heroic tales, directed at a general audience, inspired many Arabs to develop a shared identity, a pan-Arabism, that became a powerful force in the movement to secure the independence of Arab states. Dominated by the Ottomans and Western powers, these countries – Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq – had produced educated, passionate intelligentsias who aspired to “catch up” their countries’ development to the hegemons that ruled them. As Benedict Anderson points out in Imagined Communities, these intellectuals selectively chose norms and events from their respective histories to craft a social cement strong enough to unite repressed peoples against their oppressors. That distinction could (and still can) be drawn between Levantine, Bedouin and North African cultures faded from importance as post-colonial politicians dreamed of grand Arab republics.

Although largely forgotten by most Westerners, pan-Arabism achieved short-lived 320px-flag_of_the_arab_league-svgsuccesses in the foundation of the United Arab Republic and the Arab Federation (the 1958 unions of Syria and Egypt and Iraq and Jordan, respectively). Northern and southern Yemen did merge, although the current civil war being fought there imperils that legacy. Nevertheless, these events prove what an instrumental power pan-Arabism had in Middle Eastern state-building post-World War II, when many of these states finally obtained autonomy. You can also perceive its importance by the fact that the Baath Party, strongly oriented toward Arab nationalism, held power in Iraq before the 2003 invasion and still does in Syria.

This last fact should indicate that pan-Arabism has shifted toward opposing U.S. hegemony in the region. There are several reasons for this. The first is the most obvious: nationalist ideology is predicated on national sovereignty, and U.S. foreign policy is defined by intervention abroad on behalf of its interests, be they strategic or economic. Accordingly, the U.S. favors “liberal” politicians who opt for pragmatism over passion, perhaps best embodied by the market reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China: “it does not matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” This explains the second motivation for U.S. antagonism: nationalism fosters exclusion and conflict. There are groups within the nation and without; there are people who rightly occupy national territory and those who do not. Trade and conflict flow best in the absence of war and violence. U.S. policies, grounded as they are in liberal values, has no gods before cooperation and collaboration, and encourages its allies to smash the false idols that hinder integration into the global economy and its culture. That the U.S. presently dominates both that economy and that culture is not at all a separate issue.

The death of nationalism in the Arab world has led to a vacuum increasingly filled by radical Islam, a “pan-Islamism” in contrast to pan-Arabism. The central tenet of such movements is that Muslims have fallen back into godless ignorance (Jahiliyya) and that the Islamic world must be redeemed and return to religious law. These movements are fueled by oppressive regimes at home, whose arbitrary use of power could have once been justified by the goal of building strong Arab states, but which now seem only meant to benefit the ruling class. In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser founded a military state in 1952, but commanded public support because of his mission of creating a free self-sufficient state, unaligned in the Cold War. By 2011, Nasser’s military state remained, but his successor’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, aspired only to line the pockets of his friends and groom his son to replace him. In Syria, too, the Assad regime once strived to represent the rural segments of the country, the poor people in the hinterlands far from the prosperity of Damascus and Aleppo. Now, however, the regime seeks to enrich itself, to fit into the upper classes rather than redistribute wealth. The Assad family and its closest associates belonged to a small religious minority, the Alawites, but even this group can no longer count on patronage. Without the carrot of nationalism to dangle before the people, many regimes in the Middle East have relied on the stick: the harassment, detention and torture of dissidents who seek to organize resistance against these autocratic regimes.

These regimes have created in their countries what the sociologist Emile Durkheim termed “anomie” – an alienation borne from missing moral standards and communal connections. Islamic groups capitalized on this through the provision of a strong moral code (sharia law) and public goods and services, such as through hospitals and schools. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, emerged as the most potent political force after the 2011 downfall of the Mubarak regime, in no small part due to its history of social work. The Taliban, a much more extreme Islamist organization, brought a sort of justice to lawless areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, exploiting resentments toward weak or unwilling state institutions. Of course, it must be noted that all Islamist groups also have a weapon in framing their enemies as immoral, even evil. These “enemies” include both native tyrants like Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad, but inevitably also include Western governments and multinational corporations, especially those in the U.S.

There is an undeniable religious element to this framing, in the sense that Western culture is generally more progressive and tolerant in its social values. Feminism, multiculturalism, freedom of religion and speech – these, at least in theory if not absolutely in practice, are widely lauded in the West and detested by most Islamists, as is the case with most social conservatives. Yet, this framing is not completely religious in nature. During the Cold War, the U.S. (along with the Soviet Union) endorsed despotic regimes across the developing world (including western Asia), leading their victims to connect the crimes of the local strongman to the foreign benefactor. Once the Cold War ended, these same regimes adopted the political and economic liberalizations the U.S. increasingly made conditional on access to financial aid and loans. This led to windfalls for local elites as public utilities were hived off to the private sector, while most of the public languished in unemployment and growing income inequality. There were cultural effects as well, as Hollywood movies, Western fashion and American fast food flooded these ripe new markets. As in the West, citizens were becoming consumers, but frustrated ones, without the disposable income to imitate their Western counterparts. Denied material wealth, they have turned increasingly to the moral nourishment offered to them through Islamist ideology.

“Ideology” rather than “Islamist” is key here, because there is nothing inherently sinister or devious about Islam as a social force, regardless of the xenophobic cottage industry that has emerged around the faith. Political Islam, like nationalism before it, acts as food for the soul, to lift up those who are suffering to believe that a better world is possible. Communism, too, once had a similar effect across the world, although it never flourished in the Middle East (so-called “Arab socialism” was merely state capitalism in the service of nationalism). Laborers and intellectuals alike organized, fought and died for the promise of a classless future. Most notably, in the 1930s, communism and specifically its opposition to fascism galvanized volunteers from outside Spain – the International Brigades – to join the Spanish Civil War and risk their lives in a conflict that, for them, had entirely ideological incentives. In the 1940s, communism (along with nationalism) assisted the disparate peoples of the Soviet Union to rally against the horrors of a German invasion to reserve disastrous defeats into the demise of the Nazi state.

Under contemporary liberalism, however, there is no ideological glue permeating society, no larger calling or cause applicable to all people. There is no alternative vision rather than the status quo, which is so vague as to defy any real categorization. We claim to be capitalists, yet leading industries and economic sectors are symbiotic with and nurtured by the state. We claim to be democrats, but public participation is largely low through the West, and while we support the idea of democracy, actual satisfaction with democracy is low worldwide. We champion “freedom,” yet across the West, government surveillance has been on the rise, not the decline, and even then, “freedom” is seen as negative: freedom from the state, freedom from censorship, etc. We expect our politicians not to lead us, exactly, as we are each on our own individual paths. We would prefer that politicians merely manage us, ensuring indirectly our health and wealth, but also remaining as unobtrusive as possible in our daily interactions.

This sort of political philosophy suits advanced industrialized economies firmly at the center of the global economy, but does not perform well in places where the status quo is objectionable and illegitimate in the eyes of most of the population. In the Middle East, then, the hope that liberal politicians and “moderate rebels” would prevail in the aftermath of the Arab Spring has proven naïve at best, and also catastrophically wasteful for governments like the U.S. who have tried, in vain, to fund pro-Western forces in places like Iraq, Libya and Syria. Liberalism on its own cannot cut across ethnic and religious cleavages like actual ideologies can. With its emphasis on the atomized individual, it simply misses the message of community featured prominently in nationalism, communism, or political Islam. The great liberal philosophers, from Locke to Montesquieu, emerged from political environments where national independence was not realistically threatened and political liberalization had occurred organically. Liberals may not always be part of the ruling class, but usually they represent the privileged class.

The lesson from this is that we cannot realistically expect the present strife in the Middle East to be resolved in accordance with Western interests. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and jihadist fighters in Iraq and Syria demonstrate that, in different circumstances, political Islam has an important social capital advantage over liberalism. For this gap to be overcome it would be necessary for secular institutions within civil society to supplant political Islam as an organizing force; with the exception of perhaps Tunisia, the single Arab Spring success story, this sort of outcome has yet to materialize. In colonial times, institutions geared toward human development were neglected, while those institutions needed to enforce order (security agencies, the military) were strengthened. The nationalist visionaries who inherited these bodies did little to correct this imbalance, as political order, in their view, had to precede social justice. With social justice now no longer viable in these times of austerity and disappearing states, it becomes much more conceivable how some Arabs might throw in with reestablishing a caliphate rather than reforming their current states.

What can Western policymakers do about anomie in the Middle East? They should do very little in terms of ideology. Stuffing Western norms and values down Arab throats was part of the problem, never the solution. We would be better served by seriously considering that question posted after the September 2001 terrorist attacks: “Why do they hate us?” Antipathy toward Western hegemony, globalization and foreign policy adventurism has not been sufficient alone to cultivate radical Islam and terrorism, but they have been instrumental in recruitment towards those causes. Unfortunately, current policies toward ISIS and terrorism – drone strikes, economic sanctions, bombing campaigns – will likely only incite greater resentment to the West. It is doubtful that the West will able to chart a new framework toward the Middle East until it is fully prepared to admit and analyze the missteps and deliberate pain it has inflicted on the region.

While it may be too late for the West to win the war of ideas, there is still meaningful action it can take. The strife in the Middle East has less to do with the sectarian and ethnic differences there and more to do with the meddling of regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, all of whom have exploited these divisions from Baghdad to Baalbek to assert dominance in the local balance of power. Ideology may be food for the soul, but actual resources remains a primary ingredient for the mobilization of social movements. For various geopolitical reasons, however, the West has been disinclined to take action against those states pulling the purse strings of these social movements. This may begin to change, however, as jihadists begin to threaten the states patronizing them. Saudi Arabia may have an interest in boosting Sunni power abroad, but it has no desire to welcome home the jihadists who will be stateless once the Islamic State is defeated. If the Taliban manages to retake power in Afghanistan, much of the blame will be placed on Pakistan for failing to root them out of its western provinces. In the meantime, though, the West should come up with ways to utilize its substantial soft power and economic might to induce these major players from performing their own “great game” in the Middle East, which has been the source of so much agony and misery in recent years.

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Ban the Bomb: On Nuclear Disarmament

“Behind the black portent of the new atomic age lies a hope which seized upon with faith, can work out salvation. If we fail, then we have damned every person to be the slave of fear. Let us not deceive ourselves: we must elect world peace or world destruction.” — Bernard Baruch

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit finished in Washington, D.C. today, with 240px-peace_symbol-svgvery minor achievements. The states involved made a series of commitments to increased nuclear security policies, most of which amount to sharing notes between governments and did not contain clear plans or definite deadlines for action. Critically, Russia declined to attend the summit, and security cooperation between the two countries with the largest nuclear weapon arsenal remains non-existent. This is despite the fact that both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have reason to fear a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of violent non-state actors like the Islamic State. Obviously the Crimea crisis and the Syrian civil war have soured U.S.-Russian relations, but even before recent events in the Ukraine, the focus has been on preserving the status quo, not making dramatic change. Washington and Moscow jointly threw their support behind arms reduction with the New START agreement in 2010, but effectively “only” lowered their respective stockpiles to 1,550 ready-to-use long-range nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, even this modest pledge has yet to be fully implemented, and is not set to be met until 2018 — at which time, hopefully, the foreign policy interests of the U.S. and Russia will be in good shape.

Nuclear proliferation has also become an issue in the U.S. election, with Republican 261px-mushroom_cloud-svgcandidate Donald Trump advocating that South Korea and Japan acquire nuclear weapons in order to make a world a safer place. As shocking as some media pundits thought this answer was, the notion of “nuclear stability” has long existed in academia. The scholar Kenneth Waltz has long argued within international relations that, since the world lacks a universal sovereign and countries must look after their own survival, countries should seek the capacity to defend their security concerns. From this Hobbesian perspective, nuclear proliferation is not just inevitable, but beneficial. Waltz argued in Foreign Affairs that Iran gaining the nuclear bomb would actually make the Middle East more peaceful, not less. Actual research, however, contradicts this thinking, and the official U.S. policy remains devoted to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that combats proliferation.

The U.S. is able to do this because, theoretically at least, it can project power through conventional weapons around the globe; we have army installations, air bases and carrier fleets in every region of the globe. Given our propensity for military interventions abroad, many countries have believed the guarantee that, should their territorial sovereignty be threatened, the U.S. would act against the aggressor. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the 320px-thumbnailU.S. did its best to become that missing universal sovereign: military operations in Kuwait, Haiti, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and of course Iraq, just to name a few. The American public, however, is losing its appetite for the long and bloody process of regime change. Looking at Libya and Syria, we observe that the U.S. has become more cautious in how it fights it enemies, relying more on cruise missiles and funding “moderate rebels.” When Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine, Washington sent Russia a scolding and little else. This alarmed many of those nations who have historically relied on the U.S. as their protector. If Russia could take territory from a U.S. ally without a U.S. military response, would Washington also be reluctant to attack Iran or China, or even North Korea, considering the heavy costs implied in a second Korean War — one in which Pyongyang itself has nuclear weapons that it regularly threatens to use?

To be clear, the U.S. no longer acting as a “universal sovereign” is desirable, and it is sensible that U.S. foreign policy has moved away from adventurism to encouraging other countries to look after their own security interests. The problem is that, for some countries, those “security interests” may involve nuclear proliferation. There is great public support in South Korea for acquiring a nuclear weapon like its northern neighbor. The Abe government in Japan has, to great domestic debate, increased defense spending and backed away from a position of pacifism — a hallmark of Japanese political culture, created by their past imperialist aggression as well as having the horror of nuclear weapons inflicted on them, the only people to have so far endured such suffering. Israel has long add numerous nuclear weapons, and ironically it is not the recent Iran nuclear deal that is most hazardous to peace, but the irrational reaction within Israel that it is has been abandoned by the U.S. and must defend itself against Tehran, perhaps by preemptive means. Of course, in addition to these simmering conflicts between states, there are also terrorist networks who already at war, for whom civilian casualties are not just “collateral damage,” but their actual targets. Given their tactics, nuclear weapons are arguably the most ideal form of weapon, given their indiscriminate and widespread destruction.

Once upon a time, it could be argued that nuclear weapons were an unpleasant relic of the Cold War, a necessary deterrent to a potential antagonist from using nuclear weapons first. As proliferation continues and, worryingly, becomes the norm, nuclear arms may become common, while still luxurious, features of countries that could be caught up in global flashpoints. The taboo surrounding nuclear weapons has weakened over time, and 187px-no_nukes_tidymanthe default position of disarmament is taken more and more for granted. What is needed is not just non-proliferation (especially in the form of Western finger-wagging at non-Western states) but actual, meaningful efforts by countries already with nuclear weapons to eliminate their stockpiles. Speeches and summits are not enough; ordinary people need to be involved in a resurgent disarmament movement that pressures decision-makers to accept abolishing nuclear arms. After all, even the ineffectual terms of New START barely passed conservative opposition in the U.S. Senate, and as long as nuclear weapons are perceived as required to be taken seriously in foreign policy matters, there is going to be stubborn resistance within the U.S. to nuclear disarmament.

There are a number of practical arguments to be made toward disarmament. Firstly, Russia and the U.S. by far have the most nuclear weapons, with around 7,000 each; France has the third most, with 300. If Russia and the U.S. could agree tomorrow to eliminate all save 300 of their nuclear weapons, that would be a substantial reduction. By doing so, they could then draw in other nations, such as France as well as Britain and China, to reduce and eventually safely destroy their nuclear weapons. Bringing Pakistan and India into the fold would be more difficult, given their respective history, and it would have to be a negotiation involving both. It is reasonable to presume that North Korea would not bend to international pressure to join a disarmament campaign, but the consequence would not be different than the status quo: the political and economic isolation of Pyongyang. We could even arrive at a time when the mere possession of a nuclear weapon is a violation of humanitarian law, which is not far from the International Court of Justice position. Granted, the U.S. has not traditionally needed legitimate reasoning to justify a war to remove “weapons of mass destruction,” but in a world where such weapons are earnestly deemed too dangerous to possess, we can imagine a scenario where a coalition of countries could indeed come together to forcibly disarm countries seeking the apocalypse.

What about stopping terrorists? The U.S. nuclear deterrent did not prevent al-Qaeda from attacking the World Trade Center in 2001, and even in the wake of that attack, the U.S. did not drop a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan — knowing that it would, quite rightly, be denounced for sacrificing countless civilians to take out a handful of terrorist cells. The same logic applies today: even though the Islamic State may claim to “own” a state, the U.S. will not slaughter millions of Iraqis, Syrians and Turks to attack a movement that exists more as an idea than as an institution or set of institutions. If anything, the only way to ensure that nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists to destroy all existing nuclear weapons and the material needed to create such weapons.

anti-nuclear_protest_at_the_nts_3While climate change is a huge threat to human existence, it seems strange that ecology and environmentalism should be more of a mainstream issue than nuclear disarmament given the unsettled times we live in. The tragic truth is that we will likely not see another major disarmament campaign until a nuclear weapon (or “dirty bomb” variant) is actually used in anger for the first time since 1945 — much in the way nuclear energy suddenly becomes an issue in the wake of disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. The question is, sadly, how many hundreds or thousands will die when the unthinkable happens. The threat of nuclear holocaust, much like the dangers of climate change, is one all of humanity faces, and one that we must act on to secure the planet for future generations.