With the West still reeling from the Brussels attacks and the war in Syria launching another 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 successes 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.