There is a battle between civilization and barbarism taking place in the Islamic world, but the forces of “civilization” are not those of the West, as some have seen it, but those of moderates and secularists against hard-line religious fundamentalists. This is, of course, an age-old conflict, yet it has reached a new intensity in the revolutionary struggles for power in the wake of the Arab Spring. The rise of ISIS / ISIL and their recent conquest of significant territories in Iraq leading to the announcement of a new Islamic Caliphate and their rebranding as the Islamic State is a deeply troubling example of war’s tendency to unleash the worst in people. The brutality of ISIS reflects the brutality of their context – the devastating civil war in Syria and the power-vacuum and simmering insurgency in Iraq. As so often happens when a state’s monopoly on power is removed – the thugs and bullies take charge to the suffering of all.
This alarming development must be viewed within the context of the new geopolitics of the post 9/11 world. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq increased resentment against the West, rapidly accelerated radicalisation and, particularly in the case of Iraq, introduced a volatile fluidity that lapped at the phoney political boundaries of the Middle East which have been largely in place since the Great War. As Rosemary Hollis recently commented in The Observer, the borders established in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916: “paved the way for the British mandates in Palestine and Iraq and the French mandate in Syria-Lebanon that endured until 1948. Thereafter, maintenance of the lines drawn on the map by the British and French has required a level of enforcement and dictatorial rule at odds with the ideals of self-determination and democracy.” These developments must also be considered in the context of long-standing regional problems, including the absence of mature democracy and enlightened leadership, massive youth unemployment, food security, the situation of women, a burning sense of ressentiment and the cancerous effect of Israel.
The Middle East, in many regards, is coming unstuck. The devastation of Iraq in the wake of the American invasion left the country a weak and ineffectual Anocracy – a sort of midpoint between autocracy and democracy, but certainly nothing resembling a mature democracy. Whilst some American commentators would have us believe the Arab Spring was in part triggered by America’s example of “liberation”, this is fraudulent – it was driven by youth unemployment, the slow-burn effect of exposure to media sources like Al Jazeera, food prices and a whole host of other specific local circumstances, most of which were promisingly secular. When the tidal wave of the Arab Spring reached Syria, what began as a something more akin to a revolution became bogged down in a devastating civil war, the brutality and chaos of which hardened attitudes and beliefs and attracted extremists. The influx of foreign fighters and the porous nature of Syria’s borders soon called into question the legitimacy of regional boundaries. With so many Iraqi insurgent groups joining the Syrian conflict, it was likely only a matter of time before the war flowed back into Iraq, transforming the conflict into a regional war.
Such an outcome was, however, not inevitable and could have been avoided with more enlightened leadership. Yet, as always in the Middle East, current events have deeper historical roots. Just as the consequences of the Second World War were not really resolved until the break-up of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, so the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was never adequately resolved in the Middle East. In this sense, the region more resembles the Balkans, in which place competing nationalisms reflect both ancient cultural units and the frontiers of Ottoman expansion and contraction. Unlike Western Europe, where large minority groups like the Sudetenland Germans were expelled at the end of the Second World War, the intertwined and overlapping ethnicities in the Balkans were not redistributed, for better or for worse. This not only resulted in a dreadful Nationalist war, but also left a patchwork of delicate territorial arrangements and the barely viable state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Whether the map of the Middle East will ultimately be redrawn along ethnic and sectarian lines and whether current events will result in a stable and long-lasting arrangement is yet to be seen. Yet, what we are witnessing is far more than a redrawing of boundaries and challenges to existing regimes; it is more akin to an Islamic Reformation. Indeed, perhaps this is, very loosely, what the Protestant Reformation looked like. The religious conflicts in Europe equally radicalised populations and created a destabilising geopolitical fluidity which took decades to resolve itself. It drove people to extremes of very selective black and white morality and was staggeringly destructive both of life and property. Iconoclasts rampaged through Europe, smashing icons, images and stained-glass windows. It unleashed a wave of barbarism under the guise of religious ideology that still occasionally flickers in Northern Ireland – the last battleground of Reformation diehards inextricably woven into a tribal conflict over self-determination. The Islamic “Reformation” of the present is equally a mix of sectarian conflict, competing nationalisms and self-determination movements.
Putting aside for a moment the bombastic anti-western rhetoric of groups such as ISIS, this has far less to do with Islam vs. the West than it does with intra-Islamic theological disputes. And whilst ISIS is largely composed of Sunni insurgent groups embittered by their sense of disenfranchisement, the conflict across the region is as much about fundamentalist Islam versus the inexorably growing wave of secularism and liberal, tolerant Islam which the Arab Spring made plain, as it is about the Sunni-Shia divide. This battle between hard-line fundamentalists and moderates has been an ever present feature of the Islamic world, and, in the Middle East, it has recently played out far more overtly in the wake of Iraq and then the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iran and Iraq as an inherent subtext of the popular struggles for regime change. It has reached a new intensity in Turkey, is part and parcel of the unrest witnessed in Bahrain and, on a smaller scale, Saudi Arabia, and has been an ever-present feature driving the power-struggles in Gaza and the West Bank.
As was the case with the Protestant Reformation, the close relationship between religion and state means theological conflicts are played out in quotidian power struggles. One inevitable consequence of this is that genuine theological differences and sectarian interpretations of religious doctrine and practice are often very crudely applied by partisan forces on the ground. ISIS is a classic example of this. Their brutality, genocide and authoritarianism have rightly been denounced by Muslims the world over. Their rhetoric is as hypocritical and flawed as their theology and has been picked to pieces by countless Islamic commentators. Hence the rejection of ISIS in a collective statement by nine Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad’s regime; hence their condemnation by senior Sunni clerics, one of whom, Sami al Uraydi, stated that the “Caliphate” “is really a declaration of war against Muslims, rather than an Islamic Caliphate.”
In this regard, whilst ISIS might be characterised in many ways, ultimately they most resemble a barbarian horde, more akin to the Vandals that marauded through Spain and North Africa in the fifth century, taking advantage of a Roman power vacuum. Then, what began as a relatively distinct ethnicity rapidly evolved into an agglomeration of the unemployed, discontented, oppressed and, indeed, psychopathic – a wandering warband that picked up anyone who cared to join along the way. Likewise, in the case of ISIS, now the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war was the centre of gravity that brought them together – a draw-card for radical extremists and deluded and impressionable young men who, morally, ethically and theologically wouldn’t know their arsehole from their elbow. This is not the Spanish Civil War of our generation, it is far more akin to the Vandal sack of Rome. And, with Syria sacked, much of the horde has moved on to Iraq, following the path of least resistance and greatest plunder, seeking the settling of old scores.
Rhetorically, and, in practice, ISIS embody the very worst extremes of theologically-derived fascism. They also mark the worst-case scenario when it comes to a political-theological roadmap for the region’s future. ISIS, who “reject democracy and other garbage from the West” are, in effect, rejecting modernity, and indeed, ignoring the desires of most Muslims across the region. There is an inherent irony in their attempts to impose a backward and murderously repressive regime under the guise of the “Caliphate” when we consider that, at its high point, under the Abbasids, the Caliphate represented the most modern and advanced culture of its day – China excluded – overseeing the golden age of Islam – a flourishing of science, culture and invention. There is also a great danger in propagating the idea in the Islamic world that democracy and liberalism are exclusively “western” and thus to be denounced and rejected.
Firstly, democracy is not garbage. Rather, it is the only way to contain and neutralise competing political ideologies and prevent conflict between diverse ethnic and religious groups whilst creating a stable environment in which peace and prosperity might flourish. For anyone who might sneer at this, take a look at Steven Pinker’s scholarly masterpiece The Better Angels of Our Nature, which makes an irrefutable case for the positive effects of democracy based on exhaustive data. Winston Churchill famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. We know it is flawed, but it works. It is democracies that best provide services, create equality, and harness the creative talents of their citizens. The difficulty, however, lies in taking the guns away from the thugs and bullies.
Secondly, democracy is not exclusively western. It has been and is being embraced by countless non-western cultures to their benefit. Take the example of Japan. It had a strong feudal culture, a warrior code and a religious ideology which fuelled a militaristic attitude to resolving issues internally and with its neighbours, but the Second World War was the last throw of the dice for its medieval adherents, now wielding industrial armaments. Renouncing violence and embracing democracy in the wake of its humiliating defeat transformed Japan into one of the great economic and social success stories of modern history. Japan is a democracy – it is modern, it is liberal, it might retain aspects of its past paternalistic culture, yet it enshrines equal rights for women – but, look more closely, and it is hardly “western” as people, including the Japanese, are often rather casually inclined to suggest.
So far as Islamic democracy is concerned, Turkey has long been trotted out as the key example, yet more telling examples of the transition to democracy can be found in Malaysia and Indonesia. In many regards democracy is still maturing in these nations and they are not without their problems and ethnic tensions – more a consequence of stubborn inequalities, institutionalised corruption, lingering desires for self-determination, and the scale of cultural variation than religious tensions. Yet, anyone who has been to Bali will marvel at how a predominantly Hindu island can exist so comfortably inside an ostensibly Islamic super-state, will all its girly-show licentiousness and throbbing alcohol-fuelled bar and nightclub culture. This vision will no doubt seem disquietingly inappropriate to some Muslims, yet many Muslims also live very comfortably in the West, just as strict Catholics in Italy, for example, or any other modern and liberal country, are able to live in dignity, despite differences of opinion with the broader public. This is the way Islam can and should be – a personal expression of belief, confident and comfortable in a sea of variety – and key to this is democracy, which tempers conflict by providing a proxy forum for expression of difference, and equality under the law, which empowers the entire population to contribute to and direct society, whilst protecting the right to be different.
Rejecting liberalism, rejecting secularism, rejecting democracy, is not rejecting western values, it is rejecting the universal humanitarian inheritance that is a composite of global cultural traditions, including diverse theological and philosophical ideas. Just as Buddhism, Platonic philosophy and Confucianism are part of our universal ethical and intellectual inheritance, so the reason and humanism of the Enlightenment is part of our universal inheritance.
The Islamic world will only suffer a most brutal stagnation and economic catastrophe if ISIS and their like succeed. Yet, of course, they won’t succeed. Not in the long run. Their present victories might evolve into something more permanent, yet even this will only temporarily put the brakes on something they cannot ultimately stop – the freedom and democracy that is a universal desire of a universal citizenry. The Arab Spring gave voice to the man and woman on the street, and they want a more liberal and modern lifestyle. They want peace and jobs, internet and affordable bread, not Islamofascism. Ultimately, the Middle East must accept that the values of the Enlightenment, of the modern global humanitarian project, are to be embraced if these societies are to become great again. This is not because the West says so, but because the evidence shows unquestionably that this is how you create peace and prosperity and provide a place for innovation. Who doesn’t doubt that Egyptians could again be world leaders in science and medicine, or that Iran can take its rightful place as a powerhouse of innovation? There is nothing un-Islamic about modernity, which is, by definition, a shifting, illusory horizon created by varying degrees of technological development and social freedom.
When it comes to technological and scientific development, the Middle East’s record is nothing short of abject. This is nowhere made more evident than by a quick look at the statistics on patents over recent decades. Taking 2013 as a sample, in that year South Korea registered 15745 patents. Meanwhile, in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia 239; Kuwait 86; Turkey 83; Iran 40; Egypt 34; United Arab Emirates 19; Qatar 9; Lebanon 9; Jordan 6; Tunisia 4; Oman 3; Syria 0, and Iraq 0. Indeed, since 2000, Iraq has only successfully registered a single patent. Israel, on the other hand, registered 3152 patents in 2013. Maine, the smallest US state, produced 243 patents that same year, more than any Middle Eastern country, Israel excluded. Israel has a population of 8 million people, Egypt, 80 million. Malaysia, incidentally, a developing Islamic democracy, has, in the last decade, quadrupled its number of annual patent registrations. When we look at trends in growth as well, the Middle East is largely stagnant, with Kuwait the only true standout so far as significant improvement is concerned, while Egypt creeps slowly forward. This gulf in innovation is fundamentally retarding the development of Middle Eastern economies and industries, the growth of specialisation and opportunities for employment and education. It is also retarding social development.
In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was described as “the sick man of Europe.” However racist and Orientalist this phrase might be, in many ways what caused this sickness in the Empire was its backwardness in technology and information dissemination. Like Confucian China’s turning inward in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire did not embrace the changes that were driving Europe to greater heights of industrial domination and commercial expansion. It languished, falling increasingly far behind in everything except its adoption of modern military hardware. Consider this fact: by 1500 Europe had already printed an estimated 8 million books with the Gutenberg Press, a number which, after four centuries, had risen to the incredible figure of around one billion books. In the Ottoman Empire, the printing press was banned from publishing Arabic text until 1727. Between that time and 1838, just 142 books were printed. Books and patents make for a pretty rough analogy, yet these figures underline the degree to which the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the present state of Middle Eastern nations is tied to a failure to embrace innovation – not just technical, of course, but social and political.
The present-day backwardness causes frustration and envy in an internet-savvy generation who are witness to all the shining modernity of more prosperous countries, and, indeed, ultra modern local examples such as Dubai. No one wants to be the sick man. In more extreme cases the response is a turning inward, a reactionary kicking against the pricks who make the Middle East feel so second-rate. Yet a return to medieval barbarism is not the answer, and destroying mosques is barbarism. Female genital mutilation is barbarism. Imposing restrictions on freedom of choice or religion under threat of death is barbarism. War is barbarism. It is neither a mature nor enlightened response. And, despite western prejudices, this is not a problem intrinsic to the nature of Islam.
There is nothing more inherently warlike about Islam than there is about Christianity, or at least, nothing that need make it so. Christianity has a disgusting and hypocritical history of violence and torture, yet it has largely renounced these things in recent decades and focussed increasingly on its message of peace. As Steven Pinker points out, we have a sanitised version of Christianity. We don’t talk about the vengeful god of the Old Testament who condoned, indeed, unleashed rape, genocide, murder, fratricide, parricide and every other imaginable form of brutality, on the ancient world. Similarly we only talk of Christ as a man of peace and forget his aggressive activism, forget the fact that he was tried as a political prisoner for banditry. We quote him saying “love thy neighbour” a lot more than “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”
The violence in Islam is entirely contextual, just as the wrong-headed abuses of Christianity were contextual. In a situation of conflict and inequality the idea of Jihad has been hijacked by extremists as an ideological justification for violence. As the movement My Jihad points out, the true definition of Jihad is: “An Islamic concept that means ‘to struggle’ against barriers and odds in search of a better place. Jihad requires faith, courage and perseverance.” It is more akin to a lens through which to focus personal goals and ambitions and, for the average Muslim, has precious little to do with murder, terrorism and conflict in general. Sadly, the present understanding of Jihad is as much a case of the term’s being misused by fundamentalists as it is a case of being stereotyped and fetishised by ignorant westerners, many of whom have now joined ISIS.
How then, did this context develop? Of course the West must accept its fair share of responsibility for the broadly moribund state of the Middle East. Irrespective of the fact that the imperial ambitions and interventions in the region over the last century by the Great Powers have had little to do with religion and everything to do with geopolitics and economics, the Arab world has been repeatedly put on the back foot by its ineffectiveness in the face of western militarism, or western-backed regimes, creating a perhaps inevitable resentment against modernising forces seen as western.
Yet the real problem goes far deeper, and at the core of the Middle East’s woes is a lack of empathy and tolerance among its leaders; for other religions or sects, for other cultures and ideas, and, most significantly of all, a lack of empathy for the situation of women.
When we repeatedly see weeping mothers in Gaza saying things such as “This has nothing to do with us”; “Why are they attacking us?” “This is unfair,” it reminds us how much this is all a problem caused by men. So far as Israel and Gaza are concerned, it is the doings of men who, on one side, are driven by a racist religious ideology and anachronistic attachment to a land that was never theirs to claim, and, who, on the other side, humiliated and frustrated, with a culturally ingrained sense of honour that has been deeply offended by their constant emasculation through an utterly, shamefully disproportionate application of violence and discrimination against them, turn to violent ideology in their despairing ressentiment. If only we could put the women in charge and take the weapons away from the machos, this problem might be solved far more swiftly. Indeed, if women had been given a greater say in regional affairs years ago, we might never have reached this point.
Again, we can consider historical parallels. Both the Bible and Quran espouse antiquated social attitudes to women, yet in most modern, ostensibly Christian societies, women have far greater social and personal freedoms. These, it must not be forgotten, were hard-won in the face of intransigent opposition by men, and, in some cases, women, motivated as much by social conservatism as religious interpretations of the traditional role of women in those societies. Religion has always been focussed through the lens of its local culture and just as we have a sanitised version of Christianity when it comes to violence, so we now have increasingly female-friendly versions of the religion which accept the equal place of women in society, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically. This is because we can apply modern social values and accept that such passages as govern the treatment of women need not be considered core principles, but rather guidelines once considered contextually appropriate. They are no longer contextually appropriate, and just as Christianity has increasingly embraced most social freedoms for women, so too can Islam. Islam and misogyny need not go hand in hand.
Would the disturbing levels of sexual harassment witnessed in Egypt still take place if men and women were free to engage in casual sex and form and break relationships at will as they can in most of the developed world? The pent up sexual frustration and fetishisation of women as chattels upon whom impossibly unfair restrictions are imposed is a recipe for disaster. Only when women are elevated to a position of equality and a more open society is allowed to evolve will the Middle East solve its problems in a more peaceful and co-operative manner. As Pinker points out: “A recognition of women’s rights and an opposition to war go together. In Middle Eastern countries, the poll respondents who were more favourable to gender equality were also more favourable to non-violent solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict… the better a society treats its women, the less it embraces war… Societies that empower their women are less likely to end up with large cohorts of rootless young men with their penchant for making trouble.”
Equal rights, plus democracy must prevail. Not through external imposition, but through internal choice. Democracies generally punish those who fail to show empathy. A leader who is seen to be “out of touch” does not do well at the ballot box. If the entire adult population is free to vote in a universal, secret ballot, then leaders must show empathy for all the diverse members of their society or risk alienating them and losing their votes. In this way democracy is a great leveller – everyone becomes roughly equally important, statistically, with variation according to distribution.
Again, we can consider Indonesia, where the recent election of Joko Widodo provides a telling example of the positive effect of democracy in shifting a nation’s focus towards peaceful, domestic development. Widodo was chosen over Prabowo Subianto – a former military hard-man who represented the old regime – because of his empathy for the poor, his social programs, his humble origins and his proven track-record as governor of Jakarta in providing what matters most: peaceful development and advancement, support for the disadvantaged. Given time and enough breathing space, and given the complete enfranchisement of women, the people of the Middle East will also turn away from the militarists and hardliners. Again, the problem lies in taking the guns away from the thugs.
Democracy is essential – real democracy. It prevents wars – when it matures – and it opens access to innovation and to the vast ocean of talent each society has waiting to find its moment. Freedom of speech and expression allow people to make their contribution – their genius can be harnessed, their talents nurtured. Theory aside, reality makes this all very plain. Globally, there is a clear correlation between economic success, social stability, and the degree of freedom enjoyed by women. In the case of the Middle East, perhaps even more than Israel, this is the real elephant in the room. It is no surprise that Tunisia, the only vague success story of the Arab Spring, however tenuous, is also the one which most included women in its democratising process and enshrined their rights in the constitution, despite strong resistance from hard-line Islamists.
This brings us finally to Israel, whose actions are key to any lasting peace in the region. The peace process has been nothing but a sham – buying time for Israel to expand its settlement program at an even faster rate than previously. From an Arab perspective, the very existence of Israel is the embodiment of theft and its settlement program a metastasising cancer. Israel might feel it has a legitimate grievance with continued attacks on its territory and citizens, but you can’t continually commit daylight robbery and not expect your victims to try to chop your hand off.
It has been said countless times, but the United States must pull the plug on Israel once and for all. As long as the West tacitly condones Israel’s actions by not imposing sanctions, and worse, by equipping them with the means to carry out further acts of disproportionate brutality, there can be no real hope for stability in the region and little room for the acceptance of ideas categorised as western. The only viable response in the wake of Israel’s heavy-handed actions in Gaza is collective international punishment of Israel through genuine sanctions and the withdrawal of all military support. The freedom of movement of its political leadership should be restricted and any further instances of its flouting of United Nations resolutions must be met with more stringent punishment, including the possibility of war crimes charges. Whether or not Israel has committed war crimes, whether or not their actions can be considered state terrorism, whether or not we consider Hamas to be terrorists or freedom fighters, is a disputed, rhetorical propaganda battleground. What really matters is what standards the international community are willing to accept, and at present Israel’s treatment of Gaza is clearly out of proportion to the threat posed and to the reasonable use of force. As Ban Ki-moon said “Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children” Israel’s actions are out of step with the desires of the broader international community who recognise Palestine as a nascent state. Yet, emotional arguments aside, reason and historical example dictates that this problem cannot be resolved with violence, which just propagates more violence. Sadly, the easiest part is stopping the violence. The hardest part is removing the causes of it.
The world must work to nullify Israel’s aggressive imperialism and land-grabbing, and push harder to establish a viable Palestinian state with its capital in a shared Jerusalem. If this means sanctions, then so be it. Beyond this, however, with the possible exception of shutting down America’s regional military presence, perhaps the best thing the rest of the world can do is nothing at all. As dismayingly apathetic as this may sound, it seems western intervention just breeds more resentment and anger and drives radicalisation. Just like the Protestant Reformation, this wave of violence will ultimately exhaust itself. Then people might focus on the real sources of their discontent – unemployment, food security and a lack of equal opportunity.
The second Arab Spring will come – it has to – because no one can suppress forever the desire for freedom and self-determination. ISIS have momentum, but their toxic ideology is far removed from the desires of most of those they have imposed themselves upon and will, ultimately, be resisted from within. It won’t be pretty – the Reformation wasn’t either – but eventually the states of Europe came to accept their sectarian differences in favour of economic and political stability. Wars bankrupt states, and people want jobs and services. It’s the economy, stupid. Though it is unlikely to resolve itself soon, perhaps this devastating process is, for the Middle East, what the Second World War was for Europe – a great bloodletting in which ideology will so tarnish and exhaust itself that a long peace will ensue.
 Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of our Nature, Penguin, London, 2011
 Pinker, Better Angels, pp. 7-20
 Pinker, Better Angels, p. 636