(Authors note: To those following my current series on the Syrian conflict, I have made a few changes which have mostly involved cutting and pasting a fair chunk of the original article into a new ‘chapter’. I’ve done this to try to focus my arguments more narrowly and provide a better overall structure, correcting some of the historical detail and embellishing key points.)
In a recent awkward conversation I was challenged to debate the proposition that Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology. #facepalm #whitepeople. This seems to be the default position of a lot of conservatives, and it’s not hard to understand why. Seriously, what’s not to fear about a political culture which divides the world into Muslims and unbelievers, and Muslims into Sunnis and Shiites, who see each other as infidels and who’ve been murdering each other in Allah’s name for 1400 years? If this is seriously the way we look at the culture and polity of the Middle East then we may need to adjust our glasses and dust off the history books.
The fertile land to the east of the Mediterranean has been warred over not for decades or centuries, but millennia. The Bulgars murdered the Macedonians who murdered the Phoenicians who murdered the Romans who murdered the Persians who murdered the Assyrians who murdered the Hittites who murdered god knows who in their conquests of Anatolia and the Levant. The Muslim conquest of the Arab world is but one chapter in a history which spans the rise and fall of empires. Let’s not forget the millions of Muslims who would be murdered by the papacy under its holy inquisitions, their children forced into slavery in the New World. If history is indeed written by the victor, then the proposition that Islam was spread by the sword is a eurocentrism egregiously unabashed of the log in its own eye.
There is a period familiar to most of us which European history refers to as the dark ages (evidently darker for some than others.) While Europe under the Holy Roman Empire quickly became a bleak, sophophobic monoculture obsessed with death and purgatory, Arab civilization had reached its high water mark, with cities like Mecca, Medina and Damascus embracing a new pluralism, equal parts Shi’ism, Sufism and Greek Philosophy. This is the birthplace of modern medicine, of algebra and astronomy, of modern science and mathematics and all things inquisitive (sic). While Christians were sacking libraries, drowning witches and burning heretics at the stake, cities like Baghdad boasted libraries and museums, translation institutes and academies.
The sectarian schism which would divide the tribes of Islam into Sunni and Shia was the political consequence of an argument over patriarchal succession which some would argue has been the primary cause of conflict across the region since the seventh century CE. Some might also argue that pigs fly. The origins of today’s political Islam don’t really appear until the emergence of Wahhabism in the18th century, a radical rebranding of Islamic faith based on the doctrine of one king, one faith, one mosque, which would be central to the al-Sauds’ bid to reclaim power and establish theocratic rule across the Arabian Peninsula. This new ultraconservative interpretation of Qur’anic law is set against a background of British and French colonial expansion and intensified conflict between the Sauds, Ottomans and Safavids.
No one had predicted that the Turks would ally themselves with the Central Powers in WWI, or that the Hashemites under Faisal bin Hussein would become our proverbial enemy’s enemy. Victory for the allies saw the final curtain fall on the Ottoman Empire and marked the end of the Arab dream of independence. The spoils of war were divided among the victors (Britain and France) and new territories carved out from traditional lands, while the status of regional powers was downgraded from formal statehood to little more than tribes waving flags, as one Israeli Prime Minister would later quip. The House of Saud’s moment finally came in 1932 when Abdul Aziz united the Arab kingdoms of Najd and Hizaz to form modern Saudi Arabia, with Wahhabism as its official state religion. The discovery of oil in 1938 was a fait acompli which would give the Saudis influence over western economic and foreign policy through control of the global oil price, and so began a cosy relationship in which British arms would be exchanged for US petrodollars and Sunni militias trained alongside SAS commandos and CIA delta forces and strategically deployed to thwart moves toward independence by emerging democracies from Afghanistan to the Ivory Coast.
In the middle of last century the secular Ba’ath Party was formed in Damascus, reviving Faisal’s vision to restore the liberal pluralism which had gifted the Arab world it’s first Golden Age. Nasser would soon begin an even more radical program in Egypt, establishing a National Charter, confiscating land from wealthy families and redistributing it to the poor, as well as supporting revolutionary movements to remove monarchies and install democratic socialist governments throughout the Gulf States. Needless to say none of this was popular with the global power-elites, and more so-called civil wars involving so-called Islamist rebels soon followed.
Then came the Ayatollah Khomeini, an 80 year old Imam who would lead a non-violent popular uprising and liberate Iran from the despotic rule of the pro-Western Shah and his secret police, ending 2500 years of continuous monarchy and establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran. (Word has it Khomeini also liked to eat raw onions.)
As tempting as it is to see these conflicts as religious and civil wars, it is important that we understand the social dynamics as well as the geopolitics in play. New found oil wealth in the post-war period gave rise not only to modernisation and democratisation across the Arab world, but also to a bitter resentment of western machinations. It’s hardly surprising that the views of Islamic scholars like Sayyid Qutb, who spoke out against what he saw as theimmorality of the west, would resonate deeply with a people seeking to embrace their own culture and autonomy.
While western commentators frequently describe a long history of violent repression, few mention that prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, intermarriage between Sunni and Shia had been commonplace, or that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, notwithstanding its war with Iran, invasion of Kuwait and brutal campaign against the Kurds, presided over what was in many respects a modern, forward looking society. The decent into stone age barbarism which followed the ‘liberation’ of Iraq is not the result of religious extremism, but of more than a decade of interventions, assassinations and torture; of shameless looting, foreign policy defeats and strategic blunders. The razing of Iraqi infrastructure and failing to deliver on the oil for food deal or the promise of new schools and hospitals has done little to help, fostering deeper anti western sentiment. The country was left ungoverned, and the murderous death cult which would fill the post-Saddam power vacuum now threatens stability not only in neighbouring Syria but also the wider region. Is it even conceivable that this may have happened by design rather than by chance?
In his 2004 documentary mini-series The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis paints a bleak picture of the way our world has changed in recent decades. From the ashes of 9/11 came a new golden age of opportunity for the political class. Empowered by mass hysteria, our leaders learned that their jobs would now be safe as long as they promised to keep us safe. Yet far from keeping us safe, the last 14 years has seen an increase in terror attacks throughout the world, an increasingly privatised military, and militarised domestic policy. We have billion dollar private offshore prisons and unprecedented levels of mass surveillance, while new justifications for military aggression have been added to the lexicon of political doublespeak, from pre-emptive strikes to the doctrine ofcollective self defence. With the cold war barely over a new enemy has already emerged, this time not a great empire or a great army, but a shadow – a shadow whose name is terror, and whose religion is Islam.
With all the veracity of Borat’s rendition of the Kazakhstan national anthem, the spectre of Islamist terror has been summoned from the well of collective paranoia like an ancient jinn, casting its shadow across the globe and preying on our primal fears as we eagerly surrender our liberties to an increasingly totalitarian state which promises to protect us from its ever present danger.
One of the more sinister and possibly less thought-out aspects of this fear campaign is the damage wrought on social cohesion through the othering of 1.6 billion humans. Fear is a blunt instrument. The same fear which is now being peddled by the media also informs our attitudes and choices at the supermarket and the ballot box. It’s not so much the fear of the psychotic loner, but the intellectual belief that Islam is at its core a triumfulist, supersessionist ideology that sees itself as the rightful successor to Judeo-Christianity. Whether we label them moderates orfundamentalists, these people are dangerous because they ultimately believe that they are chosen by god. Does any of this sound familiar? Playing further to our fears is the suggestion that Syria is now exporting terror as millions flee its borders, and that the waves of refugees flooding into Europe are a Trojan horse which ISIS will use to spread its message of fear throughout the world.
Never mind that this radical Wahhabist Puritanism is widely condemned by Muslims everywhere. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? As stories go, there is none more epic than the cosmic battle between good and evil, between God and the devil. The genocidal campaign of ISIS across the Middle East and the slaughter of innocent women, children, and babies becomes all the more frightening when viewed through this lens.
Just like the U-boats, bombers, machine guns and tanks of WWI, the spectre of terror and the power of mass media are devastating new weapons in the hands of those who control them. For a mere 2.3 trillion missing pentagon dollars the West has bought itself a remote control killing machine capable of taking down governments at an arm’s length. Backed by internet propaganda and armed to the teeth with the latest weapons technology, there is no longer any need for Western boots on the ground. Want to remove an Afghan President? Need Gaddafi out of the way? Want regime change in Syria and Yemen? A quick demolition job in lower Manhattan? Who ya gonna call?
But with the forces of darkness now unleashed, what happens when the mission is accomplished? Who will call off the dogs? Do Obama and Cameron have a secret safe word? Is it all bluff and bluster? If not, could this be the same short term thinking which brought us the Iraq war and its aftermath? Or worse still, has perpetual war been part of the plan all along? ……….’