Thursday, 26 June 2014

Getting the big ideas right in the Middle East

Iraq’s current struggle with the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is probably best understood in the context of Islam’s story of running headlong into modernity. The question is what will modernity look like for this great monotheism?

The Arab Islamic world – the dynamics of which have been kept frozen since the First World War – began to thaw during the Arab Spring of 2011. Artificial lines and real tension, created first by Western imperialist powers, muddled by the Cold War, then stunted by autocracies, suddenly had all the corks in all the bottles pulled at once in 2011.

As a result, the Middle East remains the Western world’s centre of foreign policy. Intelligent people now call for troops to be sent back into the region, but the big ideas are still not being well understood.

Our power to change this region has proven to be highly constrained for outside powers since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. A fundamental reason for this lies back in the 17th Century.

During Europe’s 30 Years War – ending in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia – the decision was made that although there were plenty of things over which the Christian west could kill one another, did not need to keep religion on that list.

Broadly speaking, our decision was to separate the sacred from the secular when it came to fighting about society. This set our civilisation firmly on the path to true science and secularism. Islam went one way and Christianity went the other.

But is this arc unique to Christianity, or is it actually a predictable arc along which all the great monotheisms will travel? In other words, will Islam get to the same place?

Of course Islam doesn’t have to get to the same place and it certainly doesn’t need to get there for everyone to be safe, but it’s an interesting question. The late Pope Benedict got himself into trouble saying that Islam was a much more transcendental religion than Christianity and maybe it wouldn’t travel the arc.

If Islam is so transcendental, are we shouting into the wind expecting them to separate the secular and the sacred?

All three monotheisms emerged from the same desert with the same mysticism. But Christianity was translated through Aristotle as it moved into Europe. You cannot point to a Summa Theologica in the Islamic world where there was the marriage of Aristotelian logic with faith.

On the other hand, some the most fundamentalist of Islamic believers say putting an intermediary between the creature and the creator is itself sacrilegious: so what’s all this talk about voting, they ask?
Western militaries have approached the issue in the only way they know how: by dividing their battles into the close fight and the deep fight.

The close fight deals with people already convinced to do you harm. The deep fight has more to do with the production rate of such people in three or five years.

The close/deep fight dynamic appeared during the Cold War. It wasn’t as kinetic as the last decade, but the framework was much the same. The close fight then was the British Army on the Rhine and the American Marine Corp outside the Fulda Gap, holding their positions.

An armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft sits in a shelter at 
Joint Base Balad, Iraq, before a mission in 2008. 
(Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson / Air Force

The deep fight in the Cold War was largely ideological. It was painting the Soviet system as a flawed theory of history and an even dumber system of government: just don’t let them expand because their internal inconsistencies will cause them to collapse eventually.

Translate that to the current war. The US and its allies have done very well on the close fight. The invasion of Afghanistan for its original purposes was an undeniable triumph. And the work of the CIA in removing terrorists from the battlefield was an unarguable success.

The US “drone” campaign radicalised many Islamists, but it also heavily constrained terror groups. There is a cost/benefit rationalisation in the decision to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and it has become the best way to fight the threat.

Generally, only the most capable terrorists are targeted. Effective terrorist tradecraft is not learned overnight and the lack of high-quality international attacks in the recent past, despite the large numbers of committed terrorists, suggests the close fight has been an enormous success.

But the west’s ability to influence the deep fight has been very limited. We were convinced that we needed to do something deep, but it was hard to figure out what it was.

The production rate is a tough thing to crack. It’s still ideological, but it’s an ideology about which Westerners have very little legitimacy to argue. For a Westerner to talk about the meaning of the Koran, or the significance of one or another passage out of the Hadith is to turn our argument into dust by the very uttering of it.

What is happening in Iraq is the result not simply of Western interference, but because Islam still struggles to reconcile the sacred and the secular.

The endgame of this struggle doesn’t have to mirror the Christian arc, and it will clearly take a long time to sort out. But the worst thing international powers can do now is put their thumbs on the scale without understanding the narrative underlying the entire region.

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