The Current Crisis of Political Islam.

“Our minarets are our bayonets, our domes are our helmets, our mosques are our barracks.”[1]

In the wake of 9/11 the George W. Bush administration made a correct judgment about the origins of the terrorist attacks.  The Middle East is deeply messed-up for reasons that have little-to-nothing to do with Western imperialism or oil companies or American engagement with authoritarian regimes.  The Bush administration then made a spectacularly wrong decision about how to address the problem.  In 2003, the United States led a “coalition of the willing” in an invasion of Iraq.  The ripples from that attack have not yet subsided.  The Americans over-turned the long-standing domination of the Shi’ite majority by the Sunni minority; the Shi’ites hungered for revenge while the Sunnis launched a bloody insurrection; al-Qaeda poured gasoline on the fire when it had not before existed in Iraq, then–when defeated in Iraq—retreated into Syria, where it evolved into ISIS; and the Iraqi Kurds began to pull away to create a proto-state that would exert a magnetic pull on Kurds in Syria and Turkey, so an important American ally faced an existential crisis.

One additional effect appeared in the question whether an Islamist government could–or should–come to power by democratic means.  The implications of the question reach very far.

First, there is Islam in general and then there is Islam in the Middle East.[2]  Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, made a transition to democracy in 1999.  Islamists have made no head-way in gaining power there.  Although far from a democracy, in Pakistan Islamist parties have made little progress trying to displace the military-dominated government.  Both examples might encourage Americans seeking to understand the international security environment.

In contrast, for decades, Middle Eastern autocratic secularist governments built a dike of policemen and prisons to hold back a rising tide of popular support for Islamists.  As their numbers grew and as violence failed to open the road to power, Islamist political movements endorsed “democracy.”  Some observers believe that, for Islamists, democracy means “one man, one vote, one time.”[3]  Since its’ founding in 1979, Iran’s Islamic Republic has put meat on the bare bones of this suspicion.  The clergy always have the last say in political decisions and candidates for office often find themselves disqualified on the say-so of clerics.

The great problem is that Islamists believe that there is only one right road, not many roads, to Salvation.  They believe that they are in the left lane with an EZ-Pass and everyone else is on the off-ramp to Hell.  This is an idea that has not held sway in the West for hundreds of years.  The anti-unbeliever face of this belief troubles Westerners struggling to define a policy toward Muslims that does not violate their own core values.  At the same time, Westerners seem inattentive to the anti-wrong-believers face of this belief.  The Sunni-Shi’ite civil war is tearing apart the whole region.  Saudi Arabia has spent decades propagating a puritanical (Wahhabi) version of Sunni Islam that is congruent with radical Islamism.  The Shi’ite majority in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq immediately began to grind the faces of the suddenly displaced Sunni majority.  Relatively secularized Muslims recoil from even peaceful Islamists into the arms of the traditional authoritarians.

Tritely, values differ across cultures.  Politics follow.  Often, so does tragedy.

[1] Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

[2] Vladimir Trofimov, “The Crisis of Political Islam,” WSJ, 23-24 July 2016.

[3] Thus, Recep Tayyip Erdogan once said that he saw democracy as “a vehicle.” His course as prime minister and president of Turkey makes it clear that he doesn’t see it as an end in itself.

A Fateful Moment.

Currently, the American list of terrorist organizations in the Middle East includes al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and many other groups.[1]  Now the Trump administration is considering adding both Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the Muslim Brotherhood to the list.

What are the arguments for and against such steps?

A Sunni-Shi’ite civil war tears at the Middle East.  Russia has made a clear choice to back the Shi’ite side.  Iran leads the Shi’ite cause, is unique as an Islamist state, and is hostile to both the United States and Israel as well.  The Obama administration refused to choose, causing a good deal of distress among its Sunni allies and Israel.  Despite these real diplomatic problems, an attack on Iran’s nuclear program would have opened a larger conflict at a moment when Americans were fed-up with war in the Middle East and ISIS banged at the gates of Baghdad.

The Trump administration is re-thinking this policy.  The Revolutionary Guard is an independent military force that answers directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran.  Over the years it has also spread into a powerful position in the economy.  In addition, it plays a leading role in Iran’s covert operations.[2]  The Trump administration believes that Iran plays a disruptive, hostile role in the Middle East.  Targeting the Revolutionary Guard makes sense as a starting point.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928.[3]  Eventually, getting nowhere with violence, the Egyptian core of the Brotherhood abandoned that in favor of concentrating on its other social programs.  The Egyptian movement has off-shoots elsewhere.  There are affiliates in Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan.  Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is another off-shoot.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations pursued a policy of engagement with any Muslim group that sought political power by peaceful and democratic means.[4]  Thus, in 2012 the Obama administration embraced the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt.  However, important American allies in the Middle East have long considered the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization.  These allies include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.[5]  Also, Israel is deeply hostile to Hamas.

Again, the Trump administration is considering reversing course by declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.  However, Turkey’s Islamist government supports the Brotherhood, which it sees as a similar movement.  Since the Egyptian coup, the Brotherhood has been allowed to maintain offices in Istanbul and to operate a television station that broadcasts throughout the Middle East (including to Egypt).  Moreover, millions of Egyptians still support the Brotherhood, albeit they’re keeping their heads down at the moment.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an umbrella organization.  Many of its members in many Middle Eastern countries remain committed—for now—to peaceful means.  Would declaring the Muslim Brotherhood further alienate its members?  Would it drive some of them to using violence?

So, a fateful moment in which caution should prevail over bold action.  Bold action in 2003 led to the invasion of Iraq, “and all that implies.”

[1] Felecia Schwartz and Jay Solomon, “U.S. Weighs Terror Label for Two Groups,” WSJ, 9 February 2017.

[2] I realize that it is inflammatory to say so, but the historian in me sees organizational and political parallels between the Revolutionary Guard and the SS in Nazi Germany.  I do not mean to suggest any moral equivalence.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “The Pitfalls of Blacklisting Muslim Brotherhood,” WSJ, 27 January 2017.

[4] While this is admirable in theory, one cannot help wondering if it is merely cosmetic in a region of authoritarian governments.

[5] That said, Saudi Arabia has eased up a little in its hostility to the Brotherhood.  Conversely, Egypt experimented with toleration for the Brotherhood in 2012-2013, only to restore the military dictatorship by a coup.


In 2011, during the “Arab Spring,” an American-led coalition overthrew the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Libya under Gaddafi had been a society with several potential conflicts kept under control by the dictatorship. People of Arab descent clashed with people of Berber or Turkish descent. The American attack took the lid off this cauldron. Many tribes and towns raised “brigades” of troops to help topple the hated regime. Few of those militias disbanded once victory had been won. Instead, Libya found itself fragmented even while it sought a path to national reunification. The groups quarreled over power and shares of oil revenue.

Things got worse over the next several years. By August 2014, Libyan towns and tribes were choosing sides in a looming civil war.[1] Thus, the mountain town of Zintan recruited many former Gaddafi troops to their militia and declared against radical Islamism, while the coastal town of Misurata allied with the Islamists. As an object lesson to the rest of the country, order had broken down in the capital city of Tripoli, fighting had ravaged the city, electrical power was often interrupted, gasoline often unavailable, and municipal services had collapsed.[2]

In 2012, one Islamist group, Ansar al-Shariah, participated in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi. Two years later, the group had grown more powerful. Bombings and assassinations had demonstrated its power. Other militias forged alliances with the Islamists.

In May 2014, a former general named Khalifa Hifter managed to gather some forces. He declared war on the Islamists. General Hifter didn’t bother to distinguish between “moderates” and “radical.” His attacks around Benghazi tightened the bonds between Ansar al-Shariah and the other Islamist groups. Hifter’s attacks added to the polarization of the country between those who opposed Ansar al-Shariah and those who supported the radical Islamists. That polarization had the potential to spread the fighting in Benghazi to the rest of the country.

Among his other acts, General Hifter had closed the existing parliament and ordered new elections. The new parliament was to convene in Tobruk, an eastern city close to the Egyptian border and within Hifter’s territory. It will surprise no one that the Islamists, who had been well-represented in the old parliament, declined to go to Tobruk. Instead, they announced that the old parliament would meet in the western city of Tripoli (close to the Tunisian border and within the territory controlled by Misurata). Rival parliaments in a country full of armed men is bad.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both grown alarmed over the Islamists-next-door in Yemen and Libya. The United Arab Emirates, an ally of Saudi Arabia, plays host to a satellite network that broadcasts anti-Islamic material to Libya. Qatar, which has supported Islamic causes elsewhere in the Middle East (See: Your Mind Is In the Qatar) runs a rival network broadcasting to the Islamists. At some point, the Egyptian Army may have to choose between intervention and just trying to seal off the almost 700 mile-long border with Libya.

Back in August 2014, things looked to be sliding out of control. Observers foresaw a likely choice between the restoration of a dictator and letting the place slide into a cauldron of Islamist extremism. Especially in the latter case, Libya’s fate would have wide repercussion in North Africa and the Middle East. The recent Islamist attack on a museum in Tunisia and the nominal adherence of the Libyan Islamists to ISIS add to the urgency.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt is likely to feel grateful to the United States for having caused this problem in the first place.

[1] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Strife in Libya Could Presage Long Civil War,” NYT, 25 August 2014.

[2] In a curiosity unexplained by the author, “bicycles, once unheard of, are increasingly common.” Un-noticed by the rest of the world, someone is importing bicycles into Libya.

What did we learn from the Report of the 9/11 Commission? II

Westernized elites (lawyers, bureaucrats, soldiers) provided the leadership for the successful nationalist movements in the Middle East after the Second World War. The initial economic situation of the new states did not appear unpromising: “The established commercial, financial, and industrial sectors.., supported by an entrepreneurial spirit and widespread understanding of free enterprise, augured well.” (p. 79.) However, the secular variant of the new states failed to deliver on the extravagant promises made in the early period of independence. The governments of many new states followed policies that slowly stifled all economic progress.

In the Arab world the oil shocks of the 1970s inflicted grave damage in the disguise of a great blessing. The enormous profits proved transient, but the governments used them for efforts to transform Arab society that had long-term consequences. Governments spent heavily on “huge infrastructure projects, vastly expanded education, and…subsidized social welfare programs. Cronyism meant that lots of money stuck to members of the ruling elites, as well.

Modern medical care led to a soaring birthrate all across the Muslim world. This large, young population needed jobs to be created at a rapid rate, but the stagnant economies of all the Muslim states failed to fulfill their tasks. The result was the proliferation of angry, frustrated, aggrieved, half-educated or mis-educated young men. (p. 80.) Rather than yield power or turn to new policies, the ruling elites settled for repressing dissent.

When a sharp rise in population intersected precipitously declining oil revenues in the 1990s, the government had to sharply reduce spending. The generous programs of the early 1980s “established a wide-spread feeling of entitlement without a corresponding sense of social obligation.”   The later effort to cut spending “created enormous resentment among recipients who had come to see government largesse as their right.” (p. 79.)

Many people turned to religion. As is the case with Christianity, Islam has been subject to periodic reform movements that could be called “fundamentalist” or “revivalist.” One exponent of reform was the 14th century scholar Ibn Taimiyyah, who “condemned both corrupt rulers and the clerics who failed to criticize them. He urged Muslims to read the Qur’an and the Hadith for themselves, not to depend solely on learned interpreters like himself but to hold one another to account for the quality of their observance.” (p. 75.) NB: In short, Calvin’s Geneva.

In the 1940s, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar had visited the United States at the behest of his government and returned to Egypt deeply estranged from everything Western. (pp. 75-76.) Qutb espoused a Manichaean worldview in which pervasive, corrosive “unbelief” (jahiliyya) among non-Muslims and Muslims alike threatened to overwhelm true belief. True believers had to fight the unbelievers by all means and to the death. (pp. 76-77.) “The extreme Islamist version of history blames the decline from Islam’s golden age on the rulers and people who turned away from the true path of their religion, thereby leaving Islam vulnerable to encroaching foreign powers eager to steal their land, wealth, and even their souls.” (p. 75.)

By the late Seventies and early Eighties there had arisen a powerful religious movement among young men in the Muslim world. Osama Bin Laden was inspired by a preacher in the late Seventies. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed became attracted to “jihadism” in the early Eighties. In the early Eighties “Hambali” became attracted to Islamist preaching in Malaysia. Young jihadis went to fight in Afghanistan (1980s), in Bosnia (1990s),

Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, The 9/11 Report: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

Your mind is in the Qatar.

Qatar is about the size of Connecticut, but has a lot more going for it than insurance companies and casinos on Indian Reservations. Once an impoverished sandlot that lived from the pearl fisheries, Qatar now earns an immense amount of money from the sale of natural gas.

The ruling sheikh, Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani (1952- ,r. 1995-2013) set out to make Qatar “important” to other people. On the one hand, he wants Qatar to be important to Americans in case the neighbors–either Saudi Arabia or Iran—took it into their minds to do his country some nastiness. What Iraq had tried to do to Kuwait in 1990, some other power might do to Qatar. He got the Americans to build a local command center for Central Command (which runs American military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia) at Doha. He enhanced the importance of Qatar for the world energy market by building a huge natural gas condensing plant to facilitate exports and earnings.

On the other hand, the sheikh wanted to be a player in the Middle East. In 1996 he created the “Al Jazeera” news network to promote an Islamist message. Beginning in 2011, Qatar has been financing upheaval in the Middle East. It has funded both the “Arab Spring” uprisings (which Westerners like to think of as “liberal” and “modernizing”) and Islamist groups (which Westerners think of as “illiberal” and “anti-modern”). Money flowed to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to Hamas, and to the Al Nusra Front fighting the Assad government in Syria.

Blaming Qatar for pursuing a two-faced policy by seeking close ties to America while funding Islamists groups misses the point. The Middle East is torn in its attitudes toward “modernization” and “Westernization.” Islamism is one face of that controversy. The rise of Islamism threatens the established order in the Middle East. People with an interest in history will note the radical difference between American policy in Europe after the Second World War and contemporary American policy. Then, the Americans had a better solution than its opponents and they were in favor of dramatic change to solve problems. Now, the United States doesn’t appear to have any positive alternative to offer and isn’t comfortable with change.

Qatar falls into a larger pattern. Qatar’s ruler may believe that you can’t get anywhere by pandering to the Americans. You’ll just end up living in Los Angeles and selling rugs at craft fairs. The military government in Egypt and the moderate Islamist government in Turkey also have both bridled at American policy of late. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates combined to bomb rebels in Libya without bothering to inform the United States first. Turkey refuses to have its army fight ISIS until the Americans agree to overthrow the Assad government in Syria.

Qatar also seeks to influence American opinion through “Al Jazeera America” and donations to the Brookings Institution. For American conservatives, this is an illegitimate international influence on American policy. For them, it falls into the same category as Islamist illegals entering the US through our porous border with Mexico. There is another way of looking at it, however. American journalism no longer invests many resources in foreign reporting. American journalists rarely have the language skills or the cultural competence to get outside of a restricted safe zone, either physically or intellectually. (It’s hard to understand the exaggerated importance assigned to the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square otherwise.) Qatar seeks to enrich the information and perspectives offered to American to help them better understand events in the Middle East. Maybe people should spend more time watching an alternative news source? You don’t have to believe what you see and hear. It’s a free country.

“The tiny nation that roared,” The Week, 27 September 2013, p. 9.

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Some of the countries in the Middle East are make-believe countries. That is, after the First World War the British and the French carved up the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine were created on map tables in Europe before they had any reality for the people who lived there. Religious and other divisions within these areas were of little interest to the French and British decision-makers of the time. Those administrative territories then became sovereign states, mostly after the Second World War. So, Kurds were divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims were grouped together in Iraq and—to a lesser extent—in Syria. Tensions smoldered: a Sunni minority dominated the Shi’a majority in Iraq; Christians, Muslims, and Druze struggled in Lebanon; and Palestine became the target for immigration by Eastern European Jews without the consent of the Arabs. That did not mean that these countries were doomed to fail. Good judgment, a spirit of cooperation, and self-restraint could go a long way to building bridges. All of those things have been in short supply in post-American Iraq.

The Iraqi insurgency had been defeated when the Sunnis switched sides to oppose the Islamist fundamentalists of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Nouri al-Maliki–a member of the Shi’a Muslim majority sect–became Prime Minister in 2006. During his campaign for re-election in 2010 he promised to form a “unity” government that included representatives of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Then the United States withdrew the last of its forces in 2011.

Maliki (and the Shi’a he represented) promptly changed course. Maliki’s program was to concentrate power in the hands of Shi’ites, while spurning both Sunnis and Kurds. First, he opened the way for a spectacular increase in the high level of corruption. Hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenue had been diverted to private hands. The diverted revenues benefitted only Maliki’s followers. Soon, Maliki turned on the Sunnis more directly. They were purged from the government and tens of thousands were imprisoned. Maliki’s power grab alienated the Sunnis from the government. It sent some of them back into co-operation with Islamist groups.

The key Islamist group is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is simultaneously fighting in Iraq and in the Syrian Civil War. The major cities have been targeted for bombings. This coincided with the run-up to elections in April 2014. In April 2014, 750 people died, either in bombings of public places or in street-fighting between the security forces and insurgents. By May 2014, ISIL and the Sunni opponents of Maliki had won control of Anbar province west of Baghdad. By June 2014 the decision by Maliki and the Shi’ites to grab all the toys for themselves proved to have been a catastrophically bad decision. In June ISIS forces suddenly over-ran Mosul and Tikrit, while four divisions of the Iraqi Army just folded up in front of the attack. (“Iraq, three years later,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 11.)

Iraq’s Army offers a particularly telling example. Under Maliki, religious affiliation replaced competence as a criteria for many senior officers; purely Shi’ite divisions concentrated near Baghdad, while mixed divisions were sent to the provinces; troop training, equipment maintenance, and logistical support all suffered as the military budget was diverted just like the oil revenue. (Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon, “The Iraqi Army was Crumbling Long Before Its Collapse, U.S. Officials Say,” NYT, 13 June 2014.)

ISIL probably can’t conquer Iraq or even hold its present gains. But when their tide ebbs, what will Iraqis do with their country?