Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: the year of the Arab Spring and the year that we killed bin Laden

David Seaton's News Links
“The foreseeable future is Islamist – this much we know. It’s just a reality that people have to come to terms with,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. “People want to see Islam play a larger role in political life and liberals are going to have to learn to speak the language of religion and stop being the anti-Islamist choice.” Financial Times
2011 was the year that the US bagged Osama bin Laden. Some commentators think that this was a great victory, the beginning of the end of the "war on terror". Frankly, I think that if anything, his living so long after bringing down the towers and setting up the USA for two wars that have done enormous damage to our economy, was a huge defeat for American prestige. Dead, bin Laden is as much or more of a symbol, for those who need a symbol, than he was while alive. I cannot imagine that any other such small group of people as Al Qaeda have ever done so much damage to an enemy, one which is considered the most powerful country in the history of the world. The cost to them in dead, wounded and captured, and the money they have spent, is infinitesimal compared to the pain they have inflicted on their enemy.
Most of all, their success is as a catalyst for change in the world of Islam. As we have seen in the Arab Spring, Islam vertebrates any alternative to the military-secret police-oligarchy structure of the security states which have been the clients of the west since they became "independent" of direct colonial rule, nothing else is strong enough or well organized enough. Somewhat similar to the Catholic Church in communist Poland.
What Al Qaeda has done has been to widen the playing field. Before bin Laden showed how serious all this was, Turkey's Erdogan would never have been considered a "moderate", someone that could be a positive example to the Muslim world. The same could be said about the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, some of whose DNA runs though al Qaeda's veins... they too are seen as moderates when compared to the fanatical Salafists... Now they are being hopefully compared to "Christian Democrats". They owe this to Al Qaeda.
What Al Qaeda want to do is to overthrow what they perceive as the client or puppet regimes of the United States in the Middle East and they are using  US power jujitsu fashion to do that. By drawing the USA into ever more aggressive actions in the world of Islam they stimulate aversion to the "moderate" regimes that cooperate with America, in doing so, thus hastening their demise.
What is Al Qaeda's purpose in bringing down these regimes?
To restore the "Caliphate".
Now this caliphate business may sound like something right out of the "1001 Arabian Nights", redolent of Sindbad the Sailor and Aladdin and his magic lamp, or a world empire,  but here it might be useful to recall that the last Islamic caliphate ended as recently March 3, 1924, when Kemal Ataturk closed it down, threw out the Sultan (Caliph) and officially ended the Ottoman empire and westernized Turkey.  Basically then, what al Qaeda are trying to achieve is the Islamic restoration of what was the Arab part of the Ottoman empire, but run by Arabs not by Turks...That's what Lawrence of Arabia (Peter O' Toole)  was promising the Arabs (Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn)... remember?
Is this really that weird?
If you stop and think for a bit and you know your world history since WWI, you will recall that every attempt to mobilize the Arabs in order for them break from the grip of the colonial powers and the USA: pan-Arab nationalism, local nationalism, Arab varieties of socialism, military dictators or a mixture of all of these, has proved ineffectual in advancing the agenda of unity and full sovereignty. Naturally Britain, France and, of course, the USA were pleased by this failure and have always done everything in their power, from bribes to coups, to assassinations, to make that outcome inevitable. Oil or Israel, its all the same from the pan-Arab nationalist point of view, keeping the Arabs down was always the bottom line.
By a process of elimination pan-Arab nationalism has hit on the most reductive version of Islam as the only movement, ideology and source of political energy that is so decocted and fibrous and emotionally satisfying to it adherents that it cannot be co-opted, re-engineered, de-contented and manipulated by the USA.
I have thought of a rather outlier example of how this works, drawn straight from American culture: jazz.
At the end of the 1930s jazz had developed to point where white musicians were able to play it very well. Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Gene Krupa, would be notable examples. Many young African-American musicians, notably Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie, felt that their music was being stolen out from under them by white people and set out to create a way of playing that was so original and complex that the white musicians simply couldn't play it. Thus was "Be-bop" born.
What many Muslims, violent and non-violent alike seem to have hit on is that their ancestral religion is indigestible by globalization. It is a music that globalization, in its American version, simply cannot play: a sort of divine be-bop.
Today in countries like Egypt, even moderate Muslims, people that don't plan on putting a bomb in anybody's jockey shorts, are wearing beards and hijabs and chorusing, "Islam is the answer": They see it as a vaccine against being digested and assimilated and then excreted by the dynamics of globalization.
Are Muslims just being insanely paranoiac when they accuse the United States of trying to "destroy" Islam?
In my opinion, yes and no. "Yes", from the American point of view, where we think it jolly nice if some people go to church on Sunday, others go to temple on Saturday and, what the heck, others can go to mosque on Friday if they want to... but for the rest of what is left of the week, it is business as usual or else.
"No", from the point of view of many Muslims, if by "to destroy" means "to trivialize" their religion, which, in their view, is a seven day, 24 hour a day project, which is the arbiter of all human affairs. This is contrary to the rules of our economic system: within globalization the "market" has taken on the role that Islam assigns to God. Therefore Islam being indigestible in its present form must be reshaped or "Disneyfied" if you will. Except it can't be and still be Islam.
More than confronting the American people themselves, it seems to me that Muslim fundamentalists are confronting history's most powerful exponent of a system that was once described as turning "all that is solid into air" and profaning everything sacred; leaving commerce as the fundamental activity of all human beings. If we consider in what shape our economic system has left the teachings of Jesus Christ, perhaps the Muslims aren't as far off target as they appear at first glance.
If you stop and think about it, every traditional relationship between human beings that ever existed anywhere, clan, tribe, nationality, religion, family authority, has been either dissolved or degraded by our economic system: this is what we have lost in exchange for our standard of living. We happen to be cool with that, but not everybody else is.
Be that as it may, the principal objective of Muslim fundamentalists, in my opinion, is to eject an alien civilization (us), and all those who empower it (ME regimes), from the spiritual-emotional center of Islam. At heart this is just an continuation of the dismantling of the Euro-American (white) domination of the world that began at the end of WWII, a domination which globalization has given a new breath of life.
So basically this is yet another "national liberation struggle". If we look at the cost-effectiveness of everything Al Qaeda have done since the attack on the USS Cole and the African embassies and compare it with the sacrifices made by the Vietnamese people to finally gain their independence, I imagine that sooner or later the Muslim fundamentalists are going to succeed in driving us out of the Middle East.
What happens then?
Obviously if there is a general Islamist revolution in the Middle East followed by the Magreb, with America's client regimes falling like dominoes, it would have the immediate effect of pushing the price of oil through the roof and that alone would bring on a major economic crisis. It would be every man for himself as Europe, Japan and China scrambled to assure their energy supplies. This might bring protectionism roaring in, if it didn't start a series of wars. Israel, of course, might always do something crazy, but I think that in such a situation, observers might be amazed at how "prudent" the Israelis could be, if Egypt, Jordan and Syria, for example, fell to the Muslim Brotherhood in short succession.
Whatever finally happened, the period of transformation would be a harrowing, violent roller coaster ride, however, when the transformation had been completed, we would find the resulting situation:
  1. The new rulers would immediately have to find some way of feeding their populations
  2. The only thing they would have to sell to feed them would be oil
  3. The thirst of the developed and developing nations for oil would be as great as ever.
In those three points we have the makings of a workable peace.
What would that peace look like?
The best model I can think of would be some Muslim/post-Christian version of the Treaty of Westphalia, a miracle of diplomacy whereby Protestants and Catholics managed to end the "Thirty Years War", religious conflict in Europe, and perhaps most importantly enshrined the idea of state's non-meddling in the internal affairs of other states. This idea of inviolable sovereignty had managed to limp along for hundreds of years until Bush, Blair and now Obama, under aegis of the neocons and liberal interventionists trashed it... with the results we are living with today.
In some perfect neo-Westphalian world, the Muslim minority of Europe would be allowed to practice their religion in peace and the Christian and Jewish minorities in the Middle East practice theirs. Too good to be true? Well, the part about Christians and Jews being able to practice their religions in peace in the Middle East is a workmanlike description of how the Ottoman empire worked, otherwise how do you think that 19th century Zionist settlers under the patronage of the Rothschilds were allowed to settle in Palestine in the first place? And not just the Ottomans, many westerners don't realize that until Israel's appearance on the scene there had been a vibrant Jewish community in Mesopotamia for over 4,000 years!
The bit about the Ottoman empire being a place where the three religions "of the book" lived in peace is why, contrary to many commentators, I view very favorably Turkey's moves to cool their relations with Israel and reclaim a prominent place in the world of Islam. Turkey's role in the post-American-hegemony, multipolar world of compartmentalized and case by case globalization is a key one.
Of course the joker in the deck is Israel. There is always a possibility that Israel might, finding itself "eyeless in Gaza", Samson-like pull the whole thing down around their ears, but I don't think so. I imagine rather that there will be a series of tipping points, where American public opinion visibly sours on Israel's involving the US in an endless, fruitless series of wars that deteriorate America's power and endanger American lives and  the cost of gasoline, combined with the aforesaid rise of Islamic republics in the Middle East and the Magreb... not to mention Iran's future possession of the atomic bomb, followed closely by Egypt and Saudi Arabia (then probably called the Islamic Republic of  Mecca and Medina). These tipping points will send many Israelis with double nationality heading for the doors and make it obvious to those who stay that a more accommodating manner of behavior, shall we say, is now required.
"Yihye tov" as the Israelis say, which more or less means, "things will get better," but more accurately, "it will be alright on the night," meaning: "with optimism plus improvisation things will probably turn out OK". DS


Anonymous said...

Dear David: wonderful essay but I do wish you would clarify when you are incorporating parts of earlier works because without such clarification I get an unsettling feeling of deja vu ;)

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

I'm reworking ideas and polishing things, clarifying etc, it's a process. Somebody once said that writing is rewriting, I agree.