When I most recently wrote in this space, I pleaded with you, dear reader, to try to see certain dark events of the recent past—the tragic beheading of two journalists, for example—from the perspective of the demonized leaders of the Islamic State. My purpose was not to exonerate barbarous behavior, as I made explicit, but to better understand its motives and machinations. I was aware that, given the emotional character of many observers’ orientation to the subject—as morality play, not strategic challenge—my attempt to contextualize my own motives would not come across to everyone. In that I have not been disappointed. But I am also not deterred. So in this, my final post for calendar year 2015, I will provoke again—twice, in fact—in an attempt to shoehorn some sunlight into our mostly tenebrous mental caverns when it comes to matters Middle Eastern and Islamic/Islamist.
Let me pick up where I left off with respect to the Islamic State in light of today’s news about a small UN-sponsored ceasefire and movement of people in Syria. (This is news you will not see in today’s American mainstream press, whether print or otherwise, but that of course does not mean it’s not news in the region and in the regional press…) One town and two villages near Idlib—Zabadani, Fua’a, and Kafraya— basically exchanged populations. Some 450 Sunnis from Zabadani, for months under siege by the regime, passed through Lebanon on the way to Turkey, and from Turkey returned (supposedly) to rebel occupied parts of northern Syria. (If some of them ended up in Germany by Easter I would not be surprised.) Meanwhile, Ismaili Shi‘a from the two villages were allowed to move into protected areas away from rebel siege. Altogether, about 600-750 people were involved.
This is not the first geography-specific mini-ceasefire in the Syrian civil war, but it is the most complicated. (This one is also complicated in terms of the groups of fighters involved, but we’ll not go into those details here.) Some who do not know any better might think that this is the beginning of a series of local ceasefires that could accumulate into a general truce, as a first step to ending the civil war and putting Syria back together. It’s a nice thought, in roughly the same league as thoughts about sugar plum fairies and unicorns. But it isn’t warranted by the facts. As in the past, these ceasefires are part surrender and part population displacement. It is better for those affected to move than to die, no doubt, but the homogenization of sectarian settlement patterns in Syria presages partition and possibly more war, not peace and a recreated unitary Syrian state. Want referred evidence from a similar case? Look at what happened in Iraq during its post-combat intifadah in 2004–06.
And this brings me to my first naughty, provocative punch to your kisser for the day. On December 15, someone named Vadim Nikitin, writing in The Independent, suggested recognizing ISIS and negotiating with it. The most recent time I looked at the comments there were 46, and just about all of them were of the “are you insane?” variety. That’s not surprising. But this is not necessarily an insane or absurd idea, even if Nikitin’s rationale for it is less than persuasive.
Let’s back up a logical step or two to see why. Anyone who seriously examines reality in Syria with a mind to remediating it knows that Syria cannot be reassembled as a unitary state under Alawi rule. Even if, for example, the regime could retake Raqqa, it could not readily rule it after spilling so much innocent Sunni blood over the past four years. It’s the same in Iraq: If, after the victory of the Iraqi Army in Ramadi, the liberation of Mosul is next, how will a Shi‘a regime supporting a Shi‘a-led army rule a near-100 percent Sunni city? (It’s the old dog-chases-school-bus problem for the umpteenth time: The dog can catch and sink his teeth into the school bus’s left rear tire, but having caught it, what does he do with it?)
This reality has led several observers to propose some sort of Sunnistan, or Sunni Regional Government (modeled after the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq) to rule the Sunni-populated areas of Iraq and Syria in a redrawn Levant. Some versions of this idea propose a new state, others autonomous zones within existing states—and of course the same kind of ideas have been proffered to deal with existing Kurdish realities, which now outstrip the KRG’s reach and domain.
How does one get to this Sunnistan? Well, there has to be a negotiated settlement of the civil war before any such entity could come stably into existence. But any imagined negotiation leading to such a result has to parry the following conundrum: How do you negotiate a settlement if those around the table fail to represent about a third of the country—namely, the third now controlled by the Islamic State? Well, the reasoning goes that first one empowers this new Sunni entity (whether to include Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar as-Sham in the formulation is still a matter of debate), and its first act as a governing body would be to make war on other Sunnis in the form of ISIS. Then, reasoning further, it wins that war somehow and then absorbs the territory currently held by ISIS into its geographical and political fold.
This might work. Then again, it very well might not. If the Islamic State has gone to the trouble of writing out a 24-page statecraft blueprint, according to Nikitin, maybe one can talk to it. After all, the Ottoman Empire, complete with caliphate, eventually managed to integrate itself into the European state system some centuries ago and become a rule-following if not necessarily friendly neighbor. Why would we begin an arduous and very uncertain process of trying to create a Sunni political voice that anyway fails to represent large swaths of Syrian territory and population when we can, perhaps, figure out a way to deal with one that already (sort of) exists?
Note that recognizing the existence of an entity in order to talk to it for a practical purpose is not the same, in American diplomatic practice, as extending formal recognition to a government or even to a political movement. We have often in our history made that distinction, including with the PLO in the Reagan Administration, it will be recalled, and we could do it again if there were a good enough reason for it. I am not advocating doing so, because there are plenty of practical matters to be considered first. I am simply arguing for doing the analytical due diligence involved, and not ruling it out beforehand as a matter of course.
Note that I am not making the hoary and often wrongheaded argument that, if you can “engage” an enemy, you will ipso facto moderate that enemy’s goals and behavior. Nikitin makes it, and it sounds foolish coming from him because it is foolish. I worry that the idea will appeal to the Obama Administration for the wrong reasons, because it has showed that it accepts such wishfully thought arguments (see: Iran). But that doesn’t make the idea “insane” or “absurd.”
Even if engagement doesn’t necessarily moderate an enemy threat, reality often does. Note that the Almohads, which always seemed to me to be the closest historical analogue to ISIS, also started out radical, murderous, and crazy, as premillennarian sects tend to be—and it too calmed down eventually, before destroying itself (with help) in a frenzy of dissipation and division. Yes, that was the 12th century, and, yes, “eventually” clocked in at more than eighty years. But there are no quick, easy, and militarily antiseptic options to be had here. So it seems to me that if we can help end the Syrian civil war sooner rather than later by trying to bring ISIS inside the negotiating tent, and in the process save many thousands of lives, then it’s something to think through rather than get all huffy and puffy and righteously indignant about.
Finally on this point, thinking such contrarian thoughts might not be necessary if the Vienna process bears a good prospect of gaining a ceasefire in a more conventional way. Secretary Kerry continues to vouchsafe much hope in the prospect. As usual, he’s gullibly wrong; the Russians are having him on, and he doesn’t know it. The Syrian regime, together now with the Russians, are the only parties with the power on the ground to declare and impose a ceasefire, complete with humanitarian supply routes to relieve afflicted areas. Some people even besides Secretary Kerry think they will soon do so, and the killing will subside if not end. I remain skeptical. We shall see.
The War of Ideas
Last time out I expressed a certain exasperation that American public opinion has tilted after the San Bernardino killings into a pro-war attitude against the Islamic State over an event whose actionable connection to it is nil. Want to attack and liberate Raqqa with 100,000 U.S. troops (and never mind the “dog chasing the school bus” problem)? Fine, but at least let your reason for doing so have something to do with the proposed action.
Let me now be exasperated in print once more. After Paris and San Bernardino there came rollicking across the digital prairie the sounds of tocsins beating for a “war of ideas” against Islamist “ideology.” It was as if this formulation, this phrase, never before existed. Pundits and assorted other amnesiacs trotted out this phrase as though we have not tried and failed for more than a dozen years after 911 to wage precisely this “war of ideas.” Many note the strange effects of information technology on the human capacity to actually think, which involves integrating information into knowledge within a framework of some purpose, which process of integration in turn gives a shape to the possibility, at least, of useful memory. Maybe this is a case of that effect: When seemingly intelligent people in 2015 apparently cannot remember a huge corpus of thought and writing going under the identical label from only a dozen or so years before, one does have to wonder what the hell is going on.
One possibility is that failure and frustration tend more to be forgotten than remembered. It’s human nature. We did not do so well the first time around with the “war of ideas” portfolio, and so we are condemned, as Dylan once put it in a song, to be “waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice.” I don’t know the price; I do know what it feels like to suffer not paying it.
So already many years ago we came to the conclusion that the real war of ideas is going on, and needs to go on, inside of Islamic civilization, and that non-Muslims have very little of positive value to say about it. So U.S. policymakers were advised to network Muslim moderates—in other words, to help the good guys wage this war within the big Muslim tent. Books were written, government studies commissioned, speeches were given … and a lot of good it did. Well, it did some good, but it remains very much an uphill struggle. It certainly did more good than the early post-9/11 State Department orientation to the subject, which I observed from a front row seat.
Now, I’m not going to regale you with stories about ridiculous ignorance and absurd wastes of money, nor am I going to mention names (so, Karen Hughes and Margaret Tutweiler, you’re safe). I am merely going to characterize the approach of the day, as of, say, 2003, and briefly explain why it was so wrongheaded—and why similar thinking now circulating about in the amnesic haze of the “war of ideas” 2.0 is similarly doomed.
The early efforts to wage a war of ideas against Muslim extremism depended on two utterly American assumptions about the world, both of which happen to be mistaken. The first comes straight from the script of our Enlightenment-lite devolution. In this case, it adjures us to believe that, if we can only come up with the right string of highly persuasive, well-nigh irrefutable words and get them translated into Arabic, Farsi, Pashtun, Urdu, and so on, then would-be radicals and terrorists will fall to their knees before our unassailable logic and good intentions, see the error of their ways, and be nice people, like us.
The second, closely related, assumed that the problem was us, not them. They did not like us and wanted to kill us, so the fault must be partly ours for not communicating to them both our general benignity and our deep regrets over any harm we may have caused them in earlier times.
Taken together, these two assumptions led to a policy based on the fiction that actual ideas, or an ideology as we understand the term, is what motivates Islamist radicals and terrorists, and on the further fiction that if we manage to redefine ourselves so that we are not the enemy within this ideology, they’ll leave us alone.
This hyper-rationalist, social science-free nonsense is what led the U.S. government, for example, to create glossy Arabic-language magazines showing Middle Easterners how good, and fair, and free, and lovely, life is for Muslims who live in the United States. There were pictures of mosques and attendant green lawns, and dark-haired children playing in parks attached thereto. I am not making this up. I could not make this up. This is what led to the establishment of U.S. government-created Arabic- and Farsi-language radio and television programs that, initially at least, showed the same ass-backwards bias. We were not and are not the problem; they are, and the societies that reared them to some extent or other are too.
And that leads to punch in the kisser number two: We do not have an intellectual or an ideological problem in the main with Islamists; we have a sociological problem. And no string of persuasive words is going to change that.
What do I mean by “sociological problem”? I mean that the motivations for Islamist violence are not anchored to formal theology or any actual thinking. The political entrepreneurs who ransack the capacious traditions of Islam to gull alienated, fearful youth into joining radical organizations are very few of them well-educated Muslims. Few have madrassa educations. They are glassy-eyed ignoramuses in their own religion for the most part, and those youth they gull generally know even less. They cherry pick this or that Quranic verse, this or that hadith, and very creatively tell people what they mean, when they don’t mean such things at all and never have.
The real motives have to do with the will to power on the part of the entrepreneurs, and such men have always existed at the margins of Muslim societies, as they do at the margins of almost every society. What has made them relatively successful in recent decades has to do with the unsettling churn in Middle Eastern societies pressed by the stresses of modernization. That churn has created massive urbanization and increased literacy levels, particularly for women, which in turn has made them more formidable potential wives. It has created different labor profiles and family dynamics. It has disrupted most traditional social forms, including the ones that disciplined people and kept them tied to traditional conservative forms of social authority.
This process has a name, and it is called neo-fundamentalism. It is a process well described by many scholars over many decades, including decades that transpired before 9/11. The fundamentalism project at the University of Chicago, for example, begun by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, dates back to 1987! Ernst Gellner wrote brilliantly on this subject, as have in more recent times Olivier Roy, Bassam Tibi, and many others. If I can simplify and abbreviate radically, let me just point out that the stresses of modernization in the Middle East have created a twinning between upward social mobility and increased standards of religious piety—exactly the opposite of what Western modernization theory predicted back in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead of learning about religion mimetically, by observing what others did and how they spoke of it, new Muslim urbanites have learned about religion analogically, by reading and listening to educated clerics. Standards of piety rise under such circumstances. Muslim women in many countries willingly veil themselves more often these days not because their grandmothers did; their grandmothers were too busy collecting sticks to make a fire to cook dinner to bother with veils getting in their way. No shortage of coercion in this regard notwithstanding, the granddaughters veil themselves because they can, because it is a sign of elevated status and self-esteem.
Obviously, becoming more religious in one’s behavior does not necessarily make one a radical, make one political, or make one a terrorist. But the dislocation and deracination that come from a loosening of traditional ties and constraints do create larger reservoirs of disaffected, lonely, and nervous young men (especially) to be lured by political entrepreneurs. The Muslim Brotherhood is a quintessential early example, founded in Egypt in the 1920s; its Leninist organization substitutes for the tight, tribally based family ties and sense of belonging to a group that is otherwise hard to sustain in a noisy, confusing, stressful city. That the MB has thrived in cities among recently self-displaced rural people is no coincidence. The same may be said, with variations leaning on different times and places, for the mass membership of the AK Party movement in Turkey, as people wandered from the Anatolian countryside into the country’s larger cities—so this is not an exclusively Arab phenomenon. People who are desperate to belong to a social support group will believe practically any line they are fed. That line does not have to be any more sophisticated than the one that created cadres of nutcase Moonies in the United States forty years ago. And it isn’t.
But then, dear reader, you retort that if the problem is sociological rather than intellectual, then it means that the whole idea of what is usually conjured by the phrase “war of ideas” between the West and Islam is a fool’s notion. Yes, it is. That also means that there is no quick, easy, and intellectually antiseptic solution to this problem, right? Well, that’s right too, Jack: Get used to it. We Americans cannot master this problem, only manage it. Others have to solve their own problems themselves, or they won’t stay solved—and they will do that. Painfully, bloodily, slowly, and erratically they have already begun the process. It will just take some time.
Again, let me remind you that this pocket sociology of Muslim modernization is not esoteric knowledge. It is not particularly hard to understand, rare, or hidden away in some scholastic vault somewhere. Anyone who has been to graduate school for this sort of topic knows this stuff, and has known it for years. Even fortunate undergraduates at better schools have been exposed to all this, and as noted already, much of the better literature on the subject has been around for a long time—well before 9/11. Gellner’s Muslim Society from Cambridge University Press, to take just one example, dates from 1981—a couple years after the Iranian revolution but twenty years before 9/11. I read it once and then studied it carefully during the Reagan Administration …
Now, one might suppose that serious, responsible people in the broadly defined American political class, tasked with managing a serious problem after 9/11, would have found their way sooner or later back to this literature and would have devoured it with a purpose. By and large, one would be mistaken to suppose this. There is little to no evidence of any such thing having happened. If it had, it is hard to see how serious, responsible people could have screwed up the first, post-9/11 “war of ideas” as badly as they did. Morally outraged Americans in a near panic, it seems, default very fast to their Manichean passion-play mentality, and once that gets locked in, whether in liberal “guilt” mode or conservative “exceptionalist” mode, it tends to stay locked in.
And so it is, after Paris and San Bernardino—and there will probably be more fuel to stoke this particular fire, unfortunately—that here we go again, as if, like the Bourbons, nothing has been learned and nothing forgotten. Me, I feel sort of like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day—only this remake has recently been fashioned not in Hollywood but in Washington. Then again, I would rather watch another futile, misguided “war of ideas” be waged than watch a division of American soldiers bite into the rear left tire of Raqqa and then wonder what to do with it.