“PAX AMERICANA” AND ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM: IS COEXISTENCE POSSIBLE?
Alexander Makharoblidze, Chief specialist, International Law Department, Foreign Ministry of Georgia (Tbilisi, Georgia)
The United States radically changed its foreign policy course after the tragic events of 9/11. The U.S. military contingent and intelligence extended their antiterrorist operations to many countries stretching from the Philippines and Yemen to Georgia. There is a lot of talk about possible deployment of U.S. troops in Indonesia. If the antiterrorist operation continues to extend it has a chance of becoming one of the most expensive military campaigns, therefore to cut down spendings the United States should concentrate on diplomatic initiatives.
After 11 September American diplomacy had to admit that Islam was a unique and the most dynamic religion in the world. Politicians have finally recognized that Islam represents a different political tradition and absolutely different social practices shared by 1.2 billion living in more than 60 states. Shortly after the end of the Cold War Islam was generally accepted as a complex phenomenon on which security and prosperity of vast regions depended. Indeed, unlike Christianity and Judaism Islam is more than a religious system based on the Holy Writ: it is a “communal,” public confession that shapes the views and ideas of its followers. This is not an abstract idea based on vague and often dubious dogmas but a concrete, or even real, religion having definite social roots and oriented toward the social life of the Ummah (a community of Muslims). In other words, it is more than a narrow belt that outlines the borders of the non-Western world.
Politicians in Washington all agree that it is radical fundamentalism rather than Islam that is the enemy while a considerable part of the Muslim world looks at the United States as a supporter and an apologist of the political system that has already plunged states (Muslim states in the first place) into unfavorable social and economic conditions (Iraq in which one child out of two is born with deformities due to the U.S.-initiated international sanctions is a relevant example). The U.S.-induced efforts are obviously not enough to bridge the abyss between the West and the rest of the world (the same applies to the gap between the U.S. and Europe).1 The problem goes beyond the important fact that certain shortcomings of America’s foreign policy adding to Islamist activeness are ignored. The problem is created by civilizational differences caused by a great number of biogenic, psychogenic, and sociogenic factors. In many respects they are responsible for the past and present of each geographical region (the West and the Muslim world in our case) and have probably erected insurmountable obstacles preventing nations and civilizations from moving closer to each other.
As a rule they remain ignored while political considerations of the day are pushed to the foreground. This is especially evident in American studies of the Islam-related problems. It seems that Huntington was not far from the truth when having compared various civilizations he failed to detect any meeting point of Muslim and other civilizations except one drenched in blood. Yet he wrongly described Islamic resurgence as an “acceptance of modernity, rejection of Western culture, and recommitment to Islam as the guide to life in the modern world.”2 In fact, this assertion is wrong in one thing only—“acceptance of modernity” since there is no modernity at all. Islamic resurgence is about rejection of modernity since Islam has no civilizational preconditions for modernity, that is, the same biogenic, psychogenic, and sociogenic factors inherent in all regional civilizations. In other words, the factors are there, yet they do not contribute to modernity—they deny it.
This is the first step toward inevitable problems of perception from outside because the nations that have left behind a long development period and reached the summit of civilization (the term used in Spengler’s interpretation) cannot understand the medieval rules the Islamic radicals prefer to follow while failing to see the deep-rooted causes and concentrating on the obvious. The obvious is blamed on political blunders great powers made in the past. They are an important but not the main cause (that describes only one side of the problem) stemming from another, the key one. Such blunders and one-sided decisions that seemingly promised no future advantages were practically unavoidable.
Indeed, certain American experts perceive two major shortcomings of America’s foreign policy: its blind devotion to the interests related to the Muslim world that encouraged Islamic fundamentalism. For example, the United States is maintaining close relationships with Saudi Arabia: it sells it weapons and is always prepared to extend political support. Similar relations allow Washington to strengthen its positions in the region and contain Baghdad and Tehran. (One should say that the idea of “containment” has lost some of its meaning especially against the background of the coming operation in Iraq that may turn out to be as protracted as the antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan.) In addition, the United States has gained access to the local oil reserves and strategic positions in the Israeli-Arab conflict.
While the United States ensures stability in Saudi Arabia and its security the Saudis are lavishly funding radical conservative Islamic movements, the majority of which have already developed into reactionary militarized structures (HAMAS and Hezbollah in Palestine, Taliban, etc.). This amply demonstrates that the United States cannot have strategic allies in the region—only latent enemies saying sweet words and bearing it a grudge. The insurmountable civilizational contradictions between the Western superpower and its Eastern satellites cannot be overcome with privileges, “special relationships,” and “strategic partnership.” The latter will not tolerate Americans even if they offer all gold in the world to their Eastern partners. So far, the United States has not done this. In fact, even if America resolves to do this in the future the alien cultural and civilizational environment will be irritated rather than grateful. Everything that looks like progress in America in the Muslim states (and not only in them) is perceived as suppression of cultural identity rooted in Islam, a powerful social, economic, and geopolitical ideology.
This phenomenon deserves closer scrutiny. We should cast at least a cursory glance at the natural geographic and socioeconomic context in which the mentality of any definite nation was shaping through centuries. The Arabian Peninsula is a lifeless desert with few oases that provides the opportunity for developing nomadic cattle breeding as the only functioning economic branch. Everything started with this “traditional economy:” Islam means a special desert lifestyle when oases served as economic (and later political) centers for Bedouin tribes.
There were too many tribes and few oases, which caused never-ending tribal strife. At the dawn of Islam the situation in the Arab world was even worse: quarrels among disunited tribes were complicated by the opposition between two superpowers of the time—Byzantium and Persia of the Sassanids—into which the Bedouins were involved. They had no chance to close ranks: first, there were no economic prerequisites for this (each of the oases was too precious); second, each of the regional superpowers had interests of its own which the Arabic tribes had to take into account. There was no chance of unifying from the inside—there were no forces that wanted it. It was expansion that could have created such forces and brought together the Arabs steeped in internecine strife and squabbles with the outside world. The situation was favorable: Byzantium and Persia weakened by the devastating war of 602-628 could not influence, in any perceptible way, the relations among the Arab tribes. While the situation outside the Arab world invited unification, at home the Arabs as nomadic cattle breeders felt no need for it. What was also lacking was a powerful ideology to justify aggression as the only unifying force. Such force appeared in the shape of Allah and Muhammad as His Apostle.
This is another confirmation of the maxim that lessons from history are never learned. They cannot be learned because geopolitical realities do not change: there is still a superpower, even if a different and the only one. This has created another foreign policy problem for the United States: its too ardent support for dictatorships in the Muslim world and outside it. These regimes are busy suppressing religious opposition movements many of which are regarded in the West (or in the narrow circle of experts) as modern and progressive. This pushes the movements to the extremes and violence. The United States has for a long time been supporting the leaders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan despite the fact that little has changed in their treatment of the radical religious opposition since Soviet times. This support became even stronger in the wake of 11 September because these states agreed to American military presence in the region. As a result the terrorist organization Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the party Hizb ut-Tahrir stepped up their activities and are partly blaming the United States for the local political troubles.
This confirms the above thesis that inevitably there is ignorance of the deep-rooted causes of the current developments and the trend to concentrate on tangible results. Sometimes our instincts are much wiser than reason—they can detect the hidden meaning of deep and seemingly invisible processes. Tangible results serve as indicators of these processes and help identify them. After that reason raises their meaning from the level of subconscious to the level of conscious. What was going on in the depth of historical processes can be described as following: as a result of the historical circumstances in which Islam emerged as a powerful ideology rooted in warfare the religion was gradually developing into a unified and omnipresent system that regulates nearly all spheres of life.
In this context I am mostly interested in the political aspect of Islam as well as in its role as a life-forming factor in the natural environment of the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. The environment is conducive to collectivism: the community can survive only if its members demonstrate unity and solidarity. However this is next to impossible in the situation when nomadic cattle breeders are scattered among oases, therefore an ideological component (and the political superstructure that stands on it) usurps certain functions of the economic basis, thus becoming very important. Ideology becomes ultima ratio of life by dominating all and everything, thus creating a policy-centrist (or idea-centrist) society. People are organized into a centralized and despotic political system in which individual social activity belongs to the context of the social activity of the masses. In other words, Islam establishes strictly imperative norms of social activity while nearly ignoring personal relationships. This explains why Muslim law—fikh—pays little attention to civil law. Since the individual means next to nothing in this system there can be no personal responsibility for deeds mainly because the system has deprived man of the right to private property. (This is especially true of the early period of Islam that the Salafi radicals are striving to revive.)
Man is deprived of responsibility. God as represented by the ulema, experts in fikh, does all decision-making for people. The ulema are answerable to God alone. Their responsibilities are clearly outlined in a hadith: “If he who is to pass judgment has done that and performed Ijtihad and hit the aim he is doubly rewarded by God. If he who is to pass judgment has done that and performed Ijtihad and erred he is simply rewarded by God.”3 Can there be responsibility if errors are also rewarded?
No wonder that this social-religious system stated from the very beginning that the faithful members of the Ummah were not guilty before God because the ulema say so. Then why was the outside world imperfect? Why is the true faith pestered with calamities? Probably because there were too many unfaithful around whose very presence insults and subjugates the world. If this is true the faithful had to launch a jihad against them to bring them to the true faith. Therefore Islam recognizes neither geographic nor ethnic borders. Geography is reduced to the simplest notions: “the land of the faithful” and the “land of the unfaithful.” Depending on historical circumstances the context of the terms changes while the meaning remains the same. Early Islam looked at Byzantium and Iran that professed Zoroastrianism as the “land of the unfaithful” while today…
The world of Islam populated by 1.2 billion of followers is living through a very complicated process of transformation to which globalization has added more problems. When Arabic nationalism, socialism, and other ideologies failed Islamic fundamentalism came to the fore as a major social and political ideal and a political practice pattern. It is believed that the Islamist movement relies on the jobless, young, and disenchanted Muslims. It should be said that the intellectuals who head the movement cannot agree on interpretations of the Islamic ideological provisions, jihad in the first place. The liberal Muslim leaders believe that it means internal struggle that each individual had to wage and the main instrument of spiritual perfection. In real life this individualistic and, in fact, Western, interpretation perfectly fits the interests of the pro-Western Arabic regimes and the West yet contradicts the Salafi or radical-Islamist interpretation of jihad based solely on the Koran and authentic hadiths of the Prophet, that is, on the Shari‘a.
This probably creates a false impression that the Islamic radicals are pushed to the backyard of the Islamic world and are socially marginalized. In fact, this is not rue: indeed, where do numerous terrorist organizations find new conscripts? Obviously, not among the liberal leaders whose number is negligible and who do not share the extremist ideas. This brings us back to the problem discussed above: lack of economic prerequisites for the Islamic civilization’s historical development caused by the very specific natural and geographical phenomena. The Middle East countries are poor not because of faulty economic policy or the notorious American presence on their territories but because nature offered them no choice. The economy of even the richest among the poor countries of the region (Saudi Arabia is the best example) as well as their infrastructure totally depend on oil exports. Stability and their continued pro-Western orientation likewise hinge on oil. The West needs steady oil deliveries: it exploits the inevitably one-sided local economies rather than interferes with their development as is wrongly believed by certain anti-Western people in the Third World. Indeed, can one interfere with something that does not exist?
This creates a deep social abyss that separates the minority steeped in luxury and the destitute majority deprived of elementary rights, members of which replenish the ranks of terrorists. In fact, the rich minority that demonstrates its loyalty to the West is the main donor and abettor of the terrorists whom it is expected to fight. The minority is the product of the same system that gets the money not from production activity of any sort but from exploitation (even if involuntary) of the national wealth. American presence is its only (though not firm) guarantee that is crumbling under the burden of unpopularity of the propertied classes. These have no choice but to fund terrorists so that to preserve the last remnants of their legitimacy and (this is the main task) to prevent the West from acquiring alternative sources of oil.
Americans will lose interest in the Middle East as soon as its oil reserves are exhausted which will inevitably happen sooner or later. The region will promptly slide back into its pre-Islamic past while its oil-related infrastructures will as promptly collapse. Strife between the tribes will flare up and everything will drop back into its rut. It will be at that time that a new prophet, messiah, or “mahdi” will appear to call the tribes to re-unite … against the outside world. In other words, the events will take the course that the present so-called pro-Western corrupt regimes are trying to follow. However this will take a form of an upsurge. Nobody will be able to channel the events away from the worse of all possible courses: the idea of messianism and of purifying the faith that is called fundamentalism has a long and rich tradition in Islam. Abd al-Wahhab whose name has “become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations” who based his doctrine on the religious dogmas of Hanbalism (one of the Sunni madhabs) is one of the most pertinent examples. He was especially intolerant of all novelties (bid’a), which over time stuck to orthodox Islam and were brought in by conquerors of all hues (mainly Turkic-Mongolian) who fought and won in Muslim countries. Islam “dissolved” in the pagan rites of the ruling nomadic elite, and at the same time, revived its own pre-Islamic beliefs that it had never squeezed out completely.4
Today, the West once more oblivious of the deep-rooted civilizational logic is pushing toward the alternative sources of energy in the Caspian. Can one be sure that the Central Asian regimes will not follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia? The pipeline will feed the upper crust: petrodollars will be hardly used to develop the local economies for the reasons obvious on the Arabian Peninsula. True, the natural conditions there are different yet on the whole they are nothing more than a variant of the natural environment typical of continental East. Today, it is being mercilessly destroyed. The only thing that Western values and technologies will bring to the region is a much greater pressure on the environment. The region’s monocultural economy that depends on cotton exports and will depend on oil if the Caspian projects are realized will speed up environmental decline with a zero economic effect. Fundamentalism will inevitably raise its head especially in close proximity to Afghanistan where the Taliban is sticking to the guns despite the seemingly impressive successes of the antiterrorist coalition (read: American) troops. Here is the latest available to me information from the battlefield: “In November 2002 the U.S. and allied units supported by air force continued their operations designed to locate and destroy Taliban detachments, foreign mercenaries and groups of al-Qa‘eda fighters in the provinces of Kunar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Khost, Paktika, Zabol, Oruzgan, and Kandahar. In the latter half of November 30 military from the U.S. special operation detachments were killed in Paktia. During an operation designed to locate and destroy fighters from a Pashtoon detachment of field commander Jardan Americans were ambushed and 15 of them were killed. At the same time, an American helicopter with 15 military on board was downed with fire from earth. Earlier 16 military were killed in subversive operations in other provinces of Afghanistan.
“Later, in the east of the country American military detachments were suddenly attacked in the village of Shegel, between Jelalabad and Asadabad. Not less that 40 of them were either killed or wounded by the barrage of fire from automatic weapons and rocket launchers.”5
It seems that U.S. policies in the Middle and Near East and the Caspian will be burdened with grave problems. Those experts who say that Islam will rid itself of extremism and will move into the radiant future sound like inveterate optimists. One can hardly believe those who insist that Islam leaves aside the state institutions that are unaffected by religious influences while the state at all times has been separated from Islam. There is also an opinion that many liberal politicians, academics, and students doubt the conservative traditions of Islamic fundamentalism…
One has to say that those who speak about Islam’s “secular nature” are misled by the fact that historically the secular and religious power (Caliphate and Imamate) has been concentrated in the hands of one man. Secular power prevails over religious yet as distinct from Christian Orthodoxy (that is close to Islam typologically yet differs from it in its form of subordination of religious power to secular) and still more from western Christianity Islam does not delegate the divine powers to the clergy. There is no clergy in Islam in the classical meaning of the word: the ulema are not priests but rather legal experts. The caliph is the only rightful representative of God and His shadow on Earth (zill allah fi-l-ard). In this way power is undivided and concentrated in the hands of one person. This has nothing to do with the secular nature of power: secular and religious power is one and the same thing and one of them by default implies the other. There is no sense in a legitimate and hierarchically arranged power structure: power of the caliph is legitimate because it stems from Allah and allows no alternatives. I doubt the statement about liberal politicians, academics, and students referred to above: bin Laden is an educated man while the word “Talib” means “a student.”
One should not rely on the economic politics that serves the present day and is passed for a long-term and well-substantiated policy. The hope that the “pipeline” will create an infrastructure, boost economy, and bring lasting stability in an unstable region is unfounded. Smoldering fire will inevitably become a large-scale conflagration especially if petrol is added to it. One can agree that alternative sources of oil should be sought for and obtained. The question is: who will protect them and how? Today, the earth is burning under them. Who will protect the ruling Central Asian regimes while Saudi Arabia, the most loyal of allies, raises justified doubts in American minds and forces the United States to look for alternative routes? Haven’t the U.S. learned a lesson from the Iranian revolution? This should not be taken to mean that those who supported the authoritarian regime of the Shah were right. (It should be added that the Americans have not yet recovered from the 1979 syndrome.)
In fact, both variants (with and without the Shah) failed because the Americans were scrutinizing the problem through cultural stereotypes of their own. They preferred to ignore that Iran was an Oriental country in which a revolution revived the past rather than brought the future closer, therefore power would have fallen into the hands of any force (provided it was not democratic something which certain American forces expected). Hence a quite understandable opposition inside the Nixon Administration between the hawks headed by Brzezinski who expressed the interests of oil monopolies and the State Department hostile to the Shah regime. It was the State Department that cherished an illusion about a democratic revolution: it seems that it overestimated the role played by the national bourgeoisie and the liberal-democratic movement united with the Shi‘a clergy and wishing to bring in democratic changes and economic development and preserve their ties with Western capitals.
The Iranian bourgeoisie is too weak and scanty, it has no power and will never have it no matter who heads the country: there are no socioeconomic prerequisites for its greater role. This means that any change of power—on personal or social level—will inevitably take the form of change of despots otherwise the country will face chaos, disturbances, and disorder.6
This totally applies to many other countries of the East (here I have in mind part of Eurasia that includes Russia but not the most developed maritime areas of China, Southeast Asia and Japan). America did not understand it at that time and has not yet grasped this. Therefore the Americans are doomed to repeat their mistakes when dealing with the Muslim world due to its civilizational specifics. Fundamentalism can be opposed solely by unreserved force no matter how cynical this may sound. This is temporal and unreliable medicine: extremism can be neither contained nor uprooted. Globalization adds problems by turning Islamic fundamentalism into a dangerous and inevitable worldwide factor of latent or open destabilization (depending on the region).
Here is another pertinent historical example: Christianization of the Roman Empire. The empire itself was a sign of globalization on the regional scale. At first Christianity was spreading as a religion of the lower social groups and gradually climbed up to conquer the elite. Different social groups embraced the new religion for different reasons: the lower social groups, for social reasons while the upper classes, because of spiritual discomfort created by the crumbling moral principles. In search of new milestones part of the Roman nobility embraced new values and were prepared to share the lot of the poorest and the destitute. Today, we are witnessing a similar process on the worldwide scale. Due to its specific features, Islamic fundamentalism will be planted with fire and sword rather than with preaching: it sprang into existence due to a war and can survive only amid warfare. The form of fundamentalist expansion will differ from that of the early ages of Islam. Depending on the region expansion will be more or less obvious. In the developed countries it will go hand in hand with the Muslim population’s growth. Muslims will be the least protected and socially vulnerable part of society responsive to all radical influences.
In the United States it is Afro-Americans that are exposed to Islamic influences: Islam is the second largest religion there. The number of followers will increase because of a tendency toward many children in Muslim families. Over time, the trend will turn into a menace. This will add urgency to racial problems that the American society has not yet completely overcome and create an additional danger of terrorism (the so-called Black Muslims are a pertinent example).
In the other regions of the world Islam will exert mounting and increasingly more aggressive pressure that will end if not in wars then in increased terrorist activities. Naturally enough this fight will be mainly guerilla warfare because of an obviously asymmetric strength of the sides. Even in this context the U.S. will have to spend a lot of material resources and sacrifice many lives—this has been amply testified by the protracted operation in Afghanistan. This confrontation will go on for many decades and any American success will be temporal and local: I have written above that the use of force just patches over the problem instead of getting rid of it. American military might has no rivals, which creates an illusion (seemingly well-substantiated) about a possibility of Pax Americana entertained by the most conservative and idealistically minded circles.
Let’s look back: What was Pax Romana? It was incessant fighting, a war that was dragging on rather than real peace. There is no such thing as “real peace:” the relatively quite periods of human history are better described as “an absence of war” or as “a cold war” (the term we are all used to). From time to time cold war develops into a hot war. This is an axiom for the great powers. In its time the Roman Empire failed to strike root in its outlaying areas: as time went on it was becoming increasingly harder to keep them within the empire. They all detached themselves from the mother country. Still, Rome preserved its role of a global Mediterranean empire for five centuries. Today technological progress speeds up events: America as a world power in the true sense of the word will survive … for how long?
1 For more detail, see: Bulleten Tsentra issledovaniy i analiza vneshnei politiki pri MID Gruzii, No. 9 (54).
2 S.P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Touchstone Books, New York, 1998, p. 110.
3 A. Ignatenko, “Endogenous Radicalism in Islam,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 2, 2000, p. 126.
4 See: I. Dobaev, "Radical Wahhabism as an Extremist Religious-Political Ideology," Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 4 (16), 2002, p. 130.
5 Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 6 December, 2002.
6 See: N. Bolkvadze, Rol’ SShA v Islamskoi revoliutsii v Irane, Tbilisi, 2002.