Thursday, June 23, 2005

"Muslim Minds" and "Arab Minds" in Iraq

Gilles Kepel has characterized the current global conflict between liberal democracy and Islamic extremism as the War for Muslim Minds. There is merit to this notion, in that the political appeal of an ideology like that of Al Qaeda's is broadest in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan where Islam forms the common bond between people divided among myriad ethnic and linguistic groups. However, within Iraq, the nation that has, for the US, become the central focus of the "war on terror," Islam is not the principal cultural force impeding efforts at nation-building.

Many of the forces that observers in the US and Europe associate reflexively with Islam- extreme patriarchy, clannishness, xenophobia- are not pan-Islamic phenomena. One must remember, in viewing the Islamic world, that 2/3 of the world's Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia. Indonesia holds the largest Muslim community on earth, India the second largest. Islam is a world religion as ecumenical in its appeal and various in its manifestations as Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism. Anyone who insists that Islam inexorably precludes participation in an open, tolerant, liberal democracy has much to explain in places like India, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Though much of the resistance in Iraq is being led under the banner of Islamic extremism, the cultural forces most corrosive to nation-building are not rooted in Islam but in the historic traditions of Arab society, traditions that date to pre-Islamic times. Family, clan, and tribe are profoundly powerful institutions that have structured life- individual and social, personal and political- for millenia in the Arab world. The operative principles of these institutions are diametrically opposed to concepts of personal liberty, individual independence, feminism, freedom of expression, or rule of law. As I noted in a previous post, the resilience and potency of these social forms is lucidly attested by the political career of Saddam Hussein. Only they can explain how Iraqi Ba'athism, a pan-Arabist movement that originally accomodated individuals as disparate as Saddam (son of a Sunni herdsman) and Iyad Allawi (son of a Shi'ite merchant), could degenerate into a narrow oligarchy controlled by Saddam and his Tikriti kin.

It must be stressed that the power of family, clan and tribe in Arabic society is in no way a moral indictment of Arabic society or culture. These institutions only became as important as they are because they functioned very successfully for many centuries in bringing order, harmony, and purpose to Arab life. All societies have cherished institutions rendered dysfunctional by the evolving economic, technological, and political conditions of the world at large. That being said, it must also be acknowledged that at present Arab society is in desperate need of reform, as the majority of Arab cultural and intellectual leaders are aware.

How then, is this reform to come? If the experience of other societies is any gauge, it must come and it shall come internally. The success of the Coalition mission in Iraq depends on overcoming regressive forces in Arab society, but unfortunately the presence of Coalition soldiers in Iraq has only made these forces more militant. Family, clan and tribe are most adapted to and resourceful in dealing with external threats, in the presence of a perceived external threat their hold on people's minds and allegiance will deepen and strengthen. This does not mean that social reform is impossible in Iraq, it only means that it must await the departure of Coalition forces. If a new constitutional government can be formed and survive the departure of Coalition troops, it might serve as the catalyst of social and political liberalization. As long as Coalition forces remain in Iraq, however, the forces of reform and reaction will remain locked in stalemated homeostasis.

If military intervention can not aid the cause of Arabic social reform, one must then ask if the US and other liberal democracies can play no part in such a process. Fareed Zakaria has an excellent piece in this week's Newsweek in which he observes that change comes fastest in those countries with which the US remains conscientiously engaged (e.g. Vietnam, China, Eastern Europe) and is stalled in those countries toward which we have adopted a policy of "regime change" (e.g. Cuba, Iran, North Korea). From this perspective, the US can best serve the cause of Arabic social reform through economic and cultural engagement with the Arab world, by committing to those forms of trade and cultural exchange that will further material and intellectual enrichment and will expand economic, social, and political opportunities throughout the Arab world.

This might seem like an excuse for inaction, but it is not. One of the most conscientious forms of engagement toward which the US could and must commit is the reduction of our consumption of oil. Family, clan and tribal dominance has enabled Arab oil wealth of to fall, with the aid of the US and Europe, under the control of a narrow oligarchy that keeps the price of oil artificially low. The breakage of that economic-political link would destroy one of the principal stopgaps to reform, and would pave the way toward genuine economic and social diversification and political liberalization in the Arab world.

19 comments:

Kate Marie said...

I'm tired and commenting on the fly, Madman, so forgive me for not fleshing my questions out more . . .

You seem, in your first passage, to be suggesting that Al Qaeda is a stand-in for Islam -- that Al Qaeda ideology is appealing in Afghanistan and Pakistan because Islam is appealing in those places. Aren't you making a lot of assumptions here -- about Al Qaeda as a proxy for Islam and about the reasons why Pakistanis or Afghanis find it appealing? Moreover, aren't extreme patriarchy and xenophobia characteristic of Al Qaeda? So is that aspect of Al Qaeda ideology appealing because it is associated with Islam or because it is "rooted in the historic traditions of Arab society?" I don't know whether I'm convinced that the distinctions you want to make (between the appeal of Islam/Al Qaeda and the appeal of Arab traditions of family, clan, etc.) are as neat as you want to make them.

As for the article you mention, is there a link? Don't know whether Newsweek has online access . . . but when, for instance, does Zakaria date the beginning of our "conscientious engagement" with Eastern Europe? I guess I'd like to know what he considers "change," how he defines "faster," and how he establishes the causal link between American "engagement" and change.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

Al Qaeda is no stand in for Islam, but Al Qaeda is engaged in a "war for Muslim minds." Al Qaeda's appeal to Islam is no more more definitive of Islam than, say, Branch Davidianism is definitive of Christianity. However, that appeal does allow Al Qaeda to reach out to constituencies excluded by the ideological precepts of a group like the Ba'ath Party (for example). Although Al Qaeda's leadership is largely Arab, they express profoundly anti-Arab nationalist ideas, like a nostalgia for the last caliphate which saw Arabs subordinated to the Ottoman Turks. The seriousness of that commitment to a universal Muslim brotherhood blind to ethnic distinctions boosts Al Qaeda's political appeal in places like Pakistan, where ethnic identity is a constant source of intra-communal strife. This is in contrast to a place like Lebanon or Syria (and to a lesser extent Iraq), where Arab ethnicity is a singular unifying factor among people divided by sectarian conflict.

Yes, Al Qaeda's version of Islam is extremely patriarchal and xenophobic (in the sense of anti-Western). But one can point to Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and other groups of which the same can be said. My point was merely that a commitment to Islam does not PRECLUDE a community from embracing principles of tolerance, openness, and liberalism any more than a commitment to any other faith. This is as true in Iraq as it is in India or Malaysia- Islamic faith is not an impediment to nation-building in Iraq. If Islam really were the "problem" in Iraq it should have been fixed by now, as Saddam's Ba'ath party adheres to a radically secular ideology and prosecuted its secularist agenda very aggressively for decades.

You are certainly right that "neat" distinctions between "Arab" traditions and "Islamic" ones are unrealistic, as people always find sanction for the social practices with which they live within the faith they practice. My point was merely that a)many of the particular forces opposing nation-builders in Iraq are unique to Arab society, they are not found in other Islamic communities; b)changing these aspects of Iraqi society does not in any way necessitate an abandonment of Islam, nor does it hang upon an attack upon the Islamic faith.

As for the Zakaria article, I'll let you take your objections up with him. Luddite that I am, I don't know how to link to his article. Here is the URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8272764/site/newsweek/.

Kate Marie said...

"My point was merely that a)many of the particular forces opposing nation-builders in Iraq are unique to Arab society, they are not found in other Islamic communities; b)changing these aspects of Iraqi society does not in any way necessitate an abandonment of Islam, nor does it hang upon an attack upon the Islamic faith."

-- Of course, but I guess my question is who exactly are you arguing against? Is there someone in the Bush administration, for instance, who seeks to hang the nation-building project on an attack against Islam?

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

The Bush administration has treated the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism and the effort to socially reform the Arab world as one struggle since the 9/11 attacks. I would insist that they are distinct, and that it was a major strategic error to conflate them. The "war for the Muslim mind" is a multifaceted struggle requiring diplomatic, cultural, military and economic efforts in many arenas. The struggle to reform Arab society is a long-term process upon which the US has very limited influence an in which US military intervention can play little or no part. The invasion of Iraq has a)given Islamic extremism new influence, political capital, and global resources in a nation where it was only minimally active, if at all; b)placed the US military at odds with the reactionary forces within Iraqi Arab society itself, thus the safety of our soldiers depends upon a reform which their very presence impedes.

Kate Marie said...

"The Bush administration has treated the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism and the effort to socially reform the Arab world as one struggle since the 9/11 attacks."

-- What's your evidence for this? And those struggles may be distinct, but they are certainly intertwined. Do you mean to suggest that the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism has no effect on/connection with the struggle to reform the Arab world?

And your previous statement suggested that the U.S. believes that changing aspects of Iraqi society that are unique to Arab culture "hangs upon an atack upon the Muslim faith" -- that's a bit different from suggesting that the U.S. sees the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism and the struggle to reform the Arab world as the same struggle.

Madman of Chu said...

Kate Marie,

As for evidence that the Bush administration fails to make key distinctions between the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism and the effort to reform Arab society, I believe one could make a lengthy catalogue of quotes linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda and conflating the invasion of Iraq with the "war on terror." Iraq was not, prior to the Coalition invasion, a haven for or important supporter of Islamic fundamentalism. Even now that Al Qaeda and its surrogates have become standard bearers of the insurgency Islamic fundamentalism is not, I would contend (this is one of the main points of my post, though perhaps I didn't convey it clearly) the chief opponent to nation-building in Iraq. The systemic problem that fueled both Saddam's rise and the current insurgency are one and the same- the deep-seeded, pre-Islamic regressive social forces and institutions that militate against nationhood and democracy in Iraq. Success in Iraq depends upon successful reform in that arena, not in the defeat of Islamic fundamentalism.

As to Islamic fundamentalism and Arabic social reform being linked, I disagree. At least, I do not think that they operate in tandem as you seem to believe. If anything, Islamic extremism draws much more fuel from entrenched Arab social norms than it gives in return. If Islamic fundamentalism disappeared tomorrow all of the work of social reform would still need doing, whereas if Arab society changed overnight Islamic fundamentalism would be crippled as a political force.

I don't know that anyone in the US believes that change in Iraq requires "an attack on the Muslim faith"- those words were chosen poorly for giving such an impression. I am persuaded that many in the US, both among the Bush administration and its critics, feel that Islam is part of (if not a main source of) the problem in Iraq, and I would contend that this is a sore misreading of the cultural forces at work in Iraq.

Kate Marie said...

Dear Madman,

Do you think that regressive social forces could have been reformed in Iraq while Saddam and his sons (or some other Baathist dictator) were still in power? I think you're right to portray Islamic fundamentalism and Saddam's Baathist dictatorship as essentially rivals, but I would argue that where either "system" holds sway in a country, true reform cannot happen unless the system itself is dismantled. The Bush administration, I think, understands this; they wanted to "hurry" the reform process. You may disagree with their actions or with their potential for success, but I think they undertook the mission in Iraq precisely because they understood the importance of reforming the regressive social forces of Arab culture and not because they considered Islam in general to be the main problem.

I do think you're doing a little conflating of your own, though, by implying that a desire to defeat Al Qaeda and its surrogates is tantamount to a belief that Islam is "part of (if not the main source of) the problem in Iraq."

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

The cause of Arab social reform stands no better chance under Coalition occupation than it did under Saddam Hussein. It will have to await the ten or more years it will take for the insurgency to be defeated, thus if the intention of the Bush administration was to speed Arab social reform it has had dubious results.

I never implied that a desire to defeat Al Qaeda and its surrogates is tantamount to a belief that Islam is part of the problem. Rather, a failure to fully and immediately actualize potential assets among the Shi'ite and Sunni clergy in Iraq is indicative of this attitude. The Bush regime badly mismanaged its relationship with the Shi'ite clergy and allowed wrangling over the status of Islam to stall the drafting of a provisional constitution. Allowing Islamic clergy a freer hand in the political process early on might have stolen the fire from extremists like Zarqawi and al-Sadr.

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