Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Rise of Islamism

Political Islam (or Islamism, if you prefer) was a severely constrained ideology prior to World War II. What kept it from rising was the presence of the great empires. The Ottomans ruled Turkey and much of the Middle East in their mostly benevolent, albeit decadent, fashion. The British and the French empires divided Islamic North Africa (along with the rest of that continent), and the Dutch ruled the Indies (what became Indonesia). The Brits also ruled India, and even made one of history's ill-fated attempts to rule Afghanistan. Back in Europe, the Habsburgs kept Islam from spreading West, having checked the Turks at Vienna's gates back in 1453, and fighting numerous skirmishes since.

At the close of World War I, the Habsburg's Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and a number of independent states formed from it. The Ottoman Empire was likewise broken up and divided between the British and French. Then came the devastation of World War II. Japan had overrun the Indies, separating them from Dutch control for long years, while Holland's occupation by Germany had left her unable rise again as a world colonial power. Britain and France both stood in shambles, so it was not long before their empires were broken up from sheer inability to hold them together. Independence came quickly for a number of Middle Eastern states and also for India, which was divided and became Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. (The Brits had, of course, long since given up on Afghanistan).

Independence naturally brought chaos, and in much of the formerly colonized world, autocracies. And the central problem for any dictator is how to retain his hold on power. Since he is a tyrant, there is no end to the plots to overthrow him or to the legitimate reasons for doing so. Yet no dictator wants to end up the next Ceausescu. If they have to lose power, the Gorbachev gambit is much to be preferred. But the goal, of course, is not to lose power at all, since the outcome once that happens isn't exactly guaranteed.

But where to find legitimacy when you came to power illegitimately? Fortunately for many of these men, their own (at least nominal) faith, provides a tool which comes readily to hand. That is, the teachings of the Koran don't point a person merely toward moral improvement or the growth of one's individual relationship with God; it teaches that good Muslims should seek the spread of Islam over the entire world, by any means necessary, so that all the world will live in submission to Allah. Moreover, the Koran provides within its text the laws necessary for the establishment of the global theocratic state which is its goal. These things gave the otherwise illegitimate tyrant something like the ancient idea of divine right: They were rulers according to the will of Allah, given power so that submission to Allah might spread worldwide.

Most of these men probably had little or no desire to actually carry out these grand plans. They knew it was the 3rd World equivalent of Moynihan's "boob bait for bubbas," and besides, the infidels provided money (through oil) that provided access to all their favorite sins of the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life.

That changed with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots. Suddenly, there were men who took seriously the bits about dying in glorious martydom, fighting jihad against the infidel, re-establishing the Caliphate (theocratic rule by successors of Muhammed), and spreading Islam worldwide, by violence if necessary. These men were a threat. Their violence could lead to revolution and the Ceausescu ending the dictators most want to avoid. But the rulers had a card to play-plenty of money. So they played it, giving just enough funding to their wild-eyed brethren to keep them focused on the infidels, but not so much that they lost plausible deniability with the West and provoked a real retaliation thereby.

This is pretty much the situation as it stands today. But it seems unlikely to me that this situation will persist in the long-term. Instead, I think we are faced with one of three possible alternative futures:
  1. The Islamists are utterly defeated, and political Islam goes quiet.
  2. An Islamic reformation takes place, changing the nature of Islamic belief, such that violence is discredited.
  3. Islamists overthrow governments, and political Islam spreads.
I don't think all of these are likely futures, merely possible. But I'll explore each of these options in posts to come. Stay tuned...

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