America’s Middle East Delusions
by MARK SILVERBERG
July 31, 2012
When Samuel Huntington wrote his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, politicians considered it to be off the wall - that is, until a beautiful Tuesday morning in New York City on September 11, 2001. Today, it appears they have still not learned its lessons.
We in the West know what we desire, so we project that desire onto others who come from an entirely different culture and mindset - and to make matters worse, we develop policies based on these delusionary paradigms. That's what we've done vis-à-vis the Arab world, and especially the so-called "Arab Spring" that has revitalized pan-Islamism with the ultimate goal of restoring the caliphate.
As products of the European Renaissance, we assumed that the vast majority of the Arab world wanted liberal democracy and all the many freedoms that derive from it - freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, gender equality, and the like. The reality however is quite different. As Martin Peretz notes in The New Republic: "Countries that have no satisfying process of systematic mediation turn out to be tyrannies". Claude Moniquet an expert in the field of regional conflicts and terrorism and the director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, in a recently published book the Arab Spring, an Unhealthy Spring went further: "... democracy must include respect for the rights of women, youth, labor, and the right to freedom of expression. When that is all there, you can proceed to the election process. To do the opposite is like building a house from the roof down." That is, quite simply, you can't build a democracy without a foundation.
Western leaders should not have been surprised when the Arab Spring turned out to be an Arab Winter. It was always a fantasy that secular politics would triumph in the Arab world. That's because elections, for better or for worse, are determined by demographics and in Egypt, the demographics and popular thinking were clear long before its parliamentary and presidential elections. Either we just weren't listening or, we were blind to the ramifications.
Take, for example, two Gallup polls conducted in Egypt back in 2008 and again in 2010 that determined that 95% of Egyptians wanted Islam to have greater influence in politics and 64% wanted Islamic Sharia law to be the basis for legislation. A Pew Study in 2010 found that 54% supported the separation of men and women in public places; 82% supported the stoning of adulterers, 84% endorsed the death penalty for apostates who leave Islam and 77% said thieves should be flogged or have their hands cut off. And according to a World Public Opinion (WPO) poll, 75% favored investing a body of "senior religious scholars" with "the power to overturn laws when it believes they are contrary to the Quran."
It is attitudes such as these that have now delivered Egypt into the arms of Islam, or, more specifically, into the arms of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who, in the space of a few years, will begin introducing Sharia into the daily lives of almost 90 million Egyptians.
A fundamental aspect of the Muslim Brotherhood's philosophy speaks of restoring its ancient Islamic Caliphate most notably in Southern Spain, but the irony is that it can't possibly do so without opening Egyptian society to new ideas and fostering an Islamic Renaissance - something both the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist supporters are ideologically and religiously opposed to and fundamentally incapable of doing in any event.
To understand why, it's important to consider Islamic history and how the Arab world got to where it is today. From the 8th to the 11th century, while Europe was wallowing in feudalism and the Dark Ages, Islamic Spain (or Al-Andalus as it was then called) became an intellectual haven for medieval European scholars. In Andalusian Spain, Islamic scholars, in their quest for knowledge, and with the support of their caliphs translated the philosophical and mathematical works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Many Jews and Christians held government positions. Andalusian society encouraged the study of architecture, geometry, astronomy, mechanical and hydraulic engineering, algebra, alchemy (or chemistry), botany, medicine, philosophy, poetry, and the sciences, and its leaders emphasized the importance of learning, literacy, tolerance, critical thought and scientific advancement. Even the great Jewish scholar Maimonides studied in Andalusian Spain.
The great cities of Andalusia - Cordoba and Toledo - had miles of well-lit streets, public baths, hospitals, research institutions, and hundreds of public libraries containing millions of books. Aspiring European scholars studied at the feet of Islamic scholars and returned to Europe with wagon loads of Andalusian translations and books, established universities, built libraries, and in so doing, laid the early foundations for the European Renaissance.
But by the 11th century, the last Umayyad Caliphate in Andalusia began fragmenting and Islamic leaders became less tolerant of criticism, diversity, innovation and non-Muslim minorities, especially the Jews - believing that any form of independent thought was politically dangerous to their rule. What followed were nine centuries of Arab intellectual and political decline. As the Renaissance took root in Europe, it left the Arab world far behind - so much so that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, there was not one printing press to be found in the entire country.
Between the humiliations resulting from the Mongol invasion in 1258 and the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of British and French colonialism in the 20th century, Islamic religious leaders began looking to the Koran to explain the reasons for Arab defeats and humiliations. Salafists like Ibn Tamiya in the 13th century and Abdul al-Wahhab (after whom the term "Wahhabism" was coined) in the 18th century argued that the only way to restore the former grandeur of the Islamic world was NOT through a Western-oriented Islamic Renaissance that would foster modernization and an intellectual re-awakening in the Arab world but the exact opposite - a return to "pure and unadulterated Islam", devoid of discourse and debate, as practiced by Mohammad and his followers in the 7th century.
Based on this interpretation of Islamic law, Hassan al-Banna (a devout admirer of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, an avowed anti-Semite, and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) argued in the late 1920s that the humiliation suffered by the Arabs throughout the centuries was Allah's way of punishing them for deviating from his original unaltered instructions as passed to Mohammad and his followers in the 7th century - "deviations and innovations" that allowed Andalusian society to achieve its Golden Age.
The tragedy is that this interpretation of Islam is now consuming the Arab world. Today, millions of Arabs believe, as a matter of faith, that Sharia law, empowered by Arab petro-dollars, blessed by Allah, promoted by jihad, and encouraged by the perception of Western weakness given Western retreats from Afghanistan and Iraq will lead them back to global respect and prosperity, regional hegemony, and their lost great Caliphate. That is what they believe....and that is why 75% of Egyptians voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and their more extremist Salafist allies in the recent June parliamentary election.
For Islamists like Mohammed Morsi, Islam is not just a religion; it is a comprehensive system that must govern all financial, judicial, social, familial, political, military, educational and even hygienic activity. It is not, as many Western leaders believe, just for prayer and worship. Morsi however is also pragmatic and politically savvy enough not to overplay his hand at this time due to Egypt's need for a massive infusion of foreign currency. But change is coming. Although the Muslim Brotherhood's extremist and violent nature has been toned down, their claims and actions which appear to adhere to democratic principles are merely tactical and a way for them to obtain real power.
In the end, Islam will be a requirement for citizenship and for holding public office; non-Muslims, as second-class citizens, will be required to pay the jizya - a protection tax revived from the medieval period; legal and other social restrictions will be imposed on the right of non-Muslims (most notably Coptic Christians) to worship and a literal interpretation of mandatory, non-negotiable Sharia law will govern all aspects of Arab society especially education and the judiciary.
We had an inkling of what was to come during the recent presidential elections when Al Ahram reported that "the Muslim Brotherhood blockaded entire streets; prevented Copts, at gunpoint, from voting and threatened Christian families not to let their children go out and vote" for the secular candidate. In Arabic, Islam means "submission", and the Muslim Brotherhood fully intends to demand it from their subjects irrespective of Western delusions to the contrary.
Nevertheless, this did not stop James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence from telling a Congressional hearing last year that the U.S. had little to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood as it was essentially "moderate and largely secular". In short, we must "partner" with them as we would with any political party. After all, they are innately non-violent. Thus, so the reasoning goes, if we accommodate them politically (i.e., accede to their calls for incremental acceptance of Sharia), they will work with us in good faith and dissuade their followers from becoming extremists. Under this delusional view, the Muslim Brotherhood is not an ideological enemy to be feared, but a political organization to be negotiated with and accommodated.
Excuse me? Isn't this is the same Muslim Brotherhood that gave birth to al-Qaeda, Hamas, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and whose motto has not changed in 84 years - a motto that states clearly and equivocally: "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope"?
Contrary to the views held in the West, these are not just a set of spiritual guidelines. Are we to believe that extremism is now a form of kindness? Isn't this the same Muslim Brotherhood whose founder Hassan al Banna said: "It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not be dominated, to impose its law on all nations, and to extend its power to the entire planet".
Truth be told, the West has invested heavily in the delusion that Islamic extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood can be moderated. The Arab Spring, the Palestinian "Peace Process", and every similar Western bid to transform the region presumed that powerlessness was the cause of Arab violence and that, conversely, empowerment would be the solution. Empower these Islamists, we are told, and they will be our friends. Give them weapons, control over a country, a ballot box, free and open elections, and billions of dollars, and they'll be less inclined to blow themselves up while seeking 72 virgins on the Paradise Express.
But dropping this Western delusion appears to be out of the question. So we'll write bigger checks, send them advanced weapons, and continue to pursue our delusions. Unfortunately, the equation that "Radical Islamists + Power + Money + Weapons = Peace" has proven to be a global disaster. And yet, it's easier to let denial carry us forward until, five years from now, as Daniel Greenfield writes: "We'll find our State Department explaining why al-Qaeda ruling Libya is actually a good thing for everyone". That's because delusions die hard.
"Hope for change" is not a policy, and certainly not a policy that ought to be pursued by the world's last remaining superpower. There is no logical or historical precedent for empowering and funding Islamic extremists based on the hope of achieving moderation, peace and freedom.
The short of it is this - those who predicted that the Arab uprisings would bring on a new, friendly, multicultural, democratic Islam, and an age of secularism, freedom and an end to the violence between Islam and the West were wrong. When this Administration and the European Union supported "democracy" in the Arab world, what they were really supporting was the transition from secular autocracies to Islamic theocracies - neither of which enacted or will enact the liberal democratic reforms the West naively thought would result from the Arab Spring. One man, one vote, one time will be the most likely result.
Sharia law, as the Egyptians will soon discover, is incapable of resolving the vast economic problems that plague their society. Today, millions of Egyptians are forced to live in cardboard boxes, trash bins, and cemeteries in rundown cities and slums - and most of these impoverished millions voted for Morsi in the expectation that Sharia law would solve their enormous economic, social and political problems.
But Egypt's foreign reserves will be exhausted within a year; it desperately needs IMF loans; the tourism industry that produced billions of dollars in annual revenue and hundreds of thousands of jobs is gone as are its foreign investments and bankers; the country is on the verge of financial collapse, and even flour, which provides sustenance to 90 million Egyptians, is being imported from the West. Some $20 billion of GDP evaporated last year in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, in addition to more than $35 billion in public finances, according to International Monetary Fund data. These are not problems that Sharia law alone is capable of resolving.
So, when you take into account rampant illiteracy, political oppression, ancient tribal hatreds and rivalries, a lack of truly democratic institutions or processes, a controlled media, the absence of political and religious freedom, poverty on a scale Westerners can't imagine, and Sharia law as the basis of its restrictive educational systems, and add to this a history of humiliation and defeats, and a culture of victimhood that blames the West, and Israel, Zionists and Jews (who, for all intents and purposes are treated as a single entity) as the source of their misfortune - the prognosis for peace or the evolution of truly democratic institutions in the Arab world are highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.
When these millions of impoverished Arab supporters of the Brotherhood come to realize that they have been betrayed again, it will be the treachery of the West and especially the Jews, the Zionists and Israel that will be blamed by the Muslim Brotherhood because that is the nature of the regimes this culture produces.
And into this culture enters a U.S. Administration that believes it can make deals with Islamist extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood and the messianic, apocalyptic Islamists who control Iran. And, the New York Times, and every other major Western media outlet except (perhaps) The Wall Street Journal, continues to believe that regimes such as these can be bought off and moderated.
This Administration fails to understand that the reason its overtures to the Arab/Persian world have failed so miserably over the past many years is simply because you can't moderate or appease regimes such as these. Our enemies have lost any respect they may have had for the West and no longer fear any consequences for pursuing their jihad against us, especially since we are currently pursuing a policy in the Arab world that pretends these Islamists are really our friends, should be accommodated, and can be moderated once in power.
There is no historical precedent for this belief. If anything, the opposite is the case. The Ba'athist regime in Syria remains autocratic and barbaric after a half-century in power; Iran with its Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Hezbollah proxy has become the world's largest exporter of global terrorism; Hamas (the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) remains a terrorist organization ensconced in Gaza; and although the PLO and Fatah signed the Oslo Accords after one-third of a century of terrorism, they have failed to fulfill any of their commitments in those Accords. While the movement's tactics have changed, its basic doctrine and long-term strategy have not - the destruction of Israel and the subjugation of its people to Sharia.
And as for education, Islamist movements in power tend to educate their children on the virtues of being "martyrs for Allah", the dishonor inherent in any compromise, and the glories of jihad or holy war.
While the U.S. government has been claiming that its "outstretched hand approach" to Hamas, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood will win it new friends in the Middle East, the polls and the Arab Spring suggest otherwise. According to a July 2011 Zogby International Poll that surveyed Arab opinion on U.S. foreign policy the Middle East in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, Washington is now less popular in major Arab countries than it was when George W. Bush was in the White House.
And why is that? Because in the Arab/Persian world, U.S. efforts to seek a compromise merely enhance the perception of U.S. weakness, undermine its effectiveness as a global power, and draw contempt and derision from those whom it seeks to accommodate. From the Arab/Persian perspective, compromise is abhorrent. It is an admission of weakness, constitutes cowardice and dishonor, and would undermine their legitimacy to rule.
The Iranian Quandry
So trying to dissuade the Islamic rulers of Iran from their nuclear quest is not only pointless, but dangerous. Contrary to what U.S. State Department officials say, the Iranian mullahs are not rational actors who will eventually find it in their best economic interests to give up their nuclear program. For the Iranians, security and ideological concerns far and away exceed economic ones.
First, from a security perspective, they know full well that if Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khaddafi had retained their nuclear arsenals, neither country would have been invaded by the Western powers.
Second, from its inception in 1979, the Islamic regime has based its existence on three fundamental principles - spreading Islam through jihad, belief in Islam's divinely-ordained victory, and the struggle against U.S. imperialism - each of which is essential for maintaining their power, credibility, and their legitimacy to rule, and none of which are subject to compromise. Against this, economic sacrifices mean nothing. If anything, the economic hardships caused by global sanctions will permit the mullahs to justify crushing any Iranian dissent violently as they did during the Green Revolution in 2009-2010.
But the quest to achieve a nuclear weapon and a nuclear umbrella under which to expand their power throughout the Middle East and beyond will go on regardless. This is the same Islamic regime that, in 1988, sent thousands of Iranian children scurrying through Iraqi minefields with little yellow plastic keys to Paradise wrapped around their necks. Iran is not playing chess, no matter how much the U.S. and the EU might wish it to be so. So no matter how intensely the West seeks to appease, accommodate or impose economic sanctions, these basic facts will not change.
In Tunisia, the Islamist al-Nahda party has already taken the reins of power. Yemen was well on its way to failed statehood and economic collapse before the Arab Spring, and virtually all indicators remain alarmingly negative. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood is working to undermine King Abdullah with the ultimate goal of turning the kingdom into an Islamist emirate. In Egypt, although the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has severely curtailed Morsi's executive prerogatives and will hold out for a time, in the end, it will also succumb as did the military in Iran under Khomeini and in Turkey under Erdogan
As Michael Widlanski noted recently in FrontPageMagazine: "Turkey, once a reliable NATO ally, is now an unreliable force, and Egypt, once a reliable friend of the U.S., will also drift away." Turkey's Islamist government has already embraced Hamas, both economically and diplomatically, imprisoned Turkish military leaders, and replaced the secular Turkish military government with an Islamic regime. And the Muslim Brotherhood is considerably more extremist than its Islamic Turkish counterpart.
Perhaps a better policy would be for the Western powers to use their diplomatic influence and condition the billions of dollars in foreign aid and military equipment they are providing to these regimes on tangible, verifiable reforms to the educational and political systems of these regimes - conditions that dovetail with our long-term democratic objectives for the region - as opposed to throwing billions into Islamist black holes and NGOs and Arab leaders' private bank accounts based on fantasies, hopes and delusions that have no realistic chance of success.
The results of the Arab Spring are going to be widespread, long-lasting and difficult if not impossible to undo. The U.S. and the Europeans were warned many times that what they were unleashing was not going to go the way of their delusional scenarios but nevertheless they continued to push for regime changes which have only caused more bloodshed and suffering and not the quick implementation of reforms and the appearance of democratic governments. Given the rising tide of resurgent Islamic extremism across the Arab world, the Western powers had best put aside their ideological mirages and recognize what should have been recognized from the start of the "Arab Spring". The more we accommodate these Islamists, the more dangerous they will become.
Mark Silverberg is a foreign policy analyst for the Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel). He is a former member of the Canadian Justice Department, a past Director of the Canadian Jewish Congress (Western Office) based in Vancouver, a member of Hadassah's National Academic Advisory Board and a Contributing Editor for Family Security Matters, Intellectual Conservative and Israel National News (Arutz Sheva). He also served as a Consultant to the Secretary General of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem during the first Palestinian intifada. His book "The Quartermasters of Terror: Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Jihad" and his articles have been archived under www. marksilverberg .com.