Are We Missing the Point in the Middle East?

Three recent provocative and thoughtful articles question the predominant Western consensus about current events in the Middle East. We need to think about the realities discussed by Davis, McCarthy, and Buchanan if we are to avoid pushing a region dominated by bad government into a much worse Hobbesian state of nature. 

1. This analysis by Douglas Davis is troubling. He argues that the West is ignoring the fact that the Arab Spring has made the serious ethnic divides between Sunni and Shia on the one hand and religious divisions between extremist Wahhabi and ultra-extremist Salafi Sunnis on the other the central considerations in the area’s politics. Western nations are looking at a situation where the choices are limited to bad and worse. 

2. The downfall of the old pan-Arab secular nationalist order has led to a severe case of what Andrew McCarthy calls “Spring Fever.” This is a disease of the mind peculiar to Western intellectuals and policymakers. The principal symptom is seeing visions of democracy in the midst of a reality of Islamic triumphalism. 

3. Pat Buchanan, in an article advising the United States to avoid intervening in Syria, raises a number of disturbing points that our politicians are not considering about the effects toppling the Assad regime will have on other regional powers. Our discourse is dominated by abstract consideration of human rights and identifying those who purportedly share our values; no one in power or likely to come to power is discussing the ethnic and religious issues raised by Buchanan. 

I am not saying that we should simply submit to the conclusions reached by these authors. I am saying that we should be thinking about the concrete facts they discuss rather than dreaming about transforming the Middle East into a democratic paradise.

  1. Crow

    Several issues to begin to address here.

    The first is that I know of no serious analyst, civilian or military, who believes that an American style constitutional democracy is going to emerge out of any state in the ME overnight. This is a strawman position to argue against.

    The second is that while rhetoric is terrribly important in political things (I’ll be the first to argue that–and you’ll note its presence in Davis’ article above if you examine the discrepancy between what Arab leaders loudly proclaim about Palestine, and the true intentions behind their rhetoric), the fact that a candidate or office holder doesn’t conduct a 1,000 year survey course in the history of a given nation every time they offer an opinion should surprise no one. Do we suppose that economists don’t shake their heads in dismay at the way economic issues get addresses–that is to say, in a completely insufficient, surface-scratching way–on the campaign trail?

    That these candidates don’t proceed in this manner is not proof that the people who do this for a living (In Defense and State) are ignorant of these difficulties.

  2. Crow

    Speaking of difficulties and facts, I am in compete agreement with anyone who argues that we cannot make policy in a vacuum or with our wishes and desires taking precedence over the actual circumstances, players, consequences, and facts.

    But I do note with mild amusement that some of us cajole others to make decisions based on the facts and then in nearly the same breath decry complexity as obfuscation. A serious disgareement on facts is almost never about whether a thing is so, but rather about the weight any particular fact is given in our calculus and in relation to other facts.

    For example, Davis’ analysis above hits several important points, though I cannot see how his observations of the spill over effects of these conflicts should result in a policy of less US engagement.

    The notion that we can force any nation, nevermind ethnicity, to be democratic and free is a farce. But so is the idea that nothing can be done to encourage that outcome. To say the very least, commerce alone is effective in softening mores, modernizing a people, and democratizing systems–though it alone will hardly solve the political-theological problem within Islam.

  3. Mel Foil

    We should stop pretending that Islam is just another religion. Islam is every bit as much a political system. The two things can’t and won’t be divorced. Wherever secular democracy has popped up in the Muslim World, it’s always done by suppressing and containing the most genuine Islamic tendencies, which are theocratic. And when religion becomes your only government, expect war to become a holy sacrament. What Islam really needs is a reformation that separates the mosque from the government.

  4. Crow

    On this point, Mel is correct above that Islam is both a religious and political system, but is incorrect to say that these two things cannot be separated. This problem has been obscurred for us in the West by the success of modernity, but if we peak outside the second cave that we’ve built for ourselves, we’ll note that all premodern religions, to a greater or lesser extent, had political consequences in just this way (a study of the emergence of national monarchy in the post-Roman Christian West might prove instructive to those looking for fascinating historical examples).

    There is no doubt that separating these two things requires modernizing and probably a reformation–but this is already underway in some areas of the Islamic world, just as it is being resisted by other elements within that same world. Will it succeed? Can we afford it if it does not? What then is to be done?

    I will not return to a previous conversation with a contributor who is not here to defend herself, though happy to re-engage on Robert’s points and that whole topic if Claire if able to join us.

  5. Ansonia

    John, will do. Thanks.

  6. Freesmith

    Very good, John.

    Correct me if I’m wrong. When Iran and Iraq engaged in an 8-year-long war in the 1980s, a conflict which caused over one million casualties, neither Ronald Reagan nor Walter Mondale advocated American intervention during their two 1984 debates.

    All that killing, all that devastation, all that turmoil – yet we ignored it.

    In fact, Henry Kissinger famously said that in that war it was too bad that both sides couldn’t lose.

    The death-obsessed and suicidal Mohammedans of the Mid-East are good at only one thing – killing each other.

    Let them enjoy themselves. We have more important things to be concerned about.

  7. Crow

    But the McCarthy piece (since I will be guilty of cherry-picking here, I should state upfront that I respect McCarthy’s work) is a good example of shallow and overly-general discussion:

    IBD:So, most of the “Arab Spring” Muslims don’t really want “democracy” as we know it, they just want the chance, through free elections, to vote in repressive Shariah law?

    McCarthy:That’s right. And it’s worth stressing that I am not so much arguing this as relating what Islam’s most significant voices themselves say.

    Is there a reason to suspect that these ‘voices’ may have conflicting loyalties, or face incentives that create discrepancies between their rhetoric and their reality (we recall Davis’s point above)? We hear much from McCarthy, and rightly so, about the exceedingly troubling actions Egypt has taken with regard to the Blind Sheik, but we hear nothing about Morsi’s rebuke to Iran while in Tehran.

    Is there any wonder that the most organized voices resisting a secular authoritarian regime that maintained power by force would seek common cause and harness religion–and that the threat of terror above them removed, would also show faultlines and divisions?

  8. Red Feline

    As an admiring observer of the United States, it sometimes concerns me to see among the leaders an idealism that is totally unrealistic. Your article is totally to the point, John. Try to see reality, not project dreams!

    Mel is so correct about Islam. I keep trying to persuade people to read the Qur’an for themselves, along with the history of Muhammad and what was going on in his life as he “channeled” the Holy Book. This backs up what Mel is saying. 

    I have met one Muslim who declared she was Reformed and moderate, when I told her of my concerns about the Holy Book of Islam. We didn’t have an opportunity to talk much more, but I presumed she meant that she had put the Qur’an into correct perspective, into the past, as most Jews and Christians do with the Holy Bible. 

    What the Middle East needs is both a Reformation of Islam, and an Enlightment along the lines of Kant. But this, too, is wishful thinking.  

  9. Robert Lux

    To something Claire Berlinski wrote: violence represents but “strains” within Islam. My only point in dredging up an old debate: Seems fixation on complexity goes hand-in-hand with the abstractions on which John puts his finger. I’m not sure if CB ever had Spring Fever, but I always thought the following was curious:  

    I smack my head each time I see [totalizing] comments [about the Islamic world]–not only because they’re lazy, but because the attitude they suggest is a disaster for the security of both the Western and the Islamic worlds. If we’re unable to see that our most powerful and committed allies in the war against the totalitarian and violent strains of Islam are liberal Muslims themselves, we’re unserious about protecting ourselves and our friends. [...] Most Muslims I meet are [...] engineers, medical school hopefuls, hard-working men and women. I am persuaded that any long period of close contact with the Islamic world would convince anyone on Ricochet that the Islamic world is quite a complicated place.

    More here.  My reply, referencing Steyn’s unforgivably “lazy” use of Freedom House’s study of Islamic societies.  

  10. John Grant
    C

    Hi Robert,

    It does seem to me that discussions of “complexity” or “nuances” are often used to obfuscate realities that should be obvious even to a casual observer.

    The Middle East is very complicated. But the complexity should not obscure the fact that there is nothing we can do to make democracy American-style flourish there.

    Robert Lux: To something Claire Berlinski wrote: violence represents but “strains” within Islam. . . .  Seems fixation on complexity goes hand-in-hand with the abstractions on which John puts his finger. . . .I always thought the following was curious:  

    I smack my head each time I see [totalizing] comments [about the Islamic world]–not only because they’relazy, but because the attitude they suggest is a disaster for the security of both the Western and the Islamic worlds. [...] Most Muslims I meet are [...] engineers, medical school hopefuls, hard-working men and women. I am persuaded that any long period of close contact with the Islamic world would convince anyone on Ricochet that the Islamic world is quite a complicated place.

    More here.  My reply, referencing Steyn’s unforgivably “lazy” use of Freedom House’s study of Islamic societies.   · 34 minutes ago

    Edited 23 minutes ago

  11. Red Feline

    The basic beliefs of Judaism  Christianity and Islam are similar. All three religions spring from the same Semitic people, living in the Middle East and Arabia. They all believe in one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They believe in forgiveness of sin. Beyond that, I suspect that the followers of Christianity and Islam really know very little about what is actually in their Holy Books. They live a life devoted to family and community, as we all do. They want nothing more than to be left alone to live their lives in peace. 

    I studied comparative religion in my youth, and read the Qur’an as part of my quest for knowledge. At that time I put it in the past, and into history, as I did with the Hebrew Bible. I could see the basic similarities between the three Semitic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    Two summers ago, I decided to reread Al Qur’an, and found it gave me nightmares. I could hear the voice of Muhammad, down through the fourteen centuries since he lived, commanding me to “fight for Allah and His Prophet.” He was speaking in the here and now. Powerful and scary!

  12. Red Feline

    Just as Christians are formed by their belief in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and Paul, so Muslims have to be formed by the writings of Muhammad, and his followers who wrote the Hadith. We know that, like Jews are taught Hebrew, Muslims are taught the Qur’an in Arabic. I suspect that they are taught parts of the Qur’an, not Sura 8, The Spoils (of War), or Sura 9, Repentence.  I’ve listened to the Qur’an recited on the Internet, following along with translation, and been surprised to find that certain exhortations are missed out. For instance, Sura 9:122, “Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that Allah is with the righteous.

    Obviously, this is what fundamentalist Muslims are taking literally. The voice of Allah, channeled by Muhammad, I found very compelling. I can only imagine how it must sound to a young person living in a closed society.

    Until Muslims can say that the Qur’an is not a Holy Book and not a living exhortation from Allah, through Muhammad, I am uncomfortable with Muslims. 

    I welcome an open discussion on this whole subject. 

  13. Anne R. Pierce
    C

    It is true that some ideologies and religions are so anti-individualistic that they predispose people to submit to authority.  Pre-existing philosophies that elevated the state and downgraded the individual made it easier for Hitler to consolidate power.

    But people are first and foremost human beings and the truth about the authorities they’ve put their faith in eventually comes out.  Arab Spring was result of people across Arab world longing for more political freedom and economic opportunity.  You can’t look at Tunisia, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and say the majority prefer repressive govt.  As I say elsewhere: Regardless of race, religion, political creed, no one wants to see their husband imprisoned, their brother tortured, their sister and mother raped, their children “disappeared.”  Given the machinations and outside influence, including our own govt which actually encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood before elections, Egypt cannot be seen as test case.  Please see my Ricochet posts on Syria and Iran.  Syrian activists were democracy advocates.  While US/UN did nothing, Assad slaughtered, tortured people, bombed towns and farms to oblivion.  Want this man to stay?  One of the worst genocidal butchers ever, and a terror sponsor, allied with Iran and Hezbollah.

  14. liberal jim

    I am missing the point in the Middle East and I have a sneaking suspicion that those claiming to have a solid understanding  of the situation are either egotists or blowing smoke.  It seems to me there is a significant portion of the population who for multiple reasons are resisting modernity.  Understanding the reasons for this resistance, let alone there relative significance seems to  me a fools task.   Limiting involvement in destructive situations that can’t be understood let alone ameliorated seems to me to be wise. 

  15. liberal jim
    Anne R. Pierce: 

    Arab Spring was result of people across Arab world longing for more political freedom and economic opportunity.  

    This is an overstatement at best.  

  16. Red Feline

    liberal jim:   “Limiting involvement in destructive situations that can’t be understood let alone ameliorated seems to me to be wise.”

    Perhaps you find it difficult to understand the situation in the Middle East, Jim, but there are others who do understand it very well, as this post and threat have shown. To sit back and let it just happen is the easy way out. To study Islam and the political situation in the Middle East takes a lot of time and hard work, but many are doing just that, along with visiting the countries involved. They can see what is best for the United States, and also what is best for the people of those countries, in the long run.

    America is still the strongest world power and does have a role to play in world politics. To “lead from behind”, is the way of the coward. America is not a nation of cowards, and in the past, and in the present, has kept peace in much of the world, just by being there. The wars that have been fought recently against al-Qaeda have achieved the goal of keeping America safe from attack.

  17. Red Feline

    Crow’s Nest: “The first is that I know of no serious analyst, civilian or military, who believes that an American style constitutional democracy is going to emerge out of any state in the ME overnight. This is a strawman position to argue against.”

    This adds to my point, liberal jim. There are many serious analysts studying the situation in the Middle East who are under no illusions. Their opinions are the ones I personally am interested in hearing.

    I prefer not to listen to all the gabble that goes on in the Main Stream Media, spouted by those who have to fill a certain space in their papers, etc., but who really don’t know what they are taking about. In my opinion, for what it is worth, these people are dangerous, and often traitorous.

  18. liberal jim
    Red Feline:liberal jim:    

    America is still the strongest world power and does have a role to play in world politics. To “lead from behind”, is the way of the coward. America is not a nation of cowards, and in the past, and in the present, has kept peace in much of the world, just by being there. The wars that have been fought recently against al-Qaeda have achieved the goal of keeping America safe from attack. · 43 minutes ago

    Iraq prior to the Bush war 1 Million Christian no Al Qaeda, Post Bush war no Christians 2,500 Al Qaeda.   I won’t mention the numbers killed in the process.  Seems to me these well inform elites who know what is best for all concerned would be able to do a slightly better job if they were only half as good as you seem to think they are.   

     I have no arguments with the original post which I think takes  somewhat of a skeptical view of the standard neo-con position

  19. Crow

    Jim: I appreciate your skepticism. We do ourselves no favors when naivety trumps clear-eyed assessment of things as they stand. Moreover, the pretense of knowledge, to borrow Hayek’s splendid formulation, is dangerous. No ‘expert’ should simply be blindly deferred to because ‘they are the expert’.

    Hwevr, when faced with these problems and uncertainties in various countries in this region, you seem to believe it is possible simply to disengage and let whatever happens take its course, and that this plan of action will have fewer (or better) consequences for our security. But to be able to make that assessment even provisionally–that is, to be able to weigh these possibilities and outcome and judge this course of action favorable–a person must surely posses that which you claim it is not possible for anyone to have: that is, a ‘solid understanding’ (in so far as that is possible in anything).

  20. John Grant
    C

    Hi Anne,

    No one wants to see their own brother etc. tortured, but unfortunately plenty of people in the region are just fine with seeing those who are not part of their tribe tortured.

    It is clear that majorities in the region prefer Islamic theocracy. Our support of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region did not cause them to win the election; they won because they are the most popular  party.

    You talk about opinion polls, I am talking about facts. The spectacularly high rate of genital mutilation in Egypt and the substantial plurality of cousin marriages tell me more about the situation there than UN polling data.

    Anne R. Pierce: . . . .But people are first and foremost human beings and the truth about the authorities they’ve put their faith in eventually comes out.  Arab Spring was result of people across Arab world longing for more political freedom and economic opportunity.  You can’t look at Tunisia, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and say the majority prefer repressive govt.  As I say elsewhere: Regardless of race, religion, political creed, no one wants to see their husband imprisoned, their brother tortured, their sister and mother raped, their children “disappeared.”   · 3 hours ago

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