Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Yesterday I finished reading "The Crisis of Islam" by Bernard Lewis. While I recommend a lot of books, I don't make the recommendations lightly, and that is especially true for this book. "Crisis of Islam" reads and feels like the best history and context for understanding the actions of Usama bin Laden (or as we know him, Osama), and the conflict he sees with the west. The book is a scant 169 pages, and it goes quickly, which is why I'm inclined to recommend it over every other book of the sort a person can find. This is a book that can be read, read easily, and will have a profound effect on a person's understanding of the War on Terror. (This makes sense, given that the book is assigned reading for the "War on Terror" class I'm taking). The book, again, is great history.

The problem I have with it is that the book is poor political science, and it tries to be. In fact, the book was drawn in part from articles in Foreign Affairs (my favorite source of international relations political science), and the book was written with the intent of influencing major policy decisions. Checking the wikipedia on Bernard Lewis, it was kind of startling to read that he was one of the major intellectuals arguing in favor of the United States invasion of Iraq. The book itself doesn't overtly advocate the actions wikipedia attributes to Lewis's influence. But it's implied, and it's a strong undertone in the last chapter.

The book was written and published before the United States invaded Iraq. Lewis' plan, as it can be inferred, was for an externally imposed democracy to become a catalyst for more genuine democratic movements in the middle east, which would lead to prosperity, stability, and a positive outlet for moderate Islam to regain control of the debate from radical extremes. This is, as you've probably reasoned, absurd.

The logic behind it states that Islam, as nation-religion, no longer has adversaries to play off against each other. The rest of the West is out, Russia is out, and the United States stands as the only civilization opposing the glorious spread of Muhammad's nation and religion. Bernard Lewis does such a good job explaining the desire for the global religion-state as the objective of radical Islam, and he does such a good job showing the current regimes in the middle east as failed custodians of the faith and successors to the Caliph, that he can't figure out how a nativist movement could be anything but violently radical. In Lewis' view, the only hope for democracy in the middle east (excepting Turkey and Israel) is an external catalyst.

This contradicts his own understanding of the importance of nativism to the nation-religion of Islam. The importance of bin-Laden and the threat that he represents is based on and enhanced by his success in driving Russia out of Afghanistan. Khomeini and al-Sadr both can be pointed to as having had meaningful action against the corrupt and the foreign, and without the legitimacy of the act they would be fringe elements. That Khomeini's state became more oppressive than the one it succeeded is a grave flaw, but the quasi-democracy it operates, the poor economic fortunes of many Iranians, the concentration of poor economic prospects in the younger half of a nation where the media age is 26, and the fading memory of revolution all provide the opportunity for a nativist change in government, and a move away from oppressive and radical Islam. The state bin-Laden supported has been reduced to the margins, and with luck will remain there. Meanwhile, a variety of ethnic parties have filled the void left by a religious government, and this too bodes well for nativst change. Perhaps the devolution of the state of Afghanistan, but certainly a trend towards nativist rule over outsider radicals.

And then we have Iraq. Iraq is my major sore point with Lewis, and it baffles me how he can write that history and assume an imposed democracy will work. The way Lewis sees it, the United States needs to just maintain a presence, outlast the terrorists, and it can claim victory. He points to the fact that the PLO repeatedly engaged in terrorist activity but never had Isreal give in as a sign of success, and treats the largely one-sided negotiations between Israel and Palestine as a positive sign. The trick, Lewis seems to be saying, is for the US to master brinkmanship - we stay right on the edge, we keep our opposition there, and we don't blink. If we can hold out, prove by our existence their futility, they will be forced to adopt other means, and the whole crisis of radical Islam will be over. This actually justifies making the Iraq the battleground for the war on terror, as it is an overt desire to create an actual battlefield on which terrorism can lose.

It's a bold statement, but it's fundamentally stupid. In all his reading of history, and in his undertanding of bin Laden's reading of history, Lewis makes the astute observation that the terrorists are motivated by percieved marks against the dignity of the nation-religion of Islam. Specific grievances cited are the crusades (which are much more of an after-the-fact grievance), the breakdown and destruction of the Ottoman empire, and US support for corrupt and weak leaders in the middle east. Again, the grievances are: 1- an invasion by infidels, 2-the destruction of an important and powerful muslim state, and 3-the support of government that otherwise shouldn't exist. Having made this claim, I cannot understand how he thinks the overthrow of the government of Iraq by the US with the express purpose of putting in place a new government is a good idea. That is two of the above indignities, and close to the third (Iraq was, in name, secular, but it has a muslim population and is a historic center of muslim government).

The problem with the crisis is that it is too big an issue to be tackled by one solution. Catalysts are nice, and sometimes essential, but that are very hard to create from the outside. And I think that is the fundamental frustration that Lewis is unable to address. The United States has suffered from terrorism, and the destruction of the United States is the stated objective of radical Islam. The United States, as the most power country in the world, should be able to do something about it. The wars is Iraq and Afghanistan were moves to do something about it. But the problem is that they don't work, and the thing that is absolutely terrifying about this conflcit is that the United States is powerless here. To end radical Islam, moderate Islam has to make real gains at home. That will require the end of oil money and the end of US interest in backing corrupt governments that provide oil, and then it will require American non-interference in the potentially revolutionary or democratizing moves that follow. The United States must let native movements take place, and let self-determination and human dignity be affirmed by these movements of their own will, even in the shape of religious parties or states. Without dignity, the terrorists will continue. With human dignity restored, with governments responsive to the needs of the populace (or at the very least vulnerable to the populace), then and only then will we have outlasted the War on Terror.

But we've created a battlefield on which it is impossible for us to win. Brinkmanship won the Cold War, but that was against a nation. The Nation of Islam that bin-Laden wants to establish doesn't exist in a present form, and as a transient quantity, it can't be destroyed. As an ideology, and as an ideology with at 1400 year legacy, it can be outlasted. That's an impossibility, and even turing Iraq into an accelerator of the movement, the lighting of match to burn out the gas leak, will not help. The problem cannot be changed in that way, and our continued actions only breed contempt.

We need to find a solution other than this impossibility.

Edit 9/12/2008: It's well worth mentioning that Lewis is very orientalist in his perspective, and that he sees most of the past two centuries of development in the Muslim world as adapted or inspired by Western ideals. That said, the history is still good, and he even counters his own emphasis on the West by repeatedly referring to the necessity and importance of nativist trends.

1 comment:

Christine Robinson said...

Thanks for the tip. I'll be reading it!