The Islamic Vortex (Part 1)
When confronted by large-scale — and thus complex – historical events, it is inevitable that attempts at understanding will be dominated by analogy. Even among experts, with access to abstract models of generic processes (‘revolution’, modernization, escalation, phase-change …), it is only through reference to concrete historical episodes that such intellectual tools acquire the richness necessary for successful application to actual world events. Even the most conceptually-refined historiographical language is honed for analogical usage. There is no ‘idea’ of ‘revolution’ truly separable from the examples of revolution provided by the historical record, and even if there was, it could have no use. Since history is rhythmic, but never exactly repetitive, such analogies can be more or less relevant, but only ever roughly suggestive. They are, in any case, unavoidable.
During the years immediately following 9/11, Western perceptions of the new global reality were controlled by analogy with World War II, and even those who rejected this template were locked into a negative relationship with it. If 9/11 was not Pearl Harbor, or anything like it, it remained necessary to say so, repeatedly, and to little immediate effect. The term ‘Islamofascism’ was inherited from this period, and its fading currency is significant (as we shall see).
On the Left, resistance to the WWII analogy was relatively frictionless, because it was already, from the moment of its inception, outweighed by an alternative analogy, drawn from Cold War ‘anti-imperialist’ revolution. Bin Laden could never be a new Hitler, to those who had already recognized him as a new Ho Chi Minh. On the Right, however, intricate ironies abounded. Those on the paleo-libertarian end of the political spectrum, who most vehemently denounced the ‘Axis of Evil’ as a cynical fabrication, were propelled by events into an accelerated rediscovery of the Old Right, and thus found themselves – quite self-consciously — reviving 1930s American isolationism. Through the very rejection of the (WWII) analogy, they found themselves confirming its rough historical message.
Is the West returning to the 1930s? That is another topic, although it can be noted that evidence in support of this analogy has accumulated over recent years at least as rapidly as it has dissipated. To the extent that the ‘War on Terror’ is World War II revisited, however, it is only under the conditions of a profound counter-factual revision, in which the American Old Right was ultimately triumphant, and vindicated. The Islamic world simply lacks the military capability to serve as model fascists, posing a robust existential threat that feeds continuous escalation. America has not remotely approached a 1940s war economy in the new millennium, and there is nothing that any Islamic power — formal or informal — can do to stimulate this outcome. A few ragged, frustrating counter-insurgencies do not make a world war. For America, the War on Terror — in any sense that has analogical force — is over.
The opportunity thus exists to shelve the Western perspective on international affairs, a methodical step that tracks the concrete draw-down of interventionist commitment, and one that — by further irony — promises a far deeper comprehension of what current global events will mean for the West (down the road). The critical first point is this: the end of the ‘War on Terror’ is not the end of the war wracking the world of Islam, but something far closer to its beginning. If the Arabs, too, are returning to the 1930s, it is in a very different way, in accordance with a far more comprehensive structure of history.
Anybody who has been hanging out in Al Jazeera recently (and, right now, there’s no excuse not to), might have come across an extremely significant essay by Murtaza Hussain, entitled Iraq, Syria, and the death of the modern Middle East. Hussain has no doubts that a back-to-the-1930s moment is unfolding in Mesopotamia, or rather — the truly crucial insight — a back through the 1920s moment, with reverse time signature. The Middle East is not so much recapitulating history from the early 20th century, as undoing it, revisiting the origins of the Arab state system on a hardening, backwards trajectory:
The Sykes-Picot Agreement – which divided the Ottoman Empire after World War I and created the Middle East as we know it – is today violently breaking apart in front of the eyes of the world. The countries of Syria and Iraq; formerly unified Arab states formed after the defeat of their former Ottoman rulers, exist today only in name. In their place what appears most likely to come into existence – after the bloodshed subsides – are small, ethnically and religiously homogenous statelets: weak and easily manipulated, where their progenitors at their peaks were robustly independent powers.
Such states, divided upon sectarian lines, would be politically pliable, isolated and enfeebled, and thus utterly incapable of offering a meaningful defence against foreign interventionism in the region. Given the implications for the Middle East, where overt foreign aggression has been a consistent theme for decades, there is reason to believe that this state of affairs has been consciously engineered.
Hussain’s conviction of alien manipulation — however plausible or implausible it may seem — is itself a crucial part of the equation. The Arab world is being propelled backwards, out of political modernity, by forces of such consistent directionality and monumental implacability that they suggest conspiratorial or providential workings, against which resistance is futile. Raw history, in all of its nightmarish, occult compulsion, is exposed like a buried city, as the facile myths of collective, institutionalized agency are blasted away by the flood. A dismal century of second-hand lies is being ripped away, revealing something old and terrible beneath. Eventually, this cannot but matter, for everyone.
The World War II analogy was tightly bound to the (‘neoconservative’) project of democracy promotion. After all, the original Axis powers were all transformed, through military defeat, occupation, and political reconstruction, from fascist states into model democracies. Hussain’s vision is far more accurately applicable to the current process-in-motion, which does not climax in an affirmation of political modernity, but accelerates back through its comprehensive demolition. Global democracy will not easily or rapidly die in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’, but global democratization, or democracy promotion, assuredly will.
From the War on Terror to the Arab Spring, there is a shift in analogy of seismic consequence. It is no longer World War II that impinges forcefully on historical intuition, but rather the Thirty Years’ War, approached through momentous regression. The collapse of the Sykes-Picot order, when analogized, is an undoing of the Peace of Westphalia — and the international state system — by sectarian religious warfare without respect for borders or institutions of national self-determination. The conditions for democratizing social progress are being ripped out at the level of their foundations. This was not what ‘internationalism’ was supposed to mean …