The West is losing its battle with Islam
In the late 20th and early 21st century the concept of “the clash of civilizations” advanced in 1993 by Prof. Samuel Huntington, an American scholar, became one of the most broadly and emotionally discussed ideas in political and academic circles in the West and East.
Huntington maintained that in the 21st century the main line of conflict will run between the West and Islam, and later between the West and the rest of the world. The Western media launched a large-scale propaganda campaign to support this theory by attempting to prove that all problems in the modern world are rooted primarily in “militant Islam,” because this religion “projects violence and terror” by its very nature and goals.
Books, articles and all kinds of documents were published to “educate the public” on this issue. They were meant to prove that the core of the problem resides in “the pathological incompatibility of Islam with modern society and democracy.” Many scholars and politicians resisted this campaign by explaining the theoretical and practical inadequacy of Huntington’s doctrine. However, the professor deserves credit for drawing the public’s attention to the complex relationship between civilizations, both throughout history and at the current stage.
Many events in various parts of the world, including the East and the West, speak to the deep rift between civilizations. One of the most dramatic examples of this confrontation is the horrible tragedy in Norway last summer when, driven by the self-imposed nightmare of “Islamic onslaught,” a citizen of this prosperous and tranquil country killed 77 and wounded more than a hundred of his compatriots.
After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the United States launched wars against two Islamic states, drawing in other Western countries in its wake. This Afghan campaign is a real record-breaker, in terms of its duration (10 years), the number of troops involved (150,000) and their equipment.
Officially, it was proclaimed a struggle against terrorism, primarily al-Qaeda, which had been blamed for the attack on the Twin Towers and other places on 9/11. Recently the Al-Ahram weekly called this war an “Afghan tragedy.” What was the result?
Even according to the obviously underrated UN data, more than 11,000 civilians have died in the last five years of the war alone. After several years of hunting bin Laden, a powerful task force of U.S. Marines located and killed this feeble 60 year-old who had been dubbed “terrorist number one.” Al-Qaeda is far from being defeated, and it is even strengthening its positions in Yemen and Northern Africa.
Meanwhile, the Taliban not only continues to control Afghanistan’s vast provinces, making inroads and staging acts of terror in its central regions and even Kabul - it is even expanding their zone of operation. This movement has been dubbed a “shadow government,” that is waiting for its time to come. Moreover, it is increasingly winning the sympathies of the local population. Many analysts believe the recent events show that the United States and its NATO allies are losing the war against the Taliban. Now the United States has announced its intention to pull out its troops by December 2014.
The destiny of Iraq is looking increasingly tragic as a result of Washington’s “vigorous action” to install democratic rule in that country. The eight year campaign on the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where ancient civilizations had prospered in the past, took a toll of almost one million lives. Some four million Iraqis were forced to leave their homes. The country has been ruined and routed. It is going through endless rounds of ethnic and religious strife and its exhausted people have become demoralized.
Over the last few months, Washington has tried hard to convince the Iraqi authorities to agree to an extension that would allow tens of thousands of U.S. troops to remain after the withdrawal scheduled for December 31, 2011, but they rejected this idea out of hand. Some American officials are still saying that “the mission in Iraq was useful,” though the Obama administration fully understands that this futile mission has only served to damage U.S. prestige.
The war has brought about unprecedented tragedy to the people of ancient Mesopotamia, it has brought the country to the brink of disintegration, hugely impeded its development and buoyed up Islamic radicals. One obvious result is the aggravation of Islamic armed extremism and violence in Iraq and beyond.
In his commentary on November 1, 2011 prominent American political scientist Immanuel Wallerstein noted that “the withdrawal marks the culmination of the U.S. defeat in Iraq.” He believes it is likely to lead to substantial consolidation of the pro-Iranian political forces and even their rise to power. The political tensions that have escalated in Iraq following the U.S. troop withdrawal serve to confirm his prediction.
Finally, the result of the Western military campaign in Libya can only be described as a Pyrrhic Victory (This is effectively the West’s third war against the Islamic world in the last few years). The Tunisian and subsequent Egyptian revolutions dealt a heavy blow to the West's influence in the Middle East. Le Monde diplomatique wrote that NATO’s actions in Libya have become an attempt to exact revenge for the downfall of the pro-Western regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali. The situation in that country, which is tempting to the West for its oil and other natural resources, its strategic position and access to African wealth, continues to be highly volatile and vague. It is fraught with internal strife, instability and even a rift. The group that has been propelled to power by NATO’s military-political support has no clear vision on how to establish new government agencies and institutions in a country that consists of different traditional forces and tribes but that has no parties, trade unions or public organizations. Importantly, a major faction of armed rebels consisted of members of the Islamist organizations that had been banned during Muammar Gaddafi’s rule. Now they are openly threatening to overthrow the current Libyan leaders. The situation in Libya may lead to a host of serious problems for some Western countries, as the Tripoli government is increasingly emphasizing its intention to construct life in Libya based on the laws of Shariah.
The Arab spring of 2011 marked the beginning of a new era in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Political analysts describe it as an era of political Islam. It is telling that the Islamic party al-Nahda won a convincing victory in Tunisia’s democratic elections, which passed off peacefully.
The first stage of parliamentary elections in Egypt took place in late November. It demonstrated a new course of development in the Middle East and an entirely new phase of conflict in the region. Cairo made it clear that after the parliamentary elections it may change its position on the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.
The long period in which Arab-Israeli dealings were determined solely by the United States and the West is coming to a close. Regional powers, such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are moving to the fore. Washington, in trying to be the only broker in Arab-Israeli dealings, has driven the process of finding a peaceful settlement in the Middle East into a blind alley. Western Europe is split on the issue of the Israelis and Palestinians, and cannot play the role of a fair mediator. Meanwhile, King Abdullah II of Jordan recently said that the Arab Spring spells “serious trouble” for Israel.
These events are taking place against a troublesome background: tensions in the relations between the United States and Pakistan, the world’s largest Islamic power, the Berlin and Paris's intention not to allow Turkey to join the European Union and the consolidation of right-wing anti-immigrant parties in Western Europe. Israel’s recent sinister threats to Iran are escalating tensions even further.
The upsurge of political Islam in the Middle East and South-West Asia marks the beginning of a new chapter in the confrontation between the West and the Muslim world. Even moderate Islamists are mistrustful of Western powers. Indicatively, in one of his first statements, the new Tunisian President Monsef Marzouki, who described himself as a “secular dissident,” said that “the French fall victim to common misconceptions about Islam and are often among those who understand the Arab world least.”
International events during the last decade confirm that the use of force, threats, sanctions and blackmail not only fails to produce the desired effect, but acts as a boomerang.
The changes in today’s world are swift. Globalization and new communication technology are making our planet more interconnected and mutually vulnerable – events in one part of the world are instantly reflected in the alignment of forces in the other. It is clear that objective prerequisites are being created for the renaissance of the Islamic world and that the West’s opportunities to influence the course of history are winding down.
On the whole, the upsurge of political Islam will seriously affect the Central Asian republics and Russia.
We must always bear in mind the global aspect of the current deep changes in the Arab world, because they exert a direct influence on social protests in the Mediterranean and the rest of the world. It is no accident that there are posters in Manhattan urging demonstrators to turn Wall Street into Tahrir Square.
All these events threaten to further complicate relations between the West and the Muslim world. In these conditions, Russia's role is growing. For historical and geographical reasons, Russia has always served as a link between civilizations in the East and the West and between Europe and Asia. There is reason to believe that the importance of this role will become greater and greater.
Veniamin Popov is director of the Center for the Partnership of Civilizations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO)
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.