By Omer Taspinar
March 13, 2019
Drom Donald Trump’s alarmist speech in 2017
in Poland, where he declared “every last inch of Western civilization is worth
defending with your life,” to his more recent fear-mongering about “Middle
Easterners” hiding in the Latin American caravan and who were about to “invade”
the United States, one thing is constant in the US president’s worldview: the
specter of radical Islam on the march, ready to take over the West.
Trump, of course, is not alone in
exploiting this paranoia. In Europe, populist anti-immigration parties
constantly beat the drum of Islamisation. Witness France, Germany, Britain, the
Netherlands and Belgium, where large Muslim minorities reside. But even Poland
and Hungary, with hardly any Muslim immigration to speak of, appear deeply
worried about a looming invasion.
It is easy to blame anti-immigration
politics and racism for the rise of Islamophobia. Yet the problem cannot be
reduced to populist politics. The Western intelligentsia is as much to blame.
Since the end of the Cold War, the tendency to overstate Islam has become
intellectually fashionable, thanks in great measure to Samuel Huntington, who
warned about a rapidly approaching “clash of civilizations.”
Unfortunately, the late Harvard professor’s
outlook proved prescient. His gloomy prediction turned into self-fulfilling
prophecy after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “Jihad” and
“crusade” emerged in the popular lexicon as the US reacted to the attacks by
invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, in the eyes of large majorities in the
West, Islam not only represents an existential security threat, but also an
apparently insurmountable obstacle to freedom, democracy, secularism and gender
equality – in short, to all progressive values associated with modernity.
And as if 9/11 was not enough to fuel a
civilisational clash, the global financial crisis of 2008 exacerbated identity
politics. Times of economic hardship hasten the search for scapegoats. The
prolonged recession empowered xenophobic, anti-immigration political parties by
unleashing a backlash against the pro-globalization establishment. This rising
trend of angry nationalism in the West made Islam, multiculturalism,
immigration and refugees easy targets. Political parties that campaigned
against Muslim immigration are now in power in Austria, Italy, Poland and
Hungary, and they define the contours of public debate in Britain, France and
Unfortunately, the Arab uprisings of 2011
failed to change the image of Islam. Arguably, they made things worse. In Egypt
the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood swept into power, before a military coup
removed it. Bloody civil wars in Libya, Yemen and Syria, coupled with the rise
of ISIS, contributed to an already dismal Western perception of Islam.
The result has been to reinforce the
tendency in the West to look at the Middle East through the prism of religion.
From Turkey’s transformation under Recep Tayyip Erdogan to what has been called
the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict, the focus invariably is on Islam, at the
expense of almost all other economic and political drivers of conflict. And the
verdict this delivers is ominous: Islam is not compatible with democracy,
secularism, modernity and many other progressive achievements. Islam also is
perceived as an autocratic, intolerant, violent and belligerent religion.
Sadly, such sweeping generalizations seldom
are seen as the superficial assertions based on a false sense of religious and
cultural determinism that they are. Instead, they pass for incisive political
diagnosis and find increasingly receptive audiences after each terrorist
attack. These dynamics exacerbate the Western obsession with Islam and create
increased polarization and mutual frustration between Muslims – who resent the
demonization of their faith – and Western audiences – who demand higher levels
of self-criticism and introspection in the Islamic world.
Is there a way out? One important thing the
West can do to improve its understanding of the Middle East is to dig deeper
into problems beyond their Islamic façade.
From Turkey to ISIS, most of the disturbing
developments in the region have political drivers that are in fact similar to
challenges faced by the West. Yet despite the rise of nationalism in the US and
Europe, the West strangely is oblivious to the rise of nationalism and
socioeconomic issues in the Middle East. For in fact, the rise of nationalism
and the collapse of governance are much more powerful drivers of conflict in
the Middle East than Islam.
Take the Sunni-Shiite sectarian wars, for
instance. Instead of an ancient Islamic rivalry rooted in theology, the
sectarianized conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon are products of a
geo-strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The conflict primarily
is about competing Arab versus Persian nationalism, not religion. And it is
taking place most destructively in failed and failing states where governance
has collapsed or is badly compromised.
Similar dynamics apply to ISIS. This
barbaric aberration did not emerge because some Sunnis suddenly decided to
embrace an apocalyptic vision of theology. Yet most tomes on ISIS in Western
bookstores claim precisely that.
Instead, one would profit more by paying
attention to the obvious: ISIS was born in parts of Syria and Iraq where state
institutions had collapsed, and where Sunni religious nationalism emerged
against Shiites perceived as agents of Iran. The further fact that former
Baathist officers – of secular political background – established the military
backbone of the organization speaks volumes.
Autocracy, radicalism and sectarianism in
the Middle East are mostly to do with plain old politics and institutional
failure. So if the West really wants to understand the region, a new political
slogan might help focus the mind: It’s nationalism and failed governance,
stupid. It’s not Islam.
This article was provided to Asia Times
by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.