I remember a cartoon of Saddam Hussein on a psychiatrist’s couch; “You’re not crazy,” the doctor reassures the visibly agitated dictator. “The whole world really is out to get you!” Except, of course, the cartoonist meant America.
First the West supported Saddam in a war that killed tens of thousands – and, yes, he used chemical weapons—and then, when we later opposed him, tens of thousands more died. With us or against us, Iraqis lost and for thirty years they have been suffering.
Nor is it Iraq alone. From drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan to an almost intervention in Syria, the history of the United States and the Muslim world isn’t always particularly pleasant. I’ve seen many Americans convinced that Islam is their hateful enemy.
But, it would surprise these same people to hear that I meet numerous Muslims, in my travels across the world, who suspect the United States is dedicated to war against them. Hatred for Muslims animates our foreign policy as much as it explains it. How do we make sense of this?
Like stealing resources from a baby
What stopped Obama from intervening in Syria wasn’t just his terribly confused foreign policy, even though it was confused and is terrible. It was instead resistance at home, British domestic resistance and Russian obstructionism too. America is less capable, and so Syria was spared a strike.
Like moths to the flame, superpowers seek out weaknesses to exploitHaroon Moghul
Notice who was a non-factor in all of this; Assad himself. There’s your answer, Assad’s Syria is a pathetically weak state. It survives because it expertly plays off local and international great powers, but it is dependent on these. He could not survive without Iran, let alone Russia.
America’s role in the Middle East is going to change, and with it the whole nonsensical narrative of a “war on Islam,” but that’s largely because the geopolitical planet is changing. The Middle East, meanwhile, struggles to find the kind of wealth and prosperity other parts of the planet are realizing.
When you combine attractive resources with ongoing instability, you get more instability, which means more susceptibility to intervention. Like moths to the flame, superpowers seek out weaknesses to exploit.
Once America controlled Indonesia's political destiny; once European powers walked all over China; today Americans are becoming as economically dependent on East Asian countries as they once were on much of the West, because those societies are stronger, and those countries are more powerful.
It’s harder to deal with them, except as equals.
The Muslim world isn’t susceptible to foreign intervention because it’s Muslim. It’s susceptible because it lacks the ability to adequately defend itself and develop itself. We can debate all day as to why that is, but we must admit to the scope of the problem first.
Unless countries develop organic social contracts, build up developed economies, offer their citizens fair opportunities and create systems of compassionate and inclusive engagement, they will be brittle. It’s not that others want to attack them, it’s more that they can.
And so they do, for politics is the art of the possible.
When countries rich in resources can’t translate potential energy into actual influence, and likewise can’t address disputes among themselves, opportunities for foreign intervention multiply. There’s always some aggrieved party that wants to be heard and is looking for a patron.
It happened before, in the Middle East no less.
Between 632 and 711, Muslim armies conquered most of the classical world. They did not have any technological advantage over their opponents, they were not advanced like America is, relative to much of the world, nor were they superior in number.
The apparently endless feuding of the reigning Byzantines and Sassanids left them exhausted; their oppressiveness left them unable to convince their subjects to risk life and limb to support imperial privilege. The early Muslims offered more just another regime for peoples long held down.
Don’t take me to mean that the same is occurring; but history tends to re-invent the same plots. The Middle East is once more divided and increasingly suspicious of each other - although culturally and socially it still has tremendous overlap.
If there’s the courage to admit that, and follow through on it, change can be made.
To describe America as simply at war with Islam is to avoid looking at the underlying conditions that produce foreign intervention, or at least enable it. The region has no equivalent to the EU, to ASEAN, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation even. Strong intergovernmental organizations only come about through strong individual governments, which require flexibility and dynamism.
Next we’ll hear the Chinese are at war with Islam, or the Indians, or whoever’s turn it is to dominate the planet, or at least a part of it.
Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today's Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul
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