By Haroon Moghul
7 January 2014
We went to war with Iraq, we were told, to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists. In the last week, following Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s typically botched response to (peaceful) Sunni protests, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) entered Anbar province in force, seizing much of Fallujah and nearby cities. A good thing there were no weapons of mass destruction, or else the terrorists might have had them by now.
And they would probably use them against fellow Arabs and Muslims. In al-Qaeda’s conceptual universe, there are two enemies, “near” and “far.” The tyrants—as Bin Laden and his acolytes perceive—who rule domestically fall into the former category, and those who empower them from abroad into the latter.
Who the target was on September 11th, 2001, is clear enough. But when Zarqawi launched his al-Qaeda affiliate, he attacked Shia Muslims, possibly on the argument they would be empowered by an American order.
The move was so monumentally stupid that even Bin Laden, who clearly had little strategic intelligence—unless he’d wanted his Afghan safe haven to be destroyed—protested. To no avail.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current head of ISIS—whose real affiliation to al-Qaeda extends little further than sharing a flag which is, ironically enough, literally only black or white—has continued the same. At first blush, one might wonder why. What, after all, is the value in seizing several Iraqi cities, which will bring down the Shia-dominated state on its head and revive Iraqi Sunni opposition?
But if there is a calculation, it may well be this: the Shia-dominated government will overreach. (It usually does.) Turn the conflict sectarian and you accelerate the implosion of the very states on which a rickety Middle East has been established. Too many of which are ineffective, ultimately ungovernable (in which I include Israel) or too ineffective to prevent the collapse of neighbouring states, if they are not actively encouraging as much. Even the United States, as was pointed out in Jeremy Scahill’s indispensable Dirty Wars, was a great insurgent force, good at overthrowing governments—but bad at establishing new ones.
What Comes After Is The More Delicate Question.
Remarkably enough, Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda (inadvertently) accomplished one of its objectives—exhausting the American superpower. While that had more to do with the elite that bankrupted the United States and the subsequent death of the middle class (plus blackmailing us to bail them out), we should not be distracted from the scale of this shift.
Allies No Longer
Up until quite recently, most of the Middle East and North Africa was officially allied to America. Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, the GCC, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan were all at least officially in league with America. Even Libya was coming in from the cold.
The picture today has changed and, pardon the adverb, radically so. Are America and Saudi Arabia allies? Is Egypt still a key part of the United States’ vision for the Middle East? What about Turkey? And Pakistan? Those regimes allied in support of an American-order and those whose identities depend on opposition to it find themselves facing a brave new world.
Just as an object in motion continues in motion, a government in power continues in power. But it is only a matter of time before the picture changes. This time, though, no one’s sitting around a table drawing new borders.
The London Review of Books features an excellent review of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, a history of the First World War. Historian Thomas Laqueuer describes an assassination of an Austrian archduke so tragicomically inept that, as he put it, of the ‘seven young men’ involved, ‘none of them today would make it in al-Qaeda.’ But one, Gavrilo Princip, accomplished their goal: an irredentist’s vision of Serbian nationalism, raised on grievances against the Ottoman Caliphate which inadvertently launched an epic war, and thereafter another, and then a Cold War. At Princip’s grave, too, we may rest the Middle East such as we knew it.
The New Arab Nationalism
There is a remarkable passage in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science; though, as the German philosopher put it, God is “dead,” he leaves it to “the madman” to point out that we are his murderers. Today that madman’s role is appropriately enough played by al-Qaeda’s kind. Sykes-Picot is dead, but they’ve not—as some have alleged—killed it. Maybe they have just arrived in time to mutilate the corpse. And so ends the Middle East’s long twentieth century which began when the British and French used Arab nationalism to conquer much of the Arab world.
So much so that the flag for Arab nationalism is, in an anecdote that might summarize the Middle East’s tragic twentieth century, a colonial design.
And ending with the failure of direct American intervention in the region.
For what else can that war in Iraq be judged?
If we look to prior examples, we know ISIL’s gains will be reversed. But by who matters more—namely, an Iraqi government experienced as deeply corrupt and strongly sectarian—the Kurds have made it clear they are on their way out—and violent.
It does not have the moral force to present a meaningful alternative to al-Qaeda. This is Bashar’s argument, incidentally: ‘Wouldn’t you rather I killed you instead of al-Qaeda?’
Forget, for a moment, the past. Consider the future. Who has the moral authority to challenge the likes of tyranny, Islamist or secular divide? Who has the vision to dream of bringing the region’s peoples together, instead of apart?
The shorter answer is, we can expect many more Fallujahs. God help us.
Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Centre 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.