By William Pfaff
Sep 24, 2013
We have today entered a new political—or politico-religious—period in which the Muslim peoples of the Middle East are seizing control of their own fortunes, a control lost as a result of the First World War and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which, with its Arab Caliphate predecessors in Crusader times, traces back to the very origin of Islam in what now is Syria, Iraq and Arabia proper.
Few in the West seem to have grasped the significance of the fact that Muslims themselves have taken over the struggle against Islamic radicalism. The West did not start the war in Syria. Until chemical weapons were used in the war, it has had no direct implication in it, and feeble indirect ones, other than to assist the victims. It is the Syrians’ war, and that of the other Arabs who have chosen to take part.
The rebellion in Syria has divided into sectarian factions: the Alawites led by President Bashar Assad; Sunni Islamists supported by Saudia Arabia and Gulf Arabs; Shiite radicals supported by Iranians and Hezbollah; Kurds; plus several Christian communities attempting to escape the fighting.
Many Western officials and individuals have since 2001 implicitly or explicitly identified the 9/11 attacks as the first blows in a global clash of Muslim and Western civilizations, a notion then in fashion among Western policymakers, picked up from the academic world and accepted by credulous Muslim intellectuals and activists as a plausible (if wrong-headed) explanation of the West’s enmity towards their society.
Clash of civilizations still is the explanation for the crisis that is believed in retrograde circles of Western governments, expediently promoted by Israel whose interests it serves, as well as by the multiplying number of would-be Muslim combat organizations (plus websites, serving audiences of rootless or uprooted Muslim emigres and converts in radicalized Western ghettos).
The war of civilizations explanation is wrong, and dangerously so. There has been a great change since 2001. The Western assault on Muslim radicals, launched by President George W. Bush with his invasion of Iraq in search of phantom Arab nuclear weapons, and American B-52 bombardments followed by unending war in Afghanistan, and those programs of illegal and immoral assassinations which have followed under the direction of Barack Obama, and a Pentagon now reorganized and geared to global action against Islamic radicalism—all of these have thus far met an unbroken series of military defeats or political frustrations or ‘blowback.’ And yet they are being extended, and the American army now is spinning a web of intervention and violence in Africa.
These policies have instead set in action a powerful series of new movements inside a fissiparous and demoralized Middle East. These are hostile to or independent of the West, or only marginally linked or supported, and are committed to a devastating series of wars inside Islamic civilization—or at least inside the Mediterranean Arab part of global Islam, one part of that vastly larger religious civilization which also dominates Indonesia and Malaysia, Pakistan and Central Asia, and a part of China. The crisis is essentially an Arab phenomenon, and indirectly a Western one. It exists because the Mediterranean is where European (and latter-day American) imperialism interacted most intimately with Islam.
This war within Muslim civilization is sectarian—Sunni against Shiite—national because the modern Arab world was defined by imperialism in terms of modern monarchies, subsequently become republics and/or military or secret policy dictatorships.
The Arabs, Egyptians, and Maghrebis are struggling to identify themselves and their own destinies, which certainly are not, as Washington thinks, eventually to become acolytes and puppets of Western secular, irreligious or anti-religious, exploitative globalized and militarized capitalism. The process has begun in revolt and bloodshed in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen—bloodshed first foreshadowed by radical upheaval against the U.S.-led West, its modern military presence and actions in the region, provoking the reactionary radicalism of al-Qaida—and preceded by Washington’s subsequent clandestine military intervention in Afghanistan, inviting Russian invasion and the terrible struggle that followed. From that eventually came the devastating 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, and all that has followed.
It is essential that the West now cease its interference. It cannot reconcile the Syrians, or the Sunnis and Shiites, nor the conflicts in the Maghreb and the Sahel, mainly produced by climate and history. The West has suffered the delusion that a war on these people would produce modernity and democracy. War is a destroyer, which includes among its victims those who initiate it.