By Ozay Mehmet
TO DESCRIBE Western involvement in the Middle East as an unmitigated disaster would be an understatement. But virtually no attention has been devoted to the role of regional responsibility and in-depth historical backdrop for the chaos in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Regime change was targeted in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq but was devoid of any coherent game plan after his dictatorship was removed. In Qaddafi’s Libya, Western intervention came in the form of British and French bombing to support Qaddafi’s rivals with the tacit approval of America, the latter opting to take a back seat on this occasion as it didn’t want to appear to be the leading protagonist. Yet in both cases the results have been disastrous, with warring factions filling the void left by the removal of the respective strongmen.
With the lessons from Libya and Iraq fresh in Western minds, no direct regime change has been suggested in the Syrian context. Rather, the West has been pushing the wider international community, including Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, to agree to the eventual removal of Assad in any future government. Yet, the prospects of a peaceful, negotiated transition look anything but promising. Why this Western failure, time and again in the Arab Mideast?
Deeper causal factors are at work. In particular the role of Islamic extremism must be considered, against a cultural setting of tribal rivalries and bewildering complexity of religious divisions. These local factors, imbedded in Islamic extremism, block any sense of public responsibility or community ownership essential for nation-building.
For too long, these local factors have been discounted by the West at its own peril. It would be difficult to argue against the contention that this state of affairs originated at the height of Imperialism at the end of World War I when both Britain and France literally drew lines in the sand, thus creating brand new countries but without taking tribal loyalties and the differing strands of Islam into consideration.
Focusing on the current Syrian civil war, two factors require emphasis: the end of Ottoman rule in 1918 and the rise of Wahhabism with its spiritual and financial base in Saudi Arabia. Middle East society emerged from the Ottoman model which consisted of Christians, Muslims and Jews, their disparate rivalries and interests held in check on the basis of a tolerance which was a distinguishing factor throughout the Ottoman Empire. The remaking of the map of the region after WW1 on the basis of nation-state was not unique. Nation-state was designed and transferred from the 19th and early 20th century Europe: Italian and German reunification; the creation of modern Greece; Mustafa Kemal and the establishment of a Turkish Republic.
Nationalism is the ideology of the nation-state. Nationalism can be a positive force if and when it leads to secularism, i.e. a religion-free political entity. In Syria, Iraq and the Middle East in general, Islam has been used as an excuse and proxy for nation-building when it should be classed as a religion: nothing more, nothing less. Like any religion, Islam is faith-driven, highly subjective and spiritual. Nationality should be secular-based and not hijacked by political leaders in order to legitimise their rule and give the impression that they’re carrying out God’s will. Secularism has not taken root in Arab society because that world (Darul Islam) has not graduated from a subjective, faith-based world to the objective plane of the modern state. Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Assad and Qaddafi are examples who, to a lesser or greater extent, allied themselves to Islam, unlike Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal whose singular achievement was secularism. However, as witnessed in present day Turkey, Kemalist secularism is increasingly under threat as a result of Erdogan’s emphasis towards Islam.
Wahhabism mushroomed out of the Arabian desert as a revolt against the Ottomans. It’s not only an extremist but a radical ideology, export-oriented and tacitly tolerated by the Saudi royal family. Initially in Afghanistan and now in Syria and Iraq, Wahhabism has been funded largely by petrodollars, all too often via criminal channels. Its recruits range from Chechens in Russia, Uygurs in China and marginalized Muslims in the West, driven by a messianic jihadism.
In a sense, IS is the latest manifestation of this fervour which kicked off with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, all rising in response to Middle East (and Afghan) invasions by foreign powers. The extreme fundamentalism promoted by these organisations is being fuelled with copious amounts of political oxygen from the likes of Le Pen and Trump, living proof that many in the West have failed to understand that this region is the Muslim homeland and encroaching on it comes with dire consequences, however justified the former feels its presence may be.
Wahhabism, as a Saudi home-grown ideology, remains a potential threat in its original homeland. Unless and until the international community finds a way to stop the petrodollar inflow used to purchase weapons of war for the likes of IS in Syria and Iraq, the bloodletting will continue ad infinitum. Bombing by state-of-the-art aircraft with their sophisticated weaponry is no more than a sticking plaster treatment of the cancer. In the meantime, Russian opportunism by propping up Assad, coupled with Western encouragement and covert material support of his rivals, will only continue to produce waves of refugees and yet more ‘collateral damage’.
Looking to the long-term future of this troubled region, the prospect of a peaceful transition will depend not only on what foreign powers do, or not do, or even domestic dynamics, but how Wahhabi extremism is at least curbed if not eliminated. Local dynamics, and not Western exit strategies, are the key determinants of the outcome. If somehow IS is expelled from Syria and Iraq, regardless of whether or not regimes are changed, Wahabism will not die. Most likely, it may return with a vengeance to its spiritual home, Saudi Arabia, and destabilise the country. That would only make Iran happy while creating even bigger problems for US led coalition ‘adventures’ in the region.
Modernising Islam is a priority and a challenge first and foremost for Muslim countries, with the Saudi royal family needing to take the lead at a much faster pace than its hitherto feeble attempts. Reforms are required in family law, women’s status, political equality, citizenship and governance. Islamic law and its interpretation need drastic surgery and the application of Islamic teachings must fit modern day requirements, taking its cue from the Constitution of Medina, the first act of the Prophet as a reformer when he arrived at Medina(*). This was a man-made, problem-solving code of good governance. For the pious, the example of the Prophet in Medina is the way to adopt reform. For all Muslim societies, liberation from extremism needs to begin at home.
(*) The subject of modernising Islam, with emphasis on secular reforms and economic development, is discussed at length in my book, Islamic Identity and Development (Routledge, 1990) still highly relevant although written before 9/11, Al Qaeda and other forms of Islamic Extremism. The precedent of the Constitution of Medina was a secular document.
Ozay Mehmet is Senior Fellow, Modern Turkish Studies, School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Canada