Re: Atlantic: "Coming to Grips with Jihad"

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Fri Sep 14 2001 - 06:47:32 MDT

On Thu, Sep 13, 2001 at 09:05:43PM -0500, Greg Burch wrote:
> I don't know if the links will come through on this, so here's the URL to
> the entire story.

I don't agree: this is by _no_ means the entire story.

I've been submerged for a few days, but yesterday I bolted together a
lengthy analysis of the situation, as I see it. Here it is.

-- Charlie

                      Needed: a new age of enlightenment
     It is now almost 48 hours since two airliners ploughed into the
     World Trade Center, another dived onto the Pentagon, and a fourth
     came down near Pittsburgh.
     You'd think that every possible angle would already have been
     covered by people writing about the events of September 11th. So
     why am I writing this, and why now?
     Because in all the media coverage I've seen so far, nobody has been
     asking the right, the important, questions. Like: why did this
     happen, what circumstances got us into a de facto state of
     undeclared war with the Islamic world, and what can we
     realistically do to prevent those circumstances from ever
     In this essay I'm going to talk about three things:
     * How we drifted into this situation over a period of fifty or more
     * What will happen if we don't deal with the root causes of the mess
     * What we can do to fix things (apart from fighting a war)
How did we get into this mess?

     Some of you in the US are going to wonder why I, in the UK, am
     bothering with this. I'm 3000 miles away from New York, in a
     country that wasn't directly affected; nevertheless the event is
     too overwhelming to bear. People around here have been walking
     around in shock, all around the world. This isn't simply an act of
     terrorism directed against the USA; it affects everyone,
     world-wide. This event is going to be one of the defining political
     moments of the 21st century -- whether for good or for ill. (And
     there seems precious little scope for good in it right now.)
     To understand why it happened we have to go back to the 19th
     century, or even earlier. And if we fail to understand its roots,
     we run the risk of failing to prevent similar events from happening
     in future.
     Let's get one thing straight, up-front: these atrocities did not
     happen just because a group of twenty fanatics decided to get on
     board some airliners, hijack them, and ram some of the most
     significant buildings in the United States. Nor will going after
     their shadowy leaders stop this from happening again. Even a massed
     thermonuclear strike on the Islamic world, followed by a campaign
     of genocide directed against a quarter of the world's population,
     won't stop this from happening again. This is a complex situation;
     simplistic answers -- even drastic ones -- simply won't work.
     So what can we do?
     First, we need to understand where the roots of the conflict are.
     Secondly, we need to be clear on where our own goals lie. Then, and
     only then, can we work out how to permanently end the conflict.
     And I am convinced that it can be ended, for good, if our political
     leaders have the guts to take the necessary measures.
A long and bloody history

     Personally, I blame Richard the First, by grace of God King of
     England and Wales.
     Maybe I'm being a little unfair here; Richard Coer de Lion wasn't a
     very bright fellow, and the Pope deserves a fairly large share of
     the blame, as do all the other kings, princes, nobles and rag-tag
     of Christendom who, in ten-ninety-something, decided to liberate
     the Holy Land. Except the word they used wasn't "liberate" and
     freedom wasn't on their agenda.
     The Crusades were a long, bloody, and unpardonably evil phase in
     European history. They were also largely irrelevant, a sideshow:
     except insofar as they gave rise to two abiding legacies. Firstly,
     they fatally weakened the Eastern Roman Empire, and contributed
     directly to the fall of Constantinople. (This had good results as
     well as ill; the diaspora of classical scholarship to western
     Europe, for example, contributed directly to the west's recovery
     from the barbarism of the dark ages.) But secondly, the Crusades
     left a legacy of hate in the Islamic world. Stripped of the
     mythology of chivalry, the Crusades were perceived as barbarian
     armies attacking the heartland of Islamic civilization every
     generation or so for a period of centuries.
     This isn't to say that the forces of Islam were innocent, either:
     both great religions had, in those days, long-standing traditions
     of waging evangelically-inspired holy wars on their perceived
     enemies. Nor were the crusades the only point of contact; the
     conquest and re-conquest of Spain supplies ample evidence of this.
     The point I'd like to make here is that the Islamic cultures of the
     middle east have a traditional fear of the western Crusaders that
     is as deeply rooted as the west's fear of Jihad.
How Lawrence of Arabia screwed up

     Let's fast forward to world war one. The weakened Ottoman Empire
     (Turkey uber alles) made the mistake of allying itself with the
     Central Powers -- Germany, the Hapsburg Empire, Italy. In one of
     the more spectacular campaigns of a war noted for its bloody
     stalemate, the British expeditionary forces set the middle east
     ablaze and marched from Egypt north through Palestine, all the way
     to the gates of Damascus in what today is Syria.
     In the process of fighting a world war, the British made a number
     of promises that today we have cause to regret. We'll skip the
     Balfour Declaration, which gave formal backing for a Jewish
     homeland in the territories of trans-Jordanian Palestine. What
     really matters is that the British incited the arab tribes and
     nations of the region to rebel against their Ottoman rulers. In the
     aftermath of the world war, everything went up for grabs. Colonel
     Lawrence's fanatical arab allies from the House of Saud were given
     Arabia to rule; the civilized and enlightened former rulers of
     Arabia, the Hashemite monarchy, were unceremonially dumped in the
     fly-blown wastes of Palestine east of the river Jordan. Other rebel
     groups were shored up in palaces around the middle east; the
     kingdoms of Egypt, Persia, Lebanon, and Iraq were all established
     as British imperial puppet states.
     (As an aside: we often forget that when, in the 1980's, Saddam
     Hussein was sending his bombers to drop nerve gas on the marsh
     arabs of Iraq, he was merely implementing a policy proposed -- as a
     means of policing that very area -- by Winston Churchill in 1919.)
     In 1945, after a second world war, Britain was essentially
     bankrupt. The United States government, as a matter of global
     policy, leaned on Britain to get rid of the empire; and the British
     post-war government was in no position to refuse. The empire had,
     in any case, outlived its usefulness; it was to be replaced by a
     Commonwealth, which would maintain the general trade structure of
     the empire (with colonies grateful for their independence sending
     their raw materials to the motherland, in return for finished goods
     and engineering products that Britain could sell without
     competition from other developed nations outside the institution).
     One corollary of the decolonisation was that Israel, or Palestine,
     or both, would gain independence. And this had implications outside
     its borders.
     The Israeli War of Independence ran from 1947-48 and was a pivotal
     moment in the history of the middle east. To the Arab world it was
     a re-run of the eleventh century; a Western crusader state had
     again appeared in their midst, hostile to their traditions and
     religion, claiming ownership of their holy places. It was an
     affront to monarchies who had blithely assumed that the new state
     could be divided up and added to their territories, in the same way
     that Poland was split between Prussia, Russia and the Hapsburg
     empire at the close of the eighteenth century. It was an insult to
     Islam, too, that their holy places would be under the thumb of a
     foreign invader.
     More importantly, the war catalysed the downfall of the puppet
     monarchies. One after another, the kingdoms of Iraq and Egypt and
     Lebanon and Syria fell. Only the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan --
     itself the survivor of seven centuries of court intrigue --
     survived. Iran embraced a very shaky constitutional monarchy, with
     a democratically elected government; it was not to last. The US
     State Department, sensing a weakness in the wall around their
     communist enemies in Russia, backed a coup in Iran in 1953 that put
     Reza Pahlavi on the peacock throne as a monarch-turned-dictator.
     The dominant revolutionary ideology in the muslim world in those
     days was ba'athism -- pan-arab socialism. Ba'athism was
     modernizing, secularizing, but also centralizing and totalitarian
     by instinct. It grew in different directions in different
     countries. In Syria and Egypt it played with socialism; in Iraq it
     remained weak until an internal coup in the 1970's bought Saddam's
     faction to power, at which point Iraqi Ba'athism acquired
     ideological overtones distinctly reminiscent of Hitler's Nazi party
     -- with the concept of the "new arab man" dropped neatly into place
     in the position Hitler reserved for his Aryan Germans.
     To sum up, we see a distinct political progression:
     Decolonization by the Ottoman empire, recolonization by the British.
     Puppet monarchies installed.
     Withdrawl of British support. Arrival of a "crusader state" in the
   region. Many monarchies fall to the first challenge.
     Rise of progressive nationalist ideologies, mostly socialist.
     Rise of US influence in the area, focussed obsessively on shoring up
   opposition to communism.
     Wars with Israel, fought over access to water. Western focus shifts
   towards securing the oil supply.
Ba'athism and the rise of fundamentalism

   The Ba'athist movement was screwed before it even got started;
   socialism was a sure ticket onto the CIA's shit-list, as was any
   attempt to exert unilateral control over their own oil reserves or
   strategic assets such as the Suez canal. Israel could be used by the
   west as a proxy, like a knight on a chess board populated only by
   pawns, to pin them down. Arab unification, a cause championed by every
   Ba'athist movement, foundered on the rocks of every Ba'athist leader's
   desire to be leader of the entire arab world.
   (Forget about Muammar Ghadaffi. Ghadaffi is the court jester of the
   Middle East, his ideology a mixture of progressive Islamic mysticism
   and second- hand anarcho-syndicalism. He's very much a child of the
   sixties, leader of a nation with a population smaller than Belgium and
   far less significant were it not for the oil reserves under his
   Of course, some middle eastern kingdoms survived. The gulf emirates,
   Kuwait and the House of Saud are the main examples; phenomenally rich,
   so rich that they can buy security no matter what the price. But,
   surrounded by a sea of poor neighbours, their political aspirations
   blocked by external forces, their Ba'ath leadership corrupt and
   totalitarian, they live in fear.
   The failure of Ba'athism -- the only genuine arab political ideology
   -- left an ideological vacuum. One party states are loath to accept
   rival politics; thus, the only outlet for rage, disaffection, and
   desire for change lay in the direction of religion.
   Which leads to a crucial insight: the rise of Islamic fundamentalism
   and its linkage to resentment against the west is rooted in the moral
   bankruptcy of political processes in the middle east. This bankruptcy
   is only partially self-inflicted; for example, by overthrowing a
   democracy in Iran in 1953, the CIA struck a devastating blow against
   their own long-term interests. But the Ba'ath parties did their best
   to help prevent any genuinely progressive or democratic movements
   starting in the Middle East, and the west either stood aside or looked
   elsewhere because the Ba'ath were, if nothing else, tough on
The mess we're in

   This leads us to contemplate our current mess.
   Over three generations, the west has attempted to manipulate the
   politics of the middle east in support of two goals; anti-communism,
   and cheap oil. The former was accomplished by shoring up repressive
   regimes that cracked down on communism -- unfortunately these same
   regimes cracked down on democratic institutions, too. The latter was
   accomplished by using Israel as a catspaw to prevent any regional
   power from gaining too much control over the oil reserves. Israel
   cannot survive if the arab states unite under common leadership;
   therefore Israel has a vested interest in preventing this situation
   from arising.
   In the midst of the political paralysis of the Ba'ath republics and
   the post-colonial monarchies, radical islam offers the natives of the
   region their only hope for a creed that calls to their interests. It
   is unfortunately a creed that sees the presence of Israel and the
   western machinations as signs that a crusade against Islam is in
   progress. That Islam has intermittently functioned as a beacon of
   enlightenment -- and for many centuries was the most progressive and
   socially liberal religious realm in the world -- tends to be forgotten
   by the west today. So, too, does the emphasis on certain features
   obscure the fact that progress can take place under Islam. Iran,
   twenty years out of the terror of Khomenei's revolution, has acquired
   democratic institutions far more liberal and enlightened than those of
   any Ba'ath state; indeed, depending on the outcome of the current
   constitutional power struggle in Tehran, Iran may become the true
   birthing ground for democracy in the Islamic world.
   But right now, most people in the Islamic world feel disempowered and
   unrepresented, their leaders corrupt tyrants who rule with the gun and
   the bullwhip at the pleasure of their western masters. They're poor,
   for the most part poorer than the poor who live in the collapsed
   wreckage of the Soviet Union. And this is the perfect situation to
   breed suicide bombers.
How do you want to live tomorrow?

   I have a dream.
   I want to see a world where the people of the middle east are not
   poverty- stricken dwellers in concrete rubble and mud huts. I want to
   see a world where they have democratically accountable governments, a
   world where all their children go to school and then to university,
   where there are two cars in every garage and a chicken in every pot. I
   want to see a middle east where angry young adults with a political
   point to make think in terms of writing to their elected
   representatives, rather than strapping on bombs and committing suicide
   because that's the only way to make their voice heard.
   People who have freedom and wealth do not make good suicide bombers.
   Go ask the Japanese about it if you don't believe me and want a
   first-hand opinion.
   In fact, let's dwell on Japan. Japan is the perfect model for what I
   want to see happening to the middle east. Japan's government was taken
   over by militaristic fanatics. They started a near-holy war. They got
   slapped down brutally hard, after they themselves committed appalling
   atrocities in many other countries.
   But today ... Japan isn't perfect, but Japan is rich, comfortable,
   largely non-militaristic, overwhelmingly embarrassed about the past.
   Japan is a poster-child for what I'd like the middle east to become,
   after the war that now looks to be inevitable.
   I want to see a world where the people of the middle east don't see
   themselves as victims of a savage occupation by forces of a hostile
   evangelical religion bent on stripping them of their natural resources
   and keeping them divided.
   And most importantly, I want to see a world where we do not lose our
   most precious liberties in the name of security and vigilance against
   a threat that should never have been allowed to materialise in the
   first place.
   You can be sure of one thing: if the threat of islamic terrorism isn't
   defeated, we will lose our liberties in the name of security.
   I assert that the terrorism emerges from frustration with the total
   corruption of the political processes of the middle east. Therefore,
   to end the threat of terrorism we need to fix the political mess,
   reconstruct the economies of the countries in the region, and provide
   the circumstances in which an islamic equivalent of the west's
   eighteenth century enlightenment can flourish.
   Can we get there from here?
   I think we can, but I am not confident that our leaders have the will
   to do so.
An unpalatable prescription

   Anyone who thinks that a simple revenge raid will solve anything is so
   utterly misguided it's almost pointless trying to engage with them. As
   I've outlined above, the roots of this mess go back too far for any
   simple nostrum to cure them. Revenge may make people feel better for a
   few hours ... but in the long years ahead, it will only make the
   darkness deeper.
   The myth of the crusader states must be broken, once and for all; the
   islamic world needs convincing proof that the west is not bent of
   breaking them to baptism by force. As long as even some of them
   believe that this is a holy war, it will be a holy war.
   But at the same time, they need convincing proof that the west is not
   soft. The west is not going to bend its neck before revolutionary
   fundamentalist Islam. But, from people who take Islam for granted with
   the same fervour that Americans take to church, this is going to be a
   hard-won concession. There's a very fine dividing line between a firm
   response and brutality, and the west already has the reputation of
   being a bully in the region. If all that military intervention
   achieves is to shore up that perception, then that use of force is
   counter- productive.
   Most importantly, and as a first step that we can take right now, we
   need to understand our own core values and goals, and stop funding
   organisations and individuals who don't share our goals.
   Osama bin Laden got his training and much of his money in the 1980's
   from the CIA. Saddam Hussein bought arms from the west at a discount
   to prosecute his war with the demon du jour, Khomenei. The Shah -- a
   brutal, blood-soaked tyrant -- bought F-14's for his air force and
   Challenger tanks for his army.
   For how much longer are our institutions -- the British Foreign
   Office, the US State Department, and others -- going to dine with
   these devils?
   The events of September 11th are almost inevitably going to lead to a
   shooting war. It's too late to avoid that, now. But it's time to start
   thinking right now about what we're going to do after the war is won.
   After the war ... we need to ensure that the Islamic world is not
   further disempowered. Disempowerment works at an individual level;
   remember, the Islamic world, like the west, consists of hundreds of
   millions of thinking, feeling, human beings. As in the west, a small
   but significant minority is inclined to address problems with
   violence. Unlike the west, the lack of effective political outlets has
   served to radicalize many who would otherwise be content to deal with
   democratic institutions. Give them other outlets, effective and
   accountable political mechanisms, and many of those who currently are
   driven to violence will find more constructive, peaceful outlets.
   But curing disempowerment, and the violence it brings, is only part of
   the solution. To achieve a real permanent settlement, we must do
   nothing short of laying the foundations for an historic change in the
   Islamic world -- a change comparable to the Age of Enlightenment that
   swept the Christian world in the eighteenth century.
   The Enlightenment was the pivotal moment in the ascent of the west. It
   is the philosophical period from which our current cultural values
   derive; the religious and philosophical foundations of liberty, human
   rights, the legitimization of democracy, and republicanism, all have
   their roots in this astonishing and remarkable period.
   Before the Enlightenment, the west was dominated by monarchies,
   deriving their theory of rights from the Divine Right of Kings. There
   was no other legitimate power source other than the Church; the
   alternative to tyranny was theocracy.
   Since the Enlightenment, life in the west has not been a bed of roses
   -- but there has always been an alternative to tyranny. Christian
   fundamentalism (or rather, totalitarian fundamentalism) is still a
   besetting problem, but it is not the only option.
   If we can create the preconditions for a free, liberal, wealthy,
   democratic middle east, and if we can somehow break the cycle of
   hatred and holy war, we may be able to build an environment in which
   more enlightened, liberal politics can grow. If that happens, the risk
   of a repeat of September 11th happening will be vastly reduced.
   But if we fail to fix the root causes of the struggle -- the inability
   of the moslem world to make its voice heard by non-violent means, and
   the inability of people living in that sphere to engage in what we
   consider to be normal political discourse -- this incident will come
   back to haunt us. And we stand to lose our own enlightenment values.
   Nothing undermines civil liberties as brutally as paranoia; if we fail
   to treat the root causes of terrorism, we will lose our rights an inch
   at a time, in the name of collective security
   This shouldn't be seen as a war against terrorism; rather, it's an
   opportunity to extend to the rest of the world the lessons the west
   learned in the eighteenth century.

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