Geopolitical Conflicts and the Muslim World

Call the Conflict by Its Proper Name: Geo-Civil War

Conflict flaring throughout the Middle East is neither a clash of civilizations nor civil war, but instead a geo-civil war, according to John Brenkman. Brenkman argues that an appropriate label could lead to a better understanding of the conflicts and thus influence policy to bring about resolutions and stability

US soldier in Baghdad (photo: AP)
John Brenkman: "The Iraq intervention was predicated on the fallacy that instability would foster progressive political change, but regional instability has thus far emboldened anti-democratic forces that now vie for supremacy"

​​This summer civil strife continued unabated in Iraq; Iran and Syria steered Hezbollah into war with Israel, and Israel's response crushed Lebanon's faltering steps toward sovereignty and civil order; terrorist cells inspired and, in some cases, directed by Al Qaeda metastasized among British Muslims.

What is this ever-shifting conflict? It is not a "clash of civilizations," since the conflict rages among Muslims as much as between radical Islamism and the West.

It is not, however, merely a "civil war" within Islam between moderates and radicals, since the conflict entails potentially cataclysmic fighting among Muslim nations and also implicates Western countries as well as Israel.

Civil and geopolitical upheavals

It is not simply "global terrorism," since Al Qaeda and associated groups are but one source of extremism and violence. Nor is it simply Islamism versus the rest, since the most virulent forms flower on both the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam and are antagonistic toward each other. In short, the upheavals in the Muslim world today are at once civil and geopolitical.

The geopolitical conflicts can erupt into religious war; religious conflicts can escalate into civil war; civil wars can overflow borders and become geopolitical. This protean conflict should be called what it is: geo-civil war.

Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad was draped in a US flag in 2003 (photo: AP)
Brenkman argues that the fatal flaw in US policy has been its neglect of civil order as a foundation of sovereignty and democracy, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq

​​Renaming the conflict that has embroiled the US and the West since 9/11 might shake loose the misunderstandings that shroud it. For neither political thought nor policy can address a complex phenomenon until words begin to disclose its essential contours.

President Bush stays the semantic course with democracy-vs-tyranny and freedom-vs-terror. His words articulate a consistent policy, but they obscure the conflict it is meant to address.

The original miscalculations in Iraq stemmed from the belief that since democracy is the opposite of tyranny, a people who have suffered tyranny will embrace democracy as soon as benevolent foreigners remove their tyrant.

Exhausted vocabulary

Regime change is another still-repeated keyword from the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. The US rejected the idea of diplomatic discussions with Iran and Syria to address the Lebanon crisis because, in the president's words, the US is more concerned with "form of government" than "stability."

This vocabulary has exhausted itself. First of all, the countries that count as America's allies, like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, are not democratic regimes or even on a definite path toward liberalization.

The invasion of Iraq was supposed to awaken democratic aspirations within these autocracies, but the oppositional movements are coming not from liberal reformers and democrats, but from Sunni radicals and jihadists with increasing populist appeal.

Walking a tightrope between the US and the own military

Pakistan's Musharraf regime, the West's most important ally in the struggle against Al Qaeda and the effort to sustain some sort of non-totalitarian regime in Afghanistan, is not only not democratic, but its president walks a tightrope between cooperating with the US and placating his own military and internal-security apparatus, which have strong ties with, precisely, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Second, the less-than-sovereign weak states, including Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, are the current sites of radical Islamist mobilizations and terrorism.

The fatal flaw in US policy has been its neglect of civil order as a foundation of sovereignty and democracy, first in Afghanistan and Iraq and then in Lebanon, where the US, along with Europe and the United Nations, was lulled while watching the televised Cedar Revolution into letting Hezbollah's arms build up sabotage Lebanon's sovereignty and Israel's security.

Finally, the Iraq intervention was predicated on the fallacy that instability would foster progressive political change, but regional instability has thus far emboldened anti-democratic forces that now vie for supremacy.

Four directions of Muslim world's geo-civil war

An inventory of these forces suggests the various possible directions of the Muslim world's geo-civil war:

  • Pan-Arab nationalism, which has sometimes trumped or at least suppressed the antagonisms between Sunnis and Shia, remains an element in Middle Eastern politics. It may be the last card that the leaders of the so-called moderate states of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have to play to wrest popular support from the Islamists that threaten their regimes.
  • Conversely, the Persian Shiite theocracy in Iran is using its influence with the Arab Shia of Iraq and Lebanon to promote a pan-Islamism under Iranian hegemony. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, it should be recalled, has long served as an inspiration even among Sunni jihadists who otherwise consider Shiism their enemy.
  • Alternatively, a new kind of Arab pan-Islamism could arise around the charismatic figure of Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, attempting to unify Shia and Sunnis in the name of "resistance" against Israel and the West. His influence could also greatly strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
  • The jihadists of Al Qaeda are in turn, however, unlikely to let themselves be eclipsed by such a Shiite-Sunni alliance, since their Salafism repudiates Shiism as apostasy and heresy as much as it preaches holy war against Jews and Crusaders.

The absolute ambition to impose its purified theology across the Muslim world, combined with the sacralization of murder and suicide, makes Al Qaeda impervious to historic compromises.

While these hegemony-seeking, anti-democratic trends contend with one another, the tensions between Sunnis and Shia could meanwhile become a widening gyre of sectarian confrontation in a swath that goes from Lebanon to Pakistan.

The latent conflict between major regional adversaries, like (Shiite) Iran and (Sunni) Pakistan, could erupt with unpredictable consequences, including allowing the radicals within each country to gain further strength. A jihadist takeover in nuclear-armed Pakistan, thereafter aligned with Al Qaeda, is of course among the most alarming possibilities.

Change of course

The US, Europe, and the international community need to call a spade a spade and recognize that no one is beyond the reach of the Muslim world’s geo-civil war. As regards American policy, the most immediate need is a threefold change of course:

First, the uncompromising task of hunting down Al Qaeda's leaders and breaking up its globally dispersed cells must be separated, strategically and rhetorically, from the problems posed by Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

Second, some genuinely innovative diplomacy toward Iran must emerge to open a wedge against its continued radicalization. The Islamo-fascist fanaticism voiced by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is real enough, yet US policy has to recognize that Iran is a country which may fly a "totalitarian" banner but whose state and society are not in fact monolithic or fully mobilized behind the theocrats, and, further, that Iran's own security concerns vis-à-vis the potential nuclear threat posed by Pakistan, the US, and Israel have to be actively addressed and alleviated rather than heightened by bellicose posturing.

State-building and democracy-promotion

Finally, since neither "bringing-the-troops-home" nor "staying-the-course" will undo the mistake of invading Iraq, a new direction must emerge from the current predicament:

As Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon struggle to repair their sovereignty under the protection of, respectively, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the US-British occupier, and the European-led United Nations peacekeeping force, US policy should devote maximum resources – money, boots, persuasion – to these variously organized interventions.

It is the occasion, however arduous, to remake state-building and democracy-promotion in the Muslim world as an international responsibility, rather than a messianic American ideal.

In Washington-style shorthand: Destroy Al Qaeda; talk to Iran; and nation-build Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon.

John Brenkman

© Yale Center for the Study of Globalization 2006

John Brenkman, distinguished professor at the City University of New York, directs the U.S.-Europe Seminar at Baruch College. He lives in New York and Paris. His next book, "The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought in the Age of Geo-Civil War" will be published by Princeton University Press in 2007.

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