In a large majority of the wars in progress as we enter the New Year in 2014, at least one of the factions in the conflict is an Islamic fundamentalist faction of some sort.
Civil wars and violent uprisings with
Muslim parties have raged from Tunisia to Libya to Egypt to Yemen to
Syria to the UAE to Somalia to Tanzania and Kenya to Sudan to Nigeria
to Mali to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Bangladesh to Thailand.
You would expect any faith with a
billion adherents to be included in a substantial share of the
world's military conflicts, insurgencies, and civil wars. But, the
share of conflicts with Islamic fundamentalist parties far exceed the
15%-20% or so of the world's population that adheres to Islam.
Even in Europe, where it isn't fair to
say that there are currently any "hot wars" in progress,
several of the most recent wars and conflicts involving deployment of
military forces - in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and in the Caucasian Republic
of Russia and some of the neighboring formerly Communist states have
been conflicts with at least one Muslim faction.
To be clear, not all countries with
substantial Islamic populations are in the midst of wars. Many
Islamic regimes are free of, or have very little, insurgencies and
military conflict. To name just a few, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia,
Jordan, Singapore, China and Malaysia, all of which have substantial
Islamic populations, are not currently at war.
The multinational Kurdish conflict
from Syria to Turkey to Iraq to Iran, and the Islamic based
insurgencies in parts of the Philippines have each, for whatever
reason, have recently died down.
The Latin American Drug Cartel
There are exceptions - wars or severe
violent civil unrest in Columbia and Mexico, respectively, are driven
by drug cartels feuding with each other and government forces. It is
common to classify these situations as mere extremes of organized
crime, but in Columbia there is also a leftist political dimension
and urban v. rural interior aspect to the conflict, and the 80,000
deaths in the Mexican drug war since 2007 owes much to the Mexican
government's decision to treat this violence as a military rather
than a civilian law enforcement matter.
Tribal Conflicts within Sub-Saharan
Wars in the the Sub-Saharan African
states of Congo and South Sudan involve divisions of Christians and
Animists that are as much tribal conflicts within artificially
created European colonial supranational states, although the South
Sudanese war plays out against a backdrop that intimately involves
historic military involvement by the Islamic dominated state of
Sudan prior to the secession of South Sudan. There are also very
small tribal wars far from the sight of global journalists among
animists of Papua New Guinea and the Amazonian jungle, sometimes
complicated by the involvement of non-Muslim parties affiliated with
South Asian Uprisings and
Non-Muslim Ethnic Violence
Parts of India and some of its South
Asian neighbors have small scale uprisings commonly described as
"Maoist" but probably more accurately described as
anti-feudal. These movements, however, in recent years have tended
to favor political action and sporadic grass roots terrorist
incidents over coordinated large scale insurgencies.
While Hindu fundamentalists in India
have been implicated in honor killings, ethnic based lynchings, and
destruction of places of worship of other faiths, but in a manner not quite systemic, organized, deadly, or sophisticated in military means
enough for the conflicts in which they are involved to amount to
Civil war also seems to be winding
down in Burma (aka Myanmar), punctuated by inter-ethnic riots more
akin to the L.A. riots than a civil war or insurgency.
East Asian Saber Rattling
North Korea and China have engaged in
a certain amount of saber rattling with neighbors including India,
South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Russia that sometime involve sporadic
outbreaks of military violence, but none of these incidents is part
of anything sufficiently systemic and large scale to constitute a
genuine war. Likewise Chinese efforts to put down dissent in places
like Tibet or Tienanmen Square, while sometimes decisive and violent,
likewise lack the sustained violence and organization on the part of
the combatants necessary to amount to a true civil war.
Also, it is notable that one of North
Korea's important sources of military technology, Iran, is a
fundamentalist Islamic state apparently motivated in part by the
money that this trade provides and in part by the theory that the
enemy of my enemy is my friend.
European, Latin American, and Asian
Certainly, there has been civil unrest
in many places in which there has been no Muslim involvement. Citizens have taken to the streets in
Greece, Spain, Hungary, France and the Ukraine in the past year
alone. Many Latin American countries (e.g. Brazil and Venezuela)
have seen similar demonstrations and civil unrest.
A secession vote is scheduled in
Scotland and other restive European regions like Catalonia and
Flemish Belgium are hot to follow suit.
The parliamentary process in many of
East Asia's democracies has witnessed brawled on the floor of
parliament involving members - something unknown in American
Congressional practice for more than a century.
But, demonstrations with only moderate
violence mediated by civilian police or paramilitary militia forces
are a far cry from civil and international wars that kills thousands
of people a year.
Looking for common patterns in military conflicts with Muslim
all of the wars where at least one faction is Muslim have a common
cause or a primarily religious motivation. But, there are several
common threads that combined describe almost all of these wars. Most
boil down to (1) the ongoing collapse of the Ottoman Empire and
European colonial era states including collapses all of the way to
the ultimate bottom when a "failed state" comes into being, (2) the Sahel Wars, and (3) Nationalist
movements. Each kind of war, with its particular cause explored below the jump, suggests its
own set of policy responses.
The Collapse of Western Style
In North Africa and the Middle East,
uprisings and civil wars are late acts in the demise of the Ottoman
Empire after World War II and European colonial involvement in the
region in the late 20th century. These processes left in their wake
states that were not nations, despotic rule in various forms, and
unstable political arrangements in which minority populations most
agreeable to departing European powers were given authority over
ethnically distinct majorities less congruent to European concepts of
how civilized government should be conducted.
Western style democracies with
European style judicial systems were tried frequently, but almost
always failed to attain those ideals, due mostly to a shortage of
indigenous technocrats, bureaucrats, capitalists and politicians
sufficiently competent in their roles to preside over a newly
created, poor, ill educated, large, multi-ethnic nation.
Likewise the cultures of each
respective ethnicity did little to provide ordinary citizens life
scripts that would help them to make the best of a life in this kind
of Western style political economy. Ethnic and tribal identities
were more important parts of a person's self-image in most of these
countries than their state of citizenship. Sometimes, as in Lebanon,
Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, Malaysia or Singapore, ethnic identities
simultaneously involved divisions in religious creed. At other
times, for example, in the division between Kurds and Sunni Muslims
of other ethnic affiliations in Iraq, a seemingly common (macro-) religion was
not sufficient to bridge purely ethnic divisions within a state.
Where Western style democratic
capitalism, rather than some sort of monarchy was attempted, military
regimes or one party dictators almost always stepped in after brief
moments of rule by civilian politicians elected in free and fair
elections. Coups, manipulation of the electoral system, or popularly
imposed dictatorship either religious or secular, replaced corrupt,
incompetent and abusive democratic regimes.
This is not to say that democracy and
Islam are fundamentally incompatible. Turkey has a long tradition of
secular, democratic government guarded by a strong secular military
that has chosen not to rule in its own right. Emerging Muslim states
in Kosovo and Iraqi Kurdistan have been highly functional
democracies. Genuine Democratic governance has emerged in Indonesia,
Malaysia, Pakistan and Afghanistan after long periods of dictatorial
or authoritarian rule. The monarchy in Jordan has made meaningful
inroads towards constitutional monarchy status.
governance has been decidedly flawed in Iraq, Iran and the
Palestinian territories. But, all of these countries have genuine
elections, even if they aren't perfect. And, none of these countries are currently predominantly ruled by dictators,
one party regimes, or monarchies. Iran's theocratic government may have started out as an absolute theocracy, but it has evolved into the theocratic analog to a constitutional monarchy with a more than symbolic monarch, a bit like 18th century England, the Napoleonic constitutional monarchies, or modern Jordan. But, until a decade or two ago at most, Turkey, on the European
fringe, was the only Muslim country to have had sustained democratic
governance. Most Islamic democracies have functioned as such for just a few years (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo) or even just months ago (e.g. Tunisia and Libya), and are (very) insecure in their democratic governance (e.g. Egypt).
Thus, while Western style democratic
capitalism is not necessarily incompatible with Islam, it is an
exceedingly fragile proposition until (1) a critical mass of
indigenous functionaries and leaders to carry out are in place, (2)
the general populace has adapted culturally well enough to function
comfortably in that kind of system, and (3) a sufficient sense of
national identity has developed to make it possible to form majority
coalitions have some meaningful sense of a "national interest"
of the people who share a state.
The Arab Spring was marked by
widespread efforts to displace illegitimate dictators mismanaging
their own countries. It is still too soon in each case to know if
there are now enough of the core ingredients present to sustain
Western style democratic capitalism in these countries, or whether
these revolutions will conclude more like the failed anti-monarchy
uprisings in Europe of 1848 that set the scene for more permanent
successes a generation later. So far, the results have been mixed
and inconclusive. The Arab Spring remains a work in progress. The dictators are winning in Syria and Egypt appears to be in great peril of returning to a non-democratic form of government.
Where the ingredients for Western
style democratic capitalism are not present, or the people mostly
don't want what it seems to offer, which in each their region's own respective cases in recent
history isn't much, and where there is no natural candidate to
establish as a monarch, people who are dissatisfied with the corrupt,
incompetent and abusive status quo need to unite around ideology.
In the 1960s and 1970s, authoritarian
secular socialist states could credibly provide that ideology and also had easier to assimilate institutions (just as the English political system has proved more difficult to replicate abroad than a one party political system, the English common law legal system has proved much more difficult for colonies to adopt rapidly than legal systems based on the French or German civil codes).
But, in the early 21st century,
with Soviet style communism is deeply discredited. So, Islam has become the default
ideology that remains, around which people fed up with what they have
now can unite for change. Evangelism sponsored by states and civil
society institutions in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran and
pre-invasion Iraq further encouraged dissatisfied Muslims to seek
reform through an Islamist route, rather than one party communist states.
The most obvious way to have prevented
this from happened would have been for European powers to have
worried less about being condescending towards their colonial charges
and to have held onto unpopular foreign control until the new nations
were really ready to "have the training wheels taken off."
Examples of cases were colonial relationships were continued long
after the wave of decolonialization that peaked in 1960, like Hong
Kong and some of the islands of the Caribbean, for example, strongly
suggest that the well being of colonial subjects in the long term
would have been much better if that course were taken. But, for the
most part, that horse is already out of the barn. There are very few
colonies still in place these days with significant territory or large populations relative to their colonial rulers.
A second best approach may be to focus
primarily on (1) maintaining basic freedom from violence for the
people, (2) building the indigenous human capital and cultural norms
needed to operate this kind of political system, and (3) not assuming
that institutions that work in one context will also work in another.
Instead, one can look to examples like Iran and China, where their political
institutions are home grown and tailored to local needs by the
country's own leaders. These regimes no longer fit neatly into
existing political models and seem to violate political norms of free political expression, formal rule of law with minimal corruption, and free and fair elections, that
are central in our own political systems. But, these regimes have managed to have staying power, to be somewhat responsive to public opinion, and to permit substantial economic activity that is not directly managed by the state, while previous regimes organized as Western style constitutional monarchies failed.
Monarchies v. Failed States
None of the secure
Islamic monarchies in the world was ever seriously threatened by the
Arab Spring. Some offered minor reforms in the direction of
constitutional monarchy, while others, secure in their legitimacy and
less corrupt and incompetent than their authoritarian but
non-monarchy peers, simply united to put down requests for reform
But, the more
clearly a state has failed, be it in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, or
Algeria, the more attractive an Islamist state seems compared to
anarchy and never ending civil war. Just as many Westerners recognize that democracy has its flaws, many people who
join these movements may recognize that an Islamist state is not a
perfect form of government. But, for them, it is an Islamist state and
not a democracy, the seems to be the least bad of the alternatives that
are viable options for people trying to unify Muslim nations that are
divided between factions lead by ruthless military leaders who took
power by force, or have splintered into regions ruled by competing warlords. Muslim clerics have
more legitimacy than self-appointed strong men in the eyes of power brokers of these countries, and as the Afghan example has shown, the risk that less than fair elections will simply ratify the power of the warlords is substantial.
with familiar institutions or institutions that are easily assimilated and
operated successfully by amateur converts could fill similar roles.
But, as untold deaths from famine as efforts to transform primitive
capitalist monarchies into communist regimes in Russia and China each
revealed, operating a well functioning sincerely communist regime is
almost as difficult as trying to run a Western style democratic
monarchies, imposed by any means possible including coups and sham
elections, seem to be easier to create and maintain in impoverished
societies without a class of educated lesser bourgeois. Much of the
hope that the Western style democracies might now work in countries
like Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq hinges upon the fact that
these nations have developed diversified economies based upon a broad
based middle class, rather than upon natural resources like oil, gas,
uranium, diamonds and gold, that can be controlled by a small
aristocracy or a highly centralized state that does not need the
consent of the governed to collect its revenues. Indeed, such states
have little interest in developing a non-resource based economy, as this would create political rivals to the existing regime leaders with a competing power base to their own.
confronting these situations face difficult choices.
One way to prevent
a state from failing is to prop up a dictatorship or monarchy, however
flawed it may be, in order to avoid anarchy, a humanitarian crisis
and the fertile ground for an Islamic fundamentalist regime that
follows. Western democracies have done so for years in much of the Islamic world, as the cost depriving their proclaimed democratic ideology of credibility. But, it isn't hard to doubt that this is really the best long term course of action for the world's democracies.
putting a more congenial regime option on the table for discussion, however, requires a huge investment in nation-building, has a strong chance of
failing anyway if outside involvement is not sustained for a very long time, and may require
world powers to unite militarily to bring about regime change, a
gambit that is always risky as it dilutes the international norms
related to sovereignty that protect every nation's autonomy.
The Sahel Wars
Africa's Sahel is a narrow strip of
dry vegetated land between the Sahara desert to the North and
tropical sub-Saharan African to the South. Historically, this land
has been occupied by several ethnic groups who have sustained
themselves as nomadic herders and as farmers/ranchers who specialize
in crops like pearl millet that thrive with the modest moisture and
particular seasonal patterns of the Sahel.
In the Middle Ages, after Islam's
explosive conquest of the Middle East, North Africa, Iberia and West
Asia in its first few hundred years, legendary Muslim trading
kingdoms centered around cities like Mali's Timbuktu emerged and
eventually converted almost everyone in the Sahel to Islam, a faith
well suited to the realities of life for nomadic herders and their
farmer neighbors in an arid environment.
Global warming in recent years has
often manifested itself most powerfully in places on Earth where the
climate is most extreme. Glaciers in high mountains have melted
away. The lowest lying wetlands have been restored to the sea as sea
levels have risen. And, deserts have expanded while inland seas like
Lake Chad, have contracted. In particular, the Sahara desert has
pushed itself many miles into what was solidly a part of the Sahel
and capable of supporting grazing animals in previous decades.
All across this thin strip of Sahel
that runs almost all of the way from West to East across Africa,
Muslim people of the Sahel have been economically squeezed and
geographically pushed by climate change and an expanding desert into
trying to move South into the northern reaches of territories that
were previously the sole domain of Christian and Animist sub-Saharan
African subtropical subsistence farmers.
The Muslims of the Sahel are in a
position much like that of the early Biblical Jews. The land they
wander through out of inertia from their forebears has become so
hostile that it seems to them as if only miracles can sustain them
from year to year. They long for the adjacent promised land, but it
is already occupied by infidels with whom they feel little cultural
kinship. Their religious affiliation provides them with a focal
point within which they can organize and morally justify their
efforts to drive out the more fragmented peoples whose lands they
The result is increasing religious
fervor, and a steady stream of near genocidal tit for tat warfare
across these ethnic and religious divides that kill large shares of
entire villages, herder bands, and churches full of people.
The fact that the Muslims in the Sahel
wars happen to be Muslims rather than Jews or Hindus or Zoroastrians or
Buddhists is mostly an accident of history, rather than something
unique to Islam, although Islam's historical origins among similar
peoples may make it a good fit for the people of the Sahel.
The downside of the task of finding a
resolution to the Sahel wars is that it is at first blush, at least,
a zero sum game. The total amount of arable land is shrinking, while
the number of people wishing to live there in the face of explosive
Third World population growth never stops.
The inexorability of the pressures on
Muslims to migrate South, and on the existing residents to hold fast
and resist this migration can also make hope that permanent solutions
can be found seem bleak. Even if leaders of both sides can get
together in good faith and reach peace accords for a few years or a
decade, sooner or later the fundamental forces driving the conflict
will naturally reignite it somewhere or other within the Sahel.
On the other hand, because these
conflicts are ultimately, at their heart, impersonal fights over
scarce resources, however much it may seem otherwise to the
participants at the time. Religious disputes aren't the real cause
of these wars, and so solutions oriented towards creating
inter-religious understanding won't solve them. An economic or
technological solution that meets the economics needs of both parties
is likely to work, however, if it can be found.
In the absence of an economic or
technological solution, the Sahel wars have two likely outcomes that
will be determined on the battle field.
One possibility is that Christians and
animists will manage to hold their ground in the face of intrusions
from Muslims from the Sahel, until Malthusian pressures force Muslims
from the Sahel to abandon their homeland and much of their culture
much as Europeans from Scandinavia, Ireland and Southern Italy did in
19th century, or die from starvation or genocide.
The other possibility is that the
Christians and animist will either be genocidally killed off or
exiled as Muslims from the Sahel displace them, perhaps to already
densely population tropical West African megacities. I personally
believe that this is the most likely outcome.
A final category
of Islamist military conflicts are basically nationalist revolutions.
In Chechnya, in Thailand, in the Philippines, and Kurdistan,
insurgencies are primarily expressions of coherent ethnic and
regional identities within a larger multi-ethnic state who aspire to
a nation-state of their own, or at least in the interim, to greater
autonomy and recognition within a federal arrangement of some kind.
As minorities in
their current state(s), or as majorities who lack commensurate
political and economic power in their current state(s), the promise
of Western style democracy is a false one because demographics and
political boundaries dictate that they will always be on the losing
side of the democratic process and can rely on nothing more than the
goodwill of the other ethnicities that rule over them if they wish to
In these cases,
Islam, or a particular version of it, unite the nationalists while
distinguishing them from other peoples who share the same state.
People are fervent in their religion because it becomes a defender of
a threatened ethnic culture. Fundamentalist Islamists may be more
prominent in these movements, simply because the most committed
activists of any stripe rarely come from the ranks of the moderate
wing of any movement. But, practical realities as an underdog in a
long insurgency limit the extent to which the fundamentalists can
actually impose their agenda in practice within these movements.
Irreverent hypocrites who meet critical needs of the movement can be
tolerated within the movement in these cases out of necessity.
To be clear, a
shared religion is neither necessary, nor sufficient as a basis for
nationalism, at least in the absence of a truly failed state when any
excuse to find common cause to end the fighting may sound appealing.
If a shared belief
in Islam were sufficient to form the basis of a nation-state, the
Islamic empire that arose in the 7th and 8th centuries CE, or some
substantial portion of it, would still exist today. Organizations
like the Arab League provide a ready institutional structure and set
of connections that could have been used to unite Muslims into a
single united nation-state if it could have been done. But, the will
simply hasn't been there. Ethnically diverse Muslims don't have
enough in common ethnically or even religiously to make this vision
attractive enough to win wide support from politically and culturally
there are a handful of nation states that are entirely or
overwhelmingly Muslim, a great many states that are relatively
successful as Islamic states go, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore,
and Tanzania function on a quite healthy basis with substantial
populations of non-Muslims. Indeed, the early Islamic empire's urban
centers were both cosmopolitan in terms of the geographic and ethnic
origins of its residents, and religiously diverse with substantial
minority religious communities.
Indeed, the fact
that nationalist movements are currently so predominantly Islamic is
also something of a historical accident which is an indirect
consequence of the timing of its earlier dramatic expansion.
In Europe and the
Eastern Mediterranean, the only regions of the world where
Christianity was very important (aside from Ethiopia) until late in
the 19th century, the consolidation of ethnic identities into larger
national identities aligned with the boundaries of states took more
than a millennium, reaching a climax in some particularly intense
episodes of war, "ethnic cleansing", diplomacy, and
nation-building propaganda for a half dozen decades or so at the end
of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. Latin
American's European colonists weren't very ethnically diverse (mostly
coming from Iberia) and had the Pope to help broker nation-state
boundary disputes in advance diplomatically and by Papal edict.
The partition of
India forced it to transform from an African style multi-ethnic state
into an ethnic and religiously split nation-state, as a culmination
of British efforts to foster pre-existing regional principalities and
identities that divided India and allowed the British to conquer it.
over a huge expanse of Asia geographically suitable for it and not
defensible in the way that Tibet and Japan and Korea and Mongolia had
been until the 20th century, which matched a genuine demographic
reality to a great extent - and late prehistoric and early historic
era folk migrations of Southern Chinese populations to Southeast Asia
in the face of Han expansion similarly firmed up the nation-state
boundaries in Asia long before nation-state boundaries became
normative in international affairs.
Two regions were
left without firm nation-state boundaries.
Africa, had top level functional traditional ethnic divisions by
tribe that were too small and too scattered and intertwined to form
compact and governable nation-states. These have produced the ugly
multiparty wars of nationalism and consolidation we are seeing in
places like South Sudan, Nigeria's first civil war not long after
independence, and the Congo.
The other was the
Islamic countries whose unity under a vast and only slowly decaying
empire inhibited the formation of ethnically based nation-states.
These countries are now playing catch up in this process of state and
political identity formation and are playing the bloody dues that the
rest of the world mostly paid long ago in episodes that are forgotten
to everyone but historians.
It would be
inaccurate, however, to suggest that sloppy boundary drawing alone is
at fault in making it hard to form ethnically based nation states in
these countries. In the North Central United States there are large
swaths of territory where 19th century developers planted a town or
village every six miles down a rail line and alternated between
Lutheran and Catholic towns. Africa and much of the Islamic world
with emerging nationalism movements are like that today. The ethnic
groups involved may be very distinct from each other, but
geographically, they are indivisibly intermixed.
No amount of
boundary drawing can form ethnically homogeneous nation-states in
that circumstance without doing one of two things: developing a sense
that religious divisions aren't important and that all of the ethnic
groups in the region are really one big ethnic group (i.e. getting
people at large to be ethnicity lumpers rather than splitters), or
engaging in highly traumatic forced migrations a la the Bosnian War
or Iraq during the U.S. occupation of that country to divide people
One of the reasons
that these countries have allowed dictatorships to persist so long is
that this accomplishes a form of ethnic lumping and builds national
identity around the dictator's cult of personality, thereby keeping a
lid on the gory genocidal ethnic cleansing wars that might otherwise
arise. Another strategy for undermining regional ethnic identity
that could lead to nationalism is to deliberately settle outsiders in
the territory that the nationalists might someday claim as their
territory - essentially the strategy taken by the Chinese towards
their ethnically distinct interior provinces and by Israel towards
the West Bank by permitting Israeli settlements to be established
Every time there
is a war, the question that faces American policymakers is whether or
not we should join it.
During the Cold
War, we thought we had a good context for understanding what was at
stake in those decisions and what larger processes were at work.
Now, in a post-Cold War world, there is no consensus understanding of
what is driving the many wars in the world and so those decisions
This post doesn't
aspire to provide answers to these questions, but it does provide a
framework for understanding what is going on and providing ultimate
causal drivers of these conflicts, and places them in context. This
should allow policy makers and policy analysts better informed by
this framework to more accurately predict what will work in terms of
outside interventions in these conflicts, what the Islamic religion
has to do with these conflicts, what the likely consequences of
intervening will be, and what steps (such as nation building) need to
be taken when for us to succeed when we do intervene.