07 January 2014

Why Are Muslims So Frequently Involved In Wars?

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 Conflicts

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 Africa

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 true states.

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.

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 Civil Unrest

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 factions

Not 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 Regimes

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.

Democratic 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 forcefully.

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.

Other ideologies 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 capitalist system.

Dictatorships and 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.

Policy makers 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.

Credibly 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 covet.

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.

Nationalist Movements

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 avoid oppression.

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 influential people.

Conversely, while 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.

China's hegemony 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.

Sub-Saharan 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 by ethnicity.

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 there.

Concluding Thoughts

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 seem muddier.

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.

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