Susmit Kumar, Ph.D.
Until the early 1900s, nobody was predicting that democracy would replace kingdoms in most of Western Europe, or that African and Asian countries would gain independence within five to six decades. World Wars I and II were necessary to change global socio-economic and political environments of those times. Had those wars not occurred, much of Europe might still be ruled by monarchs, and most Asian and African countries might still be awaiting independence from their colonial masters. Today Islamic civilization is going through what Europe went through between World Wars I and II. At the end of this crisis, the majority of Islamic nations will become secular and democratic, like Turkey: the world seat of the Islamic Caliphate since 1517, Turkey shed its fundamentalist rule in 1923 and has remained free ever since. In addition to undergoing secularization, Muslims worldwide will start to follow the spiritual aspects of Islam more than its social and militant aspects and Sharia.
Following the dissolution of the Islam-centered Ottoman Empire after World War I, colonial powers Britain and France carved up the Middle East and North Africa, creating most of the nations we know there today, now about 40 in number, for administrative reasons, and installed client rulers. Later on, a number of these rulers were ousted in coups, and almost all the countries in these regions are now unstable and facing Islamic militancy. Al Qaeda is not limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan only, rather it has now become a franchise. The combination of religious medievalism and socio-political instability indicates a transitional period is underway..
Although there are several Islamic hot spots around the world, including Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Chechnya, Xinjiang (in China), Philippines, Indonesia, Kosovo, and Thailand, the Israel-Palestine issue and Iraq are the most important because Islamic militants worldwide are exploiting it to recruit new militants. Like the Treaty of Versailles, which caused the rise of Hitler and World War II but also resulted in lasting peace in Western Europe and successful independence movements in Africa and Asia, the creation of a tiny country, Israel, in the geographic heart of Islam as well as the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq will ultimately give birth to the modernization of Islam worldwide.
Large-scale unemployment and acute poverty in the general population along with corruption in high places give rise to militancy. This previously led to the rise of socialist and communist movements and leaders in Third World nations like India, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, and Angola, and several Islamic nations: Egypt (Gamal Abdel Nasser), Iran (Mohammad Mossadegh), Iraq (Abdul Karim Qassim and later on Baath Party), Syria (Baath Party), Algeria (Ben Bella and Boumédienne), Tunisia (Democratic Constitutional Rally party, previously known as the Socialist Destourian Party), South Yemen (Yemeni Socialist Party), Libya (Muammar al-Gaddafi), and Somalia (Siad Barre), as well as various factions of the PLO. Nowadays, the unemployed and poor are swayed to militancy in the name of religion: the Hindu parties Shiva Sena and Bajrang Dal in India, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Mehdi militia in Iraq.
Right now the U.S. (and its Western allies) is being able to impose its will, through carrots and sticks, in almost all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, barring countries like Iran and Syria. Besides Iraq, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan are the three largest recipients of direct aid from the U.S. Israel, though one of the 20 richest countries in the world, received more than $3 billion, or one-third of total direct U.S. aid, which amounts to $500 per Israeli annually. Egypt and Jordan get $2 billion and about $450 million each year from the US. Bahrain is home to the administrative headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. There are significant US military installations in Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Syria was forced to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 passed after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, former prime minister and billionaire in February 2005. The U.S. and France played an instrumental role for the withdrawal of Syrian forces. After their withdrawal, the U.S. gave 280 million military aid to pro-Western Lebanese government in order to undermine Hezbollah.
In December 2008, the Taliban captured the Swat valley, used to be considered as the "the Switzerland of Pakistan” due to its great natural beauty. Instead of fighting the Taliban, the Pakistani Government signed a peace accord with them in February 2009 and agreed to the imposition of Sharia law in Swat and suspend military offensive against them. The Taliban set up its own parallel government in Swat valley. They have enforced strict radical Islamic rules like ban on female education, closing all video stores and ban on cutting beards. They have closed all the girl schools, even burnt hundreds of them. In April 2009 the Taliban captured Buner valley, just 60 miles from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Then Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, said that the Pakistan’s civilian government might fall to the Taliban. He gave only six weeks to the Pakistan’s civilian government to show some results. Only under pressure from the US, Pakistan’s army went on offensive against the Taliban with full force, by even dropping paratroopers from helicopters. By May 2009, the army was able to clear Buner valley of the Taliban and some area in Swat valley. This led to a humanitarian crisis as 150,000 to 200,000 civilians had to flee the war zone. Although the army was able to get control of some part of the valley, they were not able to kill or capture substantial number of Islamic militants as most of them just fled from the area.
Pakistan’s civilian government and army are obeying the US’s order because they are getting substantial amount of money as well as military hardwares from the US. The economy of Pakistan is in very precarious condition and it needs IMF loans to survive. Without foreign aid, its economy will collapse. Once the US’s economy collapses, Pakistan’s economy will be nowhere leading to the collapse of its civilian government and its army’s will to fight the Taliban. Also the US will not be able to impose its will on Pakistan if it will not have economic or military clout. This will give a free hand to the Taliban in Pakistan.
It is important to note that under threat from the U.S. only that Pakistan abandoned the Taliban when after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. decided to overthrow the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened General Pervez Musharraf, the then Pakistani leader, that he had to decide whether to be with America or with the terrorists, and that if he decided to go with the latter, Pakistan should be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age. Only then did Musharraf abandon the Taliban.
Although some people in US, especially Republicans, claim that the drastic reduction in the number of deaths of US soldiers in Iraq as the US victory, actually anti-US forces are just waiting for the US to withdraw the bulk of its forces. By removing Saddam Hussein, the US has virtually given the control of Iraq to it’s the arch enemy Iran. Hence the US can not claim it a victory.
According to Bob Woodword, the U.S. troop "surge" of 2007, in which President Bush sent nearly 30,000 additional U.S. combat forces and support troops to Iraq, was not the primary factor behind the steep drop in violence there during the past 16 months. He wrote overall that four factors were responsible to reduce the violence: the covert operations; the influx of troops; the decision by militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to rein in his powerful Mahdi Army; and the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and allied with U.S. forces. His assessment was based on talks with several senior American officials.
Apart from this, ethnic cleansing of Sunnis by Shiites was an important factor for the reduction of violence in Iraq. According to a study published in September 2008, satellite images taken at night showed heavily Sunni Arab neighborhoods of Baghdad began emptying before a U.S. troop surge in 2007, graphic evidence of ethnic cleansing that preceded a drop in violence. This study was led by geography professor John Agnew of the University of California Los Angeles. The images support the view of international refugee organizations and Iraq experts that a major population shift was a key factor in the decline in sectarian violence, particularly in the Iraqi capital, the epicenter of the bloodletting in which hundreds of thousands were killed. Minority Sunni Arabs were driven out of many neighborhoods by Shiite militants enraged by the bombing of the Samarra mosque in February 2006. Agnew’s team used publicly available infrared night imagery from a weather satellite operated by the U.S. Air force. According to their report, the overall night light signature of Baghdad since the U.S. invasion appeared to have increased between 2003 and 2006 and then declined dramatically from 20 March 2006 through 16 December 2007. The report said the night lights of Shiite-dominated Sadr City remained constant, as did lights in the Green Zone government and diplomatic compound in center Baghdad. Satellite studies have also been used to help document forced relocations in Myanmar and ethnic cleansing in Uganda.
Using Vietnam as an example, some people claim that after the withdrawal of American troops Iraq will fall to Islamic militants, but that the damage will be limited to Iraq only. In other words, other Middle Eastern nations will avoid Iraq’s fate because of the failure of a domino effect to materialize after the fall of South Vietnam and withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1973. A major difference characterizes the two situations, however. In the case of Vietnam, communists lacked sufficient political power in any other country in East or Southeast Asia. In the Middle East, however, almost all countries have Muslim majorities, face active Islamic militancy, and are governed by pro-Western rulers disliked by the majority of the people. If free and fair democratic elections were to be held in any of them, Islamic militants would win. This has already occurred in the 2006 Palestinian elections (Hamas), the 1992 Algerian elections, the 2005 Egyptian elections, and the 2002 and 2007 elections in Turkey, when Islamic militant parties won a significant number of seats. Although after invading the U.S. installed secular politicians in the Iraq Interim Government, most lost to fundamentalists in the 2005 general elections.
Parts of South Asia are following a similar trajectory. Half of Afghanistan is already under the Taliban. The Talibanization of Pakistan is already underway as the Talibans are controlling large areas near Pakistan-Afghanistan border as well as they are trying to impose strict Sharia rules in major Pakistan’s cities. In the 2008 Pakistani elections, the two main opposition parties, the PPP and PML(N), won the majority of seats and formed the government. But the top leaders of these two parties are well known for corruption, and it is just matter of time before Pakistanis become disenchanted. In the past this has led to military dictatorships, yet Pakistan could fall to the mullahs.
After the withdrawal of the bulk of US troops and also collapse of the US economy, Iraq will erupt in a free-for-all. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia will interfere by funding militias, leading to a chaos.
Because of religious insurgency, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan may fall to Islamic fundamentalists. If this happens, it will initiate a domino effect throughout the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
Due to economic woes, the U.S. will be unable to support its allies in the Middle East and North Africa either economically or militarily. The U.S. military will suffer the same fate as that of the early-1990s U.S.S.R., when Soviet submarines and aircraft carriers rusted in their dockyards and most ended up in the junkyard. Following a U.S. economic crash and subsequent global economic depression, the intensity of Islamic militancy will rise. Economic depression will make it easier for militants to take over Islamic countries because large-scale unemployment and acute poverty, coupled with corruption in high places, produce militancy.
The said domino effect will cause one after another of the pro-U.S. and pro-Western governments in Islamic countries to fall into the hands of Islamic militants, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (like in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Morocco, Kuwait, Afghanistan, etc.). These radical regimes may also try to re-establish the caliphate. Here I would like to quote from my 1995 article: “After the fall of oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia to radical Islamic militants, Islamic clerics will try to establish an Islamic empire like the old Ottoman Empire.”
The U.S. and other Western governments will impose economic embargoes against these regimes and isolate them, creating tremendous hardship for the people there. This strategy may be successful. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libya are two recent examples of it succeeding. It forced Saddam to destroy all his WMDs, and Gaddafi had to give up his two intelligence officers for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 as well as his WMD’s. Hamas in Palestine is another example. After the January 2006 legislative elections, Hamas won a majority of seats and formed a government in March. But after the U.S. and E.U. boycott of the Hamas-led government and stoppage of funding, the government was unable to provide salaries to tens of thousands of Palestinian government employees for several months, leading to chaos.
The Islamic militants may rule for some time, say 10-20 years (maybe even 40-50 years), but they will never be able to turn the clock back in the present digital age, i.e. they can not impose a 7th century Arabian culture on the 21st century population. Therefore in the end these militants are bound to be over thrown by home grown secular “modern-day Kemal Ataturks,” i.e. when ordinary people fail to find relief from radical Islamic regimes, they will force a change in leadership. These Kemals will inaugurate drastic social and religious changes, and the West will help them financially. It is important to note that Turkey had been the seat of the Ottoman Empire for six centuries, with Istanbul as its capital. Beginning in 1517, it also claimed to be the seat of the caliph, the highest Islamic authority. Kemal dramatically altered this state of affairs in a very short span of time, however, after taking the reins of Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The dynasty was abolished and the sultan banished. The caliphate, the spiritual and political leadership system of the Islamic world, begun after the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632, was abolished in 1924. Kemal introduced several radical political, legal, cultural, social, and economic reforms. Islamic courts were closed. In the new constitution, European laws and jurisprudence were adopted. The Turkish administration and educational system were thoroughly secularized and modernized. The “fez,” a hat worn by men introduced by Sultan Mahmud II as part of the empire’s dress code in 1826, was banned, and people were encouraged to wear European dress. It became illegal for women to wear a veil or headscarf. Women were given the right to vote and own property, a right even women in several Western countries were denied. Even the script was changed, and the old alphabet based on the Arabic script was replaced by one based on the Roman script used in the West.
If there is no external threat or the administration is not imposed or supported by the US or outsiders, then people will vote for political parties who will work for their development. In the last 2008 Bangladesh elections, secular party Awami League-led Grand Alliance decimated her rivals by huge margins by getting 261 seats out of 300 seats in the National Assembly, with Awami League taking 230 seats. The rival alliance led by BNP could get only 27 seats. BNP’s Islamists ally Jamaat-e Islami wiped out in the elections with all their major leaders suffering humiliating defeats and the party getting only two seats as compared to 17 seats in last elections held in 2001.
On a micro scale we are witnessing this phenomenon in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan also, where the top al-Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, are hiding. In the 2002 elections, Islamic parties won 46 out of 96 provincial parliamentary seats and formed the government. But as they mismanaged the government and were more interested in enforcing Sharia rules than providing water, health facilities, and girls’ schools in this tribal area, they could win only nine seats in the 2008 elections and lost to the secular Awami National Party. But again the Taliban, who are supported by some factions within Pakistan’s ISI, captured this area by attacking Pakistan’s army posts and killing prominent secular Muslim leaders. Hence there is a long way to go.
The road to modernization for other Muslim nations may be less democratic. During this period of transformation, the U.S., Europe, including Russia, India, and Islamic and other countries will in fact see increased Islamic terrorism, including suicide bombings. Although the transition will take several decades and be marked with violence, in the end Islam will no longer be the guiding force behind politics in the Middle East or North Africa. It is worth noting that it took almost three and a half decades (from 1914 to 1945) for Europe to make the transition from its remaining monarchies to vibrant democracies. Until the early 1900s, nobody was predicting that democracy would replace kingdoms in most of Western Europe, or that African and Asian countries would gain independence within five to six decades.
Worst is yet to come in countries like India where there is a large Muslim population (140 million) and there is lack of modern technology of monitoring system and street level intelligence which countries like the U.S. have. India is going to witness terrorists attacks in major cities similar to the attacks on two 2008 Mumbai prestigious hotels. The US has a danger from home grown terrorists, i.e. converted Muslims.
Economic collapse will also lead to a steep drop in oil demand and crash in oil prices. This will lead to economic chaos in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the UAE, whose economies rely on exporting oil, and further strengthen the hands of Islamic fundamentalists there. If militants take over a majority of these oil-producing nations or damage major oil-producing infrastructures, crude oil prices may also rise. These are two completely different scenarios, and we do not know which one will prevail or whether they will cancel each other out, changing the price of oil little.
Once Islam loses the patronage of people in power, it will gradually modernize and become more tolerant toward women and non-Muslims. As discussed in my book The Modernization Islam and the Creation of A Multipolar World Order, if we discard the divinity of Muhammad’s revelations, i.e., assume that his revelations were not divine, the Quran is just a collection of the social practices of 7th century Arabia. After some time, Muslims will start to follow the spiritual aspects of Islam more than its social and militant aspects and Sharia. Religions like Christianity and Hinduism went through this transformation several centuries ago. Now it is time for Islam to do the same.
It is very difficult to predict the exact sequence of events which will lead to the modernization of Islam in these Islamic countries. In 1900, nobody would have been able to predict the exact sequence of events which would have led to the collapse of kingdoms in Europe, leading to the vibrant democracy in Western Europe with most Asian and African countries getting independence from their colonial masters within five to six decades. Right now we are witnessing a rise of Islamic militancy globally and with the collapse of US economy, Islamists are going to take over in a number of countries. If one discards the divinity aspects of the Muhammad’s revelations, i.e. his revelations were not divines, the Quran is just the social practices of 7th century Arabia, and it can not be imposed on the twenty-first century population for long period of time. Hitler also tried to turn back the clock, i.e. he tried to create a thousand years of Third Reich, but it lasted only 12 years. Instead he worked as a catalyst for the speedy collapse of the colonial empires as well as European kingdoms. Similarly the present global rise in Islamic militant is going to work as a catalyst for the modernization in Islam. Although these types of events result in the death of a large number of innocent people, it speeds up the process of the changes in the human civilization, i.e. the changes which would have taken several centuries to take place, takes only few decades.
1 Musharraf, Pervez, In the Line of Fire, Free Press, New York, 2006, p. 201.
2 Woodward, Bob, The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008, Simon & Schuster, 2008
3 Fox, Maggie, “Satellite images show ethnic cleanout in Iraq,” Reuters, September 19, 2008.
4 Kumar, Susmit, “Christian vs. Islamic Civilization: Another Cold War?”, Global Times, October 1995, p. 27.