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INTRODUCTION: The Clash of Arab Civilizations
It was hard not to take 9/11 personally. I was raised in New York City, so when those planes ﬂew into the World Trade Center, it felt like a direct attack on my family and friends and myself, on the neighborhoods where I’d gone to school, played, and worked, and on the Brooklyn block where I was living that beautiful summer day when the sky darkened with the ashes of other New Yorkers. It occurred to me more than once during the time I spent living and traveling in the Middle East after 9/11 that had I lived most of my life in some other American city or village, had New York not been my hometown, I might not have moved to the region some few months after to try to ﬁgure out what had happened. This book is an account of my time in the Middle East since then, and my understanding of it. My conclusion, without racing too far ahead, is that we all took 9/11 too personally.
The spectacular nature of the event was cause enough to see it as a declaration of war on America, so it is hardly surprising that Americans across the political spectrum came to think of it in the context of a “clash of civilizations.” Even those on the left who disdained the phrase nonetheless employed a version of the conceit when explaining that the death and destruction were by-products of the legitimate grievances that Arabs had with the United States, which was ﬁnally just a way of delivering a verdict for the other side in the same civilizational war.
I see it a little differently. I believe that 9/11 was evidence of a clash all right, but the clash that led to 9/11 was less the conﬂict between the West and Islam than the conﬂict between the Arabs themselves. In that sense, strange as it sounds, the attacks on New York and Washington were not really about us.
To be sure, a signiﬁcant part of the Middle East, including Osama bin Laden, is at war expressly with the United States. And there are genuine points of conﬂict between the lands of Islam and the West, including a religious rivalry that dates back to the appearance of the Quran and myriad regional confrontations to which the United States’ strategic interests make us party. But these conﬂicts are just part of a system of wars that involves the entire Middle East. We are now incontrovertibly a part of these wars, but their causes and sources are to be found in the region itself, and not at the lower end of Manhattan, or even in the halls of the Pentagon. September 11 is the day we woke up to ﬁnd ourselves in the middle of a clash of Arab civilizations, a war that used American cities as yet another venue for Arabs to ﬁght each other.
If that assertion sounds implausible, it’s because Americans are accustomed to thinking of themselves, in one way or another, as the source of the tumult in the Middle East. And that feeling was magniﬁed after 9/11, when the continued eruptions of violence in the region made it hard for observers, from ordinary Americans to international affairs specialists, not to assume that the Bush administration was mostly, if not wholly, responsible for what was happening. But the problems of the region will not fade now that Barack Obama is in the White House, because they did not start when George W. Bush arrived there. Consider just a few of the clashes that preceded Bush’s tenure: the intrastate Arab crises like Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and Syria’s occupation of Lebanon (1990–2005); the civil wars that wracked North Yemen (1962–1970) and Lebanon (1975–1990); wars between the state and non-state actors, like the Islamist insurgencies that ravaged Algeria (1991–2002), Egypt (1981–1997), and Syria (1979–1982), and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s revolt against the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (1968–1971); the genocidal bouts of ethnic and sectarian cleansing, like Saddam’s campaigns against the Kurds and Shia, Hafez alAssad’s mass slaughter of Sunnis in Hama in 1982, and the Sudanese government’s campaigns against Christians and animists in the south (1981–2004) and now against non-Arab Muslims in Darfur. In all of these, the United States played, at most, a secondary role, and was often little more than a bystander.
Nor is this a new phenomenon. It’s true, of course, that outside actors—including the United States and the Soviet Union and, before them, the European colonial powers—have helped shape the history of the Middle East. But ultimately their actions and policies have been less important than we imagine. If we think differently—if we think that we are to blame for what is wrong with the Middle East— it’s because of two things: our own narcissism and the tendency of Arab nationalists to blame outside forces for the problems of their region. For decades now, the United States has been a convenient foil for those who believe that only the machinations of an evil outsider could keep the Arabs from becoming a formidable political, economic, and military bloc, just as we have become a convenient foil for Islamists seeking to explain why the Muslim world has fallen so far behind the West. But in both cases, focusing on the United States is a way of overlooking what’s really happening. In this book, I shift that focus back to where it belongs: on the conﬂicts and divisions within the Middle East itself.
There are some, of course, who deny that these conﬂicts among Arabs and Muslims matter. For most of the past century, in fact, the mainstream American interpretation of the Middle East has seen it as a monolithic body, made up of people of similar backgrounds and similar opinions. (This misconception is frequently vented through the tidy journalistic cliché known as “the Arab street,” which presumes that, say, a Lebanese Christian and an Iraqi Shia necessarily hold the same point of view as an Egyptian Sunni.) More important, this is how Arab nationalists also see the world. Arab nationalism is a political and cultural doctrine holding that the Arabs, by virtue of a shared language, constitute a separate and single people. It is a tribal pact raised to the supranational level: in projecting unity, it seeks to obscure local enmities and keep Arabs from making war against each other. Arab nationalists have hoped to coalesce the energies of disparate factions and concentrate their hostilities onto a common, distant enemy.
It is somewhat paradoxical that even while Arab nationalism, and then Islamism, has taken the United States to be its main foil for over half a century, all during that time the mainstream American interpretation of the Arabic-speaking Middle East has been Arab nationalist, from the American missionaries who ﬁrst ventured into the Holy Land to the oil companies and the State Department, from the academy to editorial boardrooms and foreign bureaus. The United States has paid a steep price for misconstruing the region like this, but at one time our face-value acceptance of Arab nationalism had at least the advantage of being in line with American interests.
Arab nationalism is a Sunni Arab viewpoint. The doctrine’s foundations are in a language considered holy by most Middle Easterners, and a history that holds the Prophet of Islam to be the greatest of all Arab heroes, and thus it is a sop to the status quo power of the Arabic-speaking Middle East that has ruled the region for more than a millennium, the Sunnis. Since the mid-1930s, the United States’ most vital interest in the Middle East has been energy, and as the world’s largest known reserves of oil are in Saudi Arabia, Washington has been guided by its need to accommodate a Sunni regime whose inﬂuence is proportionate to its wealth. America’s Sunnicentrism has also been shaped by cultural and historical factors, but it is mostly the political and economic rationale that has given us our view of the region, a fact that allows us to derive a general principle: the Great Powers’ view of the Middle East is shaped by their own interests.
Even before the discovery of oil, for instance, the British looked at the region much the same way as we have, as a Sunni ﬁefdom. With the British Empire comprising enormous numbers of Sunnis from Egypt and Palestine to Iraq and the Persian Gulf all the way to the crown’s prize holding in India, London tinkered little after World War I with the skeletal remains of the Ottoman Empire’s administrative structure. The Ottomans’ Sunni Arab deputies were left in charge to protect and advance British interests, even in Iraq, where the Sunnis were, and are, clearly a minority. The French, however, saw the Middle East differently, partly because they were in competition with the British, and also because their Middle Eastern holdings included signiﬁcant minority populations in conﬂict with the Sunnis, like the Maronites in Lebanon, the Alawis in Syria, and the Berbers in Algeria, communities that the French used to serve their own interests.
In the wake of 9/11, Washington found that the Middle East looked more like the way the French had conceived of it than how the British had ruled it. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq changed the balance of power by pushing aside a Sunni strongman and empowering a national majority, the Shia, which, since they are also a regional minority, altered the nature of U.S. strategy. As descriptions of the Middle East go hand in hand with national interests, we need a way to understand the region in line with the reality now exposed, and this book proposes one. The Arabic-speaking Middle East is not a sea of some 300 million Arabs who all have common interests but a region with a 70 percent Sunni population and dozens of minorities. The size of the Sunni majority, and its concomitant power and prestige, have allowed it to rule by violence, repression, and coercion for close to fourteen hundred years. The Sunnis have been a bloc of force that has never known accommodation or compromise, but has rather compelled everyone else to submit to its worldview.
This does not mean that the Sunnis’ reliance on violence to maintain their rule is the “root cause” of the problems in the Middle East. Rather, it is just the central motif in a pattern that existed before Islam and is imprinted on all of the region’s social and political relations—whether the state is facing down insurgents, or nationalists are ﬁghting Islamists, or one tribe is squared off against another, or two minorities are at war with each other. The order of the region is the natural order of things that the fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun describes in his masterpiece Al-Muqaddima: history is a matter of one tribe, nation, or civilization dominating the others by force until it, too, is overthrown by force. And it is this, what I call the strong horse principle—not Western imperialism, nor Zionism, nor Washington policy makers—that has determined the fundamental character of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, where bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe but represents the political and social norm.
The war that Arabs are waging against the United States, some in deed as well as in word, is merely a massive projection of the same pattern of force, with a tribe bound as one to defend against and defeat the outsider. The Arabs hate us not because of what we do or who we are but because of what and who we are not: Arabs. But because of the size and heterogeneity of this putative Arab nation, that compact is not sustainable on so large a scale, civilization versus civilization. The wars waged between Arabs according to the strong horse principle make the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Middle East a much graver threat to themselves than they are to anyone else.
The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations is broken into three parts. The ﬁrst part details the complex of issues—from tribalism to Arab nationalism, and from Islam to Islamism—spanning Arab history from before the advent of Islam through the nineteenth-century Muslim reform movement that have shaped the contemporary Middle East. And it is these issues taken as a whole that led to 9/11. The second part describes how the Bush White House responded to the attacks according to what it perceived to be the problems of the Middle East, and how the region in turn reacted to the Americans. At the core of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 strategy was democratization, and thus the ﬁnal third of the book looks at the challenge of making democracy work in a region that has little experience with it.
The ﬁrst chapter deals with the tribal character of Arab societies, including jihad and its most famous contemporary practitioner, Osama bin Laden. The next two chapters take up Arab nationalism by sketching its history, introducing some of its most prominent ideologues, and describing the political, social, and cultural purposes to which it’s been put. While those chapters deal explicitly with Arab-ism, this is a subject that runs throughout the book since I understand it to be the region’s deﬁning issue. In fact, I take Islam, at least in its initial thrust, to be little more than a variety—indeed the ﬁrst manifestation—of Arab nationalism. Over time, as it extended throughout the Fertile Crescent, Persia, and North Africa, Islam clearly became something else and something more than just a pan-Arab ideology, but before anyone imagined the revelation embedded in the Arabic Quran could spread to faraway Spain or the Asian subcontinent, the “universality” of this religious and political doctrine applied to the various Arabian tribes to be uniﬁed under the rule of an Arabian leader, the Prophet of Islam. And for the conquered non-Arabs who converted to the new faith, as one scholar of the period explained, “membership of Islam was equated with possession of an Arab ethnic identity.”1 The early umma—or Muslim community—was an Arab super-tribe held together not by blood and kinship but by a religious idea that motivated and rationalized the Arab conquests by distinguishing between the tribe and all comers—Muslims versus inﬁdels, dar al-Islam versus dar al-harb, or the abode of Islam versus that which is not under Islam, the abode of war.
Dar al-Islam’s ﬁrst modern encounter with dar al-harb was Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. The fourth and ﬁfth chapters describe the intellectual and cultural ferment that came in the aftermath of this collision between the West and the Arab world, looking speciﬁcally at the rise of the Muslim reform movement. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Muslim intellectuals and activists took the West as their yardstick to measure how far the umma had fallen, and contended that the failure was due to the condition of Islam itself. They argued that the Islamic faith had been corrupted by centuries of fake customs and practices, leaving dar al-Islam so brittle that the inﬁdels had overrun it effortlessly. The Salaﬁst movement, as this reform current is called, is the precursor of what we know today as political Islam or, more frequently, Islamism.
It is a common misconception that Islamism is a deviant, radical ideology bearing little resemblance to the “real” or “traditional” Islam. I argue instead that Islamism represents the modern, progressive, and rationalist effort of Muslims to come to terms with the forces of modernity heralded by Napoleon’s arrival. The terror and violence that mark what we’ve come to call Islamic radicalism are the products of the mixture of Salaﬁsm with traditional Arab politics, which has no mechanism for peaceful transitions of authority or power sharing, and therefore sees political conﬂict as a ﬁght to the death between strong horses. Far from being deviant, the Islamists’ reliance on violence is all too characteristic, not of Islam, but of the region. Consider the struggles we see played out today across the Middle East, with insurgents and oppositionists waging terror campaigns to win power, while the regimes use torture and collective punishment to defeat their domestic competition. Aside from the venue, September 11 was just the business of Arab politics as usual.
The second part begins by connecting the problem of Arab politics to the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. When the Americans turned to the region and touched down in force, they found that the problem wasn’t just bin Laden but bin Ladenism. The issue wasn’t a shadowy network of rogue terrorists, or Arab regimes that jailed, tortured, and murdered their own people, but a political culture where insurgent terror and state repression were two sides of the same bloody coin. Indeed, as the Americans discovered, the most pressing strategic concern was less Al Qaeda than the collaboration between states and so-called stateless terrorist outﬁts. In particular, it became clear that the biggest threat to stability in the region was not bin Laden. It was instead a confederation led not by a Sunni Arab regime but by a Shia Persian power, Iran, alongside Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and various Iraqi groups. This confederation, which I call the resistance bloc, fought the United States and its allies on several fronts—Iraq, the Persian Gulf, the Palestinian territories and Israel, and Lebanon. At this point, the Middle East cold war, as it has come to be called, becomes a signiﬁcant theme in the book, as Iran and the resistance bloc compete with the United States and its allies to impose regional order as the strong horse.
In the sixth and seventh chapters, I discuss the White House’s program to change the nature of the Middle East, a program built around the top-down imposition of democracy or, more speciﬁcally, free elections. The Americans believed that giving Arabs a say in governing their own political, economic, and social lives was an antidote to bin Ladenism and the strong horse. What they discovered was that, as one Arab commentator noted, the problem with Arab democracy was not a lack of supply but a lack of demand. In failing to grasp that Arab political pathologies were organic—that is, the absence of democracy in the region is the result of Arab societies’ conception of what politics requires—the White House’s democracy promotion left the Americans pushing a set of ideas and values that most Arabs had no interest in. The trappings of democracy do not create democratic polities; free societies need to be built by men and women with a stake in their own futures. And so, in the eighth chapter, I look at the only indigenous cultural and intellectual idea in the Middle East that is capable of producing such people, namely, Arab liberalism. After 9/11, one major question in the Middle East was to what extent the American intervention in the region would empower the Arab liberals, or expose them to more danger.
In the ﬁnal part of the book, I look more closely at the problem of democracy in the Middle East. My case study in the ninth chapter deals with Lebanon, the one Arab society where many of the ingredients for a democratic polity already existed. In 2005, Lebanon was the site of a remarkable, and in many ways unprecedented, upsurge of democratic sentiment, as Lebanese citizens of different faiths joined together in what became known as the March 14 movement. They mounted massive public demonstrations in favor of real democracy and brought about, for a time, what was labeled the Cedar Revolution. Yet even as it gave birth to this hopeful development, Lebanon was also home to one of the purest specimens of violence and strong horse tactics in the region, the Shia group Hezbollah, which was supported by Syria and Iran. The clash between the March 14 movement and the Hezbollah/Syria alliance offers an object lesson in the obstacles to making the Middle East democratic.
In chapter 10, I deal more directly with Syria, and show how successful it has been in its efforts to prove that democracy cannot work in Lebanon and that there is no serious alternative to strong horse politics. I argue that the only way to have stopped the Syrians from stamping out real democracy was for the United States to have played the role of strong horse itself. Once it refused to do so in Lebanon, the Cedar Revolution was doomed. Paradoxically, violence may be the only way to ensure that nonviolent politics can thrive in the region. Along those lines, I argue in the ﬁnal chapter that Israel’s two most recent wars—those with Hezbollah and Hamas—must be seen outside of the narrow focus of the Arab-Israeli arena and in the context of the power politics of the region. In effect, I suggest, Israel has been a proxy strong horse not just for the United States but also for Sunni Arab regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The conclusion considers what may be in store for the Arabs and what is the way forward for the United States in the region. The Arabs are weak, and this frailty in turn reﬂects on their patron, the United States. Since the political nature of the region abhors a vacuum, I describe how Arab weakness may affect American regional interests, and how it has invited in other actors, like Iran, and may invite in more, like the Turks. If we lack resolve, others will force their own order on the region, an order in which American interests, and Arab ambitions, will matter little. One way or another, I argue, this is a future that should be avoided, for it would be disastrous, not for the United States so much as for the Arabs themselves.
This is a book about Arab politics, society, and culture, which is to say this is a book about some Arab ideas and the force they have on how people live from day to day in the region. I have tried to discuss those ideas as dispassionately as possible, although I recognize that the main thesis—that violence is central to the politics, society, and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East—is likely to cause unease. Nonetheless, the idea that people naturally prefer the strong horse to the weak one in this part of the world seems to me unassailable; it is impossible to understand the region without recognizing the signiﬁcance of violence, coercion, and repression. That doesn’t mean that I think the Arabs only understand force—a charge frequently leveled by many critics against, for instance, the Bush administration. It just means, I think, that force is at the core of the way most Arabs understand politics, and that therefore there is no way to understand how the Middle East works without understanding the concept of the strong horse. It is not a moral judgment but a description.
This is, to be sure, not a concept that comes naturally to Americans, because we are among the very few people in history who have been able to live our daily lives free, relatively speaking, from violence and the fear of violence. The various protections and liberties afforded us in our society have their roots in man’s fear of violent death,2 but we have come so far from that point that it is difﬁcult for us to see that our form of political organization makes us not the norm but a privileged exception, the beneﬁciaries of a historical anomaly. We are so predisposed to ignore our freakish luck, as well as the blood spilled by our ancestors, that we imagine all men must have inherited essentially the same world that we have and are thus motivated by the same hopes and fears and ideas. In short, they are not.
Indirectly, then, this book is also about American ideas, or some American ideas, especially those about the best form of government and the possibility and desirability of bringing our political ideas and practices to societies and cultures that are vastly different from our own. It is also a book about my ideas and how they changed over time, what I had invested in certain ideas, and certain people, and why I was compelled to modify some and abandon others outright.
A few words about the style of this book are also in order. Like the Arabic-speaking Middle East, it is a heterogeneous affair, a book combining travelogue and policy, memoir and history, literature and revealed religion in an effort to give as full and dense a picture of a complex part of the world as possible in a tight space. I have limited the scope of this book by excluding the Maghreb (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), as well as other African states (Libya, Sudan, and Somalia), to focus on the Mashreq, a region stretching from the eastern Mediterranean states—Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and Israel—to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Several chapters are set in Egypt, the largest Arab state and the cultural and intellectual capital of the region where every major political and cultural trend of the last century has either its origins or its golden age, from Nasserism to the Islamist movement to Arab liberalism. Other chapters move on to the Arab Gulf states, and the Levant, especially Syria and Lebanon. This last I take to be the most beautiful country in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, as well as the most open and tolerant, most hopeful and tragic. Beirut, in contrast to Cairo (a Sunni-dominated society that offers mostly one perspective on the region), is a perfect crow’s nest from which to watch the Middle East as the rest of the world comes into contact with it, a geographical, strategic, and historical vantage point. Almost every state in the region has a stake in Lebanon, from Shiite Iran to Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia, as do international actors like France and the United States, which for better or worse now represents the legacy of Western Christendom and its sustained interest in the Holy Land. Over the last millennium and a half, every imaginable crisis and conﬂict—sectarian, ideological, political, and civilizational—has had its day in Lebanon, most recently during the country’s ﬁfteen-year-long civil wars, which in summoning the region’s historical furies also presaged everything we are now seeing in the Middle East.
I recognize that from an American perspective, the most prominent Arab state at present is still Iraq, and while this book discusses some of the ways in which the war and its aftermath reverberated throughout the Middle East, Iraq in this telling is something like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. It is a signiﬁcant presence that set certain events in motion, and motivates the behavior of signiﬁcant players, but it is almost entirely offstage. So much of our attention and energy is consumed right now with Iraq that the sharp focus has dulled our ability to take in the Middle East as a whole; likewise, our knowledge of Iraq is incomplete without seeing it in the context of the rest of the region.
That other well-known center of conﬂict, Israel, I reach at the very end, for reasons that I hope will become increasingly clear. Unlike many in both the Middle East and the West, I give no credence to the idea that the Arab-Israeli crisis is the region’s central issue. That a broad consensus of prominent policy makers, academics, analysts, and journalists so relentlessly advertise this conviction does not mean that they are correct, only that their obstinacy retards our understanding of the region, where the Arab-Israeli arena is merely one among many conﬂicts featuring the same problems that plague the entire Middle East. Regardless of what else one can say about America’s post-9/11 policy, the one undeniable success of the Bush White House was to return the problems of the Middle East to the region itself, and it is there rather than in the southern end of Manhattan that the clash of Arab civilizations will be solved or managed or settled, in one way or another.