Tuesday, August 02, 2005

War Over the Core of the Middle East

I remember when the United States invaded Iraq, the one sound-bite that kept recurring over and over again was that "America was in the process of implementing a new Sykes Picot Agreement." It seemed like everyone from the region I talked to subscribed to that line of thought without hesitation. For the longest of time, even I believed that there were at least some aspects of the claim that were true. If the Americans were not going to redraw borders, they were definitely creating a new regional balance of power, and appeared to threaten the status quo in a manner that was simply unprecedented.

The recent suicide bombing attacks in London, Turkey and Egypt however, have instigated a “revelation” in my thinking. The revelation scares me though. It scares me because it points to certain new realities that make what seemed unfathomable yesterday, extremely viable today.

In short, the bombings revealed to me that the war between al Qaeda and the West is not only about oil, nor is it only about “infidel” troops on “holy” land. Rather, the Americans, British and the French are fighting tooth and nail to protect nothing less than the Sykes-Picot Agreement itself (the agreement that signifies the birth of the Middle East as we know it today).

Why the Islamic Umma May Win where the Arab Umma Failed

It is no big secret; the legitimacy of most “Arab” states is, in the best of circumstances, precarious. Throughout its modern history there has never been a shortage of “pan-something” ideologies & identities in the region! Yet, with the brief exception of Nasser’s Pan Arabism (prior to Nasser’s humiliation in 1967), none of these ideologies ever really posed an existential threat to any of the Arab states. Quite to the contrary, most of the ideologies were adopted by regimes to increase their own legitimacy and consequently reinforce the status quo.

Considering the absolutely miserable performance of secular “pan-something” ideologies, why should we be concerned about the threat that Islamic Fundamentalism poses on the Sykes Picot Agreement? Is it not simply another manifestation of previous failed initiatives?

The main reasons I worry are as follows:

  1. the Pan Arab ideologies were state-sponsored and did not have a non-state champion with the popularity and destructive power of al Qaeda

  1. there was never a united counter-elite that spanned the entire world similar to al-Qaeda – an organization that utilizes the internet and other technologies that were not available in the mid-twentieth century to spread its message and coordinate “military” activities on a global scale

  1. al Qaeda is using Islam as a much more effective political tool than Pan Arabism could ever be used. Islam is an established religion; Pan Arabism was a hollow “quasi-ideology.” It can be argued that it has more of an appeal.

  1. Arab regimes, such as Egypt’s are inadvertently assisting al Qaeda by conceding ever more ground to religious fanatics in the hope of increasing their legitimacy. Why should Mullahs bother to criticize the regime when they are indirectly undermining the legitimacy of the state itself through their political sermons?

  1. Finally, and most importantly, al Qaeda is targeting what it perceives to be the Western “pillars” of not only the region’s regimes, but the actual states created by Sykes Picot. Could the Saudi regime survive without the support it receives from the United States? The first Gulf War proved that it could not. Could the Saudi state, (as it is defined by its current borders) exist without US support? The Iraqi precedent, which is taking place as you are reading these words, proves that it will not. The same applies to all of the other states in the region.

Is al Qaeda Winning?

Yes. If you go to any bookstore in the US, the number of books you see with titles that include the phrase, “Muslim world,” or “Islamic this or that” is simply unbelievable. The main unit of analysis for the “Western” intellectual is no longer “Egypt,” or “Syria” or “Malaysia” or “Morocco.” The unit of analysis is not even “Arab.” Today, Western intellectuals speak of the “Islamic” world (as if it were one entity) more than any other time in modern history. A former professor once told me that Samuel Huntington and al Qaeda were best friends because they both saw the world in a similar light. Today, Huntington is one of hundreds if not thousands of Western intellectuals who see the world the way al Qaeda wants them to see it.

Even in military circles, the notion of a “Muslim Army” that fights wars in Chechnya, Kashmir, Israel/Palestine, the Philippines and West Africa is growing. According to this line of thinking, al Qaeda is the equivalent of a “Special Forces” that operates behind enemy lines, and causes as much chaos as possible. Michael Scheuer, the former head of a CIA taskforce that was created for the sole purpose of capturing or killing Bin Laden propagated that paradigm in his best seller, Imperial Hubris. On CNN, a General posted at US Army Intelligence proclaimed that there already exists a “virtual Caliphate” on the World Wide Web.

Today’s war between al Qaeda and “the West” is a war over transforming that “virtual Caliphate” into a real Caliphate. It is a fight to the finish because everything in the Middle East is at stake – not just Israel, not just oil or natural gas, but the entire “Western Project” that is represented in the Levant by the Sykes Picot Agreement (which created the states of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Iraq). If al Qaeda is able to increase the frequency and intensity of its suicide bombing operations in Western capitals, then I foresee no way out except either the expulsion of all known Muslim populations, or direct negotiations with al Qaeda accompanied by concessions.

The suicide bomber is al Qaeda’s nuclear option. It terrifies the West because conventional armies, no matter how well equipped or trained, can do nothing about them. If countries like Britain, Germany and the United States are unable to diminish, or at least contain the intensity and frequency of suicide bomb attacks, the Middle East as we’ve known it since we were born may actually cease to exist. What seemed unfathomable yesterday has now become a terrifying prospect.

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yaman said...

This is a very good analysis of the state of affairs in the world. However, I'd like to propose the conflict on a separate level... religion, race, and culture aside, this is really a war against barbarians.

Anybody who can even begin to justify a bombing in a public place against women, children, and men who are all innocent civilians should NEVER have any power in the world. This is a VERY dangerous idea.

What suicide terrorists around the world are doing is illogical, incomprehensible, and a violation of basic human rights and human dignities.

Those must be preserved above all else.

hummbumm said...

There is some good news, i just save a lot on car insurance with GEICO.

Raja said...

:) good one, H

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

Excellent post - you won't read these kinds of analysis even in the best lebanese newspaper.

hummbumm said...

On a serious note, I never liked it when arabs or non arabs talked about the arabs, because as a lebanese i have little in common with an algerian, but now that it has been broadened to muslim, my god, someone in nigeria with someone in bangladesh, or indonesia? The commonality is so superficial, but you are right it is a great victory for Al qaeda if people look through this prism, because then there will always be conflict and victimhood. If palestine is resolved, well there is Chechnya, if that then there is KAshmir, if Kashmir then the philipines (sp?) or the hijab ruling in France etc...thus providing continuous grounds for conflict. Heck muslims in China are oppressed so maybe when China becomes a larger power then they will become the next big satan, or at least the medium satan.

JoseyWales said...


I don't know what you expect of the "best" Leb newsapers. I've given up. And while I am usually down on the Daily Star, check out Ghassan Tueini Editorial on nanarnet today. He's still daydreaming about the Arabs (I guess he means current leadership/intellectuals).

And get this: he's calling all Lebanese to join Hezbo now.

I think it's time for Ghassan to bag it.

Doha said...

grerat analysis raja. should send it to washington post.

Civil Disobedience Ultimatum said...

The movement is Catching on..


Anonymous said...

Well worth the wait Raja :)

Raja said...

CK, Doha, Vox, Yaman, thanks for the complements - I really appreciate them.

Hummbumm, there's two things that amaze me about this issue: how countries are usually considered to be as solid as rock, whereas the reality is that countries are first and foremost ideas, which are then propped up by bureaucracies, laws, politics and economics.

We should ask ourselves: what would happen if the majority of the people perceived the laws to be illegitimate and the politics to be unrepresentative? What if the economy did not provide people with incentives to have a "stake" in the system? And finally, what if the bureaucracy failed to provide basic services such as health and social security?

If these components, which are supposed to manifest the idea of the country in the real world, utterly fail to do what they are supposed to, then the actual "idea" of the country becomes extremely vulnerable! That idea simply has nothing in the real world to support it! The only thing that could conceivably keep the country together would be force, or the threat of violence.

In such a situation, the straw that would break the camel's back would be another idea that effectively challenges the idea of the country (e.g. Islamic Civilization). Couple such a challenge with suicide bombers who terrify the population more than the state’s security services, and you’ll have a recipe disaster – for the demise of the country itself.

Anonymous said...

I have the feeling that al-quaeda is actually causing (as a reaction) reinforcement of the nationalism in arab countries and hence legitimisation of the country.
I cant really explain it though.

Firas said...

How timely (given the new Zawahiri video) and articulate. This post deserves an appropriate response which I will have the time for this afternoon.

What you said is in the back of many of our minds, and had not come out in open yet. Its a subject well worth probing..

hummbumm said...

Raja, that is obviously the goal of Al qaeda and islamists more broadly. there is a parallel to the idea of global Marxism in the nineteen thirties. I think, no I know they will fail, the key is to minimize the damage they will cause in their futile exercise. It is interesting to note the proponderence of educated middle class guys in these groups' leadership, a similarity noted by many to marxist movements of the early twentieth. They feed what is after all a utopian vision of an "islamic caliphate" to the masses similar to the "workers paradise" of yore. The reality is of course is they have no idea how to govern effectively, a fact that I hope everyone will recognize sooner, rather than later. I think nation states will survive even though their foundation in the ME is weak because the alternative is a lot worse, and people in the end are not stupid. Heck in lebanon, someone from Tripoli is upset when Beirut politicians swoop in, would we accept a Tunisian or Algerian? What limited voice people have would be totally subsumed, it would never work. The frigging Ummayads and Abbasids could not keep the empire together back then, someone is going to forge this now? But in the meantime, there will be turbulence for sure, and i wish i could say when this will pass. Frankly, the whole belief system and goals articulated are so whacky and ridiculous to me, that I am continuously amazed by the number of people who actually believe some if not all of what I consider crap. Maybe it is me that is out of touch with reality

Anonymous said...

The world will see things the Saudi way eventually. With the U.S. backing them all the way,how can they lose?

Raja said...

Hummbumm, I hope you are right. I really do.

zenobia said...

You wrote: the entire “Western Project” that is represented in the Levant by the Sykes Picot Agreement (which created the states of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Iraq).

A minor point: Sykes Picot was agreed in 1916. No Israel, not for many years yet. And don't forget the Russians got some Turkish land too. By the way, didn't the agreement also say that Palestine was to be internationalized?

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