A debate over matters of faith is drawing attention away from a very necessary debate over matters of international politics
Even as the world grapples with the threat from radical Islamist terrorists and watches with concern—both silent and noisy—of a ‘return to the roots’ movement among the world’s Muslims, a good part of the debate has focused on whether or not Islam is as peaceful as many of its moderate adherents claim it to be (via Desipundit). As Retributions points out in a recent post, the debate over the tenets of Islam is misdirected. It is also misleading and ultimately counter-productive for it plays into the very hands of those who benefit from both Islamist terrorism and from the war against it.
….while all politics is necessarily pursuit of power, ideologies render involvement in that contest for power pyschologically and morally acceptable to the actors and their audience.
(Ideologies) are either ultimate goals of political action…or they are pretexts and false fronts behind which the element of power, inherent in all politics, is concealed. They may fulfill one or the other function, or they may fulfill both at the same time.
The nation that dispensed with ideologies and frankly stated that it wanted power would…at once find itself at a great and perhaps decisive disadvantage in the struggle for power. [Hans J Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations pp98-99]
Morgenthau, the father of the modern Realist school of international relations wrote this several decades ago. Nazi Germany’s quest for lebensraum that set off World War II, the Communist bloc’s anti-imperialist cry and the West’s banner of feedom during the Cold War are in this sense similar to the contemporary Islamist agenda. Hitler’s grouch was that the German people were denied the “living space” that they were entitled to, the Islamists’ bone is that the West is denying them their rightful place in the global power structure.
Islam then, serves to cloak what would otherwise a naked and therefore untenable quest for power. But who is it that is seeking power? Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and its various manifestations? Well, yes. Behind all the religious rhetoric lies an ambition to grab control of Islamic states. But even if Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were somehow put out of commission tomorrow, it is extremely unlikely that the global threat from radical Islam will disappear overnight. That’s because of those religious tenets, correct? Not quite. That’s because of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and others—the major states of the Islamic world. More exactly, their usurpation of religion in the struggle for power.
It is no accident that some of the most dangerous terrorist outfits today are or used to be surrogates and proxies of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. Before September 11, 2001, these states sponsored terrorist organisations to directly pursue their power games. After 9/11, many of them have, to varying degrees of commitment and success, turned against their own creations (while claiming it is the other way around). But this is not so much a rejection of the use of Islam to pursue their quest for power but rather, a change in tactics. The majority—including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt—have calculated that being co-opted into the war on terror as enlightened moderates serves their ambitions better than simply backing terrorists. A small minority—Iran is the principal one in this category—have calculated the confrontation offers better rewards. The decision to co-operate or confront depends on both their unique circumstances and on the expected payoffs.
The presence of Muslim minorities in countries around the world provides the major Islamic states with unprecedented leverage in the pursuit of their own national interests. The greater part of these minorities is unlikely to respond to a call to terror. But it is quite likely to be riled by accounts of oppression of Muslims around the world and outraged by insulting cartoons or demeaning remarks by the Pope. So it serves the interests of the major Islamic states to keep this ‘Islam under seige’ narrative on the boil. Not only does this serve to rally domestic support for their own, uniformly autocratic regimes, but it also makes it incumbent upon the West to engage these regimes delicately. The latter gives the them far more international clout than countries of equivalent size.
The first tragedy of all this is that while the major Islamic states are likely to benefit under most circumstances, for their role as unwitting pawns in the international power game, Muslim minorities around the world end up as the losers. Any deepening of the religious divide in their countries is likely to leave them relatively more worse off compared to the majority. Their best interests lie in seeing through this game and refusing to become a part of it. The second tragedy is that this is next to impossible—for their discontent makes for fertile political ground in the secular, democratic countries they are a part of. Politicians—both Muslim and non-Muslim—are ever ready to pander to the Muslim minority’s insecurity and have strong incentives to maintain the “Islam under seige” story. And naturally, there would be politicians attempting to pick up votes on the other side of the divide.
Countries such as India, United States, Britain and continental Europe face two problems: first, the use of Islam as an ideology to mask the quest for power on the part of the major Islamic states; and second, the polarisation of Muslim minorities in secular democracies as a consequence. Such is the framing of issues necessary to even begin tackling the problem of globalisation of jihad. Doing otherwise, and making it a debate over what Islam says (and its more juvenile counterpart—why Religion X is better than Islam) is at best irrelevant and at worst self-defeating.