The 19th and 20th century proved pretty humiliating for much of the world. The West climbed to the top and has, up to now dominated the planet. The 20th century in particular has been a time of grief for the Islamic world. They have been brought low and are most humiliated by their own inter-cultural betrayals...nouveau oil elites selling out the Islamic world for Western treasure, and dictatorial leaders often acting as Western ‘strongmen’. Both camps due to Western acquiescence have capitulated to Israel's existence and even 'right' to exist. And the fact that these regimes terrorize their own people, engage in inter-Islamic war, and all the while using Western purchased armaments also adds insult to the injury.
And so there's a complicated web of anti-Westernism working against these Western proxy regimes. Popular movements have brought down a few of them as of late. And though both liberals and conservatives in the American political system have tried to ‘spin’ the narrative, the bottom line is, these revolts of the ‘Arab Spring’ have brought down American proxies. Gaddafi though no longer out in the cold wasn’t quite an ally, and certainly Assad of Syria is no friend. Yet the toppled Tunisian and Egyptian leaders were friends and allies to the United States. Some in our media try and pretend their fall was a good thing for Western interests, but among the American power-elites and strategists, this was a sore blow.
There's a mutual dislike for Israel but also a desire on the part of some to keep the status quo. There are old ethnic and cultural tensions between Turks, Arabs, Persians, Kurds, and the host of minorities...Alawites, Druze, Assyrians, Copts, and of course the larger divides between the Sunni, Shiites, and the many who prefer forms of Sufism above all.
Though it would do little to further the gospel, socially and culturally an Islamic Reformation of sorts is long overdue. In terms of pragmatics for themselves and for the peace of the world it would be a good thing if they came up with a new paradigm that blends the secular and sacred, the concerns of nation and society with the claims of the mosque. We may be seeing something akin to a prototype of this coming out of Turkey. The public and government have moved away from secular Western oriented Kemalism, but have retained a mindset both modern and progressive and yet also Islamic. Kemalism was also primarily nationalist. Islamism is of course pan-national and that focus will give a greater venue than just a 'Turkey for the Turks' way of thinking.
And thankfully in no way are they remotely interested in Wahhabism or Salafi interpretations of Islam. Turkey's problem is that their secularism is breeding internal radicalism and Turkey has not reckoned with its minorities and it’s still present nationalism is uncomfortable with social pluralism...not out of religious concerns, like American Evangelicals who oppose social pluralism, but out of historical and nationalist concerns. Acknowledging the eastern 1/3 or so of their country historically belonged to Armenians and Kurds is an argument they refuse to entertain. And there are still all the tensions with the Greeks over their shared and bloody history. Yet despite these problems, everyone is watching Turkey. They have come to a very interesting time in their history, and the history of their region which straddles the Middle Eastern and European worlds.
But will they be left alone? Historically the Americans used the Turkish military to stage coups and remove anyone it did not approve of. The present Erdogan government is not favoured by strategic thinkers in the American and NATO establishment. The Bush administration was not happy with Turkey's refusal to use bases during the March 2003 Iraq invasion, nor in Turkey's new posturing in recent years. The Israeli relationship has been ruined and Turkey has even made overtures to their longtime enemy the Assad’s of Syria. Long an American lapdog, Turkey is becoming a serious player, a tremendous influential force in the region.
Just in the past couple of years there have been large scale arrests of numerous officials, some quite high ranking within the Turkish military and talk of a coup plot going back to 2003. While the proof has not been provided this 'Sledgehammer' plot, one would have to deliberately avert their eyes to try and suggest this activity was not prompted by American interests. History and common sense demand it.
The majority of the Islamic world is overtly Sacralist, and under this way of thinking, the political regime also has theological responsibilities and roles. Saddam Hussein and Assad of Syria represent regimes which reject this model, but like the ‘Communists’ they try and establish a sort of secular religion usually built around a cult of personality. Saudi Arabia would represent the most extreme version of Sunni sacralism. Most countries have some sort of mix.
Pakistan comes to mind...another country where the majority of the people are very deliberately Islamic, but few are what would be considered extreme. They want Islamic-minded rulers, but not extremists. In the 1970's when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's government promoted Socialist ideas, the Anglo-American backed army staged a coup against him and Zia ul-Haq was installed. He as an American ally brought sweeping changes to the country promoting a pretty hardline Islamic agenda. The United States was okay with that because it kept Pakistan far away from People Power/Communist movements and kept the people ratcheted up against India which during the Indira Gandhi years was hardly pro-American. And of course after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Islamisation of Pakistan could only help the cause of the Afghan mujahideen.
This continues to go back and forth. In 1988 ul-Haq was killed in a mysterious plane crash. Bhutto's daughter Benazir becomes leader of the anti-American pro-modern, pro-Socialist PPP and becomes Prime Minister of Pakistan… and is later ousted. Another military coup puts General Musharraf into power in the late 1990's. Though the United States publically didn’t want to support a military coup, they once again found an ally.
And we all watched as Benazir Bhutto was killed in 2007 as she tried to return to Pakistani politics. While she was hardly innocent or free of corruption she had to know the army, American interests, and the Islamic elements were against her. And she like her father was killed. Today her husband Asif Ali Zardari sits in Islamabad, having taken power in a wave of anti-Musharraf sentiment. He’s cut a deal with the Americans and in the end seems to care far more about money than forwarding the agenda of his party. Realistically the country is on the verge of a meltdown, and he wields very little power in an astonishingly complex country...this remnant of British India, sharing a British drawn border with Afghanistan, a line cutting the Pashtun lands in two. The Pashtuns are the soul of the Taliban and they have no love for either Kabul or Islamabad. Their society I'm sad to say is largely the source for much of what Western eyes and ears consider to be the harshness and wickedness of the region and the ideology of the Taliban. Thirty years of war has only made it worse. And ironically the power vacuum created in Afghanistan by American withdrawal may end up providing nothing more than a proxy battleground for arch-enemies Pakistan and India as well as Iranian and Russian via Central Asian interests. The Chinese have recently been trying to get in on it. Cut one head of the hydra off...and it's replaced by three more at least.
This is the legacy of Empires, the direct rule of the British Raj and the proxy-power of the Americans. The region has always had its problems, modern life has brought some improvements as well as creating new problems…but as bad as it might have been under the Mughals, look at the mess Western domination has brought them. And yet I still hear British Christians talking of the glory of the Raj, and the British Empire. Shame on them.
Khaled Hosseini’s novels capture the sense of innocence lost in Afghanistan when the king's cousin Daoud Khan overthrew the monarchy in 1973. They had no idea the blood of the 20th century was going to be poured in a potent concentration on their land in but a few short years. They still are passing through the fire. I think of Afghanistan as I try and imagine, try and even grasp what it was like to live in the Rhineland or central Germany during the Thirty Years War...the endless torment and suffering. People going mad and insane with it. It helped to turn subsequent generations into a-religious apathetic sceptics. So-called 'Religion' had only brought pain and death. What will the Afghans do when their land once more knows peace? Will they become cold hearted or will the tribal codes demanding honour and revenge haunt them for generations? What will their understanding of the state be? What is the role of the leader? Will they still want a sacralist ruler? Most likely. After years of the secular, reforming Shah the Iranian people decided in 1979 they wanted a Sacral society, one ruled by the Ayatollahs. When the clerics have been removed from power, what sort of society will the Iranians want?
In America we're so proud of our democratic legacy. But really we dealt with all these questions during an era when our only enemy were the natives we were conquering. This country has geographic advantages almost everyone would envy. It's given the United States an unprecedented and unimaginable security. Our history isn't as rosy as many a Conservative would paint it...but, there have been few threats. Other countries have not had the luxury and people (I insist) always desire security more than freedom. Not everyone has had the elbow room and resource availability our continent afforded either. Until modern times our population was paltry. What I'm saying is, I don't think the United States should be as proud and pompous of its social experiment as it tries to be. If the colonies were somewhere else, the story would have obviously been quite different. But few I think grasp just how different.
Many countries started to wrestle with these questions a century ago but were impeded by European empires and dictators which held their societies in a state of stasis. Now that things are changing for many, they have to wrestle with issues we frankly take for granted. That hardly means they're inferior. In fact Iran's post-Revolutionary model I expect will be quite impressive. The road there might not be easy and it may not please the United States if it is still wielding hegemonic power. But from what I've seen of Iranian culture and brilliance, and considering geography and history, they will someday be a leader on the world stage. The Saudis don't want to see that happen. And since Israel is the enemy of their enemy, yes...even the Sacral rulers of Arabia, the keepers of Mecca and Medina are more than willing to work with Israel to keep Iran becoming what Iran is probably destined to be.
The Iranians are Muslim but they're not Sunnis. And the Persians had several world empires and a vast civilization centuries before the Arabs emerged from the sands of the desert and moved beyond pitching tents and riding camels. The Arabs also constructed an amazing civilization but the Persian-Arab rivalry is old, bitter and very much alive.