Last week, Saudi Arabia picked sides in a Yemeni civil war. In case things couldn’t get more unsettling: A few days later we heard word of a ‘joint Arab force,’ a unified command to supplant the role the United States once played in the region.
The Arabian Peninsula will once more host tens of thousands of soldiers from numerous nations, but this time not at the behest of a foreign power. In private, many Muslims ask me what I’m sure even more are thinking quietly to themselves. ‘Is this a sign of the end times?’
In my work with Muslim communities across America, I’ve noticed a recent uptick in despair, confusion, and, more often than not, anger. Yes, we have our differences. But do these differences between Muslims really explain the violence and the intolerance?
We’re sick of hearing bad news. And we’re tired of having to explain it away. People get tired. Though not so much as the peoples of the Middle East. The brief sunshine that was the Arab Spring, a time of promise and potential, has given way to gloom and doom again.
I tell people what I believe to be true: ‘This is the end of colonialism.’ We cannot hope to know the deeper metaphysical implications of the events around us. We have no idea what these events will lead to—or, even, how. And I’ve no patience for conspiracy theories, for these only allow us to remain victims.
Anyway, the time for exalting ourselves as victims may soon be at an end.
For something new is beginning. When the Muslim-majority countries of the world emerged over the course of the 20th century, many believed they would join the world as truly sovereign states, no different from say Germany or Italy. Part of the international community, so to speak. In this their peoples would be quickly and deeply disappointed.
For they had not won independence: their colonizers had instead been defeated, forced into retreat, by the costs of wars they’d fought against other colonizers. Sovereignty was tactical withdrawal. Anyway, briefly enjoyed: New powers emerged to fill the vacuum. World War I, World War II. Cold War.
At home, too, their many peoples would soon find the promise of independence paled before the reality of domestic authoritarianism. From Algeria to Indonesia, from Turkey to Yemen, local dictatorships took root, and often deprived their peoples not only of basic freedoms, but of their identities, culture, religion. In many places, to be oneself was to be backward, and therefore worth repudiating, without any say in the matter.
Such regimes should not and would not have survived, except for the Cold War, which kept them unchanging and unmoved well past a reasonable expiration date. All one had to do was pick: Communist, or capitalist. Investment poured in; more importantly, the weapons with which to oppress one’s people and hold onto power.
Difficult decisions and painful processes of compromise were avoided, so that mere disagreement to resentment, and resentment fury, and fury to brutality. It’s unacceptable and yet inevitable. We reap what we sow. It shouldn’t be unbelievable that this order would fall, though the rapidness with which it recedes is. Operation Iraqi Freedom, initiated twelve years ago last month, is the accelerant.
George Bush’s unjustified invasion of Iraq not only imploded that country, but set much of the Muslim world on fire. Could it have been America’s worst foreign policy decision? We were assumed to be a global power, a relative decline in one place is interpreted as a general decline all over the place. Based on America’s subsequent inability to control outcomes in Iraq, the world learned to imagine a post-American politics, a multipolar reality, and so ended the brief reign of the hyperpower.
We lost tremendous moral capital, and huge sums of the other kind of capital, too. We no longer command the influence we once had in the Middle East, which is evident from our tacit alliance with Iran and our simmering tensions with Israel. But no one else does, either. It’s something of a free-for-all, making for a diplomatic nightmare to navigate.
Across the Middle East, various actors jockey for control. They rush to fill the vacuum left by a comparatively less powerful United States. Countries can be divided into two categories: Regional powers, like Iran, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and those whose territories become proxy battlegrounds. For people invested in a narrative of uniquely American perfidy, the next few decades will be a painful reeducation.
One hundred years ago, there was a Caliph in Constantinople, and the heartland of the Muslim world was a far more polyglot place. (The capital of Sunni Islam was, at the time of its final defeat, majority Christian–such realities cannot be imagined today, even in ostensibly secular Turkey or Tunisia.) I wish fondly that some modern version of that pluralistic order might be created, or at least realization among the region’s peoples that they are better off working out their differences through dialogue.
But I have little hope for that scenario. Not in the short term. For too long, the Muslim world was artificially suspended between its traditional past and the needs of modern governance. Rather than support transition, we helped authoritarianism entrench itself. The damage done will be very hard to undo. But it’s being undone.
For the next few decades, we can expect escalating warfare, which will most closely resemble Europe’s recent past. Nations with the same belief systems– this is a civil war between different kinds of Islamists –sort each other out, expelling minority populations and creating more homogenous and convenient states. Let us call it what it is: Ethnic cleansing. Sunni states for Sunnis. Shia states for Shia.
And if you’re not clearly one or the other, well, you’ll just be left in a shooting war with fewer friends.
I hope we remember that, before acting too hastily. All of us are forced to become ambassadors for Islam, and all of us will be asked: ‘What’s wrong with your religion?’ But this isn’t about Islam. Not really. It’s about one bad decision after another, the final collapse of one way of living in the world, and the inevitable free for all that begins when we dare search for another. It is the ugly reality of modernization.
The reason Europe has been at peace for so long, and now, facing new immigrant populations, is losing the peace. (Don’t forget the democratic deficit that is the Eurozone.) Because Europe didn’t overcome violence. It just found a violent way to forestall violence. More internally similar societies are often more peaceful.
The problem is the horrific violence it takes to get there. I hope we can remember that in our communities and conversations. We’re never going to agree on everything. We’re going to have real and serious differences. We can choose to accept that, and work together. Or we can turn on each other. Colonialism is ending. It is a far more disheartening sight than I would have ever imagined. But it doesn’t have to be this and only this.
Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is the author of “The Order of Light” and “My First Police State.” His memoir, “How to be Muslim”, is due in 2016. He’s a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, formerly a Fellow at the New America Foundation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, and a member of the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Connect with Haroon on twitter @hsmoghul