Readers of tea leaves, tarot cards, and goat entrails may be able to predict the future. But prognostication is an ability that few journalists, politicians, diplomats, and intelligence officials have demonstrated consistently over time. So while it’s clear that the Muslim world is in the throes of a major transformation, let’s not pretend we know how this story ends.
It’s possible we’re seeing an Arab spring, a democratic awakening — uprisings that will bring freedom to societies that have known only oppression. But it’s equally possible that one form of oppression will simply replace another. Will we see in the Middle East a repeat of what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 or of what happened in Iran in 1979? The American Revolution or the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution? Or will it be some mix, with the outcomes in Tunisia and Bahrain markedly different from those in Libya and Egypt?
It’s comforting to believe there is a “right side to history.” But if history demonstrates anything, it is that history has no preferences. History includes wars and interludes of peace, dark ages and enlightenments, cities rising and cities razed. Sometimes history marches from one age to the next. More often, it stumbles.
Although the future cannot be predicted, its course can be altered. Nazis, fascists, and Japanese militarists might have achieved world domination had Winston Churchill not replaced Neville Chamberlain as Britain’s prime minister in 1940. Were it not for Harry Truman, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan, Communism could have become the dominant global ideology by the end of the 20th century.
Instead, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Many experts and great minds concluded there would be no more consequential ideological struggles — much less wars based on anything as arcane and irrelevant (to them) as theology. An “international community” had been created. Its members agreed on the big things and would tolerate — even celebrate — whatever differences remained. Should a dispute arise, a shared commitment to dialogue and compromise would bring “conflict resolution.” Was that not self-evidently preferable to bloodshed?
The experts and great minds paid little attention to movements based on the archaic notion that Muslims are commanded in their holy books to wage a final and decisive war — a jihad — against “unbelievers” and apostates. Then, exactly ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a small band of self-proclaimed jihadis hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
President Bush decided this was about terrorists and extremists and so he dislodged two terrorist extremists from power. President Obama decided this was about al-Qaeda and so he doubled down in Afghanistan, where the Taliban, al-Qaeda’s former host, was attempting to regain power.
Much of what has happened in the decade since the bloodiest foreign attacks ever on American soil would have been hard to predict. For example: Al-Qaeda is now producing an English-language, online magazine called Inspire which recently featured the article “How to Make a Bomb in Mom’s Kitchen.” (I can barely manage an omelet.) Al-Qaeda now also produces Al-Shamikha, a magazine just for women, offering advice on “marrying mujahideen,” — Muslim warriors — and how to improve your complexion. (Because inquiring minds want to know: Stay indoors and keep your face covered.)
Among those who consider themselves mujahideen: the Palestinians who killed an Israeli mother, father, and three small children in their home. In Gaza, ruled by Hamas, the murderers have been celebrated as heroes — candies and pastries were handed out in the streets. In the West Bank, ruled by Fatah, there were denunciations of terrorism even as terrorists were being glorified on Palestinian Authority TV and in Palestinian schools and mosques.