Robert D. Kaplan has long been among America’s most insightful analysts of global trends. I’d rather argue with him than agree with most others. Right now, I’m going to do a bit of both.
In “Toxic Nationalism,” an essay published in the Wall Street Journal last week, Kaplan observes that “Western elites” regard their beliefs as “universal values.” Because they approve of “women’s liberation,” they conclude that all thinking people from Albania to Zanzibar believe in women’s liberation. Western elites place a priority on “human rights,” assuming that must be the consensus view. Western elites are convinced that international organizations are breaking down the remaining “boundaries separating humanity,” so that must be what they’re doing, and what they seek to do.
These are, Kaplan understands, illusions: “In country after country, the Westerners identify like-minded, educated elites and mistake them for the population at large. They prefer not to see the regressive and exclusivist forces — such as nationalism and sectarianism — that are mightily reshaping the future.”
He cites, as an example, Egypt, where the hope that decades of dictatorship were giving way to liberal democracy has faded. His explanation: “Freedom, at least in its initial stages, unleashes not only individual identity but, more crucially, the freedom to identify with a blood-based solidarity group. Beyond that group, feelings of love and humanity do not apply. That is a signal lesson of the Arab Spring.”
I think Kaplan is right on all points save one: The Islamists who are coming to power are not a “blood-based solidarity group.” They are a religion-based solidarity group. Egyptian Islamists feel no solidarity with Egyptian Christians — despite blood ties tracing back millennia. This is a crucial distinction, one that makes “Western elites” — Kaplan included — profoundly uncomfortable. So they ignore it.
Kaplan, who currently holds the catchy title of “chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm,” goes on to worry that in Europe there is now “a resurgence of nationalism and extremism.” He’s not wrong on that, but is it remotely conceivable that the skinheads and neo-Nazis in Finland, Ukraine, and Greece pose as serious a threat to freedom and human rights as do the jihadists of al-Qaeda and Iran, or even the more gradualist Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Similarly, in Asia, Kaplan sees China, Japan, and other nations “rediscovering nationalism,” undermining the notion that “we live in a post-national age.” He adds: “The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map.” True, but is the revival of such nationalistic sentiment really a crisis or even a major problem? Meanwhile, much more significant, Islamists are offering an alternative to both the old nationalist and the newer post-nationalist models.
Islamists insist that one’s primary identity is — and must be — based on religion, not nationality, not citizenship, not race, not class. More to the point, they demand that their religion be acknowledged as superior to all others. They are committed to making their religiously derived ideology the basis for revolutionary transformation not only in the so-called Muslim world but also in Africa, Asia, Europe, the U.S. — anywhere there are Muslims who can be enlisted into the struggle. As Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, succinctly put it: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”
They see the global map not as fractured into blood-based nations squabbling over “space” but as divided into just two spheres: the Dar al-Islam, the realm where Muslims rule, and the Dar al-Harb, where infidels still hold power and must be fought, and, in time, decisively defeated so that the Dar al-Islam can become universal.
I am confident that Kaplan knows all this. By not taking it into account, he ends up in some odd cul-de-sacs. For example, he charges that among Russians there is a high incidence of “race-hatred against Muslims.” No, Muslims do not constitute a race.
That said, there may be conceptual utility in Kaplan’s vision of a global “battle between two epic forces: Those of integration based on civil society and human rights, and those of exclusion based on race, blood and radicalized faith.” Note that in this last phrase Kaplan has finally acknowledged the disconcerting fact that religion is shaping the international conflict now underway.
Indeed, by including Islamists among the forces whose ideologies are based on exclusion and antipathy toward human rights, he is reopening the idea — “politically incorrect” and therefore rejected by Western elites — that Islamism is a version of fascism, albeit one based on religion rather than race or extreme nationalism. If Western elites, not least those on the left, can accept that unpleasant reality, perhaps they can find the will to combat it. Along those lines, Kaplan argues that the “second force” can and must be overcome, but to achieve that, one “must first admit how formidable it is.”
“To see what is in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell once wrote, “needs a constant struggle.” By calling attention to a dangerous truth from which Western elites prefer to avert their gaze, Kaplan has rendered a service. But there’s more to it than he’s acknowledged and less time than we might like to get it in focus.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.