Politics & Policy

Surveying the Muslim World

The curse of living in interesting times

Most observers seem to be wearying of the Arab Spring, just as it is becoming interesting. The idea of a democratic contagion that would suddenly sweep away centuries of autocratic misrule and replace it with Tocquevillean civic-mindedness was too far-fetched for all but the most robustly wishful. But the notion that Mubarak in Egypt and Saleh in Yemen would be replaced almost magically by preferable people did enjoy wider currency than it deserved. Stretching the canvas across the Western and Near Eastern Muslim lands, more than a dozen countries can be seen, in snapshots, at widely differing stages of fermentation.


Morocco, always one of the most successful Arab countries, remains so. It was independent for many centuries prior to the French protectorate of 1912–56, and even signed Most Favored Nation trade agreements with Jefferson and Madison’s America. With a significant and influential Jewish population, it treats them quite well. King Mohammed, in response to rather gentle protestations, has just produced a new constitution that doesn’t give away much of his own prerogatives, but establishes a freely elected parliament and a range of civil rights, and the constitution was approved — without transports of popular enthusiasm, but without protest also — by 98.5 percent of the country. The Spring is not high summer in Morocco, but there are some green shoots.


In Algeria, where the constitution establishes the army as the guarantor of democracy — to prevent the triumph of the Islamist, anti-democratic parties required the imposition of a military dictatorship and the conduct of a long civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died violently — the durable President Bouteflika has prevailed. There is the traditional Arab version of forcibly guided government festooned with a few trappings of popular influence, but it is progress from the long war of insurrection that preceded it.


Tunisia and its self-immolating protester had their 15 minutes of the world’s attention, and a somewhat similar regime to that which was ousted is in place. In Libya, NATO redefined a no-fly zone, the French and British revived Lend-Lease to borrow air-to-ground missiles from the U.S. and plastered the loyalists with them, and the French reinterpreted the U.N. Charter to allow arming the insurgents. Qaddafi is checking the air routes to the few places that would have him. If Milosevic couldn’t take the unfriendly skies of NATO, there was never any chance that Qaddafi could.


Egypt is a shambles. Hillary Clinton is trying to open up relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, as if there were any possible rapport between those two sides, or as if the U.S. brought anything to the party anyway (a party it should be grateful not to have been asked to attend). It ditched Mubarak, and is anathema to the Brotherhood (which is still unrepentant about murdering Anwar Sadat); and its financial assistance, though significant, could be replaced by one or more of the Arab OPEC countries. Egypt is not ready for the September elections, and the army, trying to maintain order, is losing its popularity. The traditional Arab choice impends, between reasonable (in policy terms) armed force, with no aptitude for government, and Islamist lunacy, with an aptitude only for chaos.


More interesting is Syria, where the withdrawal of the government from Hama, though it may be a ruse preparatory to a massacre replicating the piping days of Papa Assad, indicates that the Alawite terror is weakening. They passed the litmus tests of ordering the massacre of civilians and having the orders carried out, and they still can’t stop the demonstrations and heavily armed attacks on the police and army. The Alawite regime, with Mrs. Clinton’s commendation of it as a vehicle for reform ringing in its ears, is now in a race with Qaddafi to see who goes first, and young Assad will be packing up his implements and returning to his optometrist’s practice in Ealing (East London).


The Palestinians are waiting to see who governs in neighboring countries before confirming the bomb-throwing incompatibility of Hamas and Fatah; Hamas and Hezbollah are wondering how they are going to be supplied after Assad is swept out in Damascus; Lebanon is on hold waiting for Hezbollah, and in Iran the unspeakable Ahmadinejad, having just had his entire presidential staff arrested and been booed in the Majlis, mother of Islamist parliaments, is reduced exclusively to the patronage of the Grand Ayatollah. Iraq is a dodgy post-American proposition and its appeasement of Iran is tempered only by acute uncertainty about who will hold the reins, if there are any, in Tehran in three months.


In the Arabian Peninsula, the pantomime horse in Saudi Arabia of the House of Saud (front legs), and the Wahhabi establishment (back legs), though spavined, continues to march on in the desert, and the Saudis bankroll over 90 percent of the Wahhabis’ Islamist agitprop (cultural) centers throughout the Muslim world. In the Muslim calendar, we are almost where the Christians were at the time of Columbus, and the Saudis, despite the encouragement and warm support of Maureen Dowd, arrest women for driving cars. So far, the Saudis have succeeded in buying off the discontented, but as everyone knows, it always comes to a showdown with blackmailers. The Saudi failure to crush the Islamist extremists and turn the pantomime horse into a functioning biped creates acute continuing uncertainty about whether this ungainly desert animal is going forward or back.


Saudi intervention stopped the Iranian-provoked uprising in Bahrain, where the complaints about Shiite civil rights in a country with per capita annual income of $27,000 was just a pretext for the palsied and infected hand of Tehran’s meddling. Throughout the region, the Saudis and the U.S. are supporting rival conservative and liberal factions. The United Arab Emirates, where one relative bails out the other for building an empty tower to the heavens vastly surpassing in height and elegance Kim Jong Il’s attempt at the same beanstalk, is a model of stability, though not of enlightened rule. In Yemen, the attempted assassination of President Saleh has given the world a fortuitous glimpse, as al-Qaeda advances on furry feet, of how unpalatable the alternatives to the incumbent are.


Turkey is the Muslim superpower, thanks to the traditions of Suleiman the Magnificent, peer and contemporary of Charles V, Henry VIII, and Francis I — and, more particularly, the traditions of Kemal Atatürk. It is difficult to see what the Erdogan regime is aiming at, apart from cleaning up the corruption of the military-dominated autocracy of his Kemalist secular predecessors. This alone has unleashed high rates of GDP and per capita income growth, and it is always the case that the replacement of a regime 80 years in office (as the city of Chicago will discover eventually) improves standards of probity and effectiveness of government.


The anti-Israeli posturing is tedious, and Turkey historically has a great deal less regard for the Arabs than for the Jews. There is no evidence at this point that Turkey seeks more than a traditionalist reawakening, promoting pride of continuity and making itself more accessible to the importunity of the Arabs. Turkey could take over Syria and Lebanon tomorrow and almost everyone, including the Israelis, would be relieved. The Europeans, by their arrogant, condescending treatment of Turkey as a mendicant at their back door, are chiefly responsible for this distemper in Ankara and Istanbul. But Turkey has been a Great Power for most of the time since the rise of the nation state, before Russia, Prussia-(Germany), Italy, much less Japan and the United States, and it will not find Araby an adequately commodious pasture for long, any more than it did in earlier times. The West must keep a light in the window for the Turks, even if we have to throw it temporarily out of whatever NATO decomposes into in the meantime.


And in Afghanistan and Pakistan the insoluble riddles continue, of how to fight the terrorists, in pursuit of whom the U.S. has recruited most of its longstanding allies, while the Afghan and Pakistani governments, whom we are trying to protect from the terrorists, are in fact playing footsie with the terrorists whom they credit with more staying power than their distinguished Western helpers against them.


The ancient conundrum of these countries is imperishable: The Western Muslim nations, except for Lebanon (if foreign interlopers could be excised) and Jordan (and leaving Turkey aside), have only the armed forces, the Islamists, and secular leftists, none of which have the remotest notion of how to govern, generate economic growth, devise civic institutions, or even reinvest petroleum revenues, and seem even to have lost their greatest former talent, of suppressing street violence. Militant Islam is nonsense and the West should stop pandering to the barbarous elements of that religion. Of course there are rational versions of Islam that are unexceptionable and culturally legitimate notions of how to propitiate the presumed deity. But the self-conscious feebleness of almost all Western leaders opposite the murderous lunacy of terrorist Islam, from which only the Pope and a few secular leaders have dissented, is more demeaning and futile than any version of appeasement practiced by the originators of the expression. No one has any idea what is going to happen in these Muslim countries, and the West will have to do better than it has. The Arab Spring could be a crisis for all seasons.


 — Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


The Latest