National Security & Defense

The New York Times Exposes one of the Middle East’s Two Terrible Diseases

Free Syrian Army forces fight in Damascus, February 2013. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
The region’s pathologies can never be accurately diagnosed so long as the role of Islam is downplayed.

This week the New York Times – to much fanfare — has dedicated its entire magazine to the story of “how the Arab world came apart.” Called “Fractured Lands,” the title over-promises. It offers a snapshot of a region in crisis, not an explanation for its collapse. Any examination of Arab disunity that focuses — as the Times does — on the Iraq War and the Arab Spring is going to grotesquely narrow an inquiry that depends on more than a thousand years of competing (and sometimes complementary) religious, tribal, and political forces.

In other words, the piece suffers a bit from recency bias — the temptation to over-use recent experience to explain present trends. But it’s still an important read. It’s a painstakingly reported examination of the lives of activists, former militants, migrants, and soldiers from Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Kurdistan. And in their stories one sees all the symptoms of one of the Middle East’s two terrible diseases — tribalism.

Reading their accounts — wonderfully written, by the way — it’s extraordinary challenging to sort through all the competing factions and shifting loyalties. The Kurds appear united to the outside world but are in reality divided by their own factions. Syrians shift loyalties in the civil war with alacrity, with militias hopping from faction to faction. Egyptians — despite living in a land with perhaps the strongest national identity in the Muslim Middle East — are torn between strongmen and Islamic fundamentalists. ISIS arises, and even some of its fighters join mainly to settle local scores or to earn handsome paychecks.

Indeed, one is tempted to simply reject the whole region. Where are the good guys? Where is even the possibility of not just a happy ending but any sort of lasting peace? The author, Scott Anderson, highlights the argument that enduring peace will only follow splits along tribal, sectarian, or ethnic lines, but he’s shrewd (and experienced) enough to know that there is simply no easy path to stability.

And that’s not just because of tribalism. There is a second disease that plagues the Middle East, and it’s present mainly at the margins of Anderson’s story. It’s the disease that keeps us from throwing our hands in the air and leaving the region to work out its own problems. Competing with tribalism is universalist, aggressive, jihadist Islam. Anderson quotes a young Syrian who declares that “ISIS isn’t just an organization, it’s an idea.” Yes indeed it is. It’s an idea with ancient roots in the Islamic faith, and it’s an idea that not only once conquered the Middle East and vast sections of Africa and Asia, it very nearly conquered Europe.

In my own experience, I’ve found that in our quest for “answers” to the crisis in the Middle East, different foreign-policy factions emphasize one disease at the expense of the other. The anti-interventionist looks at the tribal miasma and says: “We have no business there. They have never achieved unity. They will never achieve unity. American soldiers should never die to settle local scores.” But a focus on tribalism obscures the reality of universalism and the impossibility of extricating oneself from conflict with a movement that is intent on permeating every corner of the globe.

If you obliterate the latest jihadist army, what do you replace it with?

By the same token, focus on jihadists tends to obscures the reality that jihadists are often just disguised tribal warriors — men who’ve signed on to the Caliphate truly to settle their local scores — and that persistent tribalism renders solutions to overarching universalist problems elusive, at best. After all, if you obliterate the latest jihadist army, what do you replace it with? We know the answer hasn’t been (and may never be) “democracy and the rule of law.” Instead, tribalism tends to follow jihad.

The result is a series of intolerable choices. Jihad means relentless, aggressive war and inevitable conflict not just with neighbors but often with the world’s great powers. Tribalism brings not just its own brand of persistent conflict but also the carving of nations into geographic sub-states that are typically neither economically nor politically viable — especially in a competitive global economy. Arab strongmen have attempted to supplant tribalism and jihad with the cult of the great leader, but that experiment also brings its own brand of instability, repression, and — often — chaos.

Anderson reflects that his journeys reminded him “of how terribly delicate is the fabric of civilization, of the vigilance required to protect it and of the slow and painstaking work of mending it once it has been torn.” He is absolutely correct, and in the Middle East that “slow and painstaking” work is rendered all the more difficult through the near-total absence of any meaningful model or recent history of functional self-government. After all, the much-reviled European colonial powers didn’t supplant local governments but rather an also-reviled Ottoman empire — an empire that had its own brutal history of oppression and conquest.

#related#Whenever one speaks about the Middle East, the audience demands “solutions.” But solutions won’t come from the United States. They certainly won’t come from Europe. And if history is any guide, they won’t even come from the people of the Middle East. In other words, the solutions won’t come at all. But there can be times of respite. There can be periods of relative tranquility. And there is always the necessity of self-defense.

By dedicating an entire issue of its magazine, the New York Times has done its readers a service. They get a glimpse — but only a glimpse — of a human tragedy. And they get a glimpse at the layers of complexity buried within each tribal, national, and regional conflict. But the magazine largely underplays the historic and present influence of Islam — in particular of Islam’s most vicious jihadist strains. The picture the Times paints is indeed terrible. Sadly, however, it is not nearly terrible enough to show the whole truth.


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