Tag Archives: International Relations

Pragmatic Disengagement and Islamic Democracy

When many Westerners think of the Middle East today they tend to see a region gripped by religious and sectarian violence. Within Sunni Islam there is a struggle over religious authenticity, while secular governments in places like Egypt, Algeria and Syria face armed opposition to their rule by Islamist extremists. Meanwhile, much of the violence in long-running civil wars has taken on a sectarian nature, both between different strands of Islam and against religious minorities. Sometimes this has been encouraged as a deliberate divide-and-rule strategy by embattled regimes and, as in the case of Syria, the categories often overlap. What all the conflicts are perceived to have in common is the participation of inflexible and fanatical groups of fighters dogmatically opposed to the further modernization and Westernization of their home countries.

Should any of these groups seize power, it is feared that they will impose a backwards-looking theocratic form of governance across the spaces that they dominate, and will trample on the human rights of vulnerable groups such as religious minorities or women. The panacea for this in the eyes of many Western citizens is to temper religious fervor by separating it from politics and implementing a secular and liberal democratic system of government. However, no Middle Eastern state has yet to obtain such a system by its own efforts, while Western attempts to enact nation-building have so far ended in failure. Consequently, Western policymakers have tended to back authoritarian governments as a bulwark against fundamentalist rule.

The chronic weakness of state authority in the Middle East, coupled with the flourishing of extremist movements, once helped to maintain this ‘strongman’ model of governance. Yet, even in the face of political Islam’s enduring appeal in Muslim societies, this strategy is now regarded at best as a stop-gap measure rather than a long-term solution to the region’s myriad problems. The default Western response to this double-sided problem has been to propose the transfer of functions performed by some religious organizations (for example healthcare) over to a stronger state. Under this scenario, religious groups would cease to perform political functions and the state would guarantee their freedom to practice their beliefs without interference. Islamic movements are thus seen as an obstacle to better state capability as well as challengers to its monopoly on force and violence. As a consequence, attempts by local rulers or outsiders, to modernize, secularize and centralize the Middle East have quite often resulted in a religious backlash.

Towards Religious Democracies

But what if the West’s secular state model is a merely a product of its own historically violent struggles with modernity in the 17th century? Up until this point in time, the very idea that religious authority should have no place in the political system of a European state would have been controversial to say the least – just as it is in parts of the modern day Middle East. But the creation of democratic systems in Indonesia and Turkey help to disprove the notion that Muslim or Middle Eastern cultures are incapable of living under systems of governance inextricably linked to the West.

For the likes of Turkey and Tunisia, democratic transformation occurred after decades of secularist dictatorship or military coups. The price for Islamist participation in the political process was the promise not to pursue a theocratic or one-party model of government once in power. Only then did both the secular and religious sections of these societies agree to be bound by the results of future elections. By contrast, when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood gambled that they could rule alone through electoral majoritarianism, they lost and a more familiar form of government returned.

These scenarios, in turn, suggest that while the Middle East’s secularists cannot keep the influence of Islamist organizations completely in check, Islamists are seemingly unable to monopolize power without resorting to the same type of oppression that discredited their republican or monarchical enemies. In this respect, democratic elections might offer a third path. However, developing organic and sustainable democratic processes undoubtedly takes time. Indeed, the collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing a dictator does not immediately create the conditions for political transformation. If anything, the ongoing travails within these countries helps to reinforce that the Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonization began a mere five or six decades ago – a predicament that bears some resemblance to the century of nation-building associated with German or Italian unification.

And when it comes to nation-building in Europe, it must also be remembered that political change in the West has quite often been violent and inconsistent. Even the most pacific Western democracies are less than a hundred years old. Indeed, at two hundred and thirty-eight years old, the United States could be viewed as a venerable patriarch. Accordingly, we should not distort the growth of groups like Islamic State as an inevitable consequence of political Islam’s rise to power once a secular dictatorship is removed. It should also be remembered that most Islamist movements remain locally-focused in their political objectives and have condemned violence as a political tool.

Stop Taking Sides

The emergence of democratic states in other parts of the Islamic world suggests that they can also emerge in Arab and Middle Eastern states. However, it is also highly likely that any indigenous political group that attains significant popularity under these systems will be influenced by Islam. This is in much the same way as many Western political parties are influenced by Christian frameworks and assumptions, such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. And just as Western politicians have to be in favor of ideals such as “freedom” or “democracy“, leaders in Muslim-majority countries also have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Invoking Islam is both a legitimizing measure and a short-cut to the communication of ideas. Even secular Middle Eastern political parties will have observant members.

Most Islamist movements also offer programs of action that do not necessarily threaten the West. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s determination to secure power via democratic processes diverges with the aims of groups like IS or Al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra. Consequently, the West’s ‘tolerance’ of the removal of elected Islamist political movements by force could be regarded as a strategic blunder that has helped to encourage jihadist narratives of victimization. The recent killing of al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is a case in point. While this Somali militant group’s profile has undoubtedly increased over the past few years, it could be argued that its rise to prominence was facilitated by the overthrow of its more locally-focused predecessor in a US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. By being seen to take sides in inter-Muslim disputes and colluding against fundamentalists with their local enemies, the West might have indirectly encouraged more extreme forms of Islamism.

Democratic Islamism Will Lead to Accountability

It might even have been wiser to leave these movements alone so that they can discredit themselves locally, much like the Iranian or Sudanese regimes have over the years. In this respect, have Tehran and Khartoum behaved any worse than the Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution-era China or today’s Gulf monarchies? It’s a question worth thinking about, given that the West managed to co-exist (or even aligned) with all these governments for decades. Indeed, China’s example shows that the need to tackle mounting social problems slowly brings out the pragmatism in the most extreme of movements. Even an Islamic movement in power inevitably leans to pragmatism as part of its bid to survive in government. Since 2002, the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated Turkey’s domestic politics not because of its iron grip on culture and society, but mainly because it delivered on solid economic growth. This, in turn, gave it the legitimacy to defang Turkey’s coup-prone army, a feat that no previous elected government had managed to achieve.

Indeed, elections offer a fresh source of legitimacy for groups that have become popular through religious advocacy or offering social services. They provide a future goal around which supporters can be mobilized. Revolutionary parties which have relied on battlefield victories for their legitimacy have to adapt or lose ground when elections start to become more important. Once Islamic parties have to focus on practical problems such as healthcare and economic growth, they either lose much of their crusading zeal or risk their political credibility and relevance. It’s even possible that Iran might go through such a transformation in the coming decades.

No Quick Fixes

The key to separating religion and government in the region, and therefore creating a stronger Middle Eastern state, might be to tolerate religion governing through the state. By exposing the shortcomings of this model, democracy might consolidate its status faster in the Middle East as its political elites lose another vehicle for mobilizing public support. Electorally successful Islamic parties will moderate and their methodologies will be copied elsewhere. Consequently, it might be better if the West practiced a policy of pragmatic disengagement towards those countries now electing Islamist political parties. If it neither helps nor hinders the process of change, it cannot be held responsible for the outcome. This strategy is not a quick fix for the problems of the Middle East today, but it might be among the most enduring.

Re-posted from the ISN Security Watch blog.


A Look at a Century of Terrorism

A Look at a Century of Terrorism

Forbes has a really interesting article up looking at the continuing cascade of conflicts stemming from World War I. The writer draws some conclusions that I broadly agree with, particularly the interweaving of violence and liberalism (“make the world a safer place for democracy” wasn’t just a slogan they came up with in the 1990s it seems), the ineffectiveness of global social engineering, and the fact that war often brings unexpected blowback, causing more conflict sometimes decades later.

It reminds me of what I heard at a conference about Syria recently. Many of the leaders of the rebels against the Assad regime were personally tied in some way to the massacre of thousands of anti-regime Islamists in 1982 in the Syrian city of Hama. Syrian Islamists who survived fled to Europe or parts of the Islamic world and would rise to become leading figures in today’s violent jihadi groups.

Will Irredentism Mean the End of European Imperial Borders?

What do the crisis in Ukraine and the rise of the border-straddling of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) militant group have in common? The answer is that both situations represent the crumbling of imperial borders between fragments of what used to be a larger whole. The Second World War dealt a death-blow to the European colonial system, and the break-up of the former Soviet Union completed the decolonisation of global politics. Imperial boundaries in the former Soviet Union (FSU), Africa and Middle East have long become “lines in the sand” in many places, since the powers that created and maintained them have retreated or  vanished. However unstable postcolonial states have usually been prone to break up internally, rather than disintegrate with the setting up of new cross-border “states” that we have seen in the Levant and Eastern Europe. Are the boundaries created by European imperialists in the 19th and 20th centuries finally becoming geopolitically irrelevant?

For four hundred years Iraq and Syria were part of the Ottoman Empire, before it was dismembered by predatory European powers after World War I. The resulting postcolonial states of Iraq and Syria have always had odd borders that do not reflect the preferences of many who reside inside them. In Iraq the military successes of ISIS have effectively abolished the border between Damascus and Bagdad, raising the distant possibly of a unified Sunni Arab area emerging from bits of both. The break-up of central authority in Iraq and Syria have also allowed the “Syrian” and “Iraqi” Kurds the freedom to form their own autonomous zones which might move towards political union one day. In neither of these cases does the putative state follow anything like the preexisting colonial borders. Rather they reflect the brutal ethnic or communal balance of power on the ground.

Ukraine and the modern Russian Federation used to be part of the same Soviet Union. That empire was Russian-dominated at its top, but by 1989 was only 50.8% Russian in ethnicity. Its break up along the internal administrative boundaries of its fifteen constituent republics created many curious territorial anomalies. Unlike the Western European nations whose homelands were left untouched by the end of their empires, the lands seceded by then-President Yeltsin dangerously included certain historically Russian spaces. Today the Kremlin has forcibly bolted the Crimean peninsula back onto itself and may break off more chunks of Ukraine to secure a corridor to that strategic peninsula.

European states have reacted negatively to both geopolitical developments. Absent from their discussion over Iraq and Ukraine is whether these conflicts constitute special cases or not. The separatism of ethnic nationalism caused the break-up of the 20th century’s multinational empires into weak political units, from which other communities have split off in their turn (for example Eritrea broke off from Ethiopia in 1993). Few have been the cases of armed conflict where groups have been fighting to join a state or amalgamate together to make a new one. Irredentism has long been unusual; why has it therefore seemingly reemerged recently?

The collapse of European empires tended to lead to most ethnic groups getting a state of their own somewhere they formed a majority. In power and inside a complex economically interdependent international system that also valued sovereignty, most titular nationalities in postcolonial states have adapted more-or-less peacefully to the presence of minorities in “their” state and vice versa. The modern-day Republic of Armenia is extremely unlikely to go to war with Turkey to reclaim “Western Armenia”.

Where post-independence states have already fragmented once, further splits are unlikely. Even when a second split has occurred however, violence has still usually been about further secession rather than cross-border amalgamation. For example since independence from Serbia, Kosovo has not merged with Albania, despite being an ethnically Albanian majority state in its own right and having close linguistic and clan ties with northern Albanians. Modern irredentism mostly seems to flourish where the borders are still unreformed between units of a former empire.

In the 21st century substantial support for it therefore comes from within two groups; firstly it can come from members of the formerly dominant power, if their community is split by a boundary with a newly independent state. Examples such as Serbs in northern Kosovo or ethnic Russians in the FSU come to mind. In Ukraine the absorption of the Crimean peninsula by the Kremlin was popular amongst ordinary Russians and not unpopular among ethnic Russians in Crimea. Popular support for the internationally unrecognized and self-declared ‘Novorossiya Confederacy’ in southeastern Ukraine is weaker, but strong enough to sustain a Kremlin-backed low-level insurgency by ethnic Russians and Russian nationalist volunteers.

Alternatively irredentism can be from members of groups which are stateless and oppressed. The Armenians were a classic case in the 20th century; the Kurds are a modern-day example. Sunnis in Iraq did not attempt to forcibly merge with their co-religionists across the Syrian border when they were in power, despite having tribal ties in common. The idea has only gained popularity since the Sunni-dominated uprising began in Syria and with the failure of Sunnis to gain mainstream representation in the new Iraqi politics under the regime of Shi’a strongman Nuri al-Maliki. The formation of a Sunni Arab confessional state in the Levant has only come to seem attractive as a result of the simultaneous disenfranchisement of Sunnis on both sides of the old Sykes-Picot borders.

I predict that the current Iraq crisis will end with the defeat of Sunni Arab jihadism by a strong international coalition mobilizing against it. However it has given the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds the chance to defacto break away from central authority in both Syria and Iraq. The emergence of a Kurdish state or states may be regarded as inevitable from now on. Likewise Russia will keep the territories from Georgia and Ukraine that it has added on to itself and may try to add other small parts of the FSU onto itself in the future. But Russia remains more vulnerable to separatism and neo-imperialism than either Europe or America. I predict the story of Russia in the 21st century will be a continuing struggle to hold on to what it already has rather than a Russian “re-colonisation” of the FSU. Irredentism remains the exception, not the rule in today’s post-imperial world.

Europe’s Future as a Global Power


As we passed the centenary of World War I, the beginning of which marked the high water-mark of European political power, it must be remarked that the most significant change in the geo-political map was not the defeat of fascism or the death of Soviet-style communism but the utter collapse of all the European imperialist systems of government. Of course various forms of hegemony, colonialism, and suzerainty still exist in the modern world and European nations have not been above getting their hands dirty overseas since the end of the Cold War. However, a century after the start of Europe’s bloodbath, the continent has turned inwards.

In the face of their weak militaries, declining percentage of economic output and small territories and populations, individual European nations, with the dubious possible exception of Russia, have reached the point of geopolitical obsolescence. European states since 1991 have therefore hedged their bets; they have sheltered under the umbrella of the American hegemon economically and militarily, but they have also submerged their old rivalries into a limited political and economic union. Theoretically this was about ending the security dilemmas that contributed to two devastating world wars and forty years of division. But its raison d’être since 1991 has been to keep small European countries “punching above their weight” in a world of emerging giants.

Much like later Qing China however, today’s postmodern European leaders are still keen to project an attitude of cultural omnipotence. Europe’s time as a trendsetter may be passed they believe, but it’s present and future will still be that of a leading global center transmitting enlightened, pacific thoughts to the rest of the planet. This is not entirely untrue. When the legacy of today’s Europe is written down into the history books it will include the steady global promotion of the rights of women and workers, tolerance for sexual minorities, the tackling of racial, religious and ethnic prejudice and the avocation (not always matched by action) of gentler forms of government and stronger civil rights.

These are all laudable goals, if long-term and not uniquely European. But as a vision of the future it remains Euro-centric vision of world order and frankly wrong. Most Europeans have forgotten that the first rule of international relations is about who can do what to whom: capabilities, not virtue, drives politics. It is instructive to witness the indignant elite reaction to Vladimir Putin’s reintroduction of power politics to the placid pool of European life; unlike more “backwards” places, “we” are supposed to be above that sort of thing. Russia has been a bad partner, muddying our tidy little post-sovereign area with its filthy geopolitics.

The key to the future of European relations with the outside world is firstly to realize that the rest of the world has not stopped evolving new models of political and economic thought; Europe was not the only region where the end of the Cold War upended long-held beliefs and systems, and these places no longer look to it to see a model to emulate. If there is still an unconscious legacy of European imperialism a century on among its home nations, it is their tendency to believe that, despite their growing irrelevance, the rest of the world still needs to learn from Europe more than Europe needs to learn from the rest of the world.

The future of Europe as a relevant 21st century actor still lies in its ability to deepen the integration of communities which it began towards the end of the last century. The US will remain a great power for the foreseeable future, but its position as global hegemon after 1991 was always going to be finite; Europe must learn to wean itself off the US if it is ever to become its own community and strong enough to be an independent agenda in the coming multi-polar world. This will not be easy; modern Europe’s borders were only drawn after WWI and do not reflect the ethnic and linguistic divides of the continent any more than their predecessors did. The continental integration movement, what we call the European Union today, came about as the solution Europe stumbled across after nearly a century of fighting over the question of a united Germany’s place in Europe. In fact the modern nation-state itself first emerged in what is today Germany as the solution to a previous century of European religious wars.

As with every successful solution, the drawbacks of a broadly successful pan-European integration project have become today’s new problems for European politics. Solving the problems caused by German unification has created a largely unloved supranational bureaucracy, a resurgence of mirconationalism within the framework of the EU and a mismatched array of powers and responsibilities. Helpful lessons for Europeans on how to handle their confederacy could be found by searching in the state-building projects of the older postcolonial societies in Asia and the two Americas; they also had to adapt their often fragmented societies to new or alien modes of organization. Pre-Meiji Japan, the Thirteen Colonies under the Articles of Confederation or even post-Qing China all managed the challenge of stabilizing as a coherent single political unit. As other nations have done in the past, the Europeans should look to global history and to the struggles of newly independent states today to model themselves upon.