There was a time not so long ago when it seemed like the Middle East’s worst problems were either endless cycles of tit-for-tat violence or mind-numbing stagnation. In 2010, it was possible to think Ghaddafi was going to die in his bed and that Saudi Arabia was a pretty stable, albeit deeply dull, place.
Sure, there were demons, but they seemed like they were boxable. Al-Qaeda had more or less been defeated in Iraq; worst-case scenarios involved Iranian domination of the region, but anybody who ever really thought about it knew the U.S. could always roll back Iran if it ever had to.
Everyone drew upon Islamic conservatism as a way to stay in power, but nobody much acted on it, save the Saudis. Even the Saudi royal family had the good sense to keep that shit bottled up inside their borders and not to upset their superpower patron.
Now ISIS has come and it’s given expression to every wretched stereotype about conservative Muslims that no doubt appears in your grandparents’ e-mail chain letters. (“MUSLIMS WANT ALLAH FLAG IN THE WHITE HOUSE” used to be deeply misleading; now just throw in “SOME” and it’s accurate).
Say good-bye to pan-Arabism
Yeah, that one is firmly and completely dead. The Arab Spring was supposed to be an expression of a common cultural longing for freedom. But it failed to spread to the Gulf Arabs, who were confused as to why anyone would want to go through all that mess. (Save the Bahranis; their party has yet to stop). It’s officially every ideologue for himself throughout the Arab world. ISIS doesn’t talk much about Arabness or anything like that. They focus on the Umma, or Muslim community. Their borders would wash over ethnic groups as widespread as Filipinos in Mindanao and Berbers in Morocco. The fact that God chose Arabic as His language in the Qu’ran is important, but not key.
From the ruins of the Spring come new forces; conservative royalists desperate to retain what status quo they can (and who are losing that effort) in Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf states; secular army thugs whose ambitions stop at their borders in Egypt and Algeria; budding democrats still wandering through the forest of modernization in Tunisia; but most of all, the forces of tribalism, localism, and secession, who have rent asunder Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya.
And say hello to those demons’ full expression
In Libya militias run rampant, unable to establish a common good. In Lebanon government is paralyzed and society so terrified of another civil war that nothing gets done. ISIS took full advantage of the antipathy the tribes of Anbar felt for Shi’a rule in Iraq to overrun almost a third of the country. Even the Palestinians are split between two factions who can’t even agree on how to deal with their common, much stronger enemy.
Yemen used to be the region’s basketcase, but Yemen looks good these days compared to chemical weapons’ atrocities in Syria and ISIS rule in Iraq.
Now comes the rotten fruits of Saudi-inspired religious education
In 1979, inspired by Iran’s revolution, a bunch of bros got together and seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, and declared they were bringing about a Sunni revolution. King Khalid of Saudi Arabia was not amused and ordered the cameras off and the artillery into action. After killing these usurpers, Khalid and his successors decided the best way to take the winds out of the sails of extremists was to co-opt them.
That was the impulse that helped create the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and now ISIS. Saudi education has for years said that it’s every Muslim’s duty to fight infidels; now a group has come along that walks that talk.
The options forward are reform or destruction
History tends to go in cycles. What the Arab world is now entering is likely to be a sustained and painful phase of self-immolation until enough people have been killed and enough crazy ideas tried out to coalesce around something workable. It’s likely to be generational, meaning this challenge will continue for up to another 15-25 years, depending on when you peg the beginning of this period of sustained chaos (with either the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the Arab Spring in 2011).
The Arab world can either evolve into modern nation-states or slide backwards. That backwards would either be a time of dictators or a time of incessant tribal war. Geopolitically, it’s hard to predict who will do what, but there are principles at play. The most likely places to get through this are those that are small enough to keep their borders secure and wealthy enough to pay for the culture wars needed to be fought in the classroom. Those that are either too big or too poor to change quickly will suffer most.
ISIS is an enemy that can’t be ignored, but few besides America can stop them
Just when you thought the U.S. could leave – well, that’s the burden of superpower.
Because of it’s pejorative usage, it’s always dodgy to equate anything to fascism, but ISIS hits several notes: both ideologies are aggressive, both are based upon a mythological cultural conservatism that serves a leader, and both find it incredibly hard to find friends since their superiority complex forces them into aggressive confrontations with outsiders.
Like fascism, ISIS has embraced a mode of life that is self-destructive. It cannot truly build its Islamic State believing what it does, since what it believes is that it must expand until all Muslims are under its rule. There are mighty armies in its way; neither Iran nor Turkey nor Egypt will go quietly into the night. Even if they do defeat the Shi’a militias of southern Iraq, a coalition of states will ride in to overthrow them, and the U.S. will lead it. That is, if the U.S. air strikes now don’t break them.
Say hello to chaos: it will get worse before it gets better
The oxygen of this fire is the Islamic extremism that’s been fed by just about every government in the region as they’ve sought to be the Most Muslim Country Ever. But like all fires, this one has a limited amount of fuel. It will burn, and burn hot, for many years to come. But no condition is permanent. ISIS will run out of air soon enough.