I’m working on an article about fixing Europe, but that task is so daunting I will start with an easier one:
Fixing the Middle East. First step: diagnosis.
What’s even going on there?
At the root of mutual misunderstandings (yes, that’s an euphemism) are irreconcilable conceptions of statehood. The sovereign “Westphalian state” is unknown and inherently illegitimate in the traditionalist islamic worldview, which instead relies on a kind of imperialist religious centralism and sharply distinguishes between “The house of Islam”, as a legitimate centre of power divinely ordained to expand ever outwards, and the unwashed barbarians whose function it is to be the targets of jihad – either assimilated, destroyed or at least taxed. The relationship can be roughly compared to that between a combine harvester and grain.
This is a binary in-out notion of world order common to all imperial powers in history (notably the concept of Tianxia in China), apparently rooted in deep (if regrettable) human tendencies. The “other” is not just different, it’s illegitimate and existentially defective. The notion of a relationship of equals within a multilateral political order – both internal, as parliamentary pluralism, and international as a coexistence of civilizations – is completely alien to islamic thought, and only reluctantly (and clumsily) adopted in recent history. There is, in simple terms, a strong tendency to extremely black and white, all-or-nothing thinking with regard to political legitimacy and power. This has important repercussions whenever a semblance of democracy is attempted in Middle Eastern countries, which we will explore in a short while.
The Middle East is comparatively easy, because it’s a bunch of old problems that can mostly be understood and solved (at least in theory) by remembering what and how helped last time – i.e. approximately 400 years ago in Europe.
In contrast, Europe’s current problems are new, without precedent (aside from, worryingly, the implosion of the Roman Empire under the combined pressures of currency devaluation in response to irresponsible overspending, an influx of migrants hurled against the borders of the empire by distant conflicts and reshaping its inner workings, the arrival of an alien middle-eastern cult with openly subversive aspirations and zealot devotees seeking martyrdom, disconnected, self-serving elitist rulers, and an indolent, lazy and entitled population. Oopsity fucking oops. Did I say Europe’s problems were new? Rephrase: they’re old problems that nobody ever found a good way to solve, which makes my upcoming article about them super ambitious.)
There are three basic types of peace:
- Peace by consensus – everybody agrees if not on values and goals, then at least on a reasonable framework for mutual toleration and coexistence.
- Peace by domination – when competing forces have been made to submit to a hegemon. This is the “peace” of superior force – the kind of peace that “islam” means, and what communists meant when they propagated “peace” around the world. They meant victory. This type of peace produces reactions and is unstable by definition (more on that further down the article).
- Peace as last resort, a collective “tap out” of exhausted combatants facing the prospect of mutual destruction, or at best a pyrrhic victory
In the words of Henry Kissinger: “If order cannot be achieved by consensus or imposed by force, it will be wrought, at disastrous and dehumanizing cost, from the experience of chaos”. This is 100% the case in the Middle East right now.
The Middle East is in a mirror image of the situation that directly preceded Europe’s rise to global dominance.
It is important to realize that the Westphalian order and invention of genuine political pluralism (rather than politics as competing absolute claims) both intra- and inter-nationally in early modern Europe was not a deliberate intellectual project, a careful, intentional invention of the greatest minds of a generation.
No. It was a necessity born from the experience of total war – specifically, the Thirty Years’ War, which was the worst in recorded history till that point, and qualitatively different from the frequent but bounded skirmishes over limited objectives that defined medieval warfare. It was an epochal unleashing of pent-up sectarian and political divides that spanned – and wrecked – the whole continent, hitting civilian populations and basic infrastructure to a degree never seen before, and unsurpassed until the yet greater trauma of the First World War.
The entire Middle East is now in a situation faithfully mirroring pre-Thirty Years’ War Europe (with Syria having ditched the “pre-” part). There has been near-constant conflict for much of recorded history – but there is now also the region’s first (and hopefully, if improbably, last) total war.
What are the prospects for peace? Nobody in the region can agree on even basic principles for coexistence, and neither does anybody have the firepower to win and sustain hegemony. Therefore, two out of three routes to peace (agreement and domination) are closed.
Which leaves the “war fatigue” option – peace driven by self preservation when all other options have failed, and there is no other choice left, so that at least something is even left of the combatants.
They’ll arrive at tolerance the way we did. Across an ocean of blood.
Bonus: the existential trauma of WW1 killed non-recreational religion in Europe. I wonder how popular fundamentalist islam will be when the dust settles in Syria (or a potential Saudi-Iranian conflict, which is never far off). Not very, is my guess.
There might be a silver lining to that mushroom cloud.
Why is the region so violent?
Let’s be honest. If you live in a country with running water and occasionally watch the news, you thought to yourself “What the fuck is wrong with these people” at one point or another (and most likely multiple). Why is this particular bit of the globe such a perpetual clusterfuck? Is it something in the water?
There is a limited space of possible explanations:
1) History (circular argument – what caused that history? More history?)
2) Hardware (“hot blood”, genetic predispositions – biological)
3) Software (cultural and ideological factors – psycho-social)
If we examine them one by one, then:
1 is untrue.
2 is racist.
3 is implying some cultures are better than others.
There is no 4.
So I’m firmly in the third camp, because the other options are either irreconcilable with the most cursory historical awareness, or racist.
I’ve done a bit of travel in the Middle East. Many of the people are genuinely nice, hospitable. But – even the nice ones are a bit crazy. Conspiracy theories run rampant, people will launch into tirades about zionist-illuminati plots within three minutes of trusting you, and they’ll go full Jekyll and Hyde whenever you even mention their religion or “prophet” in any terms other than learned deference, suggesting even many of the “moderates” have a compartmentalized mind virus ready to explode, and the capacity for critical thinking is buried underneath defensive clichés repeated with the urgency of machine gun fire, historical alibism and endless capacity for doublethink and scapegoating externalization.
On top of that, probably due to their tribal tradition, Arabs in particular are grudge-holding world champions. The region is still murderously divided by a power struggle that happened 1300 years ago, for fuck’s sake. Combine that with the tendency to enthusiastically fall for conspiracy theories and you have a (literally) explosive mix.
People – and I mean tens of percent of the populations of major Arab countries, indeed majorities and public consensus – genuinely believe western countries are secretly controlled by Templars who still wage a stealthy crusade against them. In reality, nobody in the west gives two shits about the Middle East, except when it exports suicide bombers. In the great human family, M.E. is the crazy guy stewing in his own paranoia who plots your downfall because of that one time your dog crapped on his lawn 50 years ago.
It is worth appreciating this mentality was largely bred out of Europeans by the wonderfully unintended-consequencey policy of clerical celibacy. The gullible, superstitious radicals removed themselves from the gene pool over dozens of generations. But in Islamic countries, the impact of craziness on reproductive fitness seems to be the opposite – the worst radicals have multiple wives. Might there after all be a touch of explanation 2 at work? Brain chemistry is hereditary, and the tendency to superstition and paranoid ideation is a product of brain chemistry.
A footnote on the historical explanation – alongside 12th century conspiracy theories that great swathes of the population still believe, there is also the “everything is white man’s fault” school of marxist history, which claims that the Middle East and Africa were fucked up by European colonialism. But unfortunately for them, Middle Eastern (not to mention African) history has been a bloodbath for thousands of years – as far back as historical records even go, in fact – and the colonial and post-colonial periods have been among the most peaceful and prosperous in the region, so the “white man fucked up our paradise” is horseshit right there.
The sad reality is that rape, pillage and bloodshed are what virtually all of human history looked like everywhere – and peace and pluralism, not to mention rationality and the whole value system of the Enlightenment, are a historical anomaly, invented not out of some prior special cultural sophistication of Europe, but out of necessity and the trauma of total war.
The murdery-go-round of revolution
An ongoing problem of the Middle East is the fundamental misunderstanding of democracy as a means to gain total power – there’s a “winner takes all” attitude, with no genuine pluralism and sharing power, or at least letting the opposition go unmurdered, unjailed, unsuppressed. Rather than aiming at genuine reform, Arab revolutions have simply been about the replacement of one group of entrenched kleptocrats by another. Whoever wins by a margin of two votes considers it carte blanche to go full Grand Mufti and establish a total political stranglehold, murdering, jailing and banning all opposition. Understandably, this triggers desperate retributions by competing political forces who, when they succeed in dethroning the tyrant, themselves revert to the same pattern of behavior, and so the cycle continues, ad nauesating infinitum. This is why Egypt has had, on average, fifteen regime changes per minute since the overthrow of Mubarak.
Repeat until launch key pressed.
That all-or-nothing attitude is precisely why nobody can agree on a framework for coexistence – it’s a prisoner’s dillema, where everyone is scared of losing, because it means mortal danger – the victors are not magnanimous. And they’re not magnanimous precisely because they have to liquidate all opposition or face coups, assasinations, insurgencies. Everybody plays to the hilt and dreads anything short of total victory, because of a (correct) assessment of the cost of not being the biggest dog on the block – a self-fulfilling prophecy, cycle of preemptive cruelty.
In short there is no trust that victors will be sportsmanlike and shake hands with the defeated instead of decapitating them, which they indeed won’t. These are heavily hobbesian societies on every level.
This is why even nominally democratic Arab societies tend to be dominated by strongmen.
This is also the kind of token democracy that can be imported in boxes of iPhones and on the tips of bombs, and assuming the (often coercive) introduction of the formal trappings of modernity can catalyze fundamental cultural change was the west’s great policy error. We were hoping for tanned westerners, instead we got Assyrians with iPhones.
The only hope now is that a repetition of the Thirty Years’ War experience might produce similar results, leading the region into a new era of pluralism, multilateralism and if not amiable relations, then at least mutual toleration and respect for the right of self-determination – even if out of an absence of any other options. A shift from type 2 to type 1 notions of peace, via the tragic but necessary experience of type 3.
Preserving real peace means a conscious choice by a substantial part of the population to refrain from being dicks, and an equally principled determination to not let existing dicks get away with stuff. A civilization-wide shift based on everyday attitude adjustment is needed. We’ll explore that in the next chapter.
Preserve the peace, buy me a beer.