Islam's Choice

Just when you thought things couldn't get worse in the Middle East, along comes another coup. Not just any coup, but a power grab in Cairo, the most populous Arab capital. Not that precipitous regime changes are novelties in the Muslim world; coups have a better history than democracy in Arabia and elsewhere. Indeed, the Roman Empire may have been the last memorable vestige of tolerant republicanism in North Africa and the Mideast.  

The advent and spread of Islam (557-632 AD) was not good news for the enlightened Greco-Roman polytheists of the littoral and the Levant, and today, Islam still cuts two ways. Religion is both the tie that binds and the wedge that divides.  

Hence, the fellaheen of contemporary Egypt are again impaled on the horns of that raging bull of Islamic history, a Hobson's choice. Such is the simple truth of much Muslim history, a millennial struggle between religious absolutism and secular oligarchy. If generals are the occasional problem in the Ummah, Muslim clergy are always the problem. Today, the imams, mullahs, and ayatollahs still have the upper hand.

Secular dictators and Janissaries, dare we call them transients, might come and go, but only Muslim clergy and the Koran abide. The clerical conundrum is at the heart of Muslim civic pathology. Priests seldom make good politicians, and politicians, God knows, are seldom priestly.  Catholic priests are prohibited from holding public office globally for any number of prudent reasons. The Islamic church/state dilemma was not resolved in Muhammad's time and that historic blister still accounts for much of the suffering in Muslim countries.  

Withal, voting is often confused with democracy. But the vote, as we see now again in Egypt, is just so much sand in the wind.  None of this seems to matter to wishful thinkers in the West. No matter how many regimes abort, no matter the silly rhetoric of jasmine and spring, no matter how many Muslim psychotics kill in God's name, no matter the body count, the West still clings to the illusion that Jeffersonian democracy will be the default setting after every Muslim upheaval.

And the violence is masochism! The victims of chronic social malpractice are mostly other Muslims. Fratricide and suicide have literally become cultural norms. Surely, attacks against the West garner disproportionate media coverage. Alas, the real victims, the significant genocidal carnage is intra-mural. The ongoing atrocities in Egypt and Syria are cases in point.

Not that infidels and apostates are without fault. Since 1979, American and European tactics for dealing with the Muslim world have vacillated between passive inertia and intemperate intrusion. The pattern was set during the Carter years, when American policy became anchored to appeasement and Palestinians. The Shia coup in Persia was not resisted, while the Sunnis, indeed the Muslim world, were made promises that could never be kept.

Indeed, you could argue that Carter era blunders lost the Shia world to theocracy only to make common cause with a Sunni fifth column. Ironically, Jimmy Carter won a "peace" prize, and lost a presidency. An Israeli prime minister won a prize too -- and lost his life. Men and political careers die easier than illusions in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, schizophrenic foreign policy in Europe and America cannot be attributed to any political persuasion, Left or Right. Modern Mideast policy malpractice may be enabled by the wishful thinking of liberals, but the usual response from American and continental conservatives has been "me too."

There were little or no policy differences between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on all things Islamic during the last presidential campaign. Recall also that Ronald Reagan's courage with Communism was not evident when Muslim terrorists slaughtered US Marines in Lebanon (1983). Shia Hezb'allah and the Beruit precedent subsequently found an echo with the Sunni sponsored carnage at the Kohbar towers (1996) in Saudi Arabia and the Twin Towers attack in lower Manhattan.

Yet, the West continues to pander to Arabia. Never mind that Salifism and Wahhabism, and associated terror, are impossible without moral and financial support from Saudi Arabia and the emirates. The post-Carter Sunni tilt in American foreign policy is too transparent by half. The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.

Taking sides in the Ummah, divide and conquer tactics if you will, is perilous for larger interests too. Americans and Europeans are now pariahs among both major Muslim sects.

Unlike dreamers in the West, educated secular Arabs have few illusions about theocracy. They recognize a coup by ballot -- or by any other means. Pragmatists also understand that democracy, for Islamists, is a means, not an end. Recent events in Iran, Algeria, Egypt, and now Turkey underwrite the ephemeral interpretation of elections, political freedom, and human rights in Muslim lands.

If we had to give a name to American foreign policy strategy and tactics in the Muslim world; the strategy might be called "minus-sum." The dominant tactic seems to be "regime change," consequences be damned. Unfortunately, the evidence from Persia, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and many lesser states suggests that a "lose/lose" world view might be a kind of global death wish. 

Any arm-chair psychologist would define madness as a delusion that expects the same behavior to produce different results. In a rational world, results and outcomes are altered by fundamental changes on both sides of the behavior equation. To this end, several new tactics recommend themselves; new approaches to religion, rationalization, and accountability.

Religion is the epicenter of Muslim angst. Hindus, Jews, Christians and secular rationalists recognize the wisdom of separating church and state. True tolerance is also religious diversity. Without these, democracy is impossible. Those nations that do not "render unto Caesar" should be ostracized for what they are; totalitarians.

Europe and America did not become successful societies until after the Protestant Reformation. Enlightened democracy, as Thomas Jefferson noted so often, is religious pluralism. The "one God, one religion" world view is well-intentioned social mischief.

Religious monoculture is not just at odds with pluralism, diversity, and democracy, fantasies about "submission," and doubletalk about "peace," are at the heart of Muslim pain, politics -- and social immaturity. The global reaction to Salman Rusdie's alleged blasphemy in Satanic Verses says all that needs to be said about tolerance in contemporary Islamic societies

Religious fascism is not any more honorable than the secular variety. Moral equivalence, religious or political, can only be earned, and can never be assumed.

Unfortunately, the many rationalizations for Muslim social pathologies, especially terrorism, grant imprudent criminal immunities to Islam. Terror is not purely a minority phenomenon in any case. When the so-called "moderate" Muslim majority gets a pass on passive aggression, the lunatics are encouraged. Fatwas and bombs might be might be relatively few in number, but the silence of the Muslim majority is the real wellspring of enduring hate and metastasizing irredentism.  

The recent Benghazi fiasco illustrates the perils of pandering. Every cognizant American official (Susan Rice, James Clapper, Hilary Clinton, Martin Dempsey, and Barack Obama) took extraordinary pains to avoid implicating terrorists and Islamists in that atrocity. Indeed, the most inept foreign policy team in modern history went so far as to blame Americans, and an obscure video, for Libyan Islamist rage, for crimes again committed in the name of some misappropriated God.  

And finally, we might suggest that the nations of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) simply grow up. Islam needs to take responsibility for its adherents, their behavior, and all those social obscenities that are excused in the name of culture, honor, tradition, or oppression.

The victim paradigm for Muslims created by the likes of Arnold Toynbee, more recently reinforced by scholars such as Edward Said and Tariq Ramadan, was always a better rationalization than history -- and a poor excuse for history at that. Toynbee, you might recall, characterized Jews as a "fossil society." Only children blame history, or outsiders, for contemporary incontinence. Accountability is the hallmark of all personal, national, and cultural maturity.

For the moment, Islam is trading sanguinary insults, mainly, with secular Europeans and apathetic Americans, cultures too weary to defend the values that made them successful. Absent fundamental reform, if and when theocrats confront a larger maturing world, the emerging powers of the Far East -- Russia, China, and India come to mind -- are unlikely to be as indulgent with Islamic religious arrogance. The fate of Chechens, Uighurs, Afghans, and Pakistanis might be the telltales that forecast the future of a global Islamic culture incapable of reform. 

As America and Europe contemplate yet another intervention, this time in Syria, we might pause to reflect on what Muslims should be doing. Only Muslims can save Islam from itself. Every day that Arabs avoid responsibility is another day that Islam postpones maturity. History always moves in two directions. Backwards is as likely as forward. Apologies to Hegel.

G. Murphy Donovan is a former Intelligence officer who occasionally writes about the politics of national security.

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