Friday, May 23, 2008

From Kosovo to Kuwait: Renaissance and Retrogression in the Islamic World

Here's another bit by Michael Totten in Commentary (I beg your indulgence; I'm apparently on a Totten jag for the moment). The subject is an enclave of the Moderate Muslim whose more widespread emergence is a larger strategic aim of the Long War (I'm growing to like that term more and more; vague and epic. Beats the tar out of "War On Terror" anyway).

Reporting from Kosovo, Totten writes:

American flags are on sale at kiosks everywhere. They fly in front of government buildings. The world's second largest replica of the Statue of Liberty sits atop the five star Hotel Victory. The largest street downtown was renamed Bill Clinton Boulevard. Many businesses are likewise named after Clinton. One cafe owner called his establishment “Hillary” and placed two gigantic pictures of Bill and Hillary on the walls. Don't assume, though, that this makes Kosovars Muslim versions of Euro-lefties. Clinton is rightly hailed as a liberator, but one resident told me “We are Republicans here in Kosovo.” They want a strong American President who won't back down from commitments.

Relax. I'm not saying that a goal of our endeavors is to create sanitized, pro-American cheerleading squads across the globe. Geez. My point is that Kosovar Muslims were actively getting squished under Belgrade's boot when Bubba launched his 'illegal war of choice' in the Balkans. The result of that action was the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Muslims from "ethnic cleansing."

Intriguingly, they appear to be grateful.

Again, we are not trying to win sycophants, but gratitude like this is instructive for where it appears and where it doesn't. In the year following 9/11, when the US really needed to know who its friends were, some distinctly unhelpful ideas were coming out of Kuwait. Yes, Kuwait, the nation of Arab Muslims which we led a coalition to wrest from the bloody maw of Saddam's Iraq. So, what makes the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo differ so profoundly from their co-religionists on the Persian Gulf?

Once again, we turn to Steven Den Beste, who proposes that the enemy we face is --of course!-- not Islam. It is not Iraq. It is certainly not Afghanistan. It is not Saudi Arabia, though that nation does appear to be one of primary sources of what --at the most fundamental level-- we are fighting in all of those places, and many other places besides. He rather infelicitously terms it "Arab Culture," (and later amends it to "Arab Traditionalism." Still not entirely satisfying --as Den Beste is the first to admit-- but less freighted with scarily overgeneralized implications).

What he is talking about is the intellectual and cultural heritage of Muhammad's consolidation of previously fractured Arab societies under the banner of his religion. The empire which he and his successors built was unprecedented in its reach and power, and impressive in its accomplishments. But that empire fell hard and has been sinking since, like a ship falling into the deepest submarine trench, its bulkheads collapsing, tortuously, one by one, with nothing to stop it. What remains is a shell of its former self, no more the vibrant, assertive culture which initially swept outward from Arabia than the lurching zombies of horror films are the living, thinking individuals they resemble:

The problem with our enemy's culture is that in the 20th century it was revealed as being an abject failure. By any rational calculation, it could not compete, and not simply because the deck was stacked against it. The problem was more fundamental; the culture itself contained the elements of its own failure.

The only Arab nations which have prospered have done so entirely because of the accident of mineral wealth. Using money from export of oil, they imported a high tech infrastructure. They drive western cars. They use western cell phones. They built western high-rise steel frame buildings. They created superhighways and in every way implemented the trappings of western prosperity.

Or rather, they paid westerners to create all those things for them. They didn't build or create any of it themselves. It's all parasitic. And they also buy the technical skill to keep it running. The technological infrastructure of Saudi Arabia (to take an example) is run by a small army of western engineers and technicians and managers who are paid well, and who live in isolation, and who keep it all working. If they all leave, the infrastructure will collapse. Saudi Arabia does not have the technical skill to run it, or the ability to produce the replacement parts which would be needed. It's all a sham, and they know it. Everything they have which looks like modern culture was purchased. They themselves do not have the ability to produce, or even to operate, any of it.

History is littered with the corpses of cultures which failed to compete and thus perished. However, we are not faced with the problem of Etruscan traditionalists bombing cafes in Rome. Something sets the traditionalist threads of Arab culture apart, and that something has led to the formation of a very dangerous phenomenon. As Den Beste points out, Muhammad's recitations contained a very powerful message about the fate of Islam. In short, it was supposed to rule the world. Nothing particularly new there either. Trouble is, that it really seemed to be going well there for quite a while, and the (pre-Muslim) shame/face culture of the Arabs has been unable to digest the horrifying reality of how altogether Over those days are. Again, rare is the empire which will simply go quietly into that good night, yet go they have, generally kicking and screaming.

But then, they didn't have oil.

The immense hydrocarbon oceans under the sands of Arabia were the zombie potion that cursed the Arab empire to live on as the ravening revenant that it's become. The geopolitical status and outrageous (unearned) wealth which befell the retrograde regimes in the region halted what would have been the "normal" historical process of utter cultural collapse and reconstitution in a new form. Thus arrested in its cultural evolution, the power which oil wealth afforded Arab civilization also prevented the final shaming of the Old Ways which would have been the agonizing spur for it to evolve into a new form. The spectacle of the world's powers groveling and scheming to keep the black gold flowing has not been helpful for the final erasure of the hope for a restoration of the march toward global Caliphate.

The vanguard of that hope is typified by al Qaeda and the Wahhabist school of fundamentalist Islam which it uses as the foundation for its acts of barbarism against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is that Wahhabi strain of Islam which holds that a return to the "purity" of the earliest days of the religion is what will return it to its former greatness. Alas, it is also that strain of Islam that is so profligately funded by the petro-coffers of the Saudi government, which finances the establishment of traditional Madrassas worldwide, and so keeps the dream of the Caliphate shambling on.

Den Beste argues that it is the virulent export of that dream's most militant manifestations which has pressed the world (and the United States in particular, as the prime example of the success of those 'godless' cultures which exist as a constant insult to the pride of the Arab) to take steps to resume and hasten the full, ignominious fall of 'Arab Traditionalist Culture,' so that it can have its Renaissance and commence with discovering the bootstraps by which it will lift itself into the 17th Century...and hopefully beyond. The notion is that by conquering Iraq, facilitating its emergence as a free, prosperous, competitive --but distinctly Arab-- society, and letting it thrive, we will have presented the surrounding countries with a salubriously humiliating mirror on their own failures to reach similar levels of societal health and prosperity. I can think of nothing more subversive than the spectacle of an Iraq which absorbs (if not exactly accepting) the "Foreigner's Gift," and is able to achieve the status of a power in the region...without a burkha in sight.

Which brings us back to Kuwait and Kosovo.

In this quite lengthy but very informative account of the history of the Balkans, some very dire warnings about the potential for the ascendancy of "Arab-style," fundamentalist Islam are sounded. The ethnic Albanian Muslims are depicted in their agonizing tug-of-war with Serbs and Croats and others over the course of centuries, culminating in the consolidation of an Islamist identity which threatens to become a cradle of Islamism in Central Europe. While ominously traditional skeins of Islam have undoubtedly been present in the region, and while a great deal of brutality can be laid at their feet (hardly a market on which they have had a corner, though!), there are strong indications that the export of Wahhabism into the area is unlikely to take root. Indeed, as Totten mentions in the above-linked article, a sizable proportion of the Kosovar Muslim population belongs to the Sufi sect, a mystical-esoteric tradition within Islam (branded heretical and brutally suppressed among Salafist/Wahhabi groups) which is most decidedly non-political and whose adherents tend to be among the most 'liberal' of Muslims. It is hard to imagine a population in which Sufis thrive having any patience whatsoever with the intolerant, legalistic Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Kuwait, in stark contrast, is very much in the mold of the traditional Arab culture (see here for one of many examples). Although it owes much to the US for liberating it from the brutal expansionist adventures of Saddam's Iraq, the larger goals of the American strategy for the region cannot help but be profoundly threatening to the status quo in that nation. Make no mistake, the women of Kuwait are unlikely to sit quietly at home when they are confronted with the sight of female parliamentarians just to their north.

The more uncomfortable we can make nations which still sleep-walk under the veil of traditional Arab culture, the more we will hasten the day when "Moderate Muslim" will become a term which is applied with less incredulity. It is a day I truly hope I will live to see; if nothing else, it would be really cool to take my son to see the Pyramids someday (hey, he's just over 2 and a half. It could happen).

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