Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Keep alive the memory of Ghanian poet Kofi Awoonor.

At the height of the Ottoman Empire's power, Orthodox Christians from the Balkan states willingly accepted Christianity's role as a vassal religion, since the Islamic rulers in Istanbul allowed relative freedom of religion.  Some Christians even served in the Ottoman army as Janissary forces. True, a few Christian guerillas in the Carpathian hills tried to hold out against the sultan's power, but most of the acts carried out by these groups represented little more than banditry and indiscriminate terror, and had little impact outside specific villages in southeast Europe.

When the imperial powers of Europe carved up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century, they made clear that Islam now would be the vassal religion in the global empires of capitalist Christendom, and that this was largely the fault of Islam's own standard-bearers and their self-inflicted wounds, since Muslim nations had withdrawn from science, technology, and the Victorian Era's idea of "progress." Of all the Young Turks who attempted to re-define Istanbul to align with Western interests, only Kemal Ataturk made progress, largely through declaring an enforced secularism.  Sure, there were plenty of Muslims in Anatolia, but they had to play the game according to secularist rules.

This pattern was repeated over and over with Nassir in Egypt, the Baath Party in Syria and Iraq, and the socialist revolutionaries in Algeria. Islam as its own source of power was turned into the losing wing of a balance of power that grew more asymmetric by the day. Historians credit the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 with giving pride back to at least the Shia wing of Islam, though too many devout within Iran spent more time sending out the baseej cultural police to deal with evil secular influences, than they did in careful consideration of whether Iran really needed The Bomb.

The recent overtures by Iran to open dialogue with the West stem in part from a realization that vastly asymmetric power imbalances cannot be overcome by terror or by nuclear weapons.  Organized rejectionist nation-states like Iran, North Korea, and Syria may still try to broaden their arsenals of WMDs, but they realize that at the end of the day, Western nations have the power to destroy them, and they are unlikely to ever overcome that asymmetry, no matter how many weapons they purchase.  Better to strike deals and form counter-alliances than to bankroll terror. (True, some within the DPRK still believe in the utter nonsense called juche in North Korea, but they represent a minority that is shrinking every day.)

That leaves the independent non-state actors, particularly the warriors who subscribe to a Salafist version of Islam.  The front line is defined less and less by al-Qaeda, and more and more by localized groups such as al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Lakshar e-Taiba.  These are the groups responsible for the deaths of more than 70 at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, and for the death of 78 Christian worshipers at a church in Peshawar, Pakistan.  Some analysts in the West would say that an indiscriminate, catastrophist terror against civilians is the only response a devout Muslim can make to extreme asymmetry in power.  Sometimes, they will use analogies like the elephant assaulted by a thousand fleas.

The problem with this analysis is that an elephant who tires of battling fleas one by one, always has the option of rolling on the ground and killing thousands at once. On a moral basis, those of us opposed to war do not like to see the use of any deliberate-assassination weapons, from drones to aerial carpet bombing to tactical nuclear weapons. But what the Western powers want to make sure the catastrophists understand is that Salafist warriors only remain alive at the discretion of Western leaders who choose to limit collateral damage. The asymmetry of power will never be overcome, in the Salafist's lifetime, or for a century or more to come. Iranian leaders understand they may finish a nuke or two, but will never have the strategic resources to challenge the overall nuclear arsenals of Israel or the U.S. Syria wants to depend on Russia, but Kremlin leaders and the military are only willing to go so far in challenging power asymmetries (though Putin loves to call Americans to task for their exceptionalism).

It may seem cruel and counter-productive to tell a young, devout graduate of a madrassa school that Islam will remain a vassal religion regardless of what jihadists do, but facts is facts. There are no 50 virgins in paradise to reward the Shabaab member attacking a Kenyan mall.  There will be no Third Caliphate. There will only be an Islam that will remain in a secondary position to Judeo-Christianity for a long time to come.

Monotheistic religions that learn to make do, evolve to a language of love and inclusion. The devout who lash out against noncombatants only tighten the circle around themselves, while discrediting all their people and those who share their beliefs. The forces of the West do not have an exceptionalist monopoly on righteousness, but their power cannot be challenged by wanton crimes against the innocent. The wise Muslim activist can turn to nonviolent noncooperation methods and leverage the power of Gandhi.  The catastrophist will sink in a mire of ineffective asymmetric warfare that only further ruins the cause of respect for Islam.