Wednesday 11 November 2015

Is the Arab World Facing its Own Thirty Years’ War?

My boss has the habit of placing photocopies of articles he read on my desk in the morning, before I arrive at work. Today what I found was a short review of a book which argued that the Arab world is currently experiencing its own version of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (Rainer Herrmann, Endstation Islamischer Staat?). Just to recap, the Thirty Years’ War broke out in 1618 in response to the Holy Roman Emperor’s attempts to reconvert the Empire’s Protestants to Catholicism, which resulted in some of the Protestant states’ open revolt against the Emperor. While starting out as a religious war, it eventually turned into a devastating conflict for continental domination involving all of Europe’s great powers. Parts of Europe, including Western Saxony, became largely depopulated.

Europe during the Thirty Years' War

Nevertheless, I think that drawing comparisons between the contemporary Arab wars and the European Thirty Years’ War is not only patronizing but misleading. Yes, the Arab wars are religiously motivated. They involve many of the world’s major powers and in Syria they have caused destruction and population movements comparable to that of the Thirty Years’ War. Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference. Early modern Europe was a religiously homogenous space, with nearly the entire population being Catholic. The Thirty Years’ War broke out in response to increasing religious diversification, eventually resulting in this new diversity being accepted. The Arab world in the other hand was historically a highly diversified space. Syria for instance was predominantly Christian until at least the turn of the millennium (i.e. during the first 400 years of Muslim rule). Before the war, at least 10% of Syrians were Christians, among them several varieties of Orthodox and Catholics. The Muslim population in turn was divided between Shiites, Sunnis, Sufis, Alawites and Druze, with each group representing a significant share of the Muslim community. Religious diversity was very much the norm in most of the Arab world until very recently.

The comparison between the Arab wars and the Thirty Years’ War obfuscates the deeper causes of the contemporary conflicts. I am of course a big fan of Gramsci, having based much of my PhD thesis on his writings. In the Prison Notebooks he states,

“If one were to accept the fact that modern civilization in its industrial-economic-political form will, in the end, triumph in the Orient […], why should one deny that Islam will necessarily evolve? Can it remain as it is? No: already, it is no longer what it was before [World War I]. Can it collapse suddenly? Absurd. Can it be replaced by a Christian religion? Absurd, when one thinks of the great masses. […] In reality, the most tragic problem of Islam arises from the fact that a society numbed by centuries of isolation and by a corrupt feudal regime (naturally, the feudal lords are not materialists!!) is brought into contact much too abruptly with a frenzied civilization which has already entered its phase of decomposition. […] Islam is forced into a headlong rush. But, in fact, it reacts just like Christianity: the great heresy from which the real heresies will arise is the ‘national sentiment’ against theocratic cosmopolitanism. Then the theme of a return to ‘origins’ will arise in exactly the same way as in Christianity.” (Q2 §90, Buttigieg translation).

Gramsci raises several important points which deserve further emphasis.

Firstly, just as there is an inherent conflict between capitalism and Christianity, there is an inherent conflict between capitalism and Islam. Gramsci argues that in the case of Christianity, this conflict has become largely invisible because of the erosion of Christian ethics through casuistry, i.e. abandoning Christian moral principles can be justified if this serves some greater good (Gramsci refers to this as Jesuitism). This allows for a capitalist society that thrives on greed to continue calling itself a Christian society. The Calvinist emphasis on predestination relieves the individual of their social responsibility. Islam has undergone no such transformation, which is why the clash between capitalism and Islam is more visible. The arrival of capitalism, and subsequently Fordism and consumerism, was in fundamental contradiction to Islam’s religious transcendentalism. The materialist values that capitalism requires were in turn rightly associated with the American strive for global domination, providing fertile soil for discursive creation of an eschatological conflict between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, this narrative further reinforced by the US-led invasion of Iraq. Many combatants in the Syrian civil war now seem to believe that the United States actually escalated the conflict.

Secondly, Gramsci calls nationalism the ‘great heresy from which the real heresies will arise’. The European model of the nation-state and the division of the Middle East among Britain and France following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire created the foundation of the contemporary Arab states. Attempts for pan-Arab unity have failed and Ba’athism has inadvertently strengthened national identities. Ironically, despite the 60 million dead of World War II, the nation-state was perceived as a Western success story. The corruption of Islam was thus reinforced – not only did capitalism clash with Islamic non-materialism, but now nationalism stood in open contradiction to Islamic cosmopolitanism. Reformist movements were the inevitable consequence of these corruptions.

The question is now, why have these reformist movements taken on the barbaric character of the so-called ‘Islamic State’? I think this occurred because of the lack of an Islamic hegemonic power. Despite the obvious corruption of the Ottoman aristocracy and the inheritance of the caliphate, the caliph was the successor of the Prophet. Turkey’s abolition of the caliphate in 1924 has left the Muslim world in a state of religious disorientation, which has facilitated the increasing fragmentation of Islam into competing groups. Moreover, the absence of a high religious authority has permitted for the issuance of fatwas (including declaring other Muslims to be infidels) by amateurs and extremists, such as the murderous bands of the ‘Islamic State’.

An analysis of the contemporary Arab wars would benefit greatly from a conversation with Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Herrmann’s populist thesis on a hypothetical Arab Thirty Years’ War is not only without foundation, but patronizing to the Arab world.