By Sultan Knish
What the misreading of the Arab Spring as a revolutionary wave of democracy, rather than an explosion of existing tensions and longstanding civil wars, points to most is how thoroughly the 21st century Middle East expert has unlearned everything that his 19th century predecessor knew about the Muslim world.
The 19th century expert understood the Muslim world as essentially unchanging, seething with revolts and dynastic struggles, but still shackled to the chains of its cultural and moral limitations. But the 21st century expert insists on a progressive version of history, in which humanity is always moving upward. Where each event, good or bad, is a phase in historical development.
A 150 years ago, a Western observer reporting on a Muslim ruler being driven out of power by an alliance of oligarchies and an angry mob would have said that it was the same sort of thing that had been going on in the region forever. His conclusion might have been cynical, even bigoted, but it would have also been realistic.
The 21st century expert is too busy looking to the future to notice the past. The only history in the Muslim world that he is concerned with is colonial history, the tale of wrongs inflicted by Europeans on the noble inhabitants, and of the tremendous culture and great achievements of the locals. This mishmash of history informs him that the advancement of the Muslim world was aborted by Western imperialism. And when Western imperialism is finally and utterly destroyed, then the Muslim world will resume its high standards of civic culture.
The Arab Spring, with its violent overthrow of Western backed rulers, seems promising to him. Finally progressive organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood will have their chance to restore an advanced civilizations to the noble principles of the Koran.
There is nothing wrong with this formulation that he can see. "Everyone" knows that Islam is better, kinder, nobler and more technically advanced than Christianity or Judaism. It may have its fundamentalists lurking in dark caves, but what of abortion clinic bombers and settlers. When the Islamists are in charge-- surely a new era of freedom and enlightenment will follow.
Even the secularists are no better. Democracy is their idol, and the ballot box their altar. But what does democracy mean to nations divided by ethnicity, tribe and religion. And how does one negotiate a consensus through such irresolvable identities?
Lebanon is a demonstration of what multiculturalism mixed with Islam looks like in even a modern area with heavy European influence. A permanent civil war that can never be peacefully resolved. The Muslim world is no more peaceful, only more pacified by tyrants and tanks. Take away the tyrant and his tanks, and the civil war resumes, until it is pacified by another tyrant. The cycle repeats itself endlessly.
The Soviet Union was once referred to as a "Prison of Nations". But then so are all empires. The Muslim world is a broken empire, a vast collection of scattered pieces, subjugated peoples, wrecked cultures, sullen tribes and rival families crowded together into one Muslim identity. With nothing in common but their hatred of the infidel.
The Muslim world can never be at peace, because Muslims are not at peace with themselves. And their governments are built on some form of negotiated alliance, just as can be seen in its crude form in Afghanistan where warlords pledge allegiance in exchange for bribes, between tribes, communities and powerful families. When the alliance shifts or a ruler shows weakness, the infrastructure of government comes tumbling down.
The Arab Spring is an unglamorous as all that. Not any different at its base than an Afghan warlord changing his loyalties. For all that it's dressed up in Twitter activism, posed photos and banners-- it's the same game with a better logo. Mobs didn't begin overthrowing Arab rulers when Twitter was invented. They won't stop when everyone has forgotten what Twitter was.
Without progress, the future can only be an imperfect continuation of the past. And progress comes from self-doubt leading to reform. Reform is not a matter of denouncing politicians, but of denouncing yourself. The Muslim world is full of denunciations, but they are strictly partisan and external. The family blames the tribe. The tribe blames the party. The party blames the government. The government blames the Turks, the English, the Zionists or the Americans. Thus the problem is exorcised and immortalized.
Blame is assigned to a foreign scapegoat. And the 21st century expert pursues the scapegoat whether it's American foreign policy or Israeli settlements or the price of wheat or the World Trade Organization. And this is what makes him, with his Kindle displaying the latest issue of The Economist, his watch set to three time zones, and his Flickr page full of photos of him posing with native boys, so much dimmer than his 19th century predecessor. It's not so much what he knows, as what he doesn't know, and has no idea that he doesn't know. And wouldn't listen to if he were told.
Eventually the scapegoat is corralled, kicked and beaten. A revolution ensues. The crowds cheer. Photos are taken of protesters heroically tossing Molotov cocktails through the air at the police. A decade later the protesters are wearing police uniforms and torturing protesters in hidden cellars. Whatever freedom there was under the previous regime has dissipated. Everyone lives in fear and blames the 21st century experts and their foreign policy for it.
This Groundhog Day is so difficult to dismiss because it is embedded in the very fractures that caused all this to come about. The Islamic conquests did not bring forth a golden age, but an age of slaves. Millions of peoples had their culture partly or wholly destroyed. Then after the caliphates fell, the Western democracies came in, colored in their borders and expected everything to go alright so long as there were regular elections.
The Muslim world only has Islam as its common consensus, and the only means of governance that it offers is rule by conquest, and authority through Quranic scripture. Neither of those represent any sort of enduring consensus. The kings who trace their lineage back to Mohammed and the Imams who shout for democracy, so long as it puts them in power, are the pathetic end of this fractured philosophy.
There are high minded ideals aplenty, but no way to implement them. Muslims soothe each other with stories of their own nobility and greatness, useless substitutes for the real thing. But a government that isn't composed of a handful of powerful families, an army colonel or an oligarchy of clerics is a rare thing. And none of these can last.
The Hashemites went from ruling three countries, to ruling a small kingdom under Israeli and American protection. The Saudis who replaced them may fall just as quickly when the wheel turns. Egypt may be headed toward clerical rule, just as Iran is headed away from it. And if not that, then military rule. One old mistake will do as well as another.
Tellingly what doesn't work is democracy. Democracy didn't keep the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq from killing each other. Or the Kurds from carving out their own separate state. And it didn't keep the Christians from being hounded out. These divisions are adequate testimony to the cultural inadequacy of trying to build a national consensus on so thin a soil.
The Muslim world prides itself on its wisdom, but its wisdom is futility. It can see conspiracies in a grain of sand, but not redeem its own flaws or treat its own wounds. Mohammed and his successors did not unite the peoples who fell under their rule, they retarded them. They made it impossible for them to develop and then wrapped that retardation in the banner of Islam. And out of that has come the permanent Muslim civil war.
What boils in the streets of great cities is the same pattern of violence and betrayal, aspiration and disintegration, that played out long ago on the hot desert sands. The conflicts of cultures unable to move past their own tribalism. Unwilling to leave behind the chains of their past and become true peoples and nations, rather than the slaves of Islam.