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Islamism and the Attacks on the US Embassy: A Historical Analysis

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September 21, 2012
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The following is an analysis of the whole based off of a single “index.” Here the analysis is indexed off of movements within history. This index explains recent events in terms of connections to the past. There is much truth in this sort of analysis. It is not, however, capable of fully explaining current events. The extent to which it accounts for attitudes, movements, and landmark events varies from circumstance to circumstance. This analysis will succeed if it adds or simply augments a dimension to the worldwide discussion on the recent attacks.

Introduction

The attacks on US Consulates from Australia to Tunisia, mostly in response to a youtube video, are the latest occurrences suggesting that the Arab Spring was not the beginning of a movement within the Muslim world towards democracy and freedom. The democratic reforms in the many Arab Spring countries were, in many ways, tangible. The trajectory of these democracies, however, is not towards the style of the liberal democracies of the western world. Recent cultural trends of Islamism have combined with democracy to push the Arab world away from the more secular nationalist governments of the 20th century and towards democratically elected Islamists governments. The Arab Spring marked the beginning of a new era of Arab politics that is only just beginning. To understand this new period in Arab politics, one must be familiar with the old.

History, both recent and centuries old, help to shed light onto many of the “whys” following the protests and attacks. Why is the Muslim world violently assaulting US embassies in Belgium, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Australia, and elsewhere? Why do many Muslims [violently] protest negative portrayals of Muhammad while other world religions do not? [a short list of exceptions does not negate the rule] Why are many Muslim countries using democratic freedoms to elect those who proclaim that they do not support the very process that brought them into office? What will things look like in 1 year? In 5 years? In 20? Read on for a brief historical overview that sheds light on some historically-shaped current values, issues, and priorities within the Muslim world.

History, Values, and the Resulting Mindset: an Overview

Understanding current trends in the Arab world requires a knowledge of Arab history, generally synonymous with the history of the rise and spread of Islam. In 632 AD, the Prophet Muhammad died and his followers continued his military campaigns and the spread of his teachings of Islam. One hundred years later, Muslim invaders had conquered the Middle East, Persia, North Africa, and the Spanish Peninsula. Only at the Battle of Tours (aka Poitiers) in 732 AD was the expansion into Western Europe via Spain stopped. The European re-conquest of Spain (The Reconquista) began in the 800s and lasted until 1492 when the final piece of Muslim Spain was surrendered back to the Spanish.

On the Eastern side of Europe, Muslim armies pressed west towards Europe from the south and east. Steady military campaigns took the Anatolian peninsula, conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1543, and moved into the Balkans. The fall of Constantinople, the “unconquerable” city, marked the end of the Byzantine empire, the last direct heir of the Roman Empire. In the Middle East, Muslim lands stretched wide across Asia and into the Indian subcontinent. While Europe was still moving towards the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and massive technological innovations, the Muslim world was at its peak. No single kingdom of Europe could compete. Under Suleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire and the dar al-Islam (House of Islam) were more powerful, more wealthy, and generally more advanced than the kingdoms and mini-empires at its borders. Its inhabitants were aware of this and considered it a supportive argument to the validity of their worldview and lifestyle. To be a Muslim was to be a part of a continuing global domination.

By the late 17th century, however, power ratios of the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim world vis-a-vis Europe had shifted dramatically. Europe was advancing in all ways and at a rate incomparable to the stagnation of the Arab world during the same time. By 1684, the Ottomans had been repulsed and beaten back from Vienna, the gateway into Western Europe. In 1699, the Treaty of Karlowitz marked the first substantial loss of territory for the Ottoman Empire. It also marked the first time that the empire was forced into the terms of a foreign power. They never recovered. Europe eclipsed the formerly powerful Arabic lands. Over the next 230 years, Europe influenced the governments and trade, establishing colonies, protectorates, and puppet governments while dictating the terms of treaties to the more autonomous. During the first World War, the last Islamic empire crumbled. The heirs of the former Muslim empires have not (and will not) become accustomed to inferiority in power.

During the 20th century, massive surges in nationalism between and after the world wars led to autonomy and strong central governments characterized by powerful heads of state like Nasser and Mubarak in Egypt, Bashar and Hafiz al-Assad in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The appeal to nationalism, however, only lasted as long as there was something in which to hope. The strong leaders did give their citizens a sense of power but the sense was soon eclipsed when that power failed to change their power relative to Europe, the US, and Russia. Once nationalism had held power for some decades, the nationalist countries were still pawns in a global game where their only satisfaction lay in being king. Nationalism’s quest to make themselves global powers failed.

Meanwhile, Arabic culture began to show hints of western influences beyond technological adaptations. The nationalist leaders became friendly with the Western powers. Now, not only had the nationalists failed to materialize a return to power for the Arab world, they were also accused of trading their heritage for a western one. This was too much for a people who had ruled territory from Spain to India only three hundred years earlier.

Recent History: A Single-Input Analysis

That brings the history close to and even within the 21st century. Before continuing, however, there is a crucial caveat to repeat; it is important to note that this is an analysis of the whole based off of a single “index” (movements within history, in this case). This index explains recent events in terms of connections to the past. There is much truth in such an analysis. It is not, however, capable of fully explaining current events. The extent to which it accounts for attitudes, movements, and landmark events varies from circumstance to circumstance. This analysis will succeed if it adds or augments a dimension to the worldwide discussion on the recent attacks.

Additionally and for whatever reasons, Americans’ personal connections to geography, history, and a sense of place are weaker than that found in the Arab world. The Arab world is still very much connected to their own sense of place, geography, and especially history relative to the US. Americans, therefore, often under-emphasize these factors, further removing themselves from accurate analysis of the Arab world and the latest string of attacks on US embassies. It is natural for Americans to downplay these factors.

The recent attacks on US embassies by angry Islamists are the product of the latest political, religious, and cultural trends within the dar al-Islam. The populations of nationalist countries were, to varying degrees, contented with their governments. Besides small and marginalized extremist groups, religion and nationalist politics had a generally stable relationship. When the nationalist movements did not lead to power on the world stage, another hope took its place. The latest and most influential political and cultural hope in the Arab world has become the religion and the oscillating political priorities of Islam and Islamism. Since the 7th century, Islam has been a common denominator through all movements within the Arab world. The way in which it interacts with politics and culture, however, has always been in flux, moving from fundamentalism to syncretism (the blending of Islam with other worldviews ranging from western to tribal).

The perceived loss of cultural identity during the 20th century has given way to popular support for religious solutions to perceived political and cultural problems. The theoretical foundations of these movements began in the 20s and 30s which, in turn, drew upon older thinkers and movements. The thinkers within the movement towards Islamism (most notably Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb), however, took a distant second place to the booming nationalism of the century. These thinkers did not achieve large scale political influence until more recently. During their lifetimes, they continued to write and change the culture under the surface of the political realm. As discontent with the West, with the situation in Israel, and with nationalism grew, these movements began to bubble to the surface. They eventually erupted violently in many places, influencing and even toppling political structures. The Taliban in Afghanistan were and still are one the most infamous and noteworthy of the groups. The rise in influence of their ideologies follows a similar growth patter to the rise in the membership and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (of which the two previously-mentioned thinkers were founders and members).

The slow cultural movements towards religious answers for these political and cultural problems moved forwards slowly depending on the culture and on the pre-existing political system. The Arab Spring in 2011 marked the entrance into a new era of Arabic politics. The Arab world is turning away from the strong central figures with nationalist aspirations and western sympathies towards governments with at least partially Islamist worldviews who will represent more accurately the growing number of discontented Muslims.

A similar movement happened decades earlier in a country situated just Northeast of the strictly defined Arabic world. In Iran, the Shah was overthrown in a fashion not completely dissimilar to the wave of transitions after the Arab Spring. The Islamist faction of the movement teamed up with the secular liberals and seized control of the country. Once accomplished, however, the Islamist side of the revolt continued and drove the secular liberals out of the government. The result lives on with us today as the Islamic Republic of Iran, an odd combination of democracy and Shiite Islamism. This pattern is slowly developing in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries that are beginning to elect moderately Islamist governments into power.

The Draw?

The attraction to this ideology is, in part, that it is something completely non-Western. It separates the Muslim from the West, drawing a clear distinction between “dar al-Islam” and the “dal al-Harb” (House of War). It raises the Muslim above the omnipresence of western culture. It connects the Muslim to his or her history that was, for many centuries, in control of massive portions of the world. Ultimately, it situates the Muslim citizen within his or her own geography, culture, and sense of place. As the west continues to intervene militarily, politically, and culturally in the Arab world, the Arab response will become more and more Islamist. Islamism may not be the only response, but it is currently the most popular by large margins.

The Attacks and the Future

The attacks and violent protests on the US embassies around the world were the product of these increases in Islamist attitudes. While Islamism does not necessitate violence per se, the latter often accompanies the former. This is especially true in the Muslim world’s most recent Islamist shift.

Those with the extreme heritage of the 20th century Islamist thinkers did not, however, declare war on the US with the attacks on the embassies. Their ideology declared war on the US and all non-Muslim countries in its founding literature from the 20th century. Today, they wage war on the enemies of their worldview. Diplomacy centered on developing understanding between cultures will only serve to strengthen the resolve of Islamists. The western worldview and the Islamist worldview are irreconcilably opposed. That is not to say that all things Arab are incapable of mixing with Western governments, cultures, and societies. Islam and the West can work together. It is only Islamism that, definitionally, cannot coexist within secular democracies.

If the recent attacks are harbingers of continued movements in the direction of sincere Islamism and if violence continues to serve as a tool for change, then there will be many more similar attacks as the western world protects and promotes its own values while Islamism does the same. The two can exist in separate places but they are irreconcilable within a single country. As both ideologies are committed to spreading its values abroad, continued clashes are inevitable.

So far, these clashes have been violent. Given the trends and current trajectory of these trends, the violence of these clashes will only escalate in the next few years. Islamism has its own theoretical justification for the use of violence. While it is possible that it will fall out of use as it has done many times over the course of history, it is unlikely that it will do so in the near future. Given trends, attitudes, and current conflicts, it appears that violence will surge to new highs.

Because free speech is a cornerstone of western liberal democracies, cartoons and low-budget films that negatively portray the Muslim prophet Muhammad are inevitable. Because of the internet, such media spreads easily. There is nothing short of repression that western governments can do to stop completely the creation of this media. The only way to satisfy both parties would be to find a way to prevent all such media from entering Arabic countries. Not only would such a task be impossible, it would also deny the rights that the western world is attempting to encourage in those same countries. Either way, the result does not bode well for western governments and invested persons.

Conclusion

The recent attacks on the US embassy will prove to be but the beginning of years of escalated violence against the west, particularly the US, by angry Islamists. This will continue until the movement fades, like the 20th century nationalist movement, under a growing alternative. Unfortunately, any future alternatives are yet so small that there is little hope of an Islamist burnout in the near future. The Arab Spring will undoubtedly give rise to some sort of Islamist Winter. The silver lining for the west, however, is that the size and dimensions that Islamism will take in each country remains to be seen. If, however, any of the countries follow a pattern close to Iran, the west and the US have reason for concern. Only time will tell as it has told time and time again as the Arab world continues to change relative to the globe.

 

Definitions and Links
Islamism: The belief that Islamic law in one form or another should also be the law of the state. Islamism opposes the Western principle of separation between church [mosque] and state. Most of the Islamists elected into government over the past year were not those who were calling for the immediate establishment of a state under Sharia law. They support a gradual blending of Islam and the state. Islamism is not definitionally violent, but it is often characterized as reactively violent.
Arab World: Used here to refer loosely to the peoples and governments of the Maghreb and the Middle East that are united by a similar culture and, to varying extents, common histories.
The Video
The Reconquista
Map of Protests (up to 9/16/2012)

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks is an OODA analyst with a strong background in international relations, regional studies, and world religions.

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