There is a long history of Western powers believing they could manipulate or
work with radical, Arabic-speaking states or movements to redo the regional
order. All have ended badly.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Germany became
convinced that it could turn jihad against British, French and Russian rivals.
In World War I, the Germans launched a jihad, complete with the Ottoman caliph’s
Wiser heads warned that the Ottoman ruler didn’t have real
authority to do so, or that the raising of the jihad spirit could cause
massacres of Christians in the empire. They were ignored. As a result, few
responded to this jihad; Armenians were massacred, at times with at least the
passive complicity of the German government.
Nevertheless, Adolf Hitler,
whose close comrades included many veterans of the earlier jihad strategy, tried
the same approach in World War II. This time, the Jews in the Middle East were
to be the massacred scapegoats. Yet despite the close collaboration of the
leader of the Palestine Arabs’ Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Muslim Brotherhood,
among others, the defeat of the German armies along with other factors
(incompetence, unkept Arab promises, and German priorities) prevented this
alliance from succeeding.
There is no evidence that the Brotherhood has
changed its positions. The story above is told in a new book I wrote with the
brilliant scholar Wolfgang G. Schwanitz – Nazis, Islamists, and the
Making of the Modern Middle East – which will be published by Yale University
Press in January 2014.
In 1939 the British offered to sell out the
promise of a Jewish homeland to gain Arab support in the coming war.
Islamist-radical nationalist faction rejected these offers, though moderate
Arabs wanted to accept them. After WWII, the British decided to secure their
interests in the region by courting the Arabs. The result was the Arab League, a
body the British thought they could control but which instead became a vehicle
for anti-Western radicalism.
In the early 1950s, the United States
thought it could support the takeover by moderate elements who would modernize
their countries. No more would America be held responsible for corrupt
dictators; it would receive gratitude from liberated people living in
They encouraged the 1952 Egyptian coup which brought Gamal
Abdel Nasser to power.
The result of British and American efforts to
harness radical Arab nationalism – which led to decades of violence and war in
the region – is told by me in The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, which
you can read online or download for free. A variation of this US strategy took
place in Iran, which you can read online or download for free in my Paved with
Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran.
Next, the Soviets
poured lots of money and weapons into shoring up radical nationalist regimes as
allies. That effort failed, too, leaving behind big debts. The PLO was one of
While well-intentioned people initiated the 1990s’ peace
process, arguing that power would moderate radicals and stabilize the region,
that didn’t work out really well, either.
France’s policy helped
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (as it helped the Palestine Arab Nazi collaborator
Amin al-Husseini decades earlier), thinking this was a way to extend French
influence in the Middle East.
The United States backed a jihad in
Afghanistan against the invading Soviets, out of which unintentionally grew
eventually the Taliban and in part al- Qaida. Remember, as they want to do now,
that was siding with the lesser of two evils – Afghan jihadis – against the
then-equivalent of Iran, the USSR.
Does no one remember any of this
recent history? What will history make of this American jihad in Syria and the
support for Islamists elsewhere? At least in the past, the United States backed
people it thought would be pro-American.
Now it backs people who openly
hate it. At least the in the past policy makers could delude themselves that
this would work.
Back in 1914, the great Dutch expert C. Snouck Hurgronje
warned against what he called a “jihad made in Germany.”
plague of religious hatred, he warned, would unleash the genie of civilizational
conflict, violence and massacres beyond anyone’s control.
As we are
already seeing, the Sunni- Shia conflict, increasingly a war, has divided the
There are ideological differences, ethnic ones,
the ambitions of various nationstates to rule the empire, and the extremism that
alienates potential Muslim and Western allies. Yet this is the main hope of the
world at present because Western leaders have clearly not learned anything much
about the Middle East in the past century.
Backing radicals has never
Only backing moderates, or at least those who believe that their
interests require stability and have gone through a real change of heart, could.
Over and over again history has shown that backing radicals merely gets you more
Have there been no successes? Of course there have,
albeit in a different way: through containment, patience and struggle against
radical forces. In Russia’s case that took 70 years; in China’s only about 50;
and in Egypt (from the 1951 radicals to its moderation under Anwar Sadat) merely
25, though now Egypt has reverted since its society wasn’t fundamentally
Thirty-four years ago I wrote, a few months after Iran’s
Islamist revolution, that an entire generation would pass before the US and Iran
So far that prediction still holds. The same might well
be true for the newer Islamist states.The author is director of the
Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle
East Review of International Affairs Journal (MERIA) and Turkish Studies and a
featured columnist at PJM. His forthcoming book is called Nazis, Islamists, and
the Making of the Modern Middle East (Yale University