The Region: Backing radicals has never worked

At least the in the past policy makers could delude themselves that this would work.

June 23, 2013 22:33
4 minute read.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at NAM Summit.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at NAM 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

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 proclamation.

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.

The 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 prosperity.

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 these forces.

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.”

Fomenting a 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 Muslim-majority world.

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 worked.

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 powerful radicals.

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 changed.

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 might reconcile.

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 Press).


Related Content

U.S. Reps Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) hold a news conference after Democrats in the U
August 17, 2019
Confronting Democrats


Cookie Settings