The Islamic State is everything horrible that’s been brewing the Middle East since 1979 finally come to fruition. At long last, all those nasty clerics who have been saying “Islam is the solution” have territory and intend on holding it.
But as backwards as the political program of the Islamic State is, the entire affair may yet yield something good. Some places, and some cultures, have to learn the hard way.
Culture is our way of solving problems before we meet them, and geopolitical situations often shape the hard edges of the ways our cultures work
A group of people from the desert will develop a different cultural system than one from a forest; that much should be obvious. But a group of people in a geopolitically insecure place prone to interference from outsiders – say, an open desert with lots of coasts and oil worth fighting over – will be more likely to develop a more xenophobic and insular culture as a reaction to outsiders coming ’round and messing with things.
Since the end of the Turk’s domination of the Middle East after World War I, Arabic culture has been trying to find a system that keeps outsiders out and provides prosperity for their own people. They’ve tried monarchy, socialism, despotism, and briefly flirted with democracy, but none of them have succeeded on both fronts. The oil-rich monarchs of the Gulf have provided prosperity but failed to keep outsiders from having a massive say in their daily affairs; the resource-poor despots of Egypt and the Levant have occasionally kept outsiders at bay but have failed to provide prosperity.
It was natural that culturally many would turn to the only ideological option not yet tried: political Islam. Political Islam, in its various stripes, purports to have the recipe for returning to the Arabs’ Golden Age of the past, and since historically that Golden Age was very real and very much did run off Qu’ranic rule, it’s quite appealing.
Thus the coming of the Islamic State, in one form or another, was pretty much inevitable
What has not been done in the Arab world is to allow political Islam to run its natural course, which is failure in the modern world. (Usury, also known as interest, is not allowed under this strict interpretation, and so there goes modern banking. Other faults include but are not limited to: marginalizing 50% of the population by codifying that women should remain at home, excessive resources wasted on policing morality, no clear method for transferring power from one leader to the next, and shutting out talented minorities from having a positive influence on the state.)
The cultural need to try out political Islam in as pure a form as possible has thus been simmering under the surface of the Arab world since 1979, when Iran’s Shi’a revolution proved Islamic revolutions possible. The despots and monarchs have killed and arrested their way through this need since then; witness Assad, Saddam, and the Saudi kings.
Once a state wobbled enough, however, this need would be expressed in the open. Syria’s civil war opened a door; Iraq’s chaos widened it. Now it’s out there and we can all see it. So too can the Arab world. The reaction is divided.
Some fools will still think it’s a good idea until it can be shown not to be
Being bombed by America doesn’t prove the Islamic State is a terrible idea. In fact, for some, it’ll do the opposite: to be attacked by the U.S. can be a badge of honor. Rather, the Islamic State must be allowed to run itself into the ground by either picking fights it can’t win with fellow Muslims or by running their own state so oppressively and terribly that the stories that come out of it scare people off political Islam permanently. Both processes take time – depending on which one, it can take generations.
This is hardly a process unique to the Arab world; witness the (very) bumpy road Europe took to democracy
In 1618, Europe plunged itself into a pointless war over religion that devastated Germany. When the 30 Years’ War ended, it did not solve the religious question, but had rather convinced people that asking questions about religion was pointless. From there emerged the modern nation-state.
Following the first republican revolution in France in 1789, France bounced back and forth between emperors, kings, and republican madness until it finally settled itself on a republic after the fall of their Second Empire.
As for Europe’s penchant for imperialism, racism, and Antisemitism, only following the monstrous blood letting of World War II were all three shown to be a waste of energy and time. Europe, in other words, learned the hard way; the Arab world is now doing the same as the Islamic State unsheathes its sword.
This is not to say that all Arabs think the Islamic State is a good thing; witness that the counterattack has been led by those who fear it the most
Rather, this process is the way the Arab world will finally address the idea of Islam in politics. No one has ever found a way to mix religion and politics without corrupting both and creating madness; Islam is unlikely to break that trend. So for Arab Muslims, watching the Islamic State in action is the most direct, effective way to prove permanently that political Islam is not the solution they seek. Those who are already against the Islamic State will have far stronger ammunition to argue against their ideological opponents now that real-life experience is in play.
The lucky states will be those who get to watch it from afar
For Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and some of the Gulf states, merely watching on al Jazeera will be illustrative. Much like the U.S. learned to curb its own racist excesses following the massive effort put forth to defeat the Nazis, the Islamic State will show many that to live in the modern world, they’ll have to reconcile some of the literal things in their religion that simply don’t work today.
Thus begins the Arab world’s 30 Years’ War
If nothing else, to learn to move beyond religion as the answer to ordering society will make the nightmare more palatable. But a nightmare it will be. The dust might not settle until the 2040s.