A believer in the possibilities of coexistence, Sayed Kashua is, or perhaps was, the most prominent Arab-Israeli author writing in Hebrew. Punctured with staccato prose, his column on leaving Jerusalem, perhaps forever, was a beautifully written, heartbreaking admission of defeat. For him, the notion that Arabs and Jews could live together had been shattered. “All those who told me there is a difference between blood and blood, between one person and another person, were right,” Kashua concluded.
Kashua was writing very specifically about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but his resigned pessimism—after holding on, for years, to what may have seemed like naive hope—could just as well be applied to the entire region.
If this second phase of the “Arab Spring” is really about anything, it is about a collective loss of faith in politics. Just as Kashua has given up, so too, for instance, have many pro-military Egyptians. Yet their loss of faith, unlike Kashua’s, led them to embrace, in panicked desperation, a violent absolutism. I remember how, before the Arab revolts began, Egyptians would take pride in the fact that they, unlike some of their neighbors, had little history of civil conflict and political violence.
The July 3, 2013 coup in Egypt has had a chilling effect beyond the country’s borders, strengthening one particular narrative among both regimes and their opposition: that the only currency worth caring about is force. With the relative decline (for now) of the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamist groups that had made their peace with parliamentary politics, radicals and extremists have quickly moved to fill the vacuum. They do not counsel patience. They tell followers and fence-sitters that there is little need to wait 20, 30, or 80 years for the Islamic State, or something like it. The Islamic State can be realized now through brute, unyielding violence. Within the varied, often fractious world of political Islam, the radicals remain a minority, but their numbers belie an outsized influence.
We might not like to admit it, but violence can, and often does, “work” in today’s Middle East. This is not just a reference to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but also to less extreme militant groups that control territory throughout Syria, providing security and social services to local populations. From Libya to Palestine to parts of the Egyptian Sinai, armed—and increasingly hard-line—Islamist groups are making significant inroads. This is the Arab world’s Salafi-Jihadi moment. It may not last, but its impact is already impossible to dismiss, to say nothing of the long-term consequences. In Libya and Syria, even non-Salafi groups like the Brotherhood are adapting to the new world of anti-politics, allying themselves with local armed groups or working to form their own militias.
This is one of the great tragedies of the past few years—that a movement meant to demonstrate that peaceful protest could work ultimately demonstrated the opposite. According to former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, the Arab Spring shattered the myth that “peaceful change in this region is not possible.” Indeed, it did. But then the violence raged on in Syria and Libya. Leaders in these countries saw their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts as weak and feckless, as conceding too much to their opponents and emboldening them in the process. In the case of the Egyptian coup in 2013, the most populous Arab country, long a bellwether for the region, willfully aborted its own democratic process. The worst mass killing in the country’s modern history soon followed.
That this violence is, in some way, tied to religion makes it more difficult for outsiders to parse. As the military historian Andrew Bacevich writes, “No single explanation exists for why the War for the Greater Middle East began and why it persists. But religion figures as a central element. Secularized American elites either cannot grasp or are unwilling to accept this.” Indeed, the divide between Islamists and what we might call “anti-Islamists” cannot be reduced to the single-minded pursuit of power. As I argue in my new book, it is just as much about real ideological divides over the role of religion in public life and the nature, meaning, and purpose of the nation-state.
Bacevich—as well as much of the American public—views this sort of intramural religious competition with understandable wariness and sees disengagement as the most appropriate response. After all, we’re not particularly good at understanding other societies, particularly those facing state-building problems that bear more resemblance to the revolutions of 1848 than those of 1989.
But emphasizing the religious aspects of violence can easily devolve into cultural essentialism: the belief that “ancient hatreds” drive modern conflicts. It’s a view most commonly associated with Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, which influenced President Bill Clinton and perhaps even delayed his decision to intervene in the Bosnian genocide.
Kaplan’s book makes for a fascinating read, especially today. “Here men have been doomed to hate,” he writes. The word “doomed” suggests the kind of resigned pessimism that, two decades later, characterizes Washington hand-wringing in response to the manifest failures of the Arab Spring. According to this view, we can never hope to understand the Middle East, with all of its sectarian complexity and sheer religious passion. It was easy to dismiss this sentiment when Sarah Palin, speaking about Syria, suggested that we should “let Allah sort it out.” But she was only expressing the most extreme variation of something many Americans feel—that this is, in the words of President Obama, “somebody’s else’s civil war,” and that because it is somebody else’s, intervention by outside powers will do little to improve the situation.