The End of Pluralism

Politics is being rejected in favor of violence across the Middle East. And it's more complicated than "ancient hatreds."

Sailboats passing on the Nile (Rahul Patel/Flickr)

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.

There is a temporal problem with the “ancient hatreds” thesis, however, and it applies just as much to Syria or Lebanon today as it did to the Balkans in the 1990s. If there is something constant about a culture and its predisposition to violence, then how can we explain stark variations in civil conflict over short periods of time? If you had visited Bosnia in 1988, you would, just like Kaplan, have witnessed hatred between Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs. But you would not have seen the genocidal violence that erupted in 1992. Something, in other words, changed in those intervening years.


There is, underneath more deceptive appearances, a human darkness, and that darkness—in its diverse forms—makes it all the more easy to relent to hopelessness. Seeing it, as Robert Kaplan did in the Balkans, is an affecting experience. Last August, in the lead-up to the Rabaa massacre, in which Egyptian security forces raided two squares occupied by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, I saw friends, people I cared about, calling—openly and without shame—for the mass slaughter of their fellow countrymen. I remembered reading about this, whatever this was, in graduate school. Fascism—at its core, the very antithesis of politics—had seemed remote, at least in the countries I studied. But it also made sense: the collective loss of faith in politics depended on having that faith in the first place, and that is what the Arab Spring, in the beginning, claimed to offer.

Unlike, say, Syria, pre-Arab Spring Egypt seemed to lack “ancient hatreds.” The country was relatively homogenous, with about 90 percent of the population belonging to Sunni Islam. Among Muslims and Christians alike, there was a shared sense of Egyptian-ness. And this is what makes Egypt’s conflict so frightening: It is not between sects but within one sect. In Syria or Lebanon, the lines are clear for those who insist on seeing them: Sunnis are Sunnis and Shiites are Shiites. In Egypt, however, it’s never entirely clear who is “Islamist” and who is “secular,” to say nothing of the many shades in between. Because their numbers can’t be defined, each side claims the vast majority of Egyptians as their own. The conflict, then, isn’t between fixed identities but rather fluid ideas of what the state is and what it should be.

The Muslim Brotherhood, one of two major protagonists in Egypt’s ongoing conflict, is itself a modern construct, even though it draws on an idealized past. The word “Islamists,” or Islamiyoun in Arabic, did not exist centuries ago, not because Muslims didn’t believe that Islamic law should play a central role in politics, but because it went without saying. To be sure, there was a tradition of at least some separation between cleric and caliph. There were different madhhabs, or schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and, for a time, two different philosophical approaches to Islam (mutazalite vs. ashari). But no one questioned the basic premise that Islam should play a prominent role in law and politics.

Islamism, as a distinctive construct, only made sense in opposition to something else—and that something else was secularism, which grew in influence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Islam was no longer just a way of being; in the face of Western dominance, it became a political theology of authenticity and resistance and a spiritual alternative to liberal-secular democracy. Islamism needed Habib Bourguiba and Gamal Abdel Nasser just as much as it needed Hassan al-Banna or Sayyid Qutb.

Despite its reactionary lineage, Islamism has a natural, uncontrived appeal in what remain—even after vigorous attempts at secularization—deeply religious societies. And this is where Kaplan’s writing is most relevant. His more useful contribution, not just in Balkan Ghosts but in his other works, is a willingness to question the liberal determinism that is, in a way, the mirror image of cultural essentialism. The assumption, often unstated but obvious nonetheless, is that history moves with intent, that progress along a bold, linear trajectory is inevitable, and that “process” will overwhelm ideology in due time. But Kaplan was skeptical, to put it mildly, of this better world “that may never be” and that so many wanted to believe in. When tragedy was unfashionable, he spoke of the “need to maintain a sense of the tragic.” History, Kaplan wrote, “has demonstrated that there is no final triumph of reason.”

What, ultimately, did the Balkan conflicts tell us? It is all too easy to allow the more pessimistic—or realistic—interpretations of human nature to become an excuse for standing idly by while innocents are murdered. However, non-interventionism does not necessarily follow from the recognition of cultural specificity. As the wars in Bosnia and then Kosovo proved, there was a place for international intervention and military force even where religious and ethnic divides seemed to dominate. Bill Clinton came to realize this. “We do no favors to ourselves or to the rest of the world,” he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1999, “when we justify looking away from this kind of slaughter by oversimplifying and conveniently, in our own way, demonizing the whole Balkans by saying that these people are simply incapable of civilized behavior with one another.”

The default to inaction in the face of a complex region we cannot hope to understand, and when our “vital” interests do not seem to be engaged, is one response. Implicit here, and explicit in Bacevich’s account, is the notion that military action is distinctly unsuited for conflicts in which primeval divides predominate, and that America’s reliance on the use of force has only made matters worse.

But this position confuses cause and effect. The Middle East, as a region, is more unstable, divided, and rife with extremism today than it has been at any other point in recent decades. It would make little sense to blame these developments on American military intervention. The past six years have been characterized not by the use of force, but by a very concerted desire on the part of the Obama administration to reduce our regional engagement, in general, and our military footprint in particular.

The presumption was that with the withdrawal from Iraq, a key Arab grievance would be addressed. The Obama administration could, then, re-establish a relationship with the Arab world based on “mutual respect,” leading to a “new beginning.” It wasn’t unreasonable to think this. After all, it was precisely our over-engagement, and the waging of two costly, tragic wars, that appeared to provoke such anger toward the United States. Yet disengagement and detachment haven’t helped matters. Anti-Americanism persists at strikingly high levels and, in a number of countries, attitudes toward the U.S. are more negative under Obama than they were during Bush’s final years.

The Bush administration’s fatal mistake wasn’t military intervention per se, but rather the misapplication of military force under false pretenses. In other words, not all military adventures are created equal: Bad interventions are bad, but good interventions are good.

The two most destructive conflicts in the Middle East today are in Syria and Iraq, two countries that have imploded not because of too much intervention, but because of too little. In Syria, our failure to intervene with air support to help rebels hold territory and targeted military strikes to diminish the regime’s ability to kill not only exacerbated the humanitarian toll, but also undermined “moderates”—who have begged endlessly for the most basic weaponry—and strengthened extremist groups like ISIS. The claim, oft-repeated by opponents of intervention, that “there is no military solution” is a straw man, setting up a false dichotomy between military action and successful diplomacy, when the two, in fact, go hand in hand. Assad has no real incentive to negotiate in good faith in the absence of a credible threat of military force.

Consider ISIS’s recent capture of territory in the strategic Syrian city of Deir Ezzour. The group’s military success had very little to do with hatreds of any kind, ancient or otherwise, and more to do with the failure of the international community to support the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who warned American officials, including Samantha Power, that ISIS was closing in. For weeks, they pleaded for assistance but were ignored. “The FSA numbers are big, but we don’t have weapons, we don’t have ammunition, we don’t have anything,” complained one FSA commander.

In Iraq, the original sin was the Bush administration’s decision to invade in 2003 (or was it the elder Bush’s failure to back the Iraqi uprising of 1991, effectively allowing Saddam to stay in power?). But, again, there was nothing inevitable about the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June and the eruption of civil war in Iraq. To emphasize, as Obama has, that this is a conflict between Iraqis and must be resolved by Iraqis, is banal and self-evident, but it also implies—in the context of Obama’s broader approach to the region—a certain studied detachment. This is not our civil war, but theirs. Except that the U.S., through a staggering combination of incompetence, neglect, and myopia, is directly implicated in the country’s political deterioration. As Ali Khedery, the longest continuing serving U.S. official in Iraq, writes: “The crisis now gripping Iraq and the Middle East was not only predictable but predicted—and preventable. By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

If anything, the lesson of Bosnia, Kosovo, and, for that matter, Rwanda, is that supposedly “primordial” conflicts over religion, sect, and ethnicity are the very ones, due to their intractability and viciousness, that are more likely to require outside military intervention. Ultimately, the end of the Bosnian war did not mean that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats hated each other any less; it meant that, despite their hate, they would agree to abide by a peace agreement. This return to “politics” would not have been possible without, first, the resort to force by NATO and the international community.

In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bill Clinton took on the “inevitability” argument: “People say, okay, maybe it’s not inevitable, but look, there are a lot of ethnic problems in the world. … And you’ve got all these ethnic problems everywhere, and religious problems. That’s what the Middle East is about. You’ve got Northern Ireland. You’ve got the horrible, horrible genocide in Rwanda. You’ve got the war, now, between Eritrea and Ethiopia. They say, ‘Oh, we’ve got all these problems, and, therefore, why do you care about this?’”

Clinton came to the conclusion that it was worth not just caring, but acting. There was a difference between realism—recognizing that religious and ethnic hatreds are real and resonant—and resignation, where the powerful say nothing can be done and look away. He came to this conclusion years after first reading Balkan Ghosts. Luckily, by then, it wasn’t too late.