Turmoil in the Middle East, from Tahrir Square to Isis
A Rage for Order by Robert F Worth couldn’t be more timely or needed, providing as it does some glimmer of understanding of how and why centuries-old tribalism, colonialism, outrage and hatred have festered and then exploded across the Muslim world. We in the West would probably keep turning a blind eye, but for the blood spilling over onto the world stage. Robert Worth is both an insightful journalist and remarkable writer who has managed to weave together a coherent narrative from the many turbulent streams of conflicting passions feeding into the torrent of violence and savagery engulfing the Middle East and spreading virulently across the globe. A myriad of polarities and influences complicate the picture: Sunni vs. Shia, secular vs. religious vs. Islamist, tribal vs. urban, educated vs. indoctrinated, corrupt politicians vs. the people, rich vs. desperately poor, U.S. and Saudi interests vs. Russian and Iranian interests, Israel vs. Palestinians, and of course oil.
Drawing from first-hand accounts of journalists, politicians, friends and contacts across Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia, Worth goes back to the historical rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims; he explains the origins of the Alawis and why they must, at all cost, cling to power in Syria, and he puts the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and ISIS into context.
He traces the rise of the Muslim brotherhood to the poverty-ridden outskirts of Egyptian cities, where piety and the promise of reward in heaven made a hellish life in the slums tolerable. They, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, often provided social services not offered by greedy rulers and functionaries, whose corruption was often exploited by the West for its own purposes. Worth helps us understand the power of tribalism in the Arab world, and also the difference between Islam and Arabism. Iranians, who are not Arabs, are Sunni and consider themselves the keepers of the purest form of Islam. The Saudis are Shia, and also consider themselves protectors of the faith. Much sectarian conflict has been supported by these two nations using the other countries of the Middle East as proxies for their own struggles. This tragedy has been compound by the self-interest of the superpowers also waging proxy wars on this blood-soaked turf.
The brief flicker of hope generated by the remarkable and heroic events of the Arab Spring were the result of a life-and-death struggle between humanists and liberals who wanted to overthrow fear-based dictatorships and replace them with democracies. Their hopes were quickly dashed, first by religious fundamentalists wanting to impose Sharia Law, then by the military who took back power under the excuse of restoring order. Repression and corruption continued unabated, and as the states failed their people they paved the way for jihadis.
One of the most chilling things I read in the book was from a manifesto published online in 2004, intended as a field guide for ISIS. It emphasized the importance of savagery to jihad, saying, “One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [others], and massacring – I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them.”
Jihad has captured the passion of thousands of disaffected young Muslims living in failed states or in other countries where they feel rejected. ISIS offers them a sense purpose and belonging to something greater. It is a win-win proposition: either they achieve paradise by a martyr’s death or help to restore the Caliphate and with it their dignity as an ancient people. While many who have defected from ISIS speak of cynical recruitment of “cannon fodder,” many more are willing to die to restore the glory of their “tribe.”
This is not a phenomenon that is going to go away by wishful thinking, and ISIS is making sure that we can’t ignore it. At the least, we need more people in positions of influence to understand the dimensions of the problem, and face our own complicity with honesty. I wish I could say that the book ends on a hopeful note, but it is clearly up to the global community to write a new and positive ending. A step in the right direction would be to read this book. It is really important.