by Graham E. Fuller
Many people ask why it appears to be specifically Muslims who are in confrontation with the West today, as compared to other ethnic groups who also bear historical grievances from treatment at the hands of the West. The question is a valid one, and there is no single easy answer. Many observers will prefer to write it all off by simply declaring Islam to be inherently “violent”—end of story, and end of thinking.
First, there are long histories of non-Muslim movements of resistance and rebellion around the world against the West, the topic of another discussion. But it is striking that even Europol statistics on terrorism in Europe have demonstrated over the years that Muslim-driven terrorism represents only a small proportion of overall terrorism within the European Union; for example, the Europol 2011 report shows three Muslim terrorist attacks on EU territory out of an overall 249 attacks; non-Muslim separatist groups were responsible for 160 attacks, while left-wing and anarchist groups were responsible for 45 attacks. But there has also been a gradual upward swing of Muslim-driven attacks over the last several years. Why now?
Let’s leave aside the history of western imperial interventions and military invasions that should be well known to even the West by now—factors that already possess major explanatory power. But beyond that, how do we account for a broader tendency for geopolitical confrontation between “the West” and “the East” over longer periods of time? Is it simply that “Muslims hate our freedoms,” or “hate Christianity?” Let’s look at four other major historical geopolitical factors.
- Proximity of the West to the Middle East. When European armies go on the march they can either roam east into Russia (a well-known confrontation point), or south and south-east—which puts them straight into the Middle East or North Africa. In other words, the Muslim world is the first and closest destination of any overland western military expansionism; otherwise you have to get into a boat and travel the oceans in search of conquests (which the West also did.)
- The power of the concept of the Umma. Muslims are today more keenly self-aware of constituting a global community (umma) than is any other single community in the world, religious or ethnic. This creates a unique kind of solidarity that is religious, cultural, psychological and geopolitical. It is religious because it is Islam—as a religion and traditional culture—that defines that unity. (Such perceived unity never meant there would be no wars among Muslims, just as there have been endless wars among Christians, within “Christendom.”)
- The cohesive power of modern communications. These common cultural bonds are intensified by modern communications that today alert citizens of the Muslim world to a common plight, especially as a target of the West, or of other great powers—Russia, China, India in particular—whom they also perceive to be suppressing Muslim minorities. Indonesians thus see daily images of the violence being visited upon Palestinians; Bangladeshis see what has happened to Iraqis; Senegalese see what is happening to Afghans, Manchester Muslims see what is happening in Burma. These multiple global images help foster a sense of shared victimhood at the hands of western power. Over history of course Muslims have been both oppressor and oppressed, but it is western power today that is dominant and pervasive. Nor have Muslims been the only victims of western imperial power, but they are more collectively aware of it today across the globe than any other group.
- The very success of the Muslim historical model. Islamic civilization has prospered longer, and across a greater geographical expanse, than any other non-western culture since the eastern and western Roman Empires. China and India, for example, have both produced brilliant civilizations, but they were quite limited in geographical space. Both Chinese and Indian civilizations eventually crumbled, impotent before western military power, invasion, and political domination for at least two centuries—till the mid-twentieth century. China’s power of resistance remained shattered for centuries until the Communist Party of China emerged, humiliated by history and determined to reverse it; no surprise that the Chinese Revolution produced a militantly radical and anti-western China for half a century under Mao. India’s transition to independence was somewhat less violent, but India is now increasingly feeling its oats as a new global player as well. And of course the Muslim world was not exempt either; it was almost entirely conquered and dominated by the West (except for Turkey). These experiences are all symbols of the past impotence of the non-western world against western power.
But what is important here is that the Muslim world has probably been the last civilizational holdout against western power, representing a huge and coherent political and cultural alternative to the western order over centuries, across large parts of the world. Now, the Muslim world did not succeed in preserving any kind of political unity or meaningful defensive power in modern times. But the Muslim world remains well aware of the deep historical and religious foundations of that unity. Muslim civilization—in all its diverse forms, strengths, weaknesses, successes, failures and problems—seems unlikely to simply yield itself up to some inevitable western blueprint. Its resistance—including spasms of terror, violent responses to the exercise of western military power and to any cultural demeaning of its long traditions—is on full view. When the West disses the Islamic tradition, especially in times of war in the Middle East, it will bring predictable, if not always justifiable violent response.
By comparison, what would China be like today if it headed a bloc of some 50 states deeply sharing religious and cultural traditions and struggling to reverse western domination? It would represent a formidable bloc of resistance. After the anti-western lashing out of the Chinese Communist Revolution and its global export of its revolution, China today declares itself worthy of consideration as an “alternative civilization” to the western model—now dubbed “capitalism with a Chinese face.” Russia too, with its Russian diaspora, and Eastern Orthodox sympathizers across much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, is another such anti-western “hold-out.” But the West does not appreciate such hold-outs who are seen to be blocking the march of “universal western history” á la Americaine.
Thus the very civilizational success of the Muslim world in the past by most contemporary measures of those times provides the roots for its tendency to resistance today. But whatever the aspirations of the Muslim world may be, it still has no viable political or social model at work yet to offer to anyone today. Yet it remains convinced that Islamic civilization, under peace, good governance and good leadership—qualities all sorely lacking so far for many historical reasons right now—will probably need to reinterpret and update its core values and traditions (“capitalism with an Islamic face?”) even as it resists turn-key models of western civilization.
We in the West assume that sooner or later we will have not only conquered, but culturally and institutionally digested most of the rest of the world into our vision of humanity’s future. The West indeed has much to be proud of in its own past. But as the rest of the world gradually gets back on its feet, overcoming colonial legacies, increasing education and technical skills, applying technology, developing economic know-how, the one-size-fits-all western vision gets harder to maintain. That is especially true as western countries themselves—US included—begin to reveal deep-set institutional problems and growing doubts about their own models as the final blueprint for the future.
When will this non-western renaissance take place? It is already happening vividly in China. The Muslim world still has a long way to go to achieve viable, creative and productive societies, although conditions vary widely from country to country. But one thing is for certain: the region will never even start to regain equilibrium until all foreign boots on the ground depart—an intensely provocative and distracting presence. The Muslim world may be entering a long but vitally necessary period of domestic experimentation as part of its own long learning process to operate as truly sovereign nations again, working out its own problems on its own, free of incessant external tampering.
The four factors cited above, however, help demonstrate the deep historical and “civilizational” complexity that lurk in longer-term East-West friction. They may just shed a little light on the seemingly “irrational” character of ongoing Muslim reactions to the contemporary geopolitical order.
This article was originally published by Graham E. Fuller and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright Graham E. Fuller.