Islam - The Descendent Civilization

March 15, 2017

        During the first years of the 20th century, the great powers of Europe dominated the Arab world through their ruthless policies of colonization. The empires of France, Russia, Germany and especially Great Britain believed they could exploit the resources of the Middle East. They controlled populations by imposing military rule, placing foreign tribesmen on thrones of artificial countries, drawing lines in the sand to create nation-states, defining frontiers between Muslims and Christians, and by introducing an alien state system into a land where religion was the broad basis of community and government. It was the beginning of the Oil Century and the economic symbiosis between the West and the Islamic Middle East.

        With the approach of World War I, European empires foresaw a vast need for oil – the fuel of the engine of the world economy had shifted away from coal. The transformation was acutely true for the sea powers, Germany and Great Britain. Each great power needed huge amounts of fuel for their ocean-going battleships, the dreadnaughts, and so the race for Middle Eastern oil was joined. Throughout the 20th century Western nation-states succumbed to the old temptation of dominion –– all settled on imperial policies to deal with the region. In the early 1920s, two celebrated empires were in play: the British at its zenith and the Ottoman at its end. For the next half-century, both would morph into what Samuel Huntington has broadly defined as “civilizations.” One, the West (the countries of Europe and the Americas, predominately Christians) was ascendant, and the other, the Islamic (the countries of North Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia, predominately Muslims) was descendent.1

        Today, the West enjoys the fruit of its dominance. It is prosperous and content, consuming lopsided amounts of the world’s natural resources.2 On the other side of this zero-sum equation is the telling majority of ordinary folks who reside within the countries being exploited. From their poverty-driven perspective, Islamic lives and livelihoods – mostly in the Middle East and North Africa – are being habitually sacrificed to support an opulent standard of living in Europe and the United States.3

        In the mid-1950s when an American hegemony replaced the British’s most Arabs thought they saw a light at the end of the tunnel. They welcomed the Americans because the Muslim peoples believed that civil society would naturally flow to their countries. From my three-decade conversations with ordinary men and women of the region they looked forward to developing their vision of free and fair elections, the rule of law, viable political parties, free speech, separation of powers, and economic freedom; in other words, modern democracy. What they got was shocking and unexpected. Although loudly professing its support for egalitarian change, the West instituted a neo-colonial policy of underwriting autocrats, dictators, and royal tyrants with vast amounts of money and military support. The results were: repressive regimes, crony capitalism, tribal law, a massive population driven into economic marginalization, and a religious leadership co-opted and corrupted by a select class of rulers. At this end of the Oil Century, there is now a formidable population within the Islamic civilization that feels belittlement, powerlessness, and shame. Outwardly many individuals are overwhelmed by a morbid state of despondency, something similar to PTSD, and exhibit hatred, rage and a dogged craving for vengeance. Moreover, today’s Muslim man-on-the-street is now undeniably susceptible to the calls of violent jihadists who promise if not happiness on earth, then paradise in heaven. This state of affairs cannot endure.

        The world is now witnessing an eruption of revolts throughout North Africa and the Middle East: Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt and even in the once stable model of Islamic governance, Turkey. For the moment, most of these rebellions have turned to Islamists or autocrats as the way forward, but neither is the answer.

        The severe imbalance between the two civilizations that has determined the fate of the majority of the peoples of Islam for the past 100 years is due for a much-needed change. The promises of legitimate and liberal democracy – for all – must be restored.



1   “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993

2    INSIGHT: Democracy in Egypt Needs More Than an Election Now. Middle East Voices: July 9, 2013.

3    Almond, Gabriel A., Appleby, R. Scott, and Sivan, Emmanuel. Strong Religion: The Rise of

      Fundamentalisms Around the World, University of Chicago Press: 2003, Chapter 1, p. 28.

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