SANDERS: Charting the dilemma of Arab rulers

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Imagine two lines on a graph — one zigs and zags, the other rises rapidly. They could represent two current unsettling world currents.

The first charts U.S. efforts to eradicate Islamist terrorism, on the Afghanistan and Iraq battlefields but also through a wider intellectual war against political Islam from Casablanca to Zamboanga. The second line tracks a rising tide of frustration leading to the seduction of young Muslims — not excluding their co-religionists in the West — by fanatics, and, ultimately terrorists.

The mid-January rioting in Tunisia which last week overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, only the small North African countrys second chief executive since 1987, dramatizes the contest. Long seen as one of the continents more progressive former colonial countries, with a 5 percent domestic growth rate and higher rates of literacy than most Muslim states, Tunisia nonetheless sank into a swamp of political repression and corruption. With more than half its population under 30, its huge waves of unemployed youth wanted more. It remains to be seen who will come out on top in Tunis. But across North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, underground religious opposition festers. Unfortunately, in Tunisia, as elsewhere, the Islamists appeal is growing. They promise puritanical reform and a return to a nonexistent paradisiacal past under a Muslim caliphate as a heady alternative to weak, corrupt imitations of Western-style government.

Meanwhile, despite Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.s recent cheerleading trip to the region, theres increasing skepticism of Gen. David H. Petraeus Afghanistan strategy. And with mounting U.S. domestic problems, it will be hard to sustain support for the campaign in face of so many young lives lost and a tab of more than $1 trillion spent since 9/11 on the global war against terrorism.

The argument over how to win asymmetrical wars against fanatical opponents is raging again. The danger in counter-insurgency warfare, a subject closely studied by Gen. Petraeus, is an old American intellectual heresy, scientism. The 19th-century American philosopher William James warned against the dangers of overintellectualizing, and James counsel applies to guerrilla warfare as well.

In the nature of things, insurgencies are particularistic. Theres little commonality among the Moros — whom Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing brutally crushed — in the southern Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, the Vietcong in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam in the 1960s, the Tupamaros on the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s, and al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2011. These movements were built on specific local conditions. Any formula for combating them must do likewise. Yes, vacuous “counterinsurgency” generalizations can be formulated: The army should not steal the peasants chickens. But learning the ins and outs of Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier Hatfields and McCoys is essential — requiring time and patience, not handbooks trying to apply the scientific method to social issues.

For war is not only cruel and brutal but also probably the most inefficient human activity since the first caveman hit the second caveman over the head with a club. The weapons are increasingly more sophisticated, but the human animus behind their use remains the same. For every analyst offering a sophisticated, multidisciplined approach to villagers caught between intimidation by both sides, there have been exponents of brute force. (A cynical old Vietnam War saying advised “Grab their [sensitive parts], and their hearts and minds will come.”) Thats the rationale, perhaps, for U.S. drone attacks on terrorist leaders in Pakistan, attacks that bring with them such grim fallout of civilian casualties, providing a political bonanza for local politicians who hypocritically helped supply the intelligence for the strikes in the first place.

Almost 10 years ago (one wonders if current “politically correct” discussion of Islam would tolerate it now), a U.N. commission led by noted — if mostly exiled — Arab intellectuals searched for the causes of their regions backwardness. The panel predicted the 280 million people in the 22 Arab countries would grow to as many as 459 million by 2020, but also emphasized their cultural isolation. Arab translations in the last thousand years, the commission noted, were equal to the number of publications Spain translated in just one year. Yet there are Arab best-sellers, often obscurantist screeds on the Koran that no critic is permitted to challenge.

Emigrants from North Africa have drifted willy-nilly into Western Europe searching for a livelihood. But, as daily incidents from across Western Europe demonstrate, the second and third generations of Muslim arrivals have failed to assimilate. European leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, now admit the continents attempts at “multiculturalism” have not succeeded. The social divisions and segregation have led to a misplaced tolerance of pre-modern horrors in Europes Muslim enclaves, including discrimination against women, “honor killings” and child marriage.

Somehow, some way, American and Western information and propaganda must find a way to bridge that gap or face new explosions when the two lines on our graph collide.

Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net.

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