A decade after 9/11, the U.S. still puzzles over how to deal with an Islamic world of 1.3 billion people, most of whom either cannot or refuse to move into the modern era. This American (read: broader Western) inability to find the correct ideological approach will only increase a threat to U.S. security long after the troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The problem is profound, involving the history of Christendom’s relations with Islam for 1 1/2 millennia. Recent complications have arisen as declining Western populations seek immigrant labor and welcome large numbers of Muslims who are, again, often either unable or unwilling to integrate into a heterogeneous West. This aggravates external security concerns, not least because many sophisticated Muslim leaders condone deception(“taqiyya”) about their aims. In a traditionally open - sometimes to the point of naive - American society, this places additional burdens on law enforcement and the justice system.
Washington’s armed attempt to root out state-sponsored terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken an enormous toll on lives and treasure and has produced war’s inevitable “collateral damage” that the terrorists have used to misrepresent U.S. aims. In a world where simply the charge of “colonialism” precludes serious discussion between advanced and backward societies, Washington, even were it capable, cannot impose its values as it did after World War II on Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan.
Nor is there an economic determinist solution. Even where development has taken place - in Lebanon, Algeria or the Gulf sheikdoms - cultural advancement is stymied, even retrogressing under the tutelage of subsidized reactionary preachers. Although private capital (globalization) has brought industrialization quickly to many new corners of the world, cultural factors block what the economists used to call “takeoff” in the vast Arab belt and Persia, despite the region’s incredible raw material resources.
A test of Islamic renewal is under way in recently “liberated” eastern North Africa and, probably soon, in Syria. Rebellion driven by a youthful demographic bulge has blown away the old despots. But the best organized groups to fill the leadership vacuum are political incarnations of Islamic totalitarianism led by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. That will further imperil Egypt’s 85 million people, a third of the globe’s Arab population with a traditional claim to cultural leadership in the Islamic world.
Nowhere is Washington’s conundrum more apparent than in the deteriorating relations with Turkey, now falling away from its post-World War II alliance with Western Europe and America in search of a new role as Mideast regional leader. Although it was never quite realized elsewhere, the 20th-century post-Ottoman, top-down, Leninist secular revolution had been seen as a model for intellectuals as far removed as Iran and Pakistan. But Ankara’s current Islamic politicians, building on a power base in the hinterland far from the old cosmopolitan centers, have recast the Turkish governing model.
Their still-unresolved relationship between Islam and modern government raises fresh questions over where the Turkish experiment is going. The ruling AKP Justice and Development Party reached its dominant position not least because of a thriving if fragile economic boom, which has benefited long-stagnant regions.
But the party’s political ambitions have conflicted with its economic model. Its militant advocacy of the Palestinian cause (including the radical terrorist Hamas in Gaza) has produced a nasty blowup with Israel. A United Nations inquiry into last year’s deadly flotilla incident, as always, has only aggravated the falling-out in what had been an opportunistic if mutually advantageous strategic and commercial relationship for Turkey and Israel. Washington has been unable to defuse the escalating blowup between its two most important allies in the region.
Turkey’s strategies zigzag: See, for example, Ankara’s unclear policy on U.S. anti-missile systems designed to contain Iran’s nuclear threat, its vacillating role as conveyor of gas to Europe, its failure to win entry to the European Union, and its refusal, initially, to join NATO’s war against Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Turkey could even jeopardize NATO’s southeastern anchor with its flirtations with Beijing and Moscow, casting a pall on the alliance’s always ambiguous future. Thus Turkey, once the poster child for Islamic accommodation, could become the most serious example of the West’s failed efforts to meet the long-term challenge, which stretches far beyond the immediate effects of 9/11.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.