- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

By Walid Phares
Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster, $26, 384 pages

When it comes to books about current events, timing can be everything. This book’s timing is perfect, as it turns out. Its publication date was late last year, but for years, the author has been studying the buildup of forces that led to the Tunisian and Egyptian events of recent weeks as well as the demonstrations sweeping the Middle East. To say that he was prescient is an understatement.

Born in Lebanon, but long an American, Walid Phares has made the study of tensions in the Middle East his life’s work. He has published 10 books on the subject, teaches global strategy at the National Defense University and has advised units of the U.S. House of Representatives and European Union.

He begins by asserting that our failure to identify the war launched against us in the 1990s by radical jihadists was not a “failure of imagination,” as some suggested, but of education. That is, we as a nation knew little about the underlying stresses and trends that moved the events we saw and read about in the news.

He writes that “the free world can win the conflict with the jihadists, but certainly not using tactics and policies employed thus far. … If we can’t define the enemy, the threat, its ideology and its strategies, we surely cannot claim any advance of so-called victory.”

Shortly after the death of Muhammad in 632, his followers began what became known as the caliphate and spread the influence of Islam as far west as Spain, across North Africa and into Central Asia. By the 20th century, 13 centuries later, its last political entity, the Ottoman Empire, expired (succeeded by modern Turkey).

Under the caliphate, Islamism was the ruling ideology, with its idea of umma - the concept of a world converted to and dominated by Islam. That concept remained alive after the death of the Ottoman Empire. As the century advanced, various strains of Arab and Islamic consciousness grew: Pan-Arabism, a nationalistic secular movement based in Egypt; Wahhabism, the austere and severe strain of Islam in Saudi Arabia; Salafism, a Sunni movement dedicated to Shariah law; Khomeinism, the Shia theocracy in Iran; and Baathism, dictatorially centralized power in Iraq and Syria.

The author points out that pre-modern Islamists mistrusted science, the expansion of human knowledge, women’s rights and tolerance in order to preserve their privileges and historic positions.

After World War I, when colonial powers ruled over much of the area, Islamists worked to end this and saw the colonists’ ideas as dangerous. Though colonial powers were democracies, their ideas did not survive the colonial period. The colonists were replaced by autocrats. This is not surprising, Mr. Phares says, because for centuries people of the region had been submissive to centralized authority, the caliph.

By the 1990s, as the populations of the countries grew steadily younger, education and jobs did not keep up. Thus, a desire for freedom grew accordingly. The author says our media, focused only on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, ignored these signs almost completely. Similarly, various Arab/Muslim authoritarian elites began to fund centers for Middle East studies in U.S. universities. Not surprisingly, those entities turned out papers sympathetic to the status quo.

By the late 1980s, the United States supported Afghanistan’s mujahedeen to help drive out Soviet military forces. The effort drew young recruits - such as Osama bin Laden - from other Muslim lands. Some, including bin Laden, saw this as the first battle in a war to rid the Muslim world of Western influences. From that beginning grew his terrorist network and the spread of radical jihadism (though it had intellectual/philosophical roots going back as far as the 14th century).

We failed in the 1990s to “connect the dots” between several events and see them as part of a pattern. It wasn’t until the Sept. 11, 2001, attack that we realized this was part of a war.

While our military response was soon clear, we were inconsistent culturally, sometimes inviting to White House meetings Muslims who had supported extreme groups.

The author, right after Sept. 11, advocated that the United States “unleash the mother of democracy programs by connecting and partnering with dissidents, [nongovernmental organizations], women’s movements, students, artists and all those willing to rise up against authoritarianism.” Now, nearly a decade later, we are taking the first steps to do that, although security interests lead us to respond somewhat differently from one country to the next.

Mr. Phares tells us that the Middle East has been for some time in the midst of a growing civil war between those yearning for freedom (in the form of democracy) and radicals (the violent jihadists). Between them are authoritarian regimes and the privileged who wish to keep things as they are.

As we are seeing, this will not happen - at least not for long. The author tells us in very readable detail what we need to know to understand the titanic struggle.

Peter Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger. He held senior positions in Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns and in the California governor’s office.

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