We are living through a time replete with malignant possibilities. As if it is not sufficiently frightening that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is poised to rule the most powerful - not to mention belligerent - nation in the world, other Western and non-Western states are laying the seeds for what can only be a truly poisonous future.
The real tragic irony is that unless more level-headed and reasonable minds prevail very soon, our post-secular world is very likely to deteriorate into a bizarre and freakish version of a return to the religious wars of yesteryear.
Incidents that are symptomatic of this increasingly deranged world disorder barrage us in the news every day. But I want to call attention to two specific events.
The first is the barbarically cruel attack that took place in Nice on 14 July. The perpetrator, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, was a man with a history of mental illness who by all accounts lived a life as far removed from Islamic ideals as possible. He was a wife beater, pork eater, alcohol and drug consumer who had numerous sexual relations with both men and women. He was a thug with a history of petty theft and robbery. This was a lost soul with serious socio-pathological issues who had done nothing decent with his life.
Purportedly, in a matter of days or weeks, he was recruited by ISIS and decided to end his inglorious life by plowing a truck through a crowd of men, women and children, killing over eighty people, thirty of whom were Muslim. The notable detail here is that reportedly right before he committed his crime, he sent his family in Tunisia around 100,000 Euros! I am not sure if this guy believed that he was going to heaven after his death, but I am sure that there was considerable financial gain to his crime. It is as if he saw his own value as a human being consisting simply of the amount of money he was able to send to his humble family back home.
This is a person who had not known God or Godliness in his life or death, yet there was an army of people that were willing to take this mass murderer as a symbol of an ongoing conflict between two competing and irreconcilable civilizations.
But other than what we can surmise about the perpetrator himself, the fact that ISIS is proud to count someone like that as one of its foot soldiers speaks volumes about this kind movement. As a movement, it is a bottom-feeder. Revolutionary movements come in all shapes and forms, but the ones that have proven to be the most resilient and historically transformative typically take great pride in their ideology and members. ISIS is very far from the prototypical revolutionary organization that prides itself in the devotedness, earnestness, inviolability, comprehension and sapience of its members. For ISIS, any member will do, even if this member is a walking example of godlessness. This tells me that ISIS can hardly be described as a movement at all. It is an organized agency for opportunistic exploitation of available target recruits. It is a malignancy that scavenges and thrives in a swamp.
The second event that warrants attention is the recent killing of French soldiers when their helicopter was most likely shot down over eastern Libya. The killing of these soldiers merely confirmed numerous reports that France, England and the United States have been giving military support to the forces of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. After the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya formed a unity government and elected a parliament which is backed up by the United Nations and even officially supported by the U.S., England and France. General Haftar was a longtime associate and partner of Gaddafi, but after a disastrous operation in Chad, he was granted political asylum under exceptional circumstances by executive order in the United States, lived in Virginia for 21 years, and was recruited by the CIA.
For a long time, Haftar was described as a CIA asset in U.S. and Saudi Arabia led efforts to overthrow Gaddafi. Shortly, after the military coup in Egypt, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi started aiding Haftar in reactivating the remnants of Gaddafi’s army to overthrow the civilian government, elected into power and supported by the UN. In the midst of a storm of rhetoric against the Muslim Brotherhood and the threat of Islamic terrorism, Haftar denounced the parliament as illegitimate and vowed to overthrow the civilian government currently in power. As we have done in numerous Muslim and non-Muslim countries in the past, while officially supporting the democratic process and its results, we and our allies worked with all due diligence to undermine this process and bring to power a dictatorial military government.
In short, it is clear that once again, as took place in Egypt, the major Western powers were acting with all due principle, paying fidelity to real politik and hypocrisy. We supported the UN in overlooking a democratic process and supported the results, but when the results did not please us because the parliament was purportedly dominated by Islamists, we threw our support behind our dictatorial CIA asset.
A regional nightmare
Let me summarize the overall picture. We invaded Iraq and used a shameless sectarian policy of divide and conquer. As a result, Iraq has become undone; we unleashed a frenzy of bloodshed as dictatorship was replaced by anarchy. We also invaded and occupied Afghanistan, and we continue to support a corrupt and dictatorial government; we shook the proverbial hornet’s nest so violently that the hornets flew away to create multiple colonies in numerous areas.
After supporting a corrupt dictator in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, for many years, Yemen exploded in a truly popular uprising demanding “liberty, justice and bread.” We supported our Saudi ally in turning what was once a principled revolution into a brutal sectarian conflict, and we continue to remain silent before the numerous atrocities committed by the Saudi military in Yemen. We also supported our ally Saudi Arabia as it invaded Bahrain and brutally suppressed a popular uprising against the longtime dictatorial and hopelessly corrupt ruling al-Khalifa family.
The United States and its allies have remained practically silent about the egregious atrocities committed in Bahrain, especially against the Shi’i population, with the full consent and support of the Bahrain government. We also supported our allies Saudi Arabia and UAE in overthrowing an elected government in Egypt, and continue to support and backup the mythically brutal and repressive Sisi regime. We then supported the Sisi, Saudi and UAE regimes in attempting to destabilize the democratically elected government in Tunisia. We did the same with much more effective results in Libya by activating a CIA asset, with the hope that we would bring to power a general whose hands are soaked in as much blood as his once close friend, Gaddafi.
As to Syria - to be frank, Syria is simply a mess. Fearing a democratic uprising in Syria and a Shi’i-dominated Iraq, Saudi Arabian intelligence, aided by unknown accessories, unleashed the Wahhabi movement from hell known as Da’ish (ISIS). We continued to refuse to lend support to Syrian rebels, who at that time were still fairly moderate and were united in their abhorrence of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal dictatorship, and desire for a democratic and just order in Syria. Russia filed in behind its longtime ally, Bashar al-Assad, and has been bombing the Syrian people to a pulp. In response, for reasons apparently known only to the gods in the American, British and French intelligence communities, we started supporting certain groups and not others, arming some groups and not others, and bombing some but not others.
Lest we forget, add to this grim picture the enormous archipelago Israel has created in Gaza, as well as its daily encroachments upon the Aqsa mosque. As if enough trauma has not been inflicted upon the region, I am personally convinced that the recent coup attempt in Turkey has the evidentiary traces of helpful contributions by foreign intelligence communities.
Now after years of unfettered violence since 2003, there is a virtual orgy of blood as vendettas and vengeance have paved the path for unbridled brutality. In response to the Arab Spring, the Wahhabi-Da’ish movement was unleashed because of its rabid hate of the Shi’a and of the so-called heretical liberal Muslims who support democracy. These objectives served Saudi interests perfectly, but it was also unleashed to affirm the boogeyman of Jihadi Islam so that the West would abandon any thought of supporting democratic processes in the region lest the Islamic wraith may manifest.
As was entirely predictable, once the rabidly sectarian Wahhabi-Da’ish movement was unleashed, it proved impossible to control. It was no longer content with exterminating heretical Shi’ites and apostate Muslims; it started to encroach upon the realm of the Saudi ruling family. As if the history of colonialism must repeat itself, in a ghoulish repeat of the events of the 1920s when the British RAF had to interfere to slaughter the Ikhwan (the Wahhabi fighting force of King Ibn Saud), the Saudi ruling family once again found themselves betting on Western military might to keep Da’ish safely at a distance from succeeding in de-stabilizing the thrones of the oil monarchies.
If one must find a positive side to this nightmare, recently and for the first time ever, the Saudi government has allowed the Saudi intelligentsia to voice open but limited criticism of some of the basic tenets of the Wahhabi creed. Incidentally, the Saudi ruling family has always treated Wahhabism as good enough for the common people and the rest of the Muslim world, but among the members of the ruling family, Wahhabism has virtually zero tract.
The new wars of religion?
Analyzing the current situation, recently some pundits have concluded that the real source of problems is that sectarianism is deeply seated and entrenched in the Muslim world. This deserves a separate article, but what is worth saying is that this entire discourse is very reminiscent of the self-serving Orientalist discourse in the decade preceding the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 about the natural races, tribal loyalties and uncivilized proclivities of the Muhammadan people.
It is rather remarkable the extent to which colonial powers were always capable of seeing their own self-interests as entirely justified by the innate and natural characters of the subjugated natives. Sectarianism is no more inherent or endemic to Muslims than, let’s say, stupidity. Sectarianism is a disposition that ebbs and flows, and is aggravated or quelled in response to rational stimulants such as political sharing, social opportunity, massacres, violence, natural disasters, or foreign invasions.
Throughout the colonial encounter with the Muslim world, colonial powers feared Pan-Islamism. This fear was not because of the inherent properties of the Islamic faith, but because Islam often served as the spiritual frame of reference in resisting colonial powers, and because Western colonial powers had a material interest in undermining and breaking up the Ottoman Empire.
In the post-colonial world, with the complex matrix of interests during the Cold War, Western powers found democracy not just in the Muslim world, but anywhere in the subaltern or the pre-colonized world, to be most inconvenient. Naturally, Communist countries did not espouse nor further the principles of liberal democracies. Western democracies, however, adopted the language and principles of liberty and freedom for all, but for reasons of real politik found it much easier to deal with dictatorial and corrupt governments that continued to serve the interest of their former colonial masters, often through back alley deals and secret arrangements. One need only read the history of the French Elf Aquitaine gas company in Africa to realize the extent to which neither the colonizer nor the colonized were able to break free of their historical patterns of exploitation, corruption, and abuse.
In the case of the Muslim world, it was natural that much of the opposition to the authoritarian and corrupt governments that replaced colonial rule would take the form of Islamic symbolism, rhetoric and theology. But what was not natural is that, apart from its odd incestuous relationship with the Wahhabi breed of Islam, Western governments were never willing to forego their impulsive distrust of a politically active Islam. For decades, local secular military regimes repressed Islamically-articulated opposition groups with relentless brutality, and Western governments settled into accepting a comfortable but immoral equation. As long as these secular military regimes continued to serve Western interests, Western governments overlooked their abysmal human rights abuses and gave them whatever support was needed to maintain power.
The eruption of mass protests - the so-called “Arab Spring” - was not motivated by Islam but by the fact that the status quo of containment and suppression was no longer possible to bear. People erupted because the regimes in power since colonialism have achieved very little for their own people, and at the same time, robbed people of their sense of self-worth and dignity. The way that these mass protests have been suppressed only exasperated the problems that gave rise to the protests in the first place.
It is clear that the West - led by the United States, Britain and France - wish to return to that status quo, where strong oligarchic regimes are kept in power, and these oligarchic regimes achieve containment and suppression of any possible threats to Western interests, and there would be a full return to doing business the same old way of special arrangements and back alley deals.
There is a near complete refusal to acknowledge that supporting the same patterns of exploitation and dictatorship are destined not only to keep generating the kind of thoroughly alienated and demoralized human beings, who effectively commit suicide while inflicting the most-evil vengeance upon the very idea of life or goodness, but also that this situation is simply not sustainable. There will be further eruptions and each eruption will be worse than the one before it.
What is even worse and more dangerous is that, as we witnessed in the irresponsibly inflammatory and belligerent speeches of Donald Trump, whom I fear is likely to become the next President of United States, there are those who believe that the problem consists of a historical and existential confrontation between Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Because this perspective has no rational points of reference and is entirely detached from all historical and sociological realities, there is no means of engaging or reasoning with it. Whatever is perceived is projected onto a reality it actively invents.
In short, if the zealots prevail, then may God have mercy upon us all.
This article was previously published on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.
Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law and Chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program at UCLA. He is the author of many books, including Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age.