Hallucinations of Empire
In a penetrating analysis head-and-shoulders above most other books on al-Qaeda, Iraq and Islamism, Olivier Roy shows that the ‘politics of chaos’, not the ‘politics of Empire’, rules the roost in the Middle East.
A few years back, after the Taliban fled Kabul and Saddam’s statue was toppled in Baghdad, all the talk was about American empire. Library shelves groaned under the weight of tomes that gloomily analysed the neo-cons’ plans for eternal global domination.
Today, things look very different. America’s military and foreign policy in the Middle East is in tatters. It is difficult to avoid confronting what Perry Anderson calls the ‘structural irrationality’ of American foreign policy (1). Olivier Roy, a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, and probably the most penetrating Western analyst of Islamism and Middle East politics, addresses this topic in his new book, The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East.
Roy begins by observing the dissolution of American foreign policy into a jumble of mutually opposing trends. Far from becoming the hub of a new American imperium, the invasion of Iraq has established a regime closely linked to America’s designated enemy in the region, Iran. The Kurdish guerrillas sheltering in northern Iraq and fighting for independence from Turkey pits Turkey against American support for Kurdish autonomy in Iraq. America’s allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, support America’s opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan (Sunni tribes in Iraq and the Taliban, respectively). America’s support for the overthrow of Islamists in Somalia by Ethiopian forces has guaranteed the return of those very same Islamists, who have now become the national defenders of Somalia by virtue of American belligerence. Islamists are the dominant political force in Palestine and Lebanon (Hamas and Hizbollah, respectively). And to top it all off, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar (remember them?) remain at large. The Empire bestriding the ‘Greater Middle East’ seems to have been hallucinated by a left that is even more bewildered than the neo-cons in Washington.
As Roy points out, the current situation in the Middle East has nothing to do with the strength of such ragtag opponents as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And unlike Perry Anderson, Roy does not attribute the situation to an all-powerful Jewish lobby that has hijacked America’s national interests. Roy points out, rather, that the reason the American Israel Public Affairs Committee supported the invasion of Iraq was not because they drew up the war plans, but because they wanted to win the goodwill of the Bush administration, in the hope that Washington’s greater involvement in the Middle East would relieve Israel of the duties of acting as America’s regional proxy.
Instead of dreaming up sinister conspiracies behind world events, Roy shows how America’s incoherent war effort flows from an underlying Western political framework that carries with it distinctive views about globalisation, intervention and political development. In Roy’s telling, wooly rhetoric about globalisation blurring international boundaries and diffusing threats around the world makes it impossible to establish a hierarchy of threat and relevance. As a result, it becomes impossible to establish any strategic priorities. Roy writes: ‘Globalisation of the threat makes any rational strategy impossible and paves the way for a hollow, bombastic rhetoric, which above all serves Western societies’ internal debates.’
The befuddlement engendered by globalisation waffle is shared by Europe, where strategy and foreign policy collapse into managing social problems. On the one hand, domestic problems of integrating Muslim populations are treated as if they are a global problem of reified ‘Western values’ and their compatibility with ‘Islam’. On the other hand, the Middle East becomes a stage for Europe to project its own vacuous ideas about citizenship and multiculturalism. Perversely, Western governments reinforce Muslims’ outsider status by encouraging their migrant populations’ to face outwards. Hence French diplomats plead for fatwas from mullahs in Cairo to support French domestic policy, while Danish diplomats are expected to deal with protests by Danish Muslims about the cartoons of the Prophet.
In terms of Iraq, Roy points out that the failed adventure there is not simply a ‘hare-brained scheme that has fizzled out.’ Underpinning the disaster is an influential doctrine of intervention and democratisation shared by all the leading developmental institutions, both intergovernmental and non-governmental. Its assumptions are: ‘Distrust of existing governments, encouragement of civil society, the development of microprojects, and the central importance of women’s and gender issues, advocacy of the humanitarian approach.’ These ideas grow directly out of influential leftist theories about the ‘duty to intervene’ in other societies to enforce democracy. Existing governments are to be drubbed into submission (with bombs if necessary), and then some new political institutions are quickly thrown up, with little concern as to whether the new institutions have any legitimacy or roots in those societies. Hence the ridiculous outcomes, which would be comedic if they were not so tragic: Roy gives the example of Afghan village committees that are forced to follow gender equality guidelines that would make a Scandinavian Social Democrat blanche.
Using his distinctive vantage point, Roy effortlessly punctures one myth after another. So while leftists imagined that oil pipelines would spontaneously spring up from beneath the GIs’ boots, Roy shows that the oil lobby was cool on the invasion of Iraq. Unlike the imperialist corporations of yesteryear, Roy argues that today’s oil corporations are not interested in controlling oilfields directly. As long as no single country monopolises supply, the energy companies are happy to rely on the market to set prices and regulate production. On the other hand, Roy says that the civil engineering sector and service companies supported the war, because unlike the oil companies, they work on short-term contracts that do not require any long-term strategy and they are paid for by the Western taxpayer (meaning they have no need to cultivate stable relations with foreign governments).
The main myth that Roy wants to cut down in his book is the idea of a monolithic Islam confronting the West. For a start, if Iraq survives in any viable national form, it will be a Shia-dominated state, which will give the religious schism between Sunni and Shia an enduring new geopolitical significance in the region. More profoundly, Roy shows that the rhetoric of the ‘global war on terror’ collapses together four distinct spheres of Islamised politics, each with their own specific logic: al-Qaeda-style terrorists; Islamists proper (those who try to build Islamic political institutions); fundamentalists who want to live under sharia law; and the cultural conservatives who advocate communal autonomy under multiculturalism. None of these represent an existential threat.
Despite its bloody ostentation, al-Qaeda’s violence has no strategic orientation that would allow it to give purpose or political direction to its activities, with no lasting institutions or political roots. While Islamist movements have more political traction, they also run up against their limits: the failure of the Islamist political model in regimes such as Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, and the fact that they must consistently push beyond an Islamist agenda in order to maintain political momentum in any national arena. Roy observes: ‘It is clear that the Palestinians who voted for Hamas in 2006 did not do so because they wanted the destruction of Israel or sharia, but because they wanted good governance, like the Iranians who supported Ahmadinejad in the second round of the Iranian presidential elections in 2005.’
Western states’ inability to establish political gradations between different types of Islamised politics leads directly to impotence: ‘There is not the military capability to attack on all fronts: it is not possible simultaneously to wage war on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran (and the Muslim Brotherhood, veiled women, inner-city imams, etc).’ Or, more pithily: ‘Moral intransigence leads to impotence if based on a non-political definition of evil.’
As a result of such insightful analysis, Roy’s book is head and shoulders above much of the standard commentary on the Middle East, Islamism and al-Qaeda. Indeed, the main problem with the book is that it does not go far enough in pursuing this trope of the ‘politics of chaos’. Roy draws attention to the fact that the real dynamic driving political and social evolution in the Middle East is not Islam, but deeper under-currents of national rivalries and uneven processes of state-led modernisation in poor and traditional societies. This emphasis provides a rigorous, scientific counterbalance to the nonsensical depictions of the Middle East as a cauldron of fanaticism.
Nonetheless, Roy is too quick to elide specifically political questions of consciousness and ideology with the deeper social trends and structural contradictions of regional geopolitics. The fact that the underlying social dynamics are pulling in one direction does not do away with the fact that social and political change continues to be expressed in terms of religiously-inspired ideology. For now, religion seems, for some, to be the only viable discourse of opposition that can be mobilised both against Western influence in the Middle East, and against authoritarian and centralising states.
The main aim of Roy’s book is to intervene in the policy debate, to make the case that the only rational way forward for Western diplomacy is to factor in serious Islamist political movements such as Hizbollah and Hamas, and to treat them as rational interlocutors and legitimate representatives. Establishing a strategic set of priorities will enable Western states to focus their efforts on genuine enemies such as al-Qaeda. But as has been argued elsewhere on spiked, the confused and reactionary ideology of al-Qaeda eerily mirrors the moralising self-righteousness and cloying ethics that dominate Western political discourse (see Is Osama bin Laden an environmentalist?, by Brendan O’Neill). Roy is good at picking apart the irrationality of both sets of ideas, yet he refuses to draw the logical conclusion: that instead of merely shuffling around the set of priorities on the table, it is imperative to repose the very terms of political discourse in their entirety, in both the West and the East.
Despite pulling back from the direction of his own argument, Roy’s new book is consistently illuminating and easily one of the best introductions to the contemporary politics of the Middle East.
Olivier Roy at the French Institute: Brendan O’Neill, the editor of spiked, will chair a Q&A with Olivier Roy, discussing his new book The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East, at the French Institute in London on Thursday 10 April. The discussion is organised and hosted by the French Embassy in London. Visit the French Institute website here.
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