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December 26th, 2014

Insight

The Current Spasm in Islam

Paul Johnson

By Paul Johnson

Published August 12, 2014

The Current Spasm in Islam
The convulsion that has over taken Islam—which began a quarter-century ago—is exceedingly complicated. And, sadly, few Western observers who write on the politics of the Middle East possess either the knowledge or the patience to unravel its complexities.

In Syria, where civil war has raged for more than two years, resulting in more than 100,000 casualties and leaving half the population homeless, the instinctive feeling is to back the "rebels" against Bashar al-Assad's regime. At least that's what some Western leaders urge.

But it's an uncomfortable fact that Assad protects the Christians (i.e., Western elements), while some of the rebels—there are at least half a dozen distinct elements opposing the regime—are bent on slaughtering them.

I've always argued that violent turmoil is part of Islamic history and that seen in a long-term perspective the West's wisest policy is patience. The turmoil will eventually subside.

The present upheaval is being fueled by two things: clumsy Western interference and deliberate Russian troublemaking. The savagery of the civil wars in Syria and elsewhere is being fanned by the flow of arms and money into the region. Clearly, one way the West could help would be to ban the sale and supply of weapons to these troubled areas.

But Western policy on this point is confused and contradictory, and much of the war material being used comes from France, the U.S. and other NATO powers, as well as from Russia, which is the biggest single supplier.

What about patience? I've also argued that a sign a convulsion is about to subside is when the conflict stops being primarily xenophobic or anti-Western and becomes purely sectarian, centering on doctrinal disputes within Islam

There's evidence that this is currently happening. The rise of ISIS, which is formally and doctrinally Sunni, and its attempt to set up its own caliphate are significant. Hitherto, the most active and intransigent militant elements of Islam have been Shiite, inspired, financed and maneuvered by Iran.

The Muslim population there is overwhelmingly Shiite, and Iran has always been a center of ferocious extremism. The Sunnis, who constitute the orthodox elements of Islam centered on Mecca and its controlling state, Saudi Arabia, have, until recently, tended to react to events, not initiate them.

However, ISIS has wide access to arms and money from various Sunni states. If Iran continues to back and supply Shiite rebels, and guerrillas and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States support ISIS, then a religious war encompassing the region is inevitable, much as 16th-century Roman Catholics and militant Protestants embroiled all of Christianity in their fight for supremacy in Europe.

I estimate that when a sufficient number of Islam's authority figures grasp the fact that the war is tearing apart entire Islamic communities while infidels look on in approval, they'll tone down their destructive rhetoric and start to behave like rational human beings. Then the epoch of Islamic ferment through which we've been living will gradually come to an end.


AN UPRISING TO SUPPORT

In the meantime, what should the West do? There will be those who advise "selective interference"—supplying help to whichever side seems to be losing, thereby keeping the slaughter of Muslims by other Muslims going. That's an unconscionable policy—and one that should never be adopted. What we ought to do, beyond blocking arms sales to the region, is encourage the secularist elements that clearly exist in Islamic territories and that can be expected to grow if doctrinal disputes intensify.

In particular, we should devise programs that appeal to Muslim women, whose suffering has been a salient feature of recent events. We should do everything possible to encourage these women to protest against the senseless religious killing and to seek positions of power from which they can become agents in the struggle, instead of its victims.

Such a revolt is one form of Islamic uprising that should have the West's wholehearted support.

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Eminent British historian and author Paul Johnson's latest book is "American Presidents Eminent Lives Boxed Set: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant".

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