Islam and the West:
The Myth of the Green Peril

The 9/11 attacks and the ensuing "war on terror" have provided an opportunity for the U.S. foreign policy establishment, suffering from Enemy Deprivation Syndrome since the Cold War’s end, to settle on a potential new bogeyman. It is radical Islam, or the "Green Peril" – a term I used in an article 15 years ago in Foreign Affairs, spring 1993. I challenged Samuel Huntington’s clash-of-civilizations paradigm, which predicted that the West and Islam would engage in a long and bloody struggle over control of the Middle East, including its oil resources.

The neoconservative ideologues who hijacked President George W. Bush’s foreign policy apparatus have embraced Huntington’s notion of a confrontation between Islam and the West. They see it as a way to justify American military power, to establish U.S. hegemony in the Middle East while imposing American values, the so-called "freedom agenda," to deal with the rise of Islamofascism, a Khomeini-like creature, armed with a radical ideology, equipped with nuclear weapons, and intent on launching a violent jihad against Western civilization.

According to this neoconservative dogma, which Bush has attempted to apply in Mesopotamia, a free and democratic Iraq would become a model for political and economic reform in the Arab world and the broader Middle East, and a series of mostly peaceful democratic revolutions would be unleashed from the Islamic frontiers of China, through Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, to the Balkan borders. Hence, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Bush supporters recalling the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union’s collapse expected the democratic dominoes to fall in Syria and Iran, while arguing that Lebanon’s "Cedar Revolution" and the planned election in Palestine reflected the shape of things to come.

At the same time, even the more liberal and internationalist foreign policy pundits like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, critical of some aspects of the neoconservative agenda, insisted that the U.S. needed to launch a massive campaign to help modernize/democratize/liberalize/secularize the Arab Middle East and by extension the entire Muslim world, preferably through public diplomacy and education, and as a last resort, military force.

Indeed, against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in two major wars in the Middle East and the increasingly assertive position of Iran and its regional allies, a consensus is evolving among Washington’s chattering class about the obligation to launch a Wilsonian campaign to bring the Middle East into the modern age, while extinguishing radical Islam. Washington’s failure to do that would not only endanger Israel and other Mideast allies. With stratospheric energy prices igniting anxiety in Washington over access to Persian Gulf oil resources, the civilization-clash theory has acquired a economic veneer. Imagine if Osama bin Laden controlled the Middle East’s energy assets, a.k.a. "Arab Oil," and used them as a "weapon" against the West!

New foreign policy paradigms, like new religions and political ideologies, are produced by intellectual entrepreneurs hoping to win status and influence over those seeking power. At the same time, politicians use these worldviews to mobilize public support as they lead the nation/people/class against an outside threat that allegedly challenges core interests and values. From this perspective, the new Islamic bogeyman promoted by entrepreneurial neocons has clearly served the interests of Washington’s Iron Triangle of bureaucrats, lawmakers, and interest groups, as well as foreign players who have pressed for growing U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.

For the Iron Triangle, the Islamic threat – very much like Communism during the Cold War – helps create expanding budget pressure for defense, covert operations, and the current favorite interest group, while allowing foreign players like the Israelis, the Indians, or the many ‘Stans to highlight their own roles as Washington’s regional surrogates. At the same, neocon intellectuals and their adjunct brigades of "terrorism experts" have increased their access to governmental decision-making and the media and reaped other political and financial rewards.

The problem is that foreign policy paradigms are intellectual constructs that reflect the imaginations of their producers and the interests of their promoters, not necessarily reality. As a result, when policies formed on the basis of such conceptual frameworks are implemented, reality tends to bite. Hence, during the Cold War, the notion of a global and monolithic Soviet-led Communism made it inevitable that the U.S. would confuse the national interests that drove the policies of Vietnam, China, and Cuba with the global interests of the Soviet Union, leading to disastrous U.S. policy outcomes. Similarly, after the Soviet Union had vanished into thin air, Americans discovered that the collapse of Communism failed to unleash political and economic freedom in the former Soviet Empire. Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia have acquired membership in the Western club, a reflection of their European political cultures, while many of the more backward ‘Stans have embraced authoritarian political orders and statist economic systems. Russia seems to have chosen its own unique Third Way of state capitalism.

During the 1990s there was talk in Washington about the challenge the West was supposedly facing from a new East Asian model, represented by Japan and other emerging economies in the region. The champions of this model included Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s leader, and Huntington, who embraced the idea of a "Sinic" civilization. They argued that unique East Asian Confucian values such as family, corporate, and national loyalty, the precedence of society’s stability and prosperity over personal interests and freedoms, and a strong work ethic and thriftiness are why East Asians support authoritarian governments and the collective well-being rather than democracy, and why state-managed capitalist economies are more successful than Anglo-American ones. But the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s and the region’s diverging political and economic systems (Singapore vs. Taiwan) have undermined the notion of a monolithic and successful Asian model, although China’s dramatic economic rise may have revived it.

Similarly, the time has come to challenge the grand idea that the Muslim world, or the Middle East, or the Arab world – terms that seem interchangeable in the American media – has a unique and monolithic political and economic culture that makes it resistant to the West’s modernizing effects. Note that here again, a multitude of labels, including democracy, capitalism, secularism, and feminism, are used in association with modernity and Westernization.

The proponents of this idea suggest that only an American-led effort to "export" democracy to that region of the world would bring about the necessary cultural, political, and economic reforms, making Middle Easterners/Arabs/Muslims "more like us." "Us" includes a not very monolithic West, with America’s Deep South, where racist legislation predominated until the 1960s; Switzerland, where women were finally given the right to vote in 1971; the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism; Germany’s social capitalism; libertine Las Vegas and prudish Salt Lake City; and "law-abiding" Northern Europe and "corruption-infested" Southern Europe. And so it goes.

Hence, careful study of the cultural, political, and economic entity called the West reveals diverse and evolving attitudes about what it means to be a Westerner in the 21st century. This depends very much on values and interests, political principles, religious faiths, racial background, economic and social status, gender, education, sexual orientation, and even the political and the economic systems citizens embrace under certain environmental conditions and historical settings.

The fact that there isn’t a one-dimensional Westerner makes it easier to understand why the one-dimensional Muslim or Arab doesn’t exist either – except, that is, in the rival twin minds of radical Muslims who promote the ideology of al-Qaeda and the Christian Right Westerners who advance neoconservative dogma.

Notwithstanding Washington’s propaganda regarding the global threat of Islamofascism, there are no common ideological foundations that unite the various strains of Islamic-influenced groups. The hugely divergent groups include the secular Arab nationalist movements of Ba’athism and Nasserism, combining socialist and fascist ideologies imported from Europe; Saudi Arabia’s dominant and strict religious doctrine of Wahhabism; the revolutionary and millennialist dogma that guides the ruling Shi’ites in Iran and their Middle Eastern satellites; the Kemalist secular, republican, and statist tradition of Turkey, challenged now by modernist and pro-free-market and democratic Islamist parties that want Turkey to join the European Union; the tolerant and multicultural societies and capitalist economies of Indonesia and Malaysia; the radical Islamists of South and Central Asia; Westernized, multiethnic, and multireligious Lebanon; and, finally, Moammar Gaddafi’s strict and somewhat bizarre form of the Islamic revolutionary system in Libya.

From this perspective, the Muslim world or the Middle East or the Arab Middle East is a mosaic of nation-states, ethnic groups, religious sects, and tribal groups, and a mishmash of political ideologies, economic systems, and cultural orientations. Some of these players have gradually joined the modern age and play an active role in the global economy: Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, and the UAE. Others have clearly remained on the margins of the recent economic and technological revolutions: Sudan, Mauritania, the Gaza Strip, and Yemen. Most Islam-dominated states find themselves somewhere in between: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Libya.

There is no doubt that some parts of the Middle East are "notable for [their] disturbingly low profile in matters of economics and globalization," as Zachary Karabell, a Middle East expert and investment banker, put it. After all, the region, with its 350 million people, located at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa and renowned for its historical legacy as the Cradle of Civilization as well as its huge energy resources, would be expected to be on par with other leading emerging economies. Its GDP is more than $900 billion a year. Its economic growth rate is about 5 percent per year.

The recent rise in energy prices has benefited some parts of the region, in particular the booming oil states in the Persian Gulf. In contrast to the oil explosion of the 1970s, these states are now investing their profits in the region, encouraging stock market growth, a surge in real estate developments, and the building of modern economic infrastructure that is helping to turn the UAE and other Persian Gulf states into centers of global commerce and finance like Singapore.

At the same time, there are signs that Arab economies that have been ruled for decades by military dictators – Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and now perhaps even Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Libya – are taking important steps to reform their economies and open them to foreign investment and trade. Through the efforts of France and the rest of the EU, the creation of a European-Mediterranean economic club could accelerate this process and encourage the return of expatriates, including many professionals and businessmen, from the West.

In a way, Western powers have been responsible for the fact that military dictatorships retarding economic reform have controlled Mideast nation-states for so long. The geostrategic competition among outside powers, especially during the Cold War, encouraged the U.S. and its allies to exploit regional conflicts like the Arab-Israeli one and to provide military and economic support to local strongmen who were supposed to serve the outsiders’ interests. But the time has come for Western powers, particularly the EU, to focus efforts on an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to create incentives for the region to open up to the global economy. This includes liberalizing their economies, reducing tariff barriers, and encouraging direct foreign investment.

While free trade is not a panacea, it could be a necessary building block for a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East. It could encourage the rise of a professional middle class with values more in tune with modern ideas and technologies. That effort could also help reduce poverty and economic inequality, and all of these could foster what Erik Gartzke, a Canadian political economist, describes as "capitalist peace."

Indeed, when globalization seems to be bypassing the Middle East, it’s important to remember that the region was once a center of global commerce, and that its merchants and traders – Syrians, Lebanese, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and others – helped spread the culture of business across the Mediterranean and throughout the world. That old Spirit of the Levant could be revived under these conditions of capitalist peace and help transform the Middle East from the global economy’s backwater into one of its most powerful engines.

This originally appeared in The Energy Tribune.