Political Islam and the post-Cold War international order
Religion in general and political Islam in particular is widely seen as responsible, at least in part, for a breakdown in the post-Cold War international political order. Violent sectarian conflict, threatening the stability and security of states in North Africa, the Levant, and adjoining regions has obliged a reluctant United States to return to a limited combat role in the Middle East. It has turned what the European Union hoped would be a “ring of well-governed states” along its borders into a “ring of fire,” as one commentator recently put it. Russia has exacerbated the situation through its actions in Syria and Ukraine. But the significant place attributed to religion in this analysis overlooks the precarious nature of the post-Cold War order, the multiplicity of elements challenging it, and the instrumentalization of religion for political ends.
After the Cold War, it seemed reasonable to expect the liberal international order gradually to extend its reach to much of the globe. The EU’s neighbors to the east and to the south appeared next in line for the overthrow of post-Soviet or post-colonial autocracies in favor of systems founded on libertarian principles, albeit with local characteristics.
This expectation was initially comforted by the partial regime changes that occurred in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe following the color revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) and in North Africa following the “dignity revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt (2011). The EU, supported by the United States, developed an elaborate system of outreach to this new set of “transition” countries. It was almost as if the Berlin Wall had fallen a second time, allowing newly liberated countries to be recruited to the liberal international order, exemplified in Europe and its neighborhood by the EU.
This expectation, however, was, at the very least, premature. “Transition” in these counties was far more tenuous than in Central and Eastern Europe. The global financial and economic crisis, aggravated in Europe by the euro crisis, weakened the appeal of the EU and, indeed, the United States, as models. Other actors, in the Persian Gulf, offered far more assistance, without the kind of conditionality Western donors sought to impose. On the contrary, they pursued their own very different agenda in countries requiring their support.
Globalization proved an inadequate barrier to political movements espousing pre-modern political values. These appealed as much to an archaic sense of nationalism, or tribalism, as to religion. The recruitment of countries around the Mediterranean Sea to the liberal international order was held up by renewed autocracy, a dysfunctional winner-take-all reading of democracy, state failure, foreign intervention, sectarian strife, the persecution of minorities, and economic collapse. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other violent groups, claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, further threatened the stability of regimes in the region and exacted a high price in human suffering.
As in previous centuries, religion has been widely instrumentalized in the Middle East and beyond to further political ambitions and goals. This has proved particularly effective where sectarian differences overlap with ethnic, national, linguistic, and economic disparities. Conservative population groups can be mobilized with slogans drawing on religious beliefs and cadences, though the propagation of religion as such is rarely the main objective.
A coherent response by the United States, the EU, and other proponents of the liberal international order requires clarity about their own interests and realism about the incentives at their disposal. Efforts to impose “Western values” on reluctant societies undergoing profound shocks have proved largely unsuccessful. Programs like the European Neighborhood Policy, which offer (minor) rewards to countries in North Africa and the Levant for small steps towards adopting European-inspired laws and practices, need to be fundamentally reconsidered.
The United States and the EU need to come to terms with the fact that conservative attitudes and beliefs, often linked to religion, are pervasive in many of the countries they seek to influence. Despite public outrage at the excesses of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, care needs to be taken to avoid casting all political movements with religious roots as threats. The preponderant political grouping in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, draws its inspiration from Christianity. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey claims, similarly, to combine democracy with devotion to Islam.
There is a role for European and U.S. civil society bodies in nudging societies in the European neighborhood towards greater tolerance for different beliefs and lifestyles. But care should be taken to avoid any impression that the goal is to impose certain values, even those widely deemed to be universal, from outside. At the same time European and American leaders should do more to explain to the public in their own increasingly multicultural societies that there is a difference between the peaceful exercise of religious beliefs and sectarian violence.
In the rare cases where political actors with popular support do prove willing to go down the path of democratic “transition,” the United States and the EU should be unstinting in their support. Almost four years since the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia, the Ennahda Movement, with roots in religion, seems to have eschewed a winner-take-all approach and to have understood the need for tolerance, or at least acceptance, of those with different political or religious views. Tunisia faces tremendous internal and external pressures, including refugee streams from Libya and extensive trafficking of goods and people. With sufficient support, it could become an example of successful democratic transition in which religion takes its place in an essentially secular order.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.