Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Um.... yay?

Joshua Micah Marshall on the "Islam needs a Reformation" problem:
But if what you care about is geopolitical stability, less religious extremism in the political realm, or just fewer people being sawed in half or burned alive, then you can really only say this if you know little or nothing about what the Reformation actually was. Or, perhaps better to say, that it was actually a pretty rough ride for something like 150 years.

In the Muslim world, we don't have the break out of an entirely novel schism in the dominant religious culture. But in other respects, let's go down the list: renewal of eschatalogical enthusiasm, check; heightened sectarian identification and inter-sectarian violence, check; breakdown of established mechanisms of state and social authority, check. I'd say we, or rather they, may be about set to have their Reformation. Or they may already be in thick of it.

Not to worry, though. By 2146 or so, after a century or so of bloodletting, there may be a broad political and ideological consensus in favor or relegating religion to the private sphere and leaving the whole thing to personal conscience.
Meanwhile, Andy Sullivan gives us further good news:
The difference between now and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe is that this regional war within a divided monotheism will take place in a time of vastly greater technological capacity for destruction. So the consequences of such a war may be far more ominous than the massacres, burnings and civil wars that beset Europe in the past. The silver lining of this terribly dark prospect is that catastrophe may strike sooner rather than later, and that only through such a catastrophe will Muslim Arabs and Persians realize that their best interests lie in forgoing the bromides of fundamentalist certainties for the messy, secular, banal success of liberal democracy. So what took Europe two centuries may take the Middle East a decade.
So - if we're lucky - one of the most destructive wars in human history could be reimagined for the 21st century in super-duper-high-speed? The 30-years war was about as destructive, in terms of total people killed as a % of total population, as the Napoleonic Wars were, which themselves were as bad (again, proportionally) as World War II. (The main difference between the three is the proportion of civilian/soldier deaths.) And the situation is now so grim that the "silver lining" is that we get a rerun.

I am, however, not sure the 30-year War analogy is the right one. The 30-year war, after all, occurred at a time when there was a contested, but recognized head of the Christian faith who was trying to impose order on the unwilling - the Catholic Church and the Pope were trying to stifle Protestant kingdoms. There is no Pope in Islam today, as Turkey abolished the Caliphate. Nor is there any evidence that anyone, anywhere in the Muslim world is in a position to unify the Sunni faith against the Shia, or anything like that.

Now, the Napoleonic Wars, there's an analogy for you. You've got an explicitly revolutionary regime in control of a country - France/Iran* - which also happens to be one of the most populous in the region, which sees itself under siege by hostile powers surrounding it. So it fuses nationalism with a direct rejection of the conventions of the international system. Fortunately for us, the Iranian military has not, historically, produced Generals of the Corsican caliber. On the other hand, there may be a Napoleon in the Iranian military, just waiting for his chance... Napoleon's rise owed as much to his superior's failures as it did to his own skills.

*Sadly, progress in the Middle East is so slow that yes, Iran is still one of the most democratic states in the region, with the obvious exception of Israel.

The Napoleonic example also shows, by the way, that a conquering power cannot, as a rule, build friendly regimes or spread it's normative choice for good government. Not that I think this is relevant to the Middle East today in any way whatsoever...

No comments: