Gilles Kepel has characterized the current global conflict between liberal democracy and Islamic extremism as the War for Muslim Minds. There is merit to this notion, in that the political appeal of an ideology like that of Al Qaeda's is broadest in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan where Islam forms the common bond between people divided among myriad ethnic and linguistic groups. However, within Iraq, the nation that has, for the US, become the central focus of the "war on terror," Islam is not the principal cultural force impeding efforts at nation-building.
Many of the forces that observers in the US and Europe associate reflexively with Islam- extreme patriarchy, clannishness, xenophobia- are not pan-Islamic phenomena. One must remember, in viewing the Islamic world, that 2/3 of the world's Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia. Indonesia holds the largest Muslim community on earth, India the second largest. Islam is a world religion as ecumenical in its appeal and various in its manifestations as Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism. Anyone who insists that Islam inexorably precludes participation in an open, tolerant, liberal democracy has much to explain in places like India, Singapore, and Malaysia.
Though much of the resistance in Iraq is being led under the banner of Islamic extremism, the cultural forces most corrosive to nation-building are not rooted in Islam but in the historic traditions of Arab society, traditions that date to pre-Islamic times. Family, clan, and tribe are profoundly powerful institutions that have structured life- individual and social, personal and political- for millenia in the Arab world. The operative principles of these institutions are diametrically opposed to concepts of personal liberty, individual independence, feminism, freedom of expression, or rule of law. As I noted in a previous post, the resilience and potency of these social forms is lucidly attested by the political career of Saddam Hussein. Only they can explain how Iraqi Ba'athism, a pan-Arabist movement that originally accomodated individuals as disparate as Saddam (son of a Sunni herdsman) and Iyad Allawi (son of a Shi'ite merchant), could degenerate into a narrow oligarchy controlled by Saddam and his Tikriti kin.
It must be stressed that the power of family, clan and tribe in Arabic society is in no way a moral indictment of Arabic society or culture. These institutions only became as important as they are because they functioned very successfully for many centuries in bringing order, harmony, and purpose to Arab life. All societies have cherished institutions rendered dysfunctional by the evolving economic, technological, and political conditions of the world at large. That being said, it must also be acknowledged that at present Arab society is in desperate need of reform, as the majority of Arab cultural and intellectual leaders are aware.
How then, is this reform to come? If the experience of other societies is any gauge, it must come and it shall come internally. The success of the Coalition mission in Iraq depends on overcoming regressive forces in Arab society, but unfortunately the presence of Coalition soldiers in Iraq has only made these forces more militant. Family, clan and tribe are most adapted to and resourceful in dealing with external threats, in the presence of a perceived external threat their hold on people's minds and allegiance will deepen and strengthen. This does not mean that social reform is impossible in Iraq, it only means that it must await the departure of Coalition forces. If a new constitutional government can be formed and survive the departure of Coalition troops, it might serve as the catalyst of social and political liberalization. As long as Coalition forces remain in Iraq, however, the forces of reform and reaction will remain locked in stalemated homeostasis.
If military intervention can not aid the cause of Arabic social reform, one must then ask if the US and other liberal democracies can play no part in such a process. Fareed Zakaria has an excellent piece in this week's Newsweek in which he observes that change comes fastest in those countries with which the US remains conscientiously engaged (e.g. Vietnam, China, Eastern Europe) and is stalled in those countries toward which we have adopted a policy of "regime change" (e.g. Cuba, Iran, North Korea). From this perspective, the US can best serve the cause of Arabic social reform through economic and cultural engagement with the Arab world, by committing to those forms of trade and cultural exchange that will further material and intellectual enrichment and will expand economic, social, and political opportunities throughout the Arab world.
This might seem like an excuse for inaction, but it is not. One of the most conscientious forms of engagement toward which the US could and must commit is the reduction of our consumption of oil. Family, clan and tribal dominance has enabled Arab oil wealth of to fall, with the aid of the US and Europe, under the control of a narrow oligarchy that keeps the price of oil artificially low. The breakage of that economic-political link would destroy one of the principal stopgaps to reform, and would pave the way toward genuine economic and social diversification and political liberalization in the Arab world.