Monday, November 26, 2007

Islamic Political Fault Line

An Islamic political fault line is forming from Bangladesh to Somalia. If a unified upheaval does in fact erupt from one end of this region to the other simultaneously, it will present a far more serious threat to the global political system than anything we have seen since the end of the Cold War. Those who dream of a clash of civilizations could, in that case, get what they want.

The threat to the global political system is two-fold: first, instability per se, which will generate all manner of suffering for those immediately involved and financial harm to people everywhere; second, undermining of civil liberties and good governance everywhere, both in regions of violence and even in those Western countries that may be fortunate enough to escape violence within their territory. Populations will panic, governments will overreact, politicians will exploit the fear to gain personal power, and democracy everywhere will fall under attack.


If one draws a line from Afghanistan through the Mideast south to Somalia, that line will today go through the following conflicts:

  • Afghanistan & Pakistani Northwest Territories – rising attacks by the Taliban;
  • Northern Pakistan – new anti-government conflict with domestic Islamists;
  • Southwestern Pakistan – long-time, simmering civil war with Baluchi minority;
  • Iraq – combined insurgency, civil war, and exploitation by outside Islamic elements;
  • Palestine – struggle for Palestine independence;
  • Somalia – Islamists vs. Ethiopians.

The following new conflicts are now threatening:

  • Bangladesh – radicals filling space left by endlessly feuding political parties;
  • Pakistan – general civil disorder against military dictatorship;
  • Kurdistan – Turkish invasion;
  • Iran – U.S. or Israeli attack;
  • Lebanon – breakdown of civil order and reemergence of civil war;
  • Ethiopia/Eritrea – renewed war.

Today, violence along this “Islamic political fault line” is broken up by several regions of relative stability. Two of these regions are Iran and Kurdistan. Both have relatively stable governments that, if faced with external threats, can count on an outpouring of nationalist support from their populations. It is also worth noting that Kurdistan is the only stable part of Iraq. And these are two of the most threatened regions.

Islamic Regions of Stability: Kurdistan and Iran

There is no doubt that each part of this region has its own individual issues. Bangladeshi political instability goes directly back to the Bengali war for independence from Punjabi military control more than a generation ago and the corrupt political process that followed (which in turn opened the door to rising extremist influence. In Afghanistan, the inability of the Kabul regime and its Western supporters to provide the Afghan people with any viable means of livelihood other than poppy-growing combined with the pressures to give up poppy-growing generates mass popular frustration. Pakistan’s increasingly harsh military dictatorship is alienating the middle class that should be the core of support for the military (were it to behave as a nationalist force rather than an exploitative one). The Turkish-Kurdistan issue comes out of Turkish refusal to give consideration to the nationalist aspirations of Kurds living in Turkey. Ethiopia and Eritrea have a long-standing disagreement over their joint border.

Neither Islamic extremism nor Western interference can be held responsible for creating this fault line. The problems have a host of local causes. Nevertheless, many underlying similarities exist, and these similarities threaten to turn a long list of local conflicts into a single political quake zone stretching from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa. Both Islamist extremism and Western interference can most certainly be held responsible for exploiting and aggravating the process of merging these individual, local conflicts into a single globe-cutting political fault line.

  • Islamic extremists justify their own global violence by blaming the West and corrupt, brutal local dictators under Western protection for everything that is wrong with the Islamic world.

  • Western extremists, those politicians who use military force to control the political process in Islamic countries rather, provide a fertile field for Islamic extremism by marginalizing moderate, national forces that are trying to bring democracy and sovereignty to Islamic societies.

The danger of such a merging is obvious: failure to have genuine sympathy for the aspirations of Islamic societies creates precisely the threat of global terrorism that extremist Western politicians so loudly claim to be fighting against. But this process of merging local issues into a global Islamic issue also offers opportunities. To the degree that all the problems in the Islamic world constitute one problem, then one solution will, in principle, exist. Determining the degree to which that is true and identifying a single solution that can serve to ameliorate all the violence in the Islamic world will be among the most important challenges facing international relations thinkers and decision makers for a long time to come.

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