Saturday, November 17, 2007

Time & Space in One Complex System: Islamic Politics

Continuing remarks on how complex dynamics act across time and space in international relations, and, more particularly, Islamic politics.

Many longstanding local political crises exist in Moslem countries, each with its own local origins and explanations.
  • Palestinians continue their long struggle for statehood.
  • Ethiopian and Eritrean visions of how the Horn of Africa should move into the future continue to clash.
  • Pakistan continues to struggle over the choice of military dictatorship or liberal democracy or an Islamic form of government.
  • Kurds continue to fight for recognition without even being able to agree on whether it should be statehood or differing versions of autonomy or absorption within Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.
  • Afghanistan continues its long struggle to figure out what system it wants to employ to restore its shattered society.
  • Bangladesh continues to struggle to improve the quality of governance in its vigorous but weak democracy, even as that system comes under increasing attack from radical Islamist forces that reject it.

However, on top of this local variation, a new phenomenon seems to be emerging, which it seems reasonable to call “Islamic politics,” i.e., a particular type of politics centered around Islamic activism where the activists perceive themselves as members of a global community with a shared history, moral perspective, and set of grievances. Moreover, politics in the region where Islamic politics dominates the political scene seems to be taking on more and more of the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. To what degree that is currently true and to what degree it is becoming the case are important questions that go far beyond this brief post and, indeed, merit serious research. Suffice it to say for the moment that an Islamic political fault line extending from South & Central Asia to the Horn of Africa appears to be emerging.

Research Challenge: We need a research program to investigate the degree to which an Islamic political complex adaptive system may be emerging in the region from, at the very least, Bangladesh up to Afghanistan, through the Mideast, and down into Africa as far as Somalia (if not in addition including Indonesia and North Africa).

However, the question I wish to address at the moment concerns the particular spatial and temporal characteristics of the evolution of this emerging complex system. How dynamics play out over time and across space in a complex adaptive system is in general an interesting subfield of complexity. As it concerns the alleged Islamic political fault line cutting through this emerging complex system, the role of space and time are important because it is precisely the possibility of a single, unified political crisis occurring simultaneously throughout this region that makes the issue of such critical importance for the peace of the world. In a word, will political trends and attitudes spread rapidly throughout this region and unify it at some significant level so that the problems of the whole region will have to be resolved simultaneous or will politics remain primarily local, crises separate and amenable to solution one by one? If the former becomes the case, it is not at all clear that the international community will be able effectively to meet the challenge that will result.

A system is complex because it is made up of parts that have both some freedom of movement and some mutual dependence; they are distinct but also must react and, indeed, adapt in response to the behavior of the other parts. The parts are thus constantly changing, not moving back and forth like a thermostat but evolving into something new, and not something they planned to evolve into but something at least in part unforeseen: what they become depends in part on the behavior of the other parts.

How will the fact that this series of separate countries is strung out in a long line along the Indian Ocean coast affect their potential for constituting a meaningfully complex system? Can we anticipate spatial variations in, say, the intensity of Islamic activism as a function of the geographic location of the particular society? Might the rate of change also be in part a function of the geographic location? Might there consequently be “sweet spots” where intervention of a particular type would have particularly beneficial system-wide impact or “danger zones” where intervention of the wrong type would have particularly harmful system-wide impact?

Such questions may sound academic, but the alternative to identifying some overarching patterns is the almost overwhelmingly complex challenge of simultaneously dealing with a dozen crises (and pretending that they are in fact "separate" crises), of which half are already at the stage of actual warfare. The record so far offers little hope that the global political system is sufficiently sophisticated to achieve this. Therefore, it is to be hoped that complexity theory can offer insights to guide the development of practical political solutions to the grievances of Islamic societies.

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