The Arab uprisings which began in Tunisia in late 2010 have collapsed almost everywhere into chaos and violence. Yet these were revolutionary events, reflecting the end of the Cold War and the dictatorships which the Cold War had sustained. The sociologist, Olivier Roy, described the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East as impatient with the corrupt institutions, from the military to the Muslim Brothers, through which Islam had been used to repress their democratic aspirations. They no longer obsessed, he said, about a pan-Arab nation opposed to Israel and the US. They simply wanted freedom (political, religious and intellectual) and the Internet, and their migrant compatriots in Europe had shown them a different life was possible.
I think that this analysis is correct, and that there is a civil war within Islam, between modernity and freedom on the one hand, and tradition and totalitarianism on the other. It is never a good idea to intervene in other people’s civil wars. One side or other will seek to suck you in; rival interveners will appear; the war will grow more complicated and spread. The breakdown of two former-Soviet client states, Iraq and Syria, has led to a three-way conflict between Western, Russian and regional forces.
The democratic uprising against the Assad regime in Syria was hijacked – first by local Islamists, then by ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’. The latter were former military and intelligence officers from Saddam’s regime, cut loose after 2003 by the American dissolution of the Iraqi establishment. This is the origin of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/Daesh. Since then, thousands of disaffected young people from Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East have flocked to fight for a cause portrayed, deceptively, as a revival of the original Islamic project – a cause which runs counter to the modernising, pro-democracy uprisings which began in Tunisia and have been stifled elsewhere. Daesh would like nothing better than to turn the civil war within Islam into a world war.
This also explains the choice of France for the Daesh-inspired terrorist attacks of November 2015. Modern French political identity is determinedly republican and secular. It means pluralism in religion and politics, rejecting the domination of any strand of either. Rejecting, therefore, Islam; rejecting even the Catholic monarchism which was the antique core of the French state (which the Joan of Arc of the National Front, Marion Le Pen, has laid claim to). The results of the regional elections, a month after the terrorist attacks in Paris, reasserted this view: they supported French republican identity.
From this I draw two broad conclusions. One is that there is only trouble in British intervention in the Syrian – we should also say Iraqi – civil war. The other is that the French, republican, secular model of the state is the best way, in the long term, to limit – since it has already reached us – the effects on our society of the civil war within Islam. It is the success of peaceful, united, prosperous, free Europe – and France at the heart of Europe – which has inspired the French-speaking young men and women of North Africa to rebel against their ossified regimes and seek, as Roy puts it, a post-Islamic future.
The orthodox Islamic position is unquestionably hegemonic. It is that Islam includes, revises and perfects the two preceding Abrahamic faiths – and as such, cannot itself be reformed or superseded. Whereas the unorthodox position, expressed in Islamic-heritage Tunisia and beyond, is – how to escape, or at least distance oneself from, a culture and an ideology which cannot be reformed.
Let me be quite clear: contra some assertions, there is no ‘moderate’ Islam. There are only moderate people, and a lively republican democracy is their natural home. I look forward to an independent republican Scotland, which breaks with the traditional institutions of the British state, like the monarchy and the anti-democratic House of Lords – indeed with any second ‘revising chamber’ which, second-guessing the people’s political thoughts, stifles cultural and intellectual freedom. We will not escape the civil war within Islam, but we should be ready to talk to its refugees.
Peter Lomas is the author of Unnatural States: The International System and the Power to Change (Transaction Publishers, 2014).