Here’s a big scoop: the political phenomenon known as Islamic fundamentalism has nothing to do with religion.
You heard me right — nothing at all. Islamic fundamentalism is a radical political movement that aims to topple governments and redistribute wealth, and if we want to understand the conflicts in the Middle East better we need to take a serious look at what really motivates believers in this cause. Hint: it’s not about virgins in the afterlife. It is about power, territory and money.
Radical political movements occur when the fault lines between the “haves” and “have-nots” in any society grow too vast, and when large segments of a population feel disenfranchised and abused by their leaders. Let’s take a look at some examples from history:
• The French Revolution
In 1789, hungry mobs began rioting in Paris, spurred on by intellectuals and progressive politicians in their midst. The “enlightened” new government famously killed King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but in fact their real target was the entire French upper class, which was garroted over the course of several bloody years. More than anything else, the French Revolution amounted to a violent attempt at redistribution of wealth, power and influence.
• The Russian Revolution
In 1917, dissenting political parties representing masses of disgruntled Russian citizens finally completed their overthrow of the corrupt Tsarist government. Even more so than the French Revolution (which the Russian intellegentsia had always studied, admired and sought to emulate), the Russian Revolution quickly devolved into state-sponsored violence on a mass scale, as vast numbers of the previous “upper class” were killed or imprisoned. Economic theory and pro/anti-communist propaganda aside, the Russian Revolution amounted to a violent redistribution of wealth, power and influence.
• The Iranian Revolution
In 1979, protests by groups of dissenting religious and secular Iranians reached such fervor that the Shah and his entourage fled the country to save their lives, eventually allowing the Ayatollah Khomeini to emerge as the new supreme leader. The ascent of Ayatollah Khomeini was the first major victory of a new phenomenon known as Islamic fundamentalism. A difficult societal transition followed, and the new Islamic government had to fight many internal battles with various population groups that felt disenfranchised by the new government, including the former upper class. Like the other revolutions above. the Iranian Revolution amounted to a violent redistribution of wealth, power and influence.
I know there are many different ways to look at the kaleidoscopic horror show known as war. But we should always look for the simplest explanations, as a medieval philosopher named William of Occam taught us. His formulation, known as Occam’s Razor, states that the simplest answer to any question is usually the correct one. The simplest explanation for the current strife all over the Middle East is that the populations of various Arab countries wish to overthrow their own governments.
A close look at Osama bin Laden’s career as a terrorist, for instance, shows that his primary enemy is actually not the United States of America and not Israel but rather the kingdom that rules the land of his birth, Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, unbeknownst to the U. S. Department of Defense which figured this out only too late, Saddam Hussein’s long dictatorship was deeply grounded in Iraq’s historic “caste” system. Saddam is a Sunni, a representative of Iraq’s privileged minority class, and a powerful proportion of the Sunni population favored Saddam’s dictatorship because they feared the alternative: an uprising of the nation’s under-priviliged Shiite majority. This is the fault line George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld foolishly tripped over when they took down the guy at the top.
I find that the mathematics of current Middle East politics work out very easily if I use just two variables: greed and suffering. Conflicts happen either because people are greedy, or because people are suffering. Islamic fundamentalism is no different in kind from Bolshevik Marxism, or Robospierrian Jacobinism. I don’t see how anything would be much different in the Middle East if the populations were romantic panthiests, like the French radicals, or austere athiests, like the Russian insurgents, instead of Muslims. It’s not about Allah, despite all the hype we constantly hear by hysterical and shallow political analysts in the USA. Just apply Occam’s Razor, just look for the immediate causes, and a lot of bullshit falls away.
The next time somebody hits you with that familiar nonsense about “Muslims are devoted to taking over the whole planet and making us all wear burkas”, or “Jews will never share Jerusalem” or any of this other mythical crap, just look them in the eye and remind them that the simplest answers are the best ones. The wars in the Middle East are about power and wealth, and that’s all they’ve ever been about.
More on this in my next post!