Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The New Cold War (3)

The New Cold War (3)
Religious Factors

Ali Asghar Kazemi
January 10, 2007


The new cold war is essentially engaged with religious-revolutionary “entities” that do not necessarily associate themselves with any particular state. Their main goal is to change the prevailing norms and status quo in current world order. With regard to the revolutionary aspect of these groups, contemporary social scientists have provided various explanations depending on the area of their expertise or research. On the whole, they seem to agree that certain social factors serve as source of human conflict leading to turmoil, upheaval and revolution. They are socio-economic discrepancies, the aggressive impulse resulting frustration, dissonance between the actual and the ideal, withdrawal and alienation from existing social structures …

Thus for example, the social and political development in traditional Iran, which otherwise simply meant the process of “Westernization” did not produce the necessary ground for a gradual evolution toward a modern democratic state. But it did produce a “cultural shock” to certain layers of the society deeply attached to the prevailing religious and traditional norms. In other words, what the ancien rĂ©gime wanted to achieve through rapid-but unbalanced- socio- economic and political development, in fact counter produced the desired effect.

A partial explanation for this failure, which led to what later became the Islamic fundamentalist revival, is that the economic boom of the seventies which provided the people with the necessary means to acquire without much thought or effort what they could purchase from the West. This dimension of development did not pose unbearable difficulties, but the missing part of the puzzle was the whole gamut of cultural, technical, political and bureaucratic gap along with other aspects of the development which could not be easily bought by money.

Almost three decades after the Islamic revolution in Iran, religion is still fueling social unrests and serves as a pretext to legitimizing the canalization of social forces toward perpetual hostilities against Western democratic values. In other parts of the world, it is being used by frustrated groups to embark upon unconventional and sometimes irrational actions such as acts of terror, in order to gain recognition and make their cause known. Terrorist actions in the Middle East, Africa, Central and South East Asia, Europe, and America are now ordinary events that occur every once and while.

State sponsored terrorism either to counter domestic dissensions or to intimidate and humiliate foreign countries, is also a dangerous development of the so-called low-level violence in international relations. There is no doubt that the support of terrorist activities, in whatever manner, by a state or group of states will further increase these latter’s capacity for violence, by encouraging recourses to such operations for the settlement of ethnic, political or religious differences.

Terrorists have already demonstrated that they can achieve disproportionately large effects in world order with a relatively small number and limited capacity for violence. They have caused widespread alarm, compelling governments with a clear preponderance of conventional military power to negotiate with them, to grant them concessions or simply to back down with humiliation.

Religious inspired terrorism has also helped certain colonial territories to fight against powerful countries for their liberation. In such case the freedom fighters or liberation movements sought justification for their operations viz the attainment of a legitimate cause. For example, the Algerian struggle for independence turned to terrorism, once the rebel armies were virtually beaten in the field by the French forces. It was only after recourse to such activities that French military might in Algeria came to its knees.

The Moslem Shiite Militia in South Lebanon pushed the Israelis out of their occupied land through harshest terrorist activities. Afghan Moslem Mujahedeens fought a superpower (USSR) through guerrilla warfare and terrorist operation in occupied Afghanistan. They caused most trouble to Moscow, as did North Vietnamese to the United States. In both cases the two superpowers have used all kinds of military means, short of nuclear weapons, in order to bring the freedom fighters to a situation to accept the status quo and to give up hope. The United States failed to achieve this objective then and is now striving to do the same in embattled Iraq.

Urban guerrilla warfare, low-level violence or mob actions directed by religious groups are dimensions of ideological conflicts and revolutionary theories which now manifest in form of domestic and international terrorism. Dissidents of tyrant leaders and dictatorial regimes find their voice heard and their cause achieved through what we call terrorism for sake of simplicity, but they consider it legitimate jihad or just struggle against the infidel enemies.

Religiously inspired terrors are understandably more ferocious and crueler than mere political violence or mob actions. When martyrdom is considered as a grace and blessing of God, a Moslem fanatical believer can easily risk his life in a suicidal attack in order to do damage to his ideological opponents.

The life in our modern societies is becoming more and more unbearable and people are becoming increasingly restless, feeling alienated and alternating between faith and doubt, hope and anxiety. The demand for social, economic and political change and expectation of a world different from the existing one, have caused people to look for alternatives. Religion is re-emerging as a source for hope, inspiration and salvation. At the same time a trend toward fundamentalism is clearly observable. People are losing faith in their political system and politicians; they are seeking refuge to religions in the pursuit of their cause.

The resurgence of the Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle-East whose participants preach total devotion and submission to the will of God, and negation of earthly materialism, is indeed a crucial development of our time which is capable of destabilizing the international system and the world order. Whether we can label the new emerging situation as a cold war, it is a simple question of definition. What is certain is that the world is experiencing an unprecedented challenge which could end up to disaster if not properly managed. /

Monday, January 08, 2007

The New Cold War (2)

The New Cold War (2)
Competing Forces

Ali Asghar Kazemi
January 8, 2007


In the first part of this commentary we stated that a new cold war is emerging at the beginning of 21st century in which the main arena of confrontation is the Middle East. The parties to this conflict are the West on the one hand and religious groups associated with Islamic fundamentalism on the other. Unlike the defunct cold war between East and West, or communism and capitalism (essentially identified by two superpowers, i.e. United States and Soviet Union) the new one is a rather strange hostility among competing forces with unequal powers and undetermined objectives.

Some scholars, like Samuel Huntington, have interpreted the conflict as a clash of civilizations or a religious struggle between Moslems and Christians. Others prefer to call it blind terrorism striving to uproot modern Western civilization and a return to the age of barbarism. Struggle between Moslems and Christians is not a new phenomenon and here we are reminded of the times of the Crusades in the past centuries. In fact, wars of some sorts have always existed between the true believers of Islam and Christian states who by their technological dominance set out to capture colonies in Islamic lands in the Asian and African continents.

European civilization owes much of its success of its “religious wars” of the past. Now the ideological conflicts continue to be exploited one way or another. The religious power struggle of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reached its end by establishing a rough balance of power among Western states. Most wars were fought among colonial powers for the objective getting the most out of foreign lands. All competitions and cooperation were guided by colonial intentions and international law and diplomacy were directed towards these objectives. After the Peace of Westphalia, religious wars among Christian sects (Catholics and Protestants) receded and thereafter the question of faith was no longer a decisive factor in international politics.

Once the battle Poitiers[1] decided the question whether Europe would remain Christian or become Moslem. The religious wars ended in a compromise which was founded on a frank recognition of power as the final arbiter between competing forces.

It has been suggested that if statesmen of the nineteenth century had commanded the present destructive forces (including the nuclear arsenal), unlike their ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were under no compulsion to multiply the risks of international politics by engaging in ideological crusades. It may be partly true that the power structure and general characteristics of our age has subdued by necessity the hostile relations between and among major powers. But the revolutionary trends that dominate in some parts of the world seem beyond the actual power structure. The secular ideological conflicts of the post-world war II cold war have now changed to new religious clashes threatening to destabilize the present international order.

The emergence of religious-ideological movements, led by fundamentalist groups or fanatical leaders who do not hesitate to annihilate the whole civilization for the sake of their beliefs or what they think to be truth, is a dangerous development of our present time. In the past, these ideological battles were called religious wars; they are now mere ideological conflicts. Fanatics now divide the world and human beings into two separate ideological camps: we and the others. It is not quite clear whether their self-claimed mandate to guide the others to the path of salvation emanates from some sort of prophetic revelation, an identity crisis or pure insanity!

Indeed, ideas can conquer human minds without the initial support of organized power or use of force. Histories of several religious movements, Islam and Christianity as well as other ideologies, have proven the argument. But, in the long run, the use of force, coercion or otherwise organized power, have necessitated their maintenance. Thus, when the source of legitimate power was claimed to originate from God, people were subjugated and treated like slaves, and tyranny resulted.

Although it is true that religions and ideologies know no physical frontiers and transcend geographical limits and are aimed at human minds, it has to be recognized that power and force play a decisive part in this struggle. The role of force and power is extremely important in the initial phase of this conflict until the outcome is decided. Thenceforth the use of force gradually loses its effectiveness until such time that victors no longer can sit on bayonets. Unless a credible system is established during this interval, sooner or later the appeal of ideology will diminish and the people will revolt against the tyranny of ideas.

During the 20th century, a new ideological struggle replaced the old fashion rivalries and power conflict in the East-West context became axis of hostilities. As the capacity of weapons of mass destruction increased, gradually military might became redundant and other factors of national power such as technological breakthrough for the conquest of space, economic progress, respect for human rights and criteria of similar kind appeared on the agenda of great powers and international institutions. The downfall of the Soviet empire was an immediate consequence of this development. This whole process paved the way for the termination of the cold war in the last decade of the twentieth century.

In the meantime certain socio-political factors in some developing traditional countries in the Middle East gave way to religious awakening among Moslems. To put it in simple terms, the Islamic revolution in Iran was the product of such development. Parallel to that, in the past decade the world has witnessed the emergence of a phenomenon associated with terror, violence and religious fanaticism. This trend is described by observers as one of the sad paradox of our time; the myth of “romantic revolution” whose promoters are the ideologues, whose dupes are the young and idealistic and whose victims are the weak and the little men, the children, the old and defenseless.

The use of religion as a new ideological tool to change the status quo has led to revolutionary ideas. The lack of democratic political structure in traditionally closed and socially backward societies has given birth to a new set of norms for the third world people looking for change. The new emerging religious-ideological appeal to third world Moslem states is indeed an unprecedented challenge for the international system and world order as a whole. The new cold war is an outgrowth of this metamorphosis in which religious factors play an essential role. We will discuss this dimension in our future comments. /

(To be continued…)

[1]. Poitiers is located in Southern part of France where in a decisive battle French Charles Martel crushed the Arab invasion in 732. A.D.