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.

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