ISIS—Some Stuff Obama Didn’t Mention

The Saudis, the Gulf States, the rest of the Arab world, and anyone with even a moderate acquaintance with Arab history and culture should have known better. Nonetheless, all claim to have been caught by surprise by the appearance of ISIS, al Qaeda and the myriad of other violent Islamic political groups that have grabbed the headlines recently.


This most recent bout of violent Islamism can be traced as far back as the late 1970s. It was then that the Saudis and the Gulf Sheikhs put into place all the conditions needed to produce the perfect storm of religiously-driven carnage that we have been witnessing of late.


By that time, advances in the availability of modern medical practices had brought about a steep decline in pre-natal and post-natal children’s deaths, which eventually led to a youth bulge in all the Arab states. For example, it is estimated that, in Saudi Arabia, fully two thirds of the population is under the age of thirty.


The oil shocks of 1974 and 1976 had brought untold new wealth to Arab countries that had petroleum reserves. However, in most cases, the inflow of money was not being invested sufficiently in job-producing enterprises and was not being distributed in an equitable manner. In addition, rote learning in schools in Arab schools was producing alumni who were ill-equipped to cope with today’s job market. As a result, while the elites were spending extravagantly on themselves, the hoi polloi were often finding it hard to make ends meet. In particular, young males were finding it increasingly difficult to scrape together the money for a bride price.


And then, to top things off, the ruling sheikhs pumped billions of dollars into charities whose primary purpose was to establish and maintain mosques and madrassas, especially in those countries where there were large Moslem communities. Those charities favoured extremist preachers who could rally the masses with their anti-modernist, hateful sermons; and the Madrassas taught little more than fundamentalist religious doctrines to impressionable children and teenagers.


The sheikhs adopted these spending policies despite the fact that 600 years ago, Abū Zayd ‘Abdu r-Raḥmān bin Muḥammad bin Khaldūn Al-Ḥaḍrami, otherwise known simply as ibn Khaldun, a man considered by almost all Arabs to be one of the greatest minds that the Islamic world has ever produced, had predicted that exactly these sorts of circumstances would produce the events we are now witnessing.


Born on May 27, 1332 in Tunis, ibn Khaldun came of age at the very moment when it had become clear that the Golden Age of Arab intellectual thought was ending.


The Moslem world had been captivated by the teachings of a charismatic, fundamentalist, mystic preacher named al-Ghazali, who had railed against Western influences, especially Greek philosophy. As well, the caliphates that had formed the basis of Islamic governance, and which had been considered by all Moslems to be the ideal form of governance on earth, had collapsed. In Spain, the Christian Reconquista had destroyed the Umayyad caliphate; and the great Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad had been crushed by the Mongol hoards. Their place had been taken by petty monarchs, other types of authoritarian leaders and tribal alliances. With the notable exception of Egypt, which was hemmed in by deserts, no geographic area under Moslem control had fixed borders; and there were no Moslem “states” as we understand the term today. Instead, there were fluid, temporary boundaries that kept changing as a result of conquests and/or alliances between tribes.


It was a situation that, despite outward appearances to the contrary, bears a remarkable resemblance to the Arab world created by the Europeans in the wake of the overthrow of the Ottoman caliphate during World War I. The Europeans, just before they left, created nation-states that were based on the format that the Europeans had developed over hundreds of years. But those states lacked the deep philosophical underpinnings that had made the European-style nation-state so successful. For example, no one of the intellectual stature of Locke or John Stuart Mill, who was capable of melding democratic ideals with traditional beliefs, had arisen within the Islamic world. The nation-states created under the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement were therefore merely facades.


Ibn Khaldun was uniquely positioned to observe the world in which he lived. He had invented the fields of sociology and historiography, had been a highly-regarded judge, and had been a confidant of some of the leading rulers of his time. After becoming a personal emissary of some of these public figures, he also became among history’s canniest and most manipulative politicians. Among many other things, his writings presaged some of those of Machiavelli.


His work as both a judge in day-to-day matters and as a diplomat enabled him to understand Arab politics and the workings of Arab societies perhaps better than any man ever has.


Ibn Khaldun’s masterwork was a seven volume history of the world. However, he is best known for his introduction to that history, called the Muqaddimah. In that book, he laid out a detailed description of how Arab societies during his time governed themselves.


His greatest and most famous insight was about how social conflicts in the Arab world play themselves out. He believed that the core of political life is ‘asabiyyah, which can be translated as “social cohesion” or “group solidarity.” This social cohesion, he observed, arises spontaneously in tribes and other small kinship groups; and it is intensified and enlarged by a religious ideology. This sense of community, he noted, can exist at any level of civilization, from nomadic society to states and empires. However, it is usually strongest among those who come out of the physical or political desert.


In our day, the environment that the Gulf Sheikhs and the Saudis created in their newly-funded mosques and madrassas was almost ideal for producing just such cohesive, religion-driven groups.

Ibn Khaldun further argued that dynastic governments such as those in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States today, have within themselves the seeds of their own downfall at the hands of such groups. Such dynasties, he observed, rarely last longer than three generations. Once they establish their rule, they become increasingly lax, less coordinated, disciplined and watchful, and more concerned with maintaining their new power and lifestyle. Their initial sense of cohesion then dissolves into factionalism and individualism, which then makes them vulnerable to predations and conquest by new, strong, more vigorous, committed groups.

Ibn Khaldun’s theory certainly held true when it came to the dynasty that the Assad family established in Syria, and the ones that both Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Kaddafi tried to set up in Egypt and Libya respectively.

Another parallel with the situation today is the fact that the groups ibn Khaldun described invariably ended up primarily fighting other Moslems—unless they were invaded by European foreigners.

The current situation has left the Gulf sheikhs in an existential quandary.

In yet another fascinating repeat of history, the modern sheikhs’ proposed solution bears a close resemblance to the moves initiated by Arab dynastic rulers from the 9th century onwards. When Moslem leaders could no longer trust other Moslems to fight their battles for them because of coups and assasinations, they used the services of foreign, slave mercenaries, mainly from Europe and the Caucuses, whom they came to call Mamlukes. The Ottoman Turks, later referred to these non-citizen fighters as Janissaries. During Ibn Khaldun’s time, the Mamlukes in Egypt had become so powerful that they had created their own sultanate.

If one considers Westerners today to be enslaved to Arab oil, then the international force that John Kerry is trying to put together to fight ISIS certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to the Mamlukes of old. Today, the Saudis and the Gulf Sheikhdoms have refused to commit their own forces to do battle against ISIS—just as the Moslem rulers of old feared to do. So far, the Saudis, the Gulf Sheikhs and the Jordanians have promised logistical help and money, but not ground troops of their own.

President Obama has now promised to “degrade” and destroy ISIS. But if Ibn Khaldun’s projections are correct, Obama will be unable to do so unless he can find some way to prevent such groups from developing the initial social cohesion that they require. In effect, that would mean persuading those countries where the sheikhs have built their mosques and madrasses to shut down these institutions. However, it is unlikely that any democratic country would dare do so for fear of inviting charges that it is restricting free speech and freedom of religion.

That leaves only one alternative—to persuade the sheikhs to cut their funding to these institutions. The thing is that these sheikhs fear that if they do so, their domestic Moslem religious leaders will turn on them. Therefore, they are unlikely to do so.

The Saudis have recently promulgated a series of laws banning contributions to terrorist organizations. However, these laws do not apply to otherwise non-violent, but religiously extremist Salafist institutions.

Experience has shown, though, that these bodies provide an excellent incubator of talent that, with only a bit of nudging, recruiters for violent organizations can draw on to build up their ranks.

That means that the Western democracies, which now fear that battle-hardened European, American and Australian Moslem extremists may return to their homes after learning all the techniques of terrorist warfare during their service with ISIS, are currently facing a so far unresolvable conundrum. They have now agreed to spend their national treasure to pay their soldiers to protect the same Gulf sheikhs who are spending their personal and national treasure to build institutions that foster the corps of fighters with whom the Westerners are doing battle.

Relying on air power is unlikely to have the results that are hoped for because the ISIS fighters have no qualms about using innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq as living shields. The solution to the conundrum will ultimately have to lie elsewhere. Only a change in the social environment in the West and the Middle East that leads young Moslems to seek succor and community in extreme institutions will enable these youngsters to find the kind of honor that can replace the certificate of martyrdom on the battlefield that they are currently seeking.

But that too may be too much to expect. In the absence of any viable, long-term solution, we may simply have to learn to live with this day-to-day threat, as the Israelis and the Iraqis have had to do for so long. And if, in the future, the name of the threat is not ISIS, it will nonetheless, undoubtedly, have many of the same characteristics as this group.

One Comment

  1. Robert Raful says:

    Another gem, which demonstrates Jim’s research thoroughness…a real important Islamic history lesson.

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