Cross-Currents

Take a look at the following list of articles from the recent past:
Jewish man tortured and killed in France
Russia urges Hamas to change
Bombing of Shi’ite shrine leads to bloodshed
France reassesses its future after major riots
Map of the Cartoon Riots

We are standing on the verge of war, not the minor sort of war we’ve seen so far in Iraq, but an all-out war that could spread across the globe. But there are other counterpressures that could divert the flood into something wholly different.

  1. Pressure 1: (Leading towards war) The formation of super-states.

    Many years ago, before this blog existed, I started to write about changes in the size scale of political entities. My basic hypothesis is that the natural size of a political entity – that is, of a group of people that considers themselves to be a political unit and is willing to fight for their unit’s power at the expense of that of others – is roughly fixed by the radius of common, day-to-day communications. A good example of this is Greece in the 5th-4th centuries BC, as people started to travel between city-states on a regular basis. Socrates said, then, that he is not a citizen of Athens but a citizen of the world; even the word “cosmopolitan” was coined then. Shortly after, this led to the Peloponnesian War, the last major fight of the city-states against one another; and the void that that war left behind was filled a few decades later by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander, who turned the city-states into a nation-sized object that could match nation-sized entities like Persia or Egypt.

    Given the rapid increase in communications abilities in the past fifty years, we could reasonably expect the same to happen now. The radius of effective communication is now the world. This doesn’t mean a single “world-state” of everyone living happily in peace, though; it means that national boundaries are increasingly unenforceable (remember the US trying to ban the export of cryptography?) and that people will form communities based on common interest and perspective rather than simply geographical proximity.

    And in fact, this has started to happen, and one of these communities has found the way to make itself a military force: namely, the community of the radical Islamists. The effect is that people in France, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia can all read the same websites, converse in the same fora, and form a deep common bond of purpose. They consider themselves to be a political unit, routinely travel between geographical areas (not that each individual travels a lot, but enough people travel that everyone is only a few degrees of separation away from people who live very far away) and consider themselves not to be allies so much as a single, unified entity.

    Unfortunately, this entity is quite bent on war. It’s not just rhetoric: every time these groups have been pressed to match their words with actions, they did so without hesitation. And their words, clearly and unambiguously, call for the destruction and slaughter of everything the West holds dear. Listen to the words behind the Cartoon Riots and the murder of Theo van Gogh: they demand, on pain of death, that every person in the world obey their religious decrees, and that anyone who violates them — even if they are Christians in the Netherlands, even if they are Muslims in the United States — should be hunted down and slaughtered.

    (The truly unfortunate thing: There is not now, nor has there ever been, any possibility of peaceful coexistence between their group and ours, for the simple reason that they have openly declared, and validated with action, that they have no interest in doing so. Which is also why Israel doesn’t negotiate with Hamas; when your opponent’s basic principle is that you should be killed or enslaved, there isn’t much room to talk.)

  2. Pressure 2: (Leading towards war) Alienated populations.

    The riots in France, the murder of Ilan Halimi, the murder of Theo van Gogh, the retreat of Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali into near-hiding, the pressures that beset newspapers printing the famous cartoons and that kept others from following suit: all of these happened on European soil, in a place that theoretically should not be the front line. But, of course, it is; Europe has an enormous Muslim population, which (unlike the United States, by the way — and here our immigrant tradition may have saved our necks) has never been allowed to assimilate. For years, the Europeans kept them around like an odd sort of servant class, never dealing with the issue directly but throwing sops to keep them mollified. Lately, though, things have started to boil over, and I suspect that they will get much worse rather than better.

    My bet? Over the next two years, you’ll see European countries — probably with France in the lead, although an election in any country could change that — start to enact laws to restrict Muslims, prevent any “public displays of religion” (as the head-scarves law in France already does), and later restrict visas, work permits, housing, and so on: basically, encouraging them to “go back where they came from.” If things start to heat up, the Europeans will increasingly view Muslim immigrants as a potential Fifth Column, and on the whole they may be right: not that the average Muslim would be a saboteur, but that enough of them will be that things will turn bad fast. In that case, you might expect even large-scale forcible deportation back to “country of origin,” possibly defined very loosely.

    Also, one thing that may surprise American readers: When they go after the Muslims, to a lesser extent these laws will go after the Jews as well. The European perspective really considers both groups as aliens, roughly similar to one another, and anti-Semitism (in the literal sense of the word, Arabs being Semites as well) is very fundamentally ingrained.1 (Not, by the way, principally in Germany — they’ve learned better. France is much worse.)

  3. Pressure 3: (Leading towards war) State support

    In slight contrast to Pressure 1, in some areas these groups have acquired substantial territories where the governments are principally responsive to their requests. Iran is one case; Syria is one; Afghanistan under the Taliban was such a case; Hamas is such a case. Saudi Arabia and the various nearby emirates are a variation on the case: although the government is, on the one hand, allied with the U.S., they quite freely let their countries be used as a staging area and central headquarters for the other side. Collapsed areas like Iraq, and hard-to-govern areas like Mindanao are staging areas.

    This is a pressure both for and against war. On the one hand, it provides these groups with a base of operations and often considerable resources. (e.g., Iran pours plenty of money, materiel, and support forces into Hamas and Hezbollah both) On the other hand, military tactics against a force with a physical country are fairly well-established, and the West is very good at them, so it’s not too likely that Iran is going to let itself be openly a base for attacks on other countries.

    The other aspect of this is the moderating influence of having to govern. It remains a (very interesting) open question to what extent this is true. Iran, for instance, has been under Islamic rule since 1979; but during that time period there was a ten-year war with Iraq, followed by a lull and gradual modernization pressures in the urban areas, but now the counter-pressures from the rest of the country seem to have taken hold. Ahmadinejad and Khameini don’t seem much more moderate, on the whole, than Khomeini did a few decades ago. The Taliban certainly never moderated, but they were only in power for five years. Hamas is still in the process of taking office.

    The other type of “state support” is very different: it has to do with China and its plans for the future. China isn’t supporting terrorist groups, of course; but if things do break out into open war, China will look after its own interests, and that may include encouraging a war that the West is embroiled in to continue. Russia, likewise, is playing its own game, but in the long run I expect that it will find more common cause with the West than with anyone else.

  4. Pressure 4: (Leading towards a different war) Sunni vs. Shi’ite

    There’s an important rule in fights in the Middle East: going after “major holy sites” — and everyone knows what the major holy sites in their area are — isn’t something you do unless you really want a war to the death. (It’s like the rule that, when trading insults, you don’t start insulting someone’s family unless you really want to start shit) This is why the Israeli army always keeps snipers on duty around the Western Wall and al-Aqsa, ready to drop anyone — Muslim, Christian, or Jew — who does anything: because if any one of those sites were directly attacked, there would be no end to the violence that would ensue.

    You can be damned certain that the people responsible for the bombing of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites for Shi’ites, understood this. (The New York Times recently had an excellent article about these groups, by the way: I recommend reading it) They saw no possibility, or desirability, of coexistence between “true Muslims” (per their definition) and Shi’ites, so they did one of the things guaranteed to demand a full reprisal, even if the Shi’ites have to wait a hundred years to do it.

    Why is this so interesting? Well, it could deflect the forces that were leading up to one war into another. And that leads into the question of just how the hell we’re supposed to fight a war against a large and completely amorphous enemy.

This is a very interesting question in strategy, because nobody has ever had to do it before. Al-Qaeda has worked out the basics of one end of this war: how an amorphous group can effectively militarize itself to fight against a nation-state. The Bush administration has found one extremely bad way to handle the other end: try to turn it into a geographic conflict by invading somewhere. (Turns out that destabilizing regimes without understanding how the people on the ground would react hands the area over to an enemy who’s already well-prepared and on the ground. Who would have thunk?)

But the flip side of this is that large amorphous entities like these are certain to have weaknesses of which they aren’t aware, either, because they have never been tested. For instance: Just how broadly can such an organization spread before internal dissent forms? To what extent can groups which previously considered themselves to be enemies — like Sunnis and Shi’ites — put those aside and accept a new “national boundary?” And since these organizations don’t provide physical infrastructure in the way that traditional governments do, to what extent are they capable of dealing with large-scale physical emergencies?

This suggests an interesting array of tactics to try: Fomenting dissent and civil war. Letting them deal with the sorts of emergencies that normally only governments handle, like major natural (or unnatural) disasters. Systematically interfering with their infrastructure by means of subtle interference in communication. (E.g., do you know if the other guy on the forum is really one of you? Do you know if what you’re saying is being routed Elsewhere?)

(Why yes, some of these tactics are downright bloody. I’m intentionally not trying to make them sound pretty because, if we’re going to be fighting a war, these are the sorts of things that we have to be prepared to deal with. Anyone reading this is pretty much assumed to be familiar with the fact that war is a nasty business.)

Finally, there is the counterquestion: Can we avoid war purely by our own actions, and not by diverting the war into other forms of bloodshed like civil strife? I believe the answer is no.

First, as has been mentioned above, the other side in this has publicly avowed that they want to force the world to live under their law (cf. the Cartoon Riots), that they intend to simply wipe out some groups (cf. the Hamas charter or any of Ahmadinejad’s, bin Laden’s, etc.’s, speeches), and that they have absolutely no tolerance for compromise. (cf. the al-Askariya bombing) And this seems to be a pretty serious avowal: it’s routinely backed by actions, as often as they can, and hasn’t shown any sign of changing for decades — only their capabilities have. So I think it’s pretty safe to accept what they say at face value, that they would fight to the death rather than compromise.

Underlying this, to a great extent, are demographic realities: these groups recruit from areas with large populations, disproportionately under 18, with low employment and poor chances. It isn’t possible to change the latter: this is a lot of people we’re talking about, (consider that Indonesia alone has 240 million people with a median age of 26.7!) and the reasons for low employment are deep, including lack of infrastructure, lack of education, corrupt government, lack of any traditions to keep corruption under control, and simply too many people and not enough resources. Even if we could dump all our resources into improving this, it wouldn’t work: the change would take decades (versus a problem that works on the scale of years) and would be heavily resisted simply because it comes from the West. But even given that, population is problem enough: consider that the inhabitable part of Israel (half of it is open desert) is about 10,000km2, about two-thirds the size of Connecticut; and half of that is the West Bank. This area has 6.3M Israelis, 2.4M Palestinians in the West Bank, and 1.4M people in the Gaza Strip, which has an area of 360km2 and a median age of 15. This is a powder keg, and its fuse is already burning.

So in summary, there are powerful currents pulling us in the direction of a major war; but there are eddies and hidden rocks in these currents, which may without warning deflect its force into something completely different. The survival of the West — and given the alternative, I heartily support it with all its flaws — likely depends on our ability to navigate this river. Like with any river, you cannot defeat it by brute force; to survive in a rapid depends on a kind of jujistu, the ability to read where the eddies and obstacles are and use them to your advantage. For us, that may mean keeping a keen eye out for things that could destabilize the onrushing force from within: because one well-timed blow could turn them into a paper tiger, all their force spent on panic, the rushing river turned to insubstantial mist.


Footnotes
1 I could write entire volumes – in fact, many have been written – about the origins of this, but the short version is that starting around the time of Late Antiquity, European society became increasingly isolated, basically a bunch of small villages defending themselves at all costs against anyone from the outside. A movie like “La Retour de Martin Guerre” [the original] will give you a reasonable outline of the psychology of it. The notion of intrinsic civil rights, that a person has legal standing simply by existing within the area and not by virtue of their being part of the local community (specifically the local Church) is an extremely recent addition to European law, and hasn’t yet sunk all the way into the culture; the near-impossibility of assimilation for immigrants there, again something rather foreign to American readers, is part of this.

A good example (and one that I’m personally familiar with since I used to work on this) is to look at the legal status of prostitutes in Europe versus the Islamic world in the 12th century. In the Islamic world, prostitutes were considered part of the lowest social class whose job was still legal: they were considered slightly better off than tanners of hides (since their work didn’t perpetually bring them into contact with things that kept them ritually impure) but not much. Not so good, you may think, but compare it to Europe: an old court ruling in Languedoc held that a prostitute could not be raped because her body was not her own property. The general pattern was that in Europe, you were either entirely part of the community or entirely outside it: thus the importance of the threat of excommunication.

Jews had a very tenuous position, because they were not part of the Church, and under European law and custom, if you weren’t part of an organization that protected you, anyone could simply kill you for the hell of it. This was resolved in the time of the Holy Roman Empire by the Jews being considered private slaves of the King, (“servis camera nostra”) and thus not legal for any local group or official to kill without personal imperial OK. Not as good as you think: for one thing, to maintain this privilege, the Jews routinely had to give essentially all their money to the King; they were required (by laws forbidding them to do much else) to work as moneylenders, but the King had the right to take their money at any time — essentially allowing him to take money from the public and have the Jews be blamed for it. And finally, the King sometimes did give the OK for large-scale pogroms, or simply allow them post facto, as during the various Crusades when Christians used them as warm-ups.

The point of this isn’t to simply illustrate the history of European anti-Semitism: the point is to highlight that the origin of this is the notion that someone who isn’t “really local,” in the sense of being from that one village or area and wholly part of the society, therefore doesn’t have the protections of a local. There is no abstract notion of civil rights. Jews and Muslims are, by and large, considered together; the “identity soup” kitchens in Paris are a good example. And so when things get tight, even when Europe seems remarkably peaceful and civilized, don’t be too reassured: these faults run deep, and can come out unexpectedly.

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Published in: on March 4, 2006 at 22:34  Comments (6)  
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6 Comments

  1. The comments on European views on outsiders strikes an unfortunate chord, with the way that rural america does not know how to deal with anything else. Small town USA is really scared of the next town over, people moving out from the big cities (with money), and especially of people from other countries. Let alone people from other countries who might also be terrorists.
    Watching my parents’ reactions to events, which normally boil down to “not around here? doesn’t matter.” and “They’re wierd. They’re not from around here.” Has been a bit.. dissappointing.
    It was very odd in college, when I was dating a girl who grew up in Beijing. They totally didn’t know how to deal with that. was different until they figured out she had family in the midwest, and then they starting acting different. But that she was from Boise and now living out here in the Bay Area was just a big unknown for them.
    No way to even comprehend what it must be like in another country, on the other side of the world. Granted, I’ve only been to London and Vancouver (Toronto is too similar to the midwest cities to really count). But still…

  2. The comments on European views on outsiders strikes an unfortunate chord, with the way that rural america does not know how to deal with anything else. Small town USA is really scared of the next town over, people moving out from the big cities (with money), and especially of people from other countries. Let alone people from other countries who might also be terrorists.
    Watching my parents’ reactions to events, which normally boil down to “not around here? doesn’t matter.” and “They’re wierd. They’re not from around here.” Has been a bit.. dissappointing.
    It was very odd in college, when I was dating a girl who grew up in Beijing. They totally didn’t know how to deal with that. was different until they figured out she had family in the midwest, and then they starting acting different. But that she was from Boise and now living out here in the Bay Area was just a big unknown for them.
    No way to even comprehend what it must be like in another country, on the other side of the world. Granted, I’ve only been to London and Vancouver (Toronto is too similar to the midwest cities to really count). But still…

  3. The comments on European views on outsiders strikes an unfortunate chord, with the way that rural america does not know how to deal with anything else. Small town USA is really scared of the next town over, people moving out from the big cities (with money), and especially of people from other countries. Let alone people from other countries who might also be terrorists.
    Watching my parents’ reactions to events, which normally boil down to “not around here? doesn’t matter.” and “They’re wierd. They’re not from around here.” Has been a bit.. dissappointing.

    Unfortunately that has been my experience as well. I’m not so sure that Americans are that into assimilating “outsiders”, either, outside of a few major urban centers.

  4. The comments on European views on outsiders strikes an unfortunate chord, with the way that rural america does not know how to deal with anything else. Small town USA is really scared of the next town over, people moving out from the big cities (with money), and especially of people from other countries. Let alone people from other countries who might also be terrorists.
    Watching my parents’ reactions to events, which normally boil down to “not around here? doesn’t matter.” and “They’re wierd. They’re not from around here.” Has been a bit.. dissappointing.

    Unfortunately that has been my experience as well. I’m not so sure that Americans are that into assimilating “outsiders”, either, outside of a few major urban centers.

  5. I think they do so much more than rumor has it. Nobody doubts that someone second-generation in the US is “American;” if people consider their background to be foreign, well, a lot of people consider people from the other side of the country’s background to be about as strange. But the people themselves are considered to have become part of the U.S. In Europe, on the other hand, you can be there for five generations and still be considered a foreigner.

  6. I think they do so much more than rumor has it. Nobody doubts that someone second-generation in the US is “American;” if people consider their background to be foreign, well, a lot of people consider people from the other side of the country’s background to be about as strange. But the people themselves are considered to have become part of the U.S. In Europe, on the other hand, you can be there for five generations and still be considered a foreigner.


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