Only when we recognize the fundamental role Islam plays in the region can we begin to craft sensible policies that put U.S. interests first.
The revolutions against dictators in the Middle East dubbed the Arab Spring have degenerated into a complex, bloody mélange of coups and counter-coups, as have happened in Egypt; vicious civil wars, like the current conflict in Syria; a resurgence of jihadists gaining footholds in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Sinai; and a shifting and fracturing of alliances and enmities of the sort throwing Lebanon and Jordan into turmoil. Meanwhile, American foreign policy has been confused, incompetent, and feckless in insuring that the security and interests of the United States and its allies are protected.
A major reason for our foreign policy failures in the region is our inability to take into account the intricate diversity of ideological, political, and especially theological motives driving events. Just within the Islamist outfits, Sunni and Shia groups are at odds—and this isn’t to mention the many bitter divisions within Sunni and Shia groups. Add the other players in the Middle East––military dictators, secular democrats, leftover communists, and nationalists of various stripes––and the whole region seems embroiled in endlessly complex divisions and issues.
Yet a greater impediment to understanding accurately this bloody and complex region is our preconceived biases. Too often we rely on explanations that gratify our own ideological preferences and prejudices, but that function like mental stencils: they are a priori patterns we superimpose on events to create the picture we want to see, but only by concealing other events that do not fit the pattern. We indulge the most serious error of foreign policy: assuming that other peoples think like us and desire the same goods as we do, like political freedom and prosperity, at the expense of others, like religious obedience and honor.
One persistent narrative attributes the region’s disorder to Western colonialism and imperialism. The intrusion of European colonial powers into the region, the story goes, disrupted the native social and political institutions, imposing in their place racist norms and alien values that demeaned Muslims as the “other” and denigrated their culture to justify the exploitation of resources and markets. This process culminated after World War I in the dismantling of the caliphate, and the creation of Western-style nation-states that ignored the traditional ethnic and sectarian identities of the region. As a result, resentment and anger at colonial occupation and exploitation erupted in Islamist jihadism against the oppressor.