The Tide Is Rising for the House of Saud's House of Sand
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the principal actors in the Middle East's spreading Sunni-Shi’ite battle. The two have for the past decade been the respective heads of the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs, but the competition between them was more Great Game than Game of Thrones. However, the related phenomena of the Syrian civil war spiralling out of control and the apparent US decision to pull back (note: not withdraw) from the Middle East has forced the Saudis to a realisation they need to be more hands-on.
Mostly, both parties act to empower proxies, much like the US and Soviets did during the Cold War. The problem for Western interests (because Western interests continue to lie with the Saudis) is that the Saudi product, with which it hopes to encourage proxies and the ‘Arab Street’, isn’t very good—Saudi Arabia is having trouble winning hearts and minds.
The message the Iranians are selling is:
Iran is the defender of Shi’ites
All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Shi’ites and will either kill them (e.g. Islamic State, al-Qaeda), oppress them (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
No one else can or wants to protect the Shi’ites, but Iran can supply Shi’ites with weapons and aid
The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Shi’ites putting their fate in its hands
The government of the countries where Shi’ites live (unless you live in Iran!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
Death to America! Death to Israel!
The message is easy to sell because most Shi’ites in the Middle East believe it. Indeed, cut out the Shi’ite-centric message, and it’s effectively the same message the various Sunni Islamist groups are selling:
We [name of group—e.g. al-qaeda, Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood] are the defender of the Sunnis
All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Sunnis and will either kill them (e.g. rival groups), oppress them (e.g. every Arab government, plus Iran) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
No one else can protect Sunnis (some groups are able to promise arms)
The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Sunnis putting their fate in its hands
The government of the countries where Sunnis live (unless they live in areas under our control!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
Death to America! Death to Israel!
The problem for the Saudis (and, for that matter, every Status Quo Bloc member) is that they are corrupt and aligned with the US (which is, of course, aligned with—and widely seen as subservient to—Israel). The Saudis also back many of the other corrupt states in the region, including Egypt. Although they are the guardians of the two holy mosques (i.e. Mecca and Medina), they struggle to present themselves as representative of the true Islam. The various Salafi groups out there also present themselves as such but their message is easier to sell because it is much closer to the message of Muhammad. The Saudi message is entirely flawed because what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell is, essentially, hypocrisy.
To mollify their own Islamists, the Saudis have spent billions investing in Wahhabi religious education throughout the Middle East, as well as the rest of the world, for several decades. The Middle East has become more devout—and more extreme—because of this.
There is little wonder that, faced with corrupt, basically secular political leaders, extremist Sunni Islamists felt they needed to take things into their own hands. Al-qaeda and the various militias that were organised after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 really started the process. But the Arab Spring and, particularly, the Syrian civil war let the cat out of the bag. And there’s no stuffing it back in now.
The problem for the Saudis is that unrestrained and popular Sunni Islamist movements are a real threat for the Saudi regime. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Islamic State will continue expanding southward until it overruns Riyadh, but that continuing successes of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East could sufficiently embolden Saudis to rise against their political masters.) The Saudis think that the way to resolve this problem is to have all manifestations of successful Islamist groups fail. That’s why Riyadh has been arming and funding groups in Syria that are opposed to both the regime there and Islamic State (for now, these groups are still under Saudi control, but I would expect that to change after a while). The Saudis have directly interfered in Yemen, in a badly-thought through attempt at defeating the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. And they’ve been propping up the Egyptian military dictatorship in Egypt (which overthrew the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013). Doing so is expensive, as Egypt is hopelessly corrupt, provides endless subsidies to its people, does not garner much tax from them and has no possibility of turning things round any time soon. Pouring money into an endless hole that is Egypt shows how much the Saudis want the Muslim Brotherhood to remain out of power. The Saudis have also tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) backed Israel in every war it has fought against Islamist movements Hezbollah and Hamas since 2006.
The Obama Doctrine and the rising tide
But it increasingly feels as if the Saudis are fighting the rising tide. To a certain extent, the US has realised this (consider President Obama’s April interview with Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, where the former pointed out that the biggest threat to Saudi existence was lack of democracy within its borders). That said, I don’t believe the US effectively abandoning the field, as it has been progressively doing during the Obama Administration, is a reflection of this realisation (were it so, it could only be described as Machiavellian strategic daring rarely seen in the real world). Rather, I think this US pull-back is part of the two-pronged Obama Doctrine.
The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don't do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby change in their behaviour into being more complying.
The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)
While the Obama Doctrine might work well on paper, to those it affects, it feels as if the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies (especially since it is happening at the same time as the Middle East is aflame in violence). Iran has not been more conciliatory as a result of softening US policies. It continues to call for the destruction of the US and Israel; it continues to insist on its right to nuclear enrichment and to deny UN nuclear inspectors the right of entry to suspect sites; and it continues to aid proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. As a reward for this behaviour, it appears to be on the brink of the US and international community removing many of the crippling international sanctions against it. These sanctions, I would add, were applied because of illegal Iranian behaviour which hasn’t actually changed.
Saudi Arabia is, indeed, panicked by US distancing. But its reaction isn’t to run, pleading, into American arms, promising all the while to undertake the internal democratic reform that Obama wants it to. Rather, it has been rolling up its sleeves and getting involved—by funding its own anti Syria, anti-Shi’ite and anti-ISIS proxies in Syria, by heading a coalition against Iranian-backed proxies in Yemen, and by agreeing to buy nukes from Pakistan.
The Obama Doctrine feels as if it’s a decade too late; it might have worked when the Middle East was stable (even then, it probably wouldn’t have).
The tide is rising faster and faster
Were the Saudi product a good one, the implementation of the Obama Doctrine probably wouldn’t matter so much. The Saudis could have ridden out the two terms until Hilary Clinton arrives in the Oval Office (an early prediction!) without too much bother. But because the product the Saudis are selling is flawed, and because the Middle East is so unstable at the moment and, especially, because Iran is rising so quickly (with Western acquiescence), the tide will rise faster for the Saudis.
We will see more and more frenetic activity by the Saudis, and more and more money being thrown at unsolvable problems. But the Status Quo Bloc will become progressively weaker relative to Iran, and their respective governments progressively less legitimate in the eyes of their people, to the point where some of the stable countries that were not adversely affected by the Arab Spring might go under (quite possibly including Saudi Arabia itself).
The fact that the governments of Saudi Arabia and every other Arab country are endemically corrupt, with a near total lack of representation (and support the same throughout the Middle East), with the only people presenting a ‘solution’ being the Islamists (since secular democrats are both gaoled by the regime and discredited because secular democracy is seen as a trait of the hated/resented West) means there has always been an air of inevitability about the House of Saud’s house of sand crumbling from within.
I’m not blaming the Obama Doctrine for this approaching calamity, but it has certainly sped up the process.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will be visiting Iran on 18 April. The visit comes in the wake of the nuclear framework deal initialed on 2 April. Australia did not have a role in the ‘P5+1’ team of negotiators, but will look to benefit from any positive outcomes of the ongoing negotiations, if and when a final agreement is signed at the end of June.
Like every other country, Australia seeks to advance its own interests. However, it ought to be mindful of the Middle East strategic equation, and not sacrifice long-term interests for short-term gains.
On Ms Bishop’s list of talking points will be Iranian asylum seekers, Islamic State, sanctions relief, business interests, and a mandatory, light wrist-slapping about human rights and Iran’s long-running policy of undermining regional countries through proxies.
There are a lot of Iranian asylum seekers in Australia or on Nauru and Manus Island. Most of them have been or likely will be judged as not being owed protection (i.e. as not being genuine refugees). When an individual has had their asylum seeker claim rejected, Australia can forcibly return them to their home country—but only if that home country is willing to accept them. Until now, Iran has refused to accept Iranians forcibly repatriated from Australia. And since most failed Iranian asylum seekers refuse to return voluntarily, this puts Australia in a bind. Ms Bishop’s priority in Iran will be to secure an agreement from Iran to receive failed Iranian asylum seekers from Australia.
With the prospect of UN sanctions against Iran being withdrawn, Ms Bishop will be seeking opportunities for Australian companies to invest in Iran (especially in its decrepit fossil fuel infrastructure), buy from Iran and sell (especially livestock) to Iran.
Both of these issues—though especially the first—put Australia in the position of supplicant. Iran will thus have considerable leverage over Bishop to push for what it wants. And what it wants is an end to its international isolation without having to pay the price of giving up its nuclear program or stopping its drive to achieve regional hegemony. In the context of the Australian visit, it will want Australia to praise Iran’s good intentions in the nuclear negotiations and in regional politics. It will want Australia to lean on its Western friends to accept Iranian assurances about its nuclear ambitions. And, of course, it will want Australia to drop or considerably lessen its own sanctions against Iran (which are separate and additional to the UN sanctions).
Will Bishop accede to some or all of these demands? The answer lies in the determination of whether Australia wants to return all those failed asylum seekers more than it wants to hold Iran to account for its actions (which don't directly affect Australia).
But the strategic equation is highly important. As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has now repeatedly warned, it appears that the US has shifted its strategic objective of preventing Iran from having a nuclear capability to constraining that capability. This is a fundamental shift, and is already having considerable impact on the Middle East and, particularly, those countries that have looked to America to guarantee their security (and who are increasingly feeling like they're being hung out to dry).
Ms Bishop’s trip to Iran so soon after the framework deal means that Australia is playing a small but important role in the developing Middle East dynamic. How will history look upon this footnote?
I have written previously (most recently here) about how the Status Quo Bloc (which consists of most Sunni Arab countries) are fearful of Iranian intentions. Israel and its prime minister might be very vocal about Iran (perhaps too vocal, to its detriment), but they largely mimic the thoughts of the Status Quo Bloc.
Nuclear talks between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ are once again in the news, with the sides having initialled a framework agreement (with a final, more detailed agreement to be negotiated over the next three months). The complexity of these negotiations boils down to a Western desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and an Iranian desire to have the crippling sanctions against it removed.
As I have written previously, the West appears to want an agreement more than the Iranians, so seems willing to offer larger concessions. This is unfortunate, because the Iranian march toward nuclear weapons capability is bad for the region.
But there is a bigger picture here, and it remains that keeping the sanctions regime in place is more important for Western interests than reaching a deal—whatever its terms—that removes those sanctions.
Iran wants to exert its influence over the region. It supports, arms and trains regional Shi’ite or heterodox Muslim militias and countries (such as the Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Zaidi Houthis and the Allawite Syrian government) in order to advance Iranian interests. What are these interests? Principally, to undermine the countries of the Status Quo Bloc (and the US, which supports them).
Due to its efforts, Iran now possesses significant control and/or influence over four regional capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a. But there are other countries with sizeable Shi’ite populations—not least Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which Iran could also use to destabilise its neighbours.
Israel’s position on the nuclear talks with Iran is well known. But Israel isn’t the story here. It remains that other Western friends in the Middle East see Iran as their principal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two leading Arab countries, and both see Iran—and, particularly, Iranian foreign policy—as a threat to their countries. Remember, the Middle East is divided into the Status Quo Bloc (led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and the Resistance Bloc (led by Iran). (There is also a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc, which both the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc fear, hence the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian cooperation with the US in fighting Islamic State.)
While the Status Quo Bloc has long relied on American support, it sees current American policy as distancing itself from its Middle Eastern friends. It sees American willingness to agree to a nuclear deal well-short of original American goals not as a sign of the US pragmatically achieving what is possible, but proof that America wants to get out of the Middle East. This perception has the effect of undermining regional stability. Their thinking goes that if the West won’t protect the Status Quo countries, then those countries will have to protect themselves. On a very high level, it means they will look to start their own nuclear programs, to balance Iran. But it also means they will look to counter Iranian actions on the ground—hence the recent Arab coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis’ recent takeover of Sana’a was seen in Arab capitals as a victory for Tehran.
The sanctions regime against Iran over the past few years has crippled the Islamic Republic economically (as has the current low price of oil), meaning Iran is increasingly having to choose between paying for services inside its borders or servicing its proxies in foreign wars.
Regardless of the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, removing or lessening the sanctions against it will significantly improve the Iranian economy. Not only will Iran be able to export oil and other commodities, but foreign companies will be able to invest in Iran, and its banking sector will once again have access to international markets.
This will strengthen Iran and the Resistance Bloc, and further worry Iran’s enemies, adding to regional tension.
Sanctions are a tool used by the international community to force a country to change its behaviour. The Iranian attempts at nuclear weapons capability—which I believe will continue regardless of whatever deal is reached at the and of June—is not the problem, but only a symptom. The West should maintain a clear-eyed, strategic view of the region in the context of Western interests, to determine what it wants. I fear that, in its rush to sign a deal with Iran so as to notch up a foreign policy achievement, it is in the process of scoring a dangerous, strategic own goal of emboldening Iran and scaring the Status Quo Bloc, thereby further reducing regional stability.
We often think of time as more than a commodity; time can be a threat. And in the Middle East, time is used as a weapon to the detriment of the West.
Time can be perceived in different ways—objectively (by measuring its passage with a clock) and subjectively, where time slows down or speeds up, is precious or cheap, depending on one’s outlook and personal situation. For instance, two hours with friends seems to fly by, but a two-hour meeting can feel like an eternity.
Just as time can fly or lag, depending on circumstances, so can the importance of time change. Put bluntly, in negotiations or conflict, if a party believes that time is on their side, there is less pressure on them to reach a conclusion than the party who believes that time is against them. A party that believes time is against them will be willing to make concessions to conclude the process they're in, to ensure that the passage of time doesn’t make things worse.
It is therefore important to be the party with whom time rests. Put differently, it is important to make the other party believe that time is not on their side. In this way time can be weaponised. There are different ways to weaponise time. Broadly speaking, they fall to three categories: military, political/diplomatic and nature.
While there are many variations of this theme, if you can make your enemy believe that your overwhelming military power will create a major problem for them if they do not do something (or do not desist from doing something) by a certain date, then you will have made your enemy aware that time is not on their side.
If you can make your enemy aware that increasing numbers of third parties are against them and, for as long as your enemy maintains its current course of action, this trend will continue, then your enemy will gain the impression that time is not on their side.
While it is difficult to categorise with one word, if you can make your enemy aware that nature – be it in the form of demographics or climate change or the rising tide – will make it worse for them as time goes on, then their perceptions of what their options are will be duly affected.
With these things in mind, we can turn to the Middle East. The three issues in the Middle East that are currently attracting media attention are: the perennial Israeli–Palestinian dispute; the Iran nuclear negotiations; and Islamic State (the actual Syrian civil war, of which Islamic State is only one party, has seemingly fallen off the radar, to be replaced by videos of Islamic State barbarity).
In regards to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, both the Israelis and the Palestinians believe that Israel is time-poor and that Palestinians have time on their side. This is for diplomatic and natural reasons. On diplomacy, the international community is increasingly critical of Israeli positions and increasingly accepting of Palestinian decisions. Opinion polls show the same trend among the general public in Western countries. These trends are reflected in growing diplomatic recognition of ‘Palestine’ and growing public support for boycotting Israel, despite the moral bankruptcy of doing so.
On nature, most Israelis and Palestinians believe that the ‘demographic threat’ of, within a few decades, there being more Arabs west of the Jordan River than Jews has the ability to considerably change the equation.
Because Israel believes that time is against it, it has made increasingly large offers to compromise in search of Israeli–Palestinian peace. Palestinians, on the other hand, have barely changed their negotiating positions since 1993. A long as everyone thinks time is against Israel, don't expect the Palestinian position to change.
Israel’s friends should want to change this time perception equation. They could do so by making Palestinians aware that the generous international aid it receives without (enforced) conditions will end by a certain date if Palestinians don't start acting responsibly in haste.
As to the Iran negotiations, the Islamic Republic is confident that time is on its side. Broadly speaking, it knows that the West (in particular, US President Obama) wants a negotiated outcome more than Iran does. So it can afford to wait, and obfuscate, and delay and otherwise keep on drawing out the negotiations so the Western offers come more and more palatable. The West occasionally rattles a sabre (‘no option is off the table’), but these are not considered credible by Iran. Were the West or Israel to make a credible military threat based on an unmovable deadline, Iran’s perception of the time up its sleeve might change dramatically. But this is unlikely to happen.
Countries like Saudi Arabia – which perceive Iran as a threat – also believe time is against them. That is why many are beginning their own nuclear programmes.
Islamic State is where one can see time on the side of the West (or, at least, against Islamic State). As I wrote previously, it is inevitable that Islamic State will recede with time. Indeed, these signs are already coming to pass. (That said, in Islamic State’s wake will be only chaos and ruin. This will likely be filled with another party or many parties squabbling over the right to rule—particularly the right to rule the oil fields in the areas Islamic State currently controls. Without a significant amount of money and US troops on the ground—neither of which will likely be made available—it is unlikely that conditions can be put in place that will allow for peace and security to be restored for the people of the area in the foreseeable future.)
As time goes on, things are becoming more difficult for the West’s Middle East allies. Time cannot be stopped, but perceptions of how much time one or the other side has can be changed. Unfortunately, neither the US nor the Europeans have the will to slow down the Middle East’s current trajectory toward further instability and conflict.
In 2012, with Allawite and Shi’ite bombs raining down on Sunni Syrians, hamas, which is Sunni and was based in Syria, faced a real dilemma — it was aligned with the Allawites and Shi’ites. It wanted out. That turned out to be a poor decision. Now it wants back in again.
Hamas was a member of the Resistance Bloc, a regional grouping of mostly-Shi’ite countries and militias led by Iran and in competition with the Status Quo Bloc.
Egypt was a major player in the Status Quo Bloc (indeed – a symbolic leader). In mid-2012, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt on the back of Arab Spring protests, which felled the 50-year military dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power marked what looked liked the beginning of a third bloc in the Middle East. This third bloc was the Sunni Islamist Bloc.
It was different from the (Sunni) Status Quo Bloc in important ways. The Status Quo Bloc leadership (despite pretensions) are corrupt and secular. They look to the US for security and want America to retain its presence in the Middle East. They want a Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel. They epitomise an acceptance of realpolitik. The Sunni Islamist bloc want the opposite in all these thing; religious leadership and society, no US presence in the Middle East and for a Palestinian state to replace Israel. Like the Status Quo Bloc, however, the Sunni Islamist Bloc was suspicious of Iranian hegemonic ambitions, and generally didn't like Shi’ites.
The coalescence of the Sunni Islamist Bloc was the result of numerous, concurrent regional occurrences. First, all Arab Spring protests that resulted in elections saw Sunni Islamist governments come to power (most significantly in Egypt, long the symbolic leader of the Arab world). Second, Sunni Islamist militias were (in mid-2012) beating back all other Syrian opposition groups as well as Syrian Government-backed forces. For those looking for such an outcome, it seemed only a matter of time until the government was overthrown and all Syria was under Sunni Islamist control.
Qatar and Turkey, both long on the fringes of the Resistance Bloc (due to their competition with the Status Quo Bloc) saw in the nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc a movement they really agreed with. They became card-carrying members. Hamas thought the nascent bloc was ascendant (and an answer to its discomfort over its Shi’ite and Allawite partners killing Sunnis) and leapt. Doing so meant no longer receiving funds, arms and training from Iran and Hezbollah, but it thought the shortfall could be made up by friendly governments in Cairo, Doha and Ankara.
It was all going swimmingly until the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was overthrown by a (popular) coup. The military in Egypt was (and is) firmly back in control. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership was arrested and many sentenced to death. The border between Egypt and Gaza was closed, and Egypt worked to destroy the dozens of tunnels underneath that border. In recent weeks, Egypt has moved to raze all buildings within a kilometre of the border (on the Egyptian side), leaving thousands homeless.
The hamas-Israel war of July-August 2014 was launched because hamas was in trouble, and needed the international attention (and subsequent aid money) the war brought to rescue itself from real financial troubles. It didn't work out as well as hamas hoped – it’s still in need of money and friends.
Facing reality, hamas has reached out to Iran for help. In what must have been a humiliating mea culpa, hamas has been looking to patch things up. A series of friendly, coordinated statements about hamas have been released by Iran and hezbollah in recent weeks. Hamas has issued a statement saying non-violent opposition to the Syrian government is justified (that is, everyone should just let the Assad Government retain power). Expect a visit by hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Iran in the coming months. And, around the same time, a grovelling hamas statement that Assad isn't so bad after all, and all opposition to him is a Zionist conspiracy.
What it means, in short, is that hamas will be welcomed back into Resistance Bloc, and will receive much-needed funds and arms (given the lack of tunnels, it might have trouble receiving them). But the reason it left in the first place – discomfort that its Allawite and Shi’ite friends are killing Sunnis - won't have been resolved. It's not a great position for hamas to be in and will cost it friends on the ‘Arab Street’ (in the Arab palaces – that is, the power centres of the Status Quo Bloc – hamas is detested).
In theory, a fatah that had the trust of the Palestinian people would be well-placed to take advantage of hamas’s misfortunes. But fatah still lacks strategic direction, is hopelessly corrupt, and doesn't have the support of its people. So not much will change on that front in the foreseeable future.
A spate of terrorist attacks have recently been carried out by so-called ‘lone wolves’. Attacks have occurred in the US (Boston Marathon), UK (Lee Rigby), Canada (Parliament), Israel (Jerusalem light rail and multiple stabbings), Belgium (Jewish museum), Australia (Martin Place) and, most recently, France (Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket).
Beyond the Islamist connection, what ties these attacks is the loose or entirely absent affiliation the perpetrators had with established terrorist organisations. Broadly speaking, they were individuals (or pairs) that took it upon themselves to conduct a terrorist attack.
The question now being asked by the media (and for many years by the security services) is how to stop lone wolf attacks. The short answer is, they’re impossible to stop. However, there are numerous steps a potential lone wolf perpetrator generally takes in order to carry out a successful attack. Preventing these steps being taken will help lessen the severity of the eventual attack, and might even prevent it from occurring at all.
These steps are:
Learning how to attack (online)
Learning how to attack (physical training)
Preparing for the attack
Carrying out the attack
In a forthcoming post, I will discuss how to (try to) prevent lone wolf terrorist attacks. For the remainder of this post, I will discuss the radicalisation process.
Radicalisation of (usually young) Muslims can occur online or in the community. Broadly speaking, the pattern of radicalisation follows the well-worn path of the Arab world’s sense of victimisation since the late 18th century.
Impressionable Muslim youths see that some Muslim communities (such as the Palestinians) are ‘oppressed’ (one’s perspective informs one’s reality). They see that the leaders of most Muslim (and certainly all) Arab states are corrupt and do not lead devout lives (despite pretending to). They see the US militarily back these corrupt, secular states.
They see that Muslim countries are weak. They also see that Muslim countries cannot seem to change their weakness. That is, the Muslim countries cannot defeat Israel, they cannot eject the US presence from the region and, when the US (together with a coalition of Western countries) invades a Muslim state, they see the Muslim state powerless.
Those Muslims who would become radicalised would then be directed (either on the Internet or in person) to look at Islamic history. Islamist history would teach these people that back when the Muslim community was pure it was also the strongest. Muhammad and the four caliphs that followed him rode roughshod over all opponents, establishing in just a couple of decades a large empire, which covered what we now call the Middle East. In these first few decades, the Muslim empire overran the pagan Persian Empire to the east (and converted everyone therein), and took from the Christian Byzantine Empire the holy city of Jerusalem and most Byzantine land.
These same imams would teach these impressionable youths that as the Islamic empire grew less devout and more corrupt, and as individual Muslims did the same, it weakened. Eventually, after decades of malignant decline, the French invaded Muslim Egypt in 1798. And no Muslim army was able to dislodge it—it was the British that kicked out the French (but the British stayed). Muslim armies have barely won a battle—much less a war—since that date.
These impressionable youth, now more devout, might also be shown how individual and small-scale acts of Islamic violence have worked. A handful of bombs caused the US to leave Lebanon (1983). The Palestinian intifada (1987–1993) forced Israel to peace talks. A single battle caused the US to leave Somalia (1993). Hezbollah violence (1982–2000) forced Israel out of Lebanon. A handful of men caused death, fear and chaos in New York (2001). A single attack (with ten bombs) on Madrid trains caused Spain to pull out of Iraq (2004). Hamas violence forced Israel out of Gaza (2000–2005). And so on.
These impressionable youths are taught that the West’s strength is like a spider web; it looks loathsome but, ultimately, it’s very weak. That despite all its guns and tanks and planes, the West is afraid of war and death and will retreat rather than fight. They are pointed to the many passages in Islam’s holy books that preach the imperitive to fight, that predict the inevitable victory to Muslims, that teach Allah rewards all those who fight for him, and that martyrs are rewarded more than any one else.
This path to radicalisation has not changed in decades. The Wahhabis (founders of Saudi Arabia) trod this path in the late 19th century. The founders of the Muslim Brotherhood did so in the 1950s. Al-Qaeda’s founders in the 1990s. All followed the same path to radicalisation as the disenfranchised youth in Sydney’s West today.
What these impressionable youths are rarely taught is that many, many millions more Muslims have been killed by Muslims since 1798 than by the West (including Israel). They are rarely taught of the many battles and wars instigated by Muslims that resulted in the Muslim losing. They are rarely taught that the reason the West was strong in 1798 and thereafter was because the weakening of religious control of the state allowed for creative pursuits that resulted in more wealth and better weaponry; and that it was the stifling of such creative pursuits in the Muslim world (along with the fact the Muslim empire grew rich from taxing other people trading across its lands, not because it had to invent anything) that led to the centuries-long decline that allowed mass colonisation after the First World War. They are not told that imposing religious control over a society will not lead to Muslim victories but to degradation and even more weakness relative to the hated West.
The path to radicalisation is a very hard one to stop. The Muslim world (particularly the Arab world) will continue to be corrupt and weak for the foreseeable future. The West will continue to be strong. Palestinians will continue to be occupied.
The Internet will continue to be a source of easy-to-access information, anti-West sermons and gruesome images of dead Palestinian babies.
It is in the physical community that this path to radicalisation can be slowed, if not stopped. But non-Muslims, no matter how cynical or sympathetic, cannot make a difference. It is the Muslim communities themselves that must first acknowledge that there is a problem; that there is an aspect to Islam’s core teachings that leads some to violence. It’s a very bitter pill for a community to swallow, which is why communities have typically blamed the core reason for radicalisation on Israel or the West. But once the acknowledgment that the problem is internal is made, leading radicalised youths back to a devout though non-violent path (which the majority of devout Muslims follow) will be much easier.
There are signs that key Islamic figures around the world are starting to acknowledge the problem. On 28 December last year, Egyptian President el-Sisi—known as a devout man—said this in the heart of Sunni scholarship:
“I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics… We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world… I am referring not to ‘religion’, but to ‘ideology’—the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.
“It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world's population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionise our religion.”
In the face of a handful of Australian Muslims going to fight in Syria, some Australian Muslims are speaking out about the problem of radicalisation in their community. Again, this is a bitter pill to swallow, and I applaud the courage of those at the vanguard of this hopefully growing movement.