For nearly a century, the West has seen the Muslim world primarily through the prism of the Arab states that stretch from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Born of decaying empires, these states still carry echoes of desert war and ancient calls to glory. Yet for more than a thousand years after the founding period of Islam, Arabs did not lead the Muslim world, or even the Middle East. For that millennium, non-Arab Muslim rulers to the east and north marked the course of these Islamic lands.
Then, the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought both the “Arab Awakening” and Western European ambitions to control Arab lands. Ottoman weakness abetted these developments. World War I ended four centuries of Ottoman rule in the Middle East, and, in the aftermath of World War II, the brief period of Western colonial dominance passed. Arab rule at last returned to Arab lands, as did Arab claims to leadership of the Muslim world.
The newly independent Arab states, all under Sunni control, wore a youthful vigor. They laid claim to being modern enterprises, suitably equipped with modern theories—principally nationalism and socialism—and practices. They called for unity, formed a league, dabbled in unions. They cheered champions of their cause—most prominently, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Constant crises, from the nationalization of the Suez Canal through the wars surrounding the Arab-Israeli dispute and the rise of terrorism, put the Arab lands clustered around the eastern Mediterranean at the center of world attention. The Cold War rivalry and growing world demand for oil further heightened Arab importance. Arab issues rose rapidly to be of great consequence for the wider world.
But the Arab armies failed; nationalism and socialism proved false gods; and the Cold War ended. The new Arab states’ vitality faded, drained away by authoritarian governments and resistance to modernity. The North Africans turned back toward Europe. The Arab countries of the eastern Mediterranean bickered, ossified, and, stifled under repression and weakened through intra-Arab and intra-Muslim wars, lost their leading role.
Although the fate of the Arab world is not written, the trends are increasingly apparent. The Arabs find themselves in the weakest position since the return of Arab rule to determine the outcome of events in the region. The decades have not been kind to the hopes once invested in the Arab world or to those who have suffered by their failures. It need not have been so, and certainly, questions remain. Of the old Sunni Arab states, only Saudi Arabia holds a plausible, if weakened, claim to a leading role in the Muslim world. Ironically, its strength draws from progress elsewhere, especially the growing energy demands of the developing states of Asia. We could wake to a Saudi Arabia that has purchased nuclear weapons, but we are less likely to wake to sudden progress in other areas. For the House of Saud reforms slowly. It may placate, but cannot summon its people; its self-indulgence is resented in Islamic lands. As a measure of its weakness—and a sign of its great imprudence—some of the Saudi elite funded a radical Islamism that would devour it.
Arab renewal stirs in Iraq. But it will take time and progress, both there and elsewhere, for a representative Iraq—dominated electorally by the Shia and Kurds—to be acknowledged by and be a model for the rest of the Arab world. Such a virtuous spiral of change might drastically reshape Arab attitudes towards both their own future and the West. But it will meet well-entrenched foes. Still, in this lies the promise of a third Arab era, of an era of long-awaited freedom and prosperity.
Even for the Arab-led Sunni radical groups like al Qaeda, the era has turned sour. Rejected by the tribes of Anbar and scattered by the powers in Riyadh, al Qaeda has suffered in the heart of the homeland it would rule. Some Arabs may rejoice in the harm al Qaeda inflicts on the West, but as a whole they do not long welcome its cruel and stultifying brand of Islam. So al Qaeda recedes into other lairs, and its leadership hides in non-Arab regions.
Today, the Muslim world feels the growing reach of Iran and Turkey. These two—and even perhaps Pakistan, another non-Arab state—will mark the greater Muslim world in days to come. The region is returning to older patterns, driven by the states that run from the Bosphorus to the Straits of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea. Along this line lie critical chokepoints and rich concentrations of resources in the fields of western Anatolia, the waters of Mesopotamia, and the accessible oil and gas deposits of the greater Persian Gulf. For a thousand years, non-Arab states along this line dominated the Middle East. Their heirs today hold weaker hands, but their ancient hegemony furthers their belief that they are the natural leaders of the Muslim world. The dynamics of the key states along this line—including the future interactions of Turkey, Iran, and a representative Iraq—will set the course of leadership in the Islamic world.
Only a few years ago, some in the West hoped that elections in Iran would mellow the country’s leadership and that reforms would follow. But the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard have turned to their most radical supporters to violently suppress dissent at home. In time, the regime may be toppled, but it won’t be readily turned. Iran’s nuclear weapons program has raced from rumor to credible reality, and it nourishes the mullahs’ dreams of regional dominance. Iran’s terrorist proxies prosper—Hezbollah secure in Lebanon, Hamas ruling Gaza. And Iran’s open defiance of the West has only buoyed her in the keen eyes of the Muslim world. Iran can today claim preeminence. Her influence moves where once the Arabs readily held sway—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestine—and threatens Arab interests in the smaller Gulf states. Even Egypt, the largest Arab state, has lately complained of Iranian interference in its affairs.
Turkey, too, seeks a greater role in the wider Muslim world. Atatürk propelled the country to be modern and to look toward Europe for its future. The Turks shunned the fez and the headscarf, and they built a modern economy and one of the largest armies in NATO. But under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development party, Turkey increasingly looks away from Europe—which has constantly rejected the Turks’ desire for a path to EU membership—and back towards the Muslim world from which it arose. The age of terror has only reinforced Europeans’ unease in embracing the Turks, and in the arched halls of Istanbul, nostalgia is rising for the Ottoman era. Turkey has reached out to Iran and to radical forces such as Hamas. Such acts are an expression of its new orientation and ambitions.
If there is a third Muslim state that may play a significant role in the near term it is Pakistan. Militarized from birth, overmatched by India, it drove itself unwisely into alliance with radical groups and terror and prematurely into nuclear power. Its future role in the Muslim world will be the result of factors direct and indirect: its long and strong ties to Saudi Arabia and its complicated relations with China and India.
It is fair to say that the revolution these changes entail has only just begun to be appreciated in Western thinking about the region. But even through the fog, implications emerge that may let us see the outlines.
The movement of the Muslim center of geopolitical gravity hundreds of miles east will further entangle the region in the shifting plans of Russia, China, and India. Russian interests in Turkey and Iran long preceded the Soviet era, and a reinvigorated Russia looks south with both fear and desire. The historic concerns of China and India have little to do with the Arab states, but the fate of Pakistan, neighboring Iran, and Turkey—with its cultural and historic ties to Turkic-speaking Central Asia—touch geopolitical interests much closer to home, even as rapid growth has China and India looking further outward. Russia and China have Islamic minorities who petition, too often in blood, for redress of their grievances. The violence is increasing, and internal tensions might be enflamed by cross-border influences from, for example, a radicalized Turkey or a nuclear Iran. Chinese and Russian Muslims, emerging from decades of Communist suppression, may be more drawn to Iran’s and Turkey’s forms of Islam than to the more repressive Wahhabi model. A competition for their Muslim allegiance has been in motion for some time. The stronger winds from the north and east are not lost on the men who struggle for leadership of the Muslim world; into the complicated swirl of the region will come new calculations—and miscalculations, as well.
The rise of the states to the east also affects an abiding issue in Arab affairs: Israel. The Arab states bordering Israel are today either long at peace with it—Egypt and Jordan—or are no longer credible near-term threats—Lebanon, Syria, and, more distant, Iraq. It is rather Iran that, though geographically far removed, lays claim to be the “frontline state” in the battle against the “Zionist entity,” and acts through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. (Turkey, too, has recently shown bursts of hostility to Israel.) Iran’s claim is ideological and religious, for it lost no land to Israel, and no Palestinian refugees burden its lands.
Yet in private the Arab states do not applaud this new champion. They see Iranian schemes as an effort to weaken rivals, to divert the West from opposing its nuclear ambitions, and to expand its claim to lead all Muslims. It is an old game. The Palestinian plight, which evokes great Arab anguish, has also for decades been used by Arab leaders to strengthen themselves, both internally and on the world stage. But in the Iranian version, it is also a weapon against them. Today, a serious regional war involving Israel—a great preoccupation of earlier Middle East politics—will more likely be a result of Iranian policies than of Arab wishes. In these developments may lie a means for the West to work with Arab states to separate just and realistic goals from past political ends.
Western policy will suffer an enormous setback if Turkey increases its support for Iran’s agenda. For the moment, Prime Minister Erdogan sees profit in drawing upon the vitality of radicalized Islamic sensibilities. Over the centuries, Iran and Turkey have often stood at odds, and they remain intrinsically regional and religious rivals. Turkey cannot help but see in the mirror a once and future leader of the Islamic world, not a pawn of its ancient rival, and the wider region sees in Sunni Turkey a less alien land than Shiite Iran. Erdogan is a skillful man, and the Turks may have set out to play a cunning hand, slow to unfold, that allows others to overplay theirs, but a radical course can be difficult to control and there can be no guarantee that it will lay down as they plan.
While the radical rulers of Tehran seem set in their course, their tenure is not. Blood in the squares of Tehran marks the regime’s weakness more than its strength. Political rule by clergy, Khomeini’s innovation, was not accepted by all his clerical colleagues. Since the June election debacle, the regime has felt obliged to suppress and even arrest some of the very clerics in whose name it ostensibly rules. Iran’s rulers proclaim the standard of an increasingly ill-defined “revolution” less and less credibly. The Iranian people know the private wealth that lies beneath the mullahs’ public garb. They have learned the lessons of the fall of other unwanted regimes to the north: The end can come swiftly and unexpectedly.
For such reasons, Iran’s radical rulers look uneasily at the tradition of quietist Islam which has been reinvigorated in Iraq. They know that its leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has a sizeable following in his Persian homeland. No surprise, then, that they disrupt Iraq’s politics, race toward the nuclear goal line, and encourage terrorism. These men who beat their citizens and smuggle weapons to maim Americans are not at play. How odd it would be if we should stay those who would, in self-defense, stay the radicals’ aggressive plans. More reasonable leaders in Tehran would pose a lesser threat and may be more willing, for a proper price, to turn aside from a destructive path. Delaying Iran’s nuclear progress, even for a few years, may have longer term effects.
The progress of representative government in Iraq is far from certain, but it is certain that success there, however uneven, would resonate throughout the Muslim world. As Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, recently said, a mere decade may suffice to see the rebirth of a dynamic Iraq, a “leading powerhouse in the region.” Time and again, even as opportunities have been missed, a core of Iraqis has demonstrated their interest in seeing representative government succeed. We should base our future contributions on careful, forward-looking calculations, not on recriminations or regrets.
As the region changes, so have America’s interests. Over the last decades, the increasing dysfunction of regional states—non-Arab as well as Arab—has drawn us ever more deeply into the region’s affairs. The passing of the second Arab era will not soon relieve us of this burden, for weakness breeds history, too. But changes in the region have wrought an alteration in the underlying logic and rhythm of our engagement there. In the long Cold War and the uneasy decade that followed, the Middle East was a secondary theater in a wider, geostrategic competition. But in recent years, our presidents—liberal and conservative—have placed our interests on a different plane. They have looked uncomfortably into the maw of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. In increasing the number of our troops in Afghanistan, President Obama noted that defeat might lead to Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of radicals. Such men, he reminds us, would not hesitate to use them against us.
Weapons of mass destruction are not new, but their dissemination into unaccountable hands would be. There is little wisdom in the Cold War for this new era. The masters in the Kremlin understood that we would know the source of any attack and believed that in time our economic failings would undo us. Our enemies today have a different plan and hold a different hand. They see not a cold and bitter peace, but, as events and our president recently reminded us, a freshly blooded war to which they say their God calls them. Our policy choices may be clouded, but we must weigh them and the price we are willing to pay in this stark light.
An era passes in the Muslim world; a new era stirs. Through it all, the leaders of the Muslim nations watch us. For they know there is room in their world for America. They know the failings of their own lands. America may turn from this future because it is weary or angry or, in some eyes, tainted. It may turn from the costs of policy, but not from the consequences of its turn.
Hillel Fradkin is director of the Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World at the Hudson Institute. Lewis Libby is senior adviser at the Hudson Institute.