Extremist (and not-so-extremist) Islamic movements in Iraq and Syria receive the most minute attention. Yet amid all the cataloging, analysis and advice, one element essential to any response to these movements is conspicuous by its absence: an assessment of the alternatives. By this I mean alternatives that someone in the region might actually have available to them, political choices they are likely to be able to make.
The choices don't include the never-neverland ideals like justice and freedom and democracy so often offered up as if, inexplicably, Middle Eastern people were in a position to accept or reject these fine things. The real alternatives are those which seem plausible in the light of recent history and contemporary experience. So, for example, a Syrian might look at what secularism has had to offer in the recent past, and think it a good guide to what it might offer in the future. Secularism, then, might be associated with Nasser, the Assads, or a host of short-lived governments that usually usher in a brutal dictatorship.
Nothing could be further from the minds of Arab and Western secularists when they pass judgement on extreme Islamists. The result is a complete inability to accept that even extremist Islamism might be a rational alternative, not to secularist ideals, but to secularist realities. Instead secularists adopt the sort of half-truths and falsehoods typical of close-minded perspectives on social movements. The extremists, they say, are foreigners, they are a bunch of thugs, they are funded by rich Gulf State Arabs, they are creations of the Syrian regime, they are allies of that regime... they are anything but a local movement with its strength deriving from deep-seated local injustice. This makes it impossible even to conceive of a serious strategy against them.
Why the seeming inability to compare the secularist and Islamist realities? It seems that secularists do not look at their record because they do not even conceive of such a thing as a secularist record. Were they to concede that secularism is most fairly represented by what it has delivered rather than what it promises, the shocking excesses of extreme Islamists would fall into an unpleasant perspective.
Take the 'Islamic State' movement. What exactly have they done? Cut off hands and heads, flogged dissidents, killed perhaps several hundred civilian 'apostates' and several hundred - but possibly several thousand - prisoners of war, largely for sectarian reasons. In addition they have placed the most severe restrictions on women, suppressed free speech, persecuted religious minorities, employed 'child' - that is, adolescent - soldiers, destroyed ancient monuments, and desecrated the shrines of 'heretics'. They have preached hatred and promoted all sorts of reactionary values. They abhor democracy.
Understandably this record, combined with a reputation for relatively un-corrupt judicial procedure and efforts to maintain public services, has won them quite a bit of support. After all, it is so much better than what secularism has brought to so many! The level of misery they inflict is in about the same league as secularists Nasser or Sisi, not as sadistic as Pinochet, but these are small-time players. Every one of the far worse catastrophes visited on, broadly speaking, the Middle East, was the work of secularists, and there are many instances of this.
The secularist record
If it's obvious to you that Islamist extremism hasn't anything like as bad a record as secularism's, please skip this section.
There is the excruciating slaughter Saddam Hussein brought on both Iranians and Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq conflict. There are the atrocities he inflicted on his own people. There are perhaps a million deaths the Western democracies caused in their decades-long campaigns to remove him. There are the horrors attributable to the Shah of Iran. Reaching further back, there is the French repression in Algeria, a comparable toll. And topping all this, there is Assad. One 'analyst' speaks of him 'slaughtering demonstrators', as if he had killed dozens rather than hundreds of thousands. That's just one example of the paroxysm of dishonesty that engulfs allegedly sober analysts of the Islamist menace. And of course there is Israel's kindler, gentler, decades-long attempt to wipe the Palestinians off the map. Oh, and the secularist murder-fest in Lebanon: sectarian carnage is no less a blot on secular states for being sectarian.
Beyond the Middle East, just looking at atrocities visited on Muslims, there are the agonies of Bosnia and earlier, the raging communal massacres of India - under secularist rule - in 1947. But why stop there, since secularism is hardly a Middle Eastern phenomenon? Forget old stories like American slavery and King Leopold's Congo. There is there is the enormous slaughter in Indonesia in 1965. There is the ongoing Congolese civil war, an ignored and secularist phenomenon that may be the greatest horror since World War II. There are Pol Pot's killing fields for millions, and the millions who died in the Vietnam war. Earlier in the century there is of course Hitler, the Ukraine famine, the Armenian genocide, the rape of Nanking and so many other Japanese atrocities. There is Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Vile dictators and warlords like Idi Amin and Bokassa and Charles Taylor? all secularists.
What a tiresome recitation! But it needs reciting because there is not the faintest recognition that what all these blotches on humanity have in common is secularism. This probably hasn't escaped the notice of 'jihadis', who for all the contempt visited on them seem to have paid some attention to history. And of course the atrocities are not even in same ball park as those committed by the secularists, including Western democracies.
Much the same might be said of the secularist record in less dramatic areas. No doubt there are relatively 'comfortable' secularist nations, as there are relatively 'comfortable' Islamic nations like the Gulf States. However the greatest cesspools of injustice and misery such as India and Mexico are without exception secularist. No one even claims that secularism has worked wonders in, say, sub-Saharan Africa.
But the point of the exercise is not to highlight Western hypocrisy - hypocrisy is in itself a quite minor and enjoyable sin. It is that effective opposition to 'extreme Islamism' can't even get started without appreciation of the secularist record. Many may find it absurd to lump all these horrors together in one historical category. It hard, though, to see how secularists can complain. The label 'secularist' doesn't seem less dubiously broad than 'Islamist', which encompasses both Mohammed Morsi and Boko Haram.
Secularists opposing Islamic extremism
What, in the light of this record, can the West do about Islamist extremism? Military action may sometimes be necessary, but it can never be sufficient.
It should be pretty clear by now that military defeats of extremist Islamism are ephemeral, because the same tendencies pop up again at a different time or place. So nothing lasting can be gained by examining the minutiae of 'jihadist' alliances or killing individuals tendentiously identified as 'key operatives'. Beyond that, few even believe that wreaking destruction on an Islamist territory is productive. This strongly suggests that the only effective counter to extreme Islamism is to destroy, not its adherents, but its motivation.
The idea isn't new. The Bush administration, despite its criminal idiocy, at least realized that extremism could not be countered by force alone: hence its project to remake the Middle East into mini-American democracies. This is just a stupid way of saying that extremism is going to take root in bad societies, not good ones.
There are limits to this project. There will always be religious fanatics, so some level of extremism is inevitable. More important, the idea that there is some 'we' who will make good societies in the Middle East is an infantile fantasy. No one is going to bring justice and freedom to the Middle East, or for that matter anywhere else. In the real world, the most that can be achieved is to improve secularism's record by countering or removing some of its very worst - most extreme - excesses. And for the West today, that boils down to one significant act: supporting the Syrian revolution.
Why is that? There is nothing the West can do in Iraq that won't simply blacken its reputation even further. It hasn't the will to repress ISIS on its own. If it deploys massive air power - the only politically possible move for nations utterly unwilling to incur high casualties on the ground - there will be massive civilian deaths. So the West in Iraq could only aid Maliki's criminal régime and Iran. At this point backing Maliki would entail giving Iran a free hand in Syria to back the criminal secularist Assad, hardly a redeeming move. And it is hard to see just how the West might actually obtain justice for Muslims elsewhere in the world - certainly not in Israel, which by now is virtually immune to outside pressure. That leaves Syria as the only theatre in which secularism can combat the worst excesses of secularism.
For secularists, supporting moderate forces in Syria is all the more urgent because it is the only practical way secularism can begin to redeem itself in the Middle East. It is an option which does not require massive bombing campaigns or supporting criminals, nor does it hark back to the ambitious idiocies of the Bush era. And it is the only option that can actually save millions from misery or death in short order. Finally it will contribute to isolating and overcoming ISIS, which will find itself cut off from its main supply routes. Yet aiding the Syrian rebels won't reinforce Maliki or any other criminal regime.
The support moderate forces need is simple - not the insolent offer of 'training', but lots of good arms and ammunition. It should be very clear that, given this strategy, significant quantities of those arms are certainly going to end up in extremist hands. To panic about this is again to misunderstand the situation. Extremists have never gained ascendancy because they find access to 'advanced arms'. On the contrary, extremists have never had access to the latest and greatest in weaponry. They don't seem particularly interested in changing that. They do very well with simple, obsolescent weapons such as are readily available all over the world - no arms control measures have shown the slightest prospect of eliminating that supply.
It's not fancy weaponry that nourishes extremism, but injustice. Though there isn't much the West can do to eliminate that problem, it must do what it can if it is to have any hope of countering the extremism with which it is so uselessly obsessed. Arming the Syrian rebels is the first, and for now, the only step.