The aircraft that blew up the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington conveyed several messages to the world, of which one of the least remarked is this: the Muslims of the world are suffering. When at least 19 young men are ready to murder themselves and thousands of others (including Muslims), they must be suffering injuries unimaginable to the rest of humanity.
The Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the Carthaginian peace in Iraq, civil war in Algeria, Indian control of the Vale of Kashmir, general economic stagnation: these injuries are real, humiliating and painful. At the heart of Islam is a sort of capital grievance against the world: the Muslims are the people privileged with the last and the best divine revelation, and should be the most prosperous community on earth, but quite evidently are not.
Ever since the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, the Muslim world has been in slow decline relative to the west. With Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the creeping British annexation of Muslim India, that decline took on a malign aspect. Modernising movements, such as that of the Pahlavis in Iran and the oil boom of the 1970s, proved to be illusions. Iran has stagnated for 20 years, Iraq squandered its prosperity and alliances in two wars, Saudi Arabia failed to find political peace of mind.
How can this contradiction between revelation and the grinding, bitter reality of the modern Middle East be reconciled? Only this way: there is an elaborate and all-pervading conspiracy against Islam by the dominant world power. That was Britain up to the Second World War (and still is, in many Iranian minds). Since the 1960s, it has been the United States. This belief, naturally enough, is shared by corrupt and incompetent Muslim regimes.
A second problem arises with the political programme of early Islam. The Prophet established a perfect government, with a direct succession (known as the Caliphate) that lasted only for a generation, but continues to inspire reveries in Muslims and to gnaw at the legitimacy of the regimes in their countries.
In primitive Islam, nation states are an offence to God because they divide His community. The misfortunes of a particular national group – the Palestinian Arabs, say, or the valley Kashmiris – are misfortunes to all Muslims. The sovereign is not the people but God, or rather His word as dictated by the Prophet and interpreted by religious scholars known as ulema. Because the scholars have, in all Muslim countries, and to varying degrees, been co-opted by the regimes – in Iran, they are the regime – the people look to the outsider with the most extreme programme, longest beard and the forehead most bruised by prayer.
The result is that no society or regime in the Muslim Middle East has great stability or depth, with the possible exception of Egypt. All are maintained (not excluding Egypt) by a mixture of blandishment and violence. All attempt to export their troublesome citizens to even weaker states, first Lebanon, and now Afghanistan. All are vulnerable to subversion by pan-Arab or pan-Islamic demagogues, from Gamal Abdel Nasser on Cairo radio in the 1950s and 1960s to the Palestinian resistance in the 1970s, to Saddam Hussein, from the 1970s to the present, and now Osama Bin Laden. The chief target of all the demagogues is the regime in Saudi Arabia, because it administers both the most valuable subterranean treasure on earth – billions of barrels of oil – and the holiest shrines of Islam at Mecca and Medina.
The west has a great deal to answer for in the Middle East, from Britain’s belated empire-building after the First World War to the US and British policy that condemns modern Iraq to the material and social squalor of a half-century ago. For the new generation of Muslim revolutionaries, the west must answer for everything: the Muslim regimes are simply western masks. The genius of Osama Bin Laden is to roll up all the grievances of the region and concentrate them on a single, insouciant enemy: the United States.
The purpose of the attacks on New York and Washington was not to persuade Washington to act more energetically over the Palestine issue. It was to create the conditions for a full-scale conflagration on Middle Eastern soil; not to protect Muslims, but to expose them to violent attacks by thugs in British minicabs; not to threaten Israel, but to make Israel reckless; not to expel US forces from the Middle East but to bring them back in.
Every step that leads US forces into Afghanistan fulfils this programme. The murder of Ahmed Shah Massoud – by two Arabs, it must be remembered, not Afghans – remains by far the most suggestive public circumstance of Sheikh Osama Bin Laden’s implication in the bombings. Massoud, the most brilliant opponent of the Soviet forces in the 1980s, was also the man best equipped and motivated to lead reprisal actions in Afghanistan on behalf of the United States. The US will now need to plan its action in Afghanistan with a certain care.
It is time to end the western policy of malign neglect. It is in the interest of the whole world to help tackle the actual grievances in Palestine, Kashmir, and in central and southern Iraq, and to help the region out of its economic backwardness. Success there would provide both the regimes and the ulema with the legitimacy they so desperately need.
James Buchan has reported on the Middle East since 1978