Let me be clear. There are internal ideological struggles within Muslim communities that need to be dealt with, but Western power has undeniably played a major role in the internal politics of Muslim-majority societies for centuries until today. This is not ancient history. Today, the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq exist thanks to a power vacuum caused in good part by the America-led war in Iraq. That situation was inextricably entangled with the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths under UN sanctions in the 1990s. And that situation was linked to the broader context of perpetual conflict in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and all around the region throughout the twentieth century. Were Muslim-majority countries passive victims who played no part in this ongoing drama? Certainly not. But there is no doubt that they wielded much less military and economic power than countries like the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France. Which leads us to the Cold War.
Of course, the Cold War is only one chapter in the greater story of Western involvement in Muslim-majority societies, but it is an important one. We are still experiencing its repercussions today. This is not the place for me to get into a long and detailed history lesson, but if you have any doubt about the quick summary I will provide here, check the history books written from a variety of angles (i.e., not only your ideological allies). In the middle of the twentieth century, religious extremists influenced by Salafi and Wahhabi ideologies were much weaker than they are today. They were vigorously rejected by a broad cross-section of Muslims, from traditional Sufis to Arab socialists. But as the Cold War progressed, the power and influence of religious extremists grew while its opponents were weakened. For all intents and purposes, the leftist opponents of American-style free market capitalism were seriously crippled in places like North Africa and Southwest Asia. Of course, some leftist regimes survived in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya. But being severely isolated in the broader geopolitical context, their main political focus was crushing dissent internally simply to survive. Other Muslim despots were generously assisted by Western allies in eliminating opponents from the political left. But defeating militant religious opponents proved more difficult than defeating leftists in the Cold War context.
It turns out that the American superpower in the Cold War found Saudi Arabian Wahhabis and their allies throughout the Muslim world to be the best of partners against the Soviet Union and its allies. Saudi Arabia was—and still is—ruled by religious conservatives and aggressive capitalists. In the Cold War context, Wahhabis countered the influence of communism among Muslims with enormous economic, political and ideological resources. They provided religious literature and training for religious scholars throughout the world. They used their wealth to exert political influence in the region. And they helped put together a force of vicious religious warriors to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. This was part of a concerted effort with the United States, and other allies like Pakistan and Israel, to defeat communism. In the end, only religious conservatives and corrupt despots were left with any substantial political power in the region at the end of the Cold War. Muslims unhappy with the state of affairs in their societies were left with basically only two viable political discourses to choose from: uninspired corrupt despotism or excited religious utopianism. Guess what many of them chose.
Look at Egyptian movies from the 1950s and 1960s. The world of President Gamal Abdel Nasser was far from ideal, but it was one in which many Muslims were placing their hopes in economic reform, and cultural production (hello Umm Kulthum) as vehicles for social improvement. Who is providing dreams to today’s Muslims? Yes, Muslims need to revitalize narratives that can compete with Wahhabi extremism. And believe me, countless Muslims are doing exactly that. But they are trying to produce hope in societies torn to pieces by world powers. Isn’t that what is happening in places like Syria today?
And how about Western Muslims? Well, many of our Western compatriots and Muslim coreligionists find our very identity suspect. Embracing our Western and Muslim heritages simultaneously would contradict the dominant narrative of perpetual conflict between the West and Islam. Fighting this false dichotomy is of course crucial for our very survival as Western Muslims.