“It’s all my opponent’s fault,” say the glib politicians. The only value of such remarks is to help people realize that, yes, it is important to determine who is guilty. Voters do not need doctorates in history to understand thousand-year-long historical processes, however. They just need to know the context, the sequence of key events and processes.
Historical hostility among Muslim schools of though has existed across the centuries, but to attribute contemporary Islamic violence to historical roots is only correct to the degree that the calls of some U.S. Protestant extremists for the murder of disliked foreign leaders can be traced back to the Christian civil war of 16th century France. Historical roots exist but explain little of the explosion of violence within politically active Islam over the last half century.
A perhaps slightly more significant long-term historical process is the response of a classical culture set deeply in a conservative religious milieu to the cultural challenge of modernization. The collision between Medieval Christianity and modernization reached its climax between that 16th century French civil war and the French Revolution. The analogous Islamic collision with modernity hardly began more than a century ago and appears still well short of its climax today. To understand the frustration and anger of Muslims today, one might start by recalling the attitudes of Christians in La Rochelle in the 16th century or Germans during the Thirty Years and the English during the time of Cromwell in the 17th century.
The key contextual factor in understanding the contemporary Western-Islamic confrontation, however, is not some long-term historical process, but the medium term Western intrusion into the Muslim world that began a century ago as the leading industrial states started converting from coal-based to petroleum-based economies. Quickly realizing that outright military invasion and colonization was unnecessarily inefficient, the West settled on a century-long policy of economic invasion, buying regional lackeys and transforming them with an addictive flow of weapons into repressive autocrats to manage the cheap delivery to the West of Muslim hydrocarbons.
No short-term process such as the pathetically hypocritical “war on terror” or the even shorter-termed rise of the Islamic State* can be understood, nor can the blame for such processes be accurately assigned, without putting today’s events in the context of the Western economic war of the last century against Muslims living in oil-rich states, a campaign of exploitative contracts of course backed up as needed by the state terror of military campaigns.
A sustained policy of crooked contracts enforced by military terror does not teach respect for democracy or human rights or middle class moderation.
- The rise of the Islamic State must itself be understood in the context of the last two decades (i.e., the context of provoking the rise of the jihadi movement as a convenient tool for kicking the USSR out of Afghanistan, the more recent context of the US occupation of Iraq, and the short-term context of once again aiding jihadis as a convenient tool for getting rid of Assad). Thus, even the contemporary context for understanding the Islamic State needs to be broken into three sequential periods. An overview of the contemporary context of the Islamic State is given in “Empowering Extremists.”