The great medieval historian Ibn Khaldun centered his understanding of history on asabiyya, which is perhaps best translated as esprit de corps mixed with the will to power. In his masterpiece, the Muqaddima, or Prolegomena, the Arab historian saw as the primary locus of asabiyya the tribe—a smaller unit than the ethnic group, and the most powerful military unit in Islamic history until the Mameluks perfected the use of slave soldiers. The concept of asabiyya is helpful in trying to understand the Middle East today, after the second Iraq war (2003-09) and the Arab Spring (2010-12) together unhinged a dying political order throughout the region.
Today, no Muslim state in the Middle East has an asabiyya that peacefully and happily binds its citizens together. Unless new organizing ideas are embraced, we are likely to see the persistence of the Islamic militancy that has shaken the region. The prognosis isn’t good, in part because of highly counterproductive American actions. U.S. air raids against the Islamic State and other radical Islamic groups, which only stir the hornets but don’t destroy the nest, are unlikely to change the fundamental dynamic that keeps working against us. The surviving secular dictators and even the most religiously conservative kings see themselves as vulnerable to militant Islam because they know that their own legitimacy is questionable and that their rule strains against Islam’s deep current of righteous rebellion. The Islamic State’s call to the faithful is dangerous because its promise of a new conquest society appeals to young men. It offers the hope that this time the faithful might win.
As is well-known, modern Middle Eastern states, with the limited exceptions of Iran, Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey, were created intentionally or by default by Europeans and Westernized native elites who dropped older imperial or tribal ideals for more empowering modern imports. National consciousness, to the extent it existed, often wrapped around a monarch or an army or both. Even in Iran, Turkey, and Egypt, where geography, language, common culture, and shared travails forged the strongest sense of nationhood among Muslims, internal differences in ethnicity, language, and faith made the ruling elites always a little uneasy about where the people’s affections lay. Would most Kurds stay loyal to the Turkish Republic without the Turkish Army repressing them? Would Iran’s Kurds, Ba-luchis, Arabs, and Azeri Turks be attached to the Persian enterprise if Iranian armed might disappeared? Did Egyptians, searching for something beyond the tight confines of the Nile Valley to unite them, want to be pan-Arabist or pan-Islamist or both? Even in Iran, where an ancient culture put up stiff resistance to the Arab legions that conquered everything from the Pyrenees to Central Asia in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Islamic identity never lost that much ground as modern nationalism began to heat up under the Qajar (1794-1925) and Pahlavi (1925-1979) shahs. Despite the best efforts of Western or Western-inspired modernizers, everywhere in the Middle East, for everyone, religion is the primary identity—cherished and nurtured by fundamentalists and the common faithful or constrained, submerged, and coopted by nationalists and secularists.
Secular military dictatorship among Muslims has been a double-edged sword: It helped to build nationalist consciousness; but its injustices and brutality degraded the legitimacy of the state, collapsed traditional mores and elites that had checked centralized power, and fueled the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, which inevitably questions, and often denies, nonreligious affections and loyalties. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his clerical successors, who put mullahs at Iran’s political apex, would have been unthinkable without the Pahlavis’ bulldozing of the country’s traditions. The growth of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood since its founding in 1928 wouldn’t have been possible without the Westernization and militarization of the country’s ruling elite. Ditto for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which grew as the Baathism adopted by the ruling Alawites (a minority in Syria who follow an offshoot of Shiism) became more savage and sectarian. The successes of al Qaeda and the Islamic State spring in part from the moral convulsions that have come from secular Muslim elites’ pounding the old orders into dust and conservative religious elites’ recoiling from secularism and feeling guilty about their own moral and political compromises with power and an alluring modernity (think of the oil-fed Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari religious establishments, which have done so much to propagate a stern, head-chopping faith).
The Prophet’s Community