Nature abhors a vacuum, and will often work overtime and at the weekends to fill one. In the Middle East it has pushed productivity to new heights with the creation of the Islamic Caliphate, a fully-fledged monstrosity that has leaped to life in a comparatively short time span, filling the vacuum left by the West's vetoing of the system that emerged in the post-Ottoman Islamic world as a tentative step from medievalism to modernity.
That system, typified by the likes of Kemal Ataturk, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi, and the Assads – and to a lesser extent by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Shah of Iran – was a secular-leaning, trans-tribal nationalism, often with a socialist tinge, overlaid – thanks to a brief period of Anglo-French control – on areas with badly drawn borders. In Iraq and Syria it went by the name of Ba'athism, but it could also be more generically (and oxymoronically) referred to as Secular Islamic Statism (SIS).
In addition to the badly-drawn borders, SIS's weakness was that it evolved to grow in the interstices between the Cold War blocs, playing off the West against the East and vice versa. With the ending of that tension and the 30-period of Western hegemony that followed, it became increasingly dependent on an unsympathetic West that arrogantly thought it understood the essence of the Mid-East better than the SIS elites.
A noticeable feature of the SIS system was its need for macho strongmen, who occasionally had to stray outside their badly-drawn borders. During it heyday, Israel effectively checked this tendency in Egypt and Syria; while Saddam chose to do his own bit of transborder wandering at the worst time: more or less the exact moment the West became hegemonically dominant. The survival of Secular Islamic Statism was also doomed by its existence so close to two things that Western elites value and one thing they fear – namely oil, Israel, and terrorism. For these reasons, the West has worked to undermine states based on the SIS model.
The Egyptian elites, chastened by their feebleness against Israel, saw the way the wind was blowing and moved towards something that more resembled a traditional Latin American banana republic than anything in the Middle East. Turkey had previously pioneered a similar trajectory, aping the pseudo-fascist societies of Southern Europe which went on to adopt democracy. As for the more purist SIS states like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, they were progressively hemmed in, degraded, and undermined. Syria is the last one standing because of its tenuous but still important links with the ghost of the old Cold War in the form of a particularly close relationship with Putinesque Russia.
|Remnant of Cold War I: Russian naval base, Tartus, Syria.|
Despite its external support, there is something horribly authentic about the Islamic Caliphate. This is testified to by the way it has sprung up and swept across the region despite doing everything in its power to outrage the wider world. Like Israel's cruel actions against the Gazans, there is a grim logic to it.
The entities most threatened by the rise of Secular Islamic Statism were Israel and the Gulf Monarchies. For this reason they have had a long-running animosity towards it. This accounts for their initial support for the forces behind the Islamic Caliphate, but the Islamic Caliphate, if successful, threatens Israel and the Gulf Monarchies just as much, if not more than, SIS. This is why the support is now flowing the other way with America bombing what it previously condoned.
|Internet savvy madmen from the middle ages.|
Religious fervour, however, is a much more potent unifying force. The logic of the Islamic Caliphate – once it achieves its immediate goals of bringing down Assad, overthrowing Shiite Iraq, and expelling, exterminating, or converting the non-Sunni population of its territories – would be the overthrow of the Gulf States as well as the Egyptian military oligarchy, followed by the consolidation of a fanatical Islamic state surrounding Israel.
There is almost a Hegelian logic to it: the synthesis of the violent populism and pan-Arab nationalism of the previous system with the spiritual fervour and martial brutality of Islam. But this does not mean that what the Islamic Caliphate is creating is something good, wholesome, or progressive. Despite its authenticity, its organic nature, and its 'evolutionary' characteristics, the Islamic Caliphate is simply the latest in a long list of weeds to flourish in the poisoned soil of the Middle East; a soil polluted by enormous, unearned oil wealth, the constant irritant of Israel's unnatural transplantation, and the evil of the most toxic of the Abrahamic faiths.