It happened today - September 22, 2015

Ali Khamenei (right), the future Supreme Leader of Iran, in a trench during the Iran-Iraq war. On September 22nd back in 1980 the Iran-Iraq war erupted. It was certainly proof that while both sides cannot be right in a quarrel it’s very easy for both to be wrong. But the nature of the two grim, murderous sides in this conflict, their strange resemblance despite supposedly opposite philosophical foundations, throws considerable sickly light on the problems of the Middle East over the past century.

On one side was the first Islamist regime in Iran. On the other, a classic national socialist strongman, Saddam Hussein, of the sort who led anti-Western independence movements throughout the region. From Col. Nasser in Egypt to Hafez al-Assad in Syria and even to some extent the early Col. Gadhafi in Libya, they took their inspiration far more from Karl Marx than the Koran or, a less obvious but key point, from John Stuart Mill.

For these secular often pan-Arab leftists were not the first generation of modernizers in the Middle East by a long shot. Before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I (which was, incidentally, the last jihad proclaimed by a caliph), it was possible to draw the curtains and pretend nothing important was happening outside the Muslim Middle East. But by the 1920s it became clear that the military dynamism of the West posed a mortal threat to the independence of the region.

Moreover, and worse, it was essential to preserve political independence to fend off disturbing and disruptive alien cultural influences. Yet it was clear that the West’s military dynamism proceeded from its economic dynamism which proceeded from its cultural dynamism, that is, precisely the individualism, equality and turbulence that was seen as the main threat in the first place. And so intellectuals in the region have proposed one solution after another, all involving coercing the populace into changing their way of life and thought drastically in order to avoid changing it at all. And there’s no squaring that circle. (I highly recommend Theodore von Laue’s book The World Revolution of Westernization on this problematic point).

In a recent, superb and chilling analysis in the Wall Street Journal of the European response to the Syrian migrant crisis, Walter Russell Mead says “At bottom, we are witnessing the consequences of a civilization’s failure either to overcome or to accommodate the forces of modernity. One hundred years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and 50 years after the French left Algeria, the Middle East has failed to build economies that allow ordinary people to live with dignity, has failed to build modern political institutions and has failed to carve out the place of honor and respect in world affairs that its peoples seek. There is no point in rehearsing the multiple failures since Britain’s defeat of the Ottoman Empire liberated the Arabs from hundreds of years of Turkish rule. But it is worth noting that the Arab world has tried a succession of ideologies and forms of government, and that none of them has worked. The liberal nationalism of the early 20th century failed, and so did the socialist nationalism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his contemporaries. Authoritarianism failed the Arabs too… Today we are watching the failure of Islamism.”

He goes on to suggest, disturbingly, that Europe is now rejecting its own core values: “Increasingly, the contemporary version of Enlightenment liberalism sees itself as fundamentally opposed to the religious, political and economic foundations of Western society.” But Europe’s problems, and those of North America, are an issue for another day. What is noteworthy about the Iran-Iraq war is that, based on very different philosophies, each mounted a feeble but persistent and brutal war effort of such equal ineptitude that, coupled with the equally murderous belligerence of both regimes, meant the slaughter went on for eight years without useful result, and as soon as it was done both turned to other ways of causing turmoil and death wherever their bloody hands could reach. Clearly both philosophies were dramatic failures and, despite their ostensible differences, failures in very similar ways.

Because the national socialist alternative has exhausted itself, Islamism is the dominant anti-Western reform movement in the Middle East, seeking to move the Arab world back to an imagined era of purity instead of forward to one. But it can’t work either.

The proclamation of a jihad by Sultan Mehmet V now sounds like something out of a John Buchan novel (Greenmantle, specifically). But a century later, it’s happening again, as the region turns in a bloody and futile circle, unable to defeat the West and unwilling to embrace it.

It happened todayJohn Robson