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“Secularism Does Not Have A Lock On Globalization”: What Republicans Keep Getting Wrong About The Iraq War

The 2016 Republican hopefuls more or less agree: Knowing what we know now, they would not have invaded Iraq.

But there is a nagging sense that we weren’t just wrong about invading Iraq — we were missing the point. It’s easy to admit that the war was an error. But it’s more difficult to explain that we entirely misread what was happening in the Middle East.

Make no mistake, we’re still struggling with that very same challenge. We now largely agree that it’s not about remaking the world in our image — nor is it about turning terrorism into a mere nuisance. But we have mostly failed to acknowledge that our struggles in the Middle East stem from a fatal flaw in our view of human progress.

The lessons of Iraq are so hard to unpack because the circumstances surrounding the invasion were so unusual. There was no other regime in the world with such a strange combination of intransigence, opacity, strategic importance, and vulnerability. One big reason we invaded Iraq was how much easier it was to invade than the rest of the so-called Axis of Evil.

Most importantly, in 2003, Iraq wasn’t surrounded by countries in great disarray. It was superficially plausible that a free and whole Iraq might start a chain reaction of beneficent globalization throughout the region.

And even when those ambitions were sharply curtailed, Republicans still argued that the U.S. ought to lead the way in modernizing the Middle East. At a presidential debate in New Hampshire eight years ago this month, Mitt Romney called for us to “combine for an effort to help move Islam towards modernity. There is a war going on, and we need a broad response to make sure that these people have a different vision.”

Despite powerful pressure from the anti-war left, even leading Democrats, including Barack Obama, insisted that modernization and globalization, hand in hand, were essential to remaking the Middle East as a realm of peace and prosperity.

In his landmark Cairo address, President Obama explained that “human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.”

Alas, the Arab world did not share that vision. But it was not because the Middle East’s Muslims wanted to lurch backward in time. Like George W. Bush, Obama was right to sense that the era of secular strongmen was ending in the region. And like Bush — and so many others — Obama failed to understand that globalization and modernization would exaggerate religious fervor and strengthen religious identity, rather than accelerate Western-style liberalization.

As the Islamic State has made obvious, some manifestations of this new religious movement clearly despise some values we associate closely with modernity. That has helped blind us to seeing the radical modernity of religious revival inside and outside the Muslim world.

Americans must be shown that secularism does not have a lock on globalization. “What all Islamist movements have in common is a categorical rejection of any secular realm,” as the philosopher John Gray has observed. “But the ongoing reversal in secularization is not a peculiarly Islamic phenomenon. The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development… For secular thinkers, the continuing vitality of religion calls into question the belief that history underpins their values.”

Republicans teaching the true lessons of Iraq must go even further. The religious resurgence, of which Islamism is only one part, hinges on a particularly modern phenomenon: the yearning for direct, transformative experience, whether in faith or other realms of life. In a bygone age, stable religious hierarchies arranged powerful, official intermediaries between individuals and God — so much so that individuals could hardly see themselves as such. Today, that framework is a shambles. Recall the horrific personal initiative and independence on display on 9/11. Rather than a throwback to a time of obedience to unquestioned creedal rulers, terrorism betokens a stunningly profound break in the vertical of authority that characterized organized religion for centuries.

There is more. Even Islamists’ view of the enemy as absolutely evil and beyond compromise is a modern take on an old idea — starkly contrasting the aristocratic, detached, and calculated view of the secular despot, always shifting sides and weighing advantages.

The true lesson of our Iraq misadventure, Republicans must explain, is that our enemies are more like us than we care to think: not in their values, of course, but in their patterns of thought. Ignore this uncanny fact, and the GOP is likely to lose much more than the presidential election.


By: James Poulos, The Week, June 11, 2015

June 13, 2015 - Posted by | Iraq War, Middle East, Religious Beliefs, Secularism | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. If anyone ever needed proof that globalization and modernization had little impact on the lack of desire of religious groups to embrace progress, you don’t need to look any further than places like Texas or Kansas.


    Comment by List of X | June 13, 2015 | Reply

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