The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East

Olivier Roy
New York: Columbia University Press
A Review by Susan Froetschel

A book’s small size can be deceptive. In selecting “The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East,” a reader must be prepared to release old assumptions and sort through a multitude of paradoxes and a maze of global connections, some more readily apparent than others.

A short book on such a complex topic requires strong frame and theme. Olivier Roy’s book succeeds more so with the former than the latter. “The aim of this book is to relocate the conflicts of the Middle East in their own context, while attempting to understand how they are related to the major issues facing Western societies,” explains the French authority on Islam and politics. “It is a matter of demolishing the idea that there is a ‘geostrategy of Islam’ that would explain all present conflicts, from Palestine to Bin Laden to the riots in Paris suburbs.”

The themes that emerge from his book, while not explicit, explore intentions behind recent actions of the US - how battling the abstract enemy “terror” has left the Middle East more fractured and debilitated than any time before.

The 9/11 attacks happened almost seven years ago, the war in Iraq has entered its sixth year, and yet, Roy says, the West’s citizens or policymakers still do not understand the fundamentals of the conflict or the nature of the region. With a barbed introduction entitled “The War on Terror: Between World War IV and Optical Illusion,” he sets out to analyze whether the war on terror is indeed of global scope or value. Unlike Norman Podhoretz who idiosyncratically elevates the Cold War to World War III and the war on terror to World War IV in his 2007 book, Roy alludes to the Albert Einstein assertion that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones.

The terrorists’ weapons, indeed primitive compared to those of the West, are strangely effective and not because a World War III wiped out technology or civilization. “Al-Qaeda’s terrorists are deploying in a space that is more deterritorialised and globalised than ever, thus eluding all the traditional instruments of power, which are now ineffective,” Roy concludes. Crude attacks from Al Qaeda provoke extreme responses from the most powerful nations, which only embolden the terrorists.

Hyperbolic labels such as World War IV assign too much importance to the terrorists, Roy warns. Players of the Middle East are caught up in an exchange of labels, perceptions and reactions that can emerge as more potent than real intentions. The US invasion of Iraq, based on Saddam Hussein’s potential rather than impending threat, is but one example. Roy simultaneously defends the Bush administration’s motives for the war - removing a dictator to jumpstart reform and better governance throughout the Middle East - but attacks the methods: “[A]t all events, the concept of the global war on terror must be abandoned because it does not make sense and leads to the wrong perceptions and policies.”

Lingering misperceptions and ideological prejudices are not only divisive but dangerous. Traditional weapons can deliver or disrupt regional control, but stability requires goals based on the highest values, transcending ideology. “The refusal to distinguish between movements which are primarily political and others which are purely terrorist makes action impossible,” Roy explains.

Threats should be prioritized: Al Qaeda is far more dangerous than the one-time Fatah or Baath parties or today’s Hamas; refusing to recognize such nuances has led to the failure of US democratization policy in the Middle East.

The good news is that societies can still tackle most threats with diplomacy, negotiation and integration. Most Muslims aspire to integrate, and Roy dismisses the notion of an overarching Islamic geostrategy: “[I]t is a self-fulfilling prophecy for it transforms an imagined situation into a policy and therefore gives substance to this new essentialist dogma.”

The bad news is that delays in confronting the lesser threats have led to more transnational terrorism, like Al Qaeda, which lacks concrete objectives but seeks “to attack the ‘system’ in general.”

While a monolithic Islamic geostrategy may not be in place, the Middle East does present a series of interconnected conflicts, and Roy points to Iran as a key to bringing order to the Middle East: “Either Iran is successfully isolated by military strikes and the repression of Shia activists in Iraq (and success is far from guaranteed), or negotiations with Iran must take place.”

Likewise, improving Israeli-Palestinian relations and demonstrating that the West can help a marginalized people would snatch a cause away from Iran and improve US standing in the region. Unfortunately, “[I]n prioritizing security over finding a political solution and in allowing the settlements to continue without an overall plan, Israel has routinely undermined any Palestinian authority and has never allowed the conditions to emerge that would enable a Palestinian government to be stable, credible and reliable.”

Roy offers no easy route for starting over and sorting through the maze of perceptions and real dangers. No entity operating in the region can claim to be innocent of offending others. Globalization has blurred the boundaries in sorting out individual versus collective responsibility, and dependence on oil complicates foreign policy.

To succeed whether others have not, new leaders must prepare to study the region’s nuances and create new perceptions. Roy urges free and open forums on a range of conflicts, unencumbered by political funding or ideology, and warns, “ ‘Civil society’ is very often an artificial construct which has little impact, other than a harmful one, on society itself.” Even universities and other nonprofits fueled by external funding are suspect market forces that can distort values, fuel corruption and divide communities.

Yet the region desperately needs soft-power influence. The most lethal terrorists in recent years, Roy reminds, are young converts from places other than Palestine, Iraq or other lands where the young directly suffer poverty or war. The youth who join terrorist movements, like young rebels of the past, merely seek a sense of purpose, positions of responsibility and a network of colleagues who share values of “breaking away from the family, their environment, their country of origin or their host country.”

Reform in the Middle East is no “hare-brained scheme,” and Roy notes that the underpinning philosophy remains the doctrine of major institutions, including the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank. The US set a lofty goal and sacrificed much in the way of life and credibility, and thus, future leaders of the West will find it difficult to return to the old route of realpolitik, allowing dictators of the region to have their way.

The world remains puzzled about why democratization, integration and openness have failed to take root in the Middle East. Ordinary readers and leaders would benefit from a more explicit argument, with examples and explanations and history, explaining why societies continuously fall prey to manipulative politicians who create deadlock and false enemies, whipping up fear and paranoia, for their own empowerment.

Politics in the Middle East are complicated, and so too is Roy’s book. Even those well versed in the region will find it necessary to pause and re-read the occasional sentence or passage. But the book is worth reading, serving as a reminder that our assumptions about others must be checked and re-checked, thus revealing many more commonalities along the way than one imagined.

The vision of a Muslim world united under the banner of Islam and storming the West makes no sense.
© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization