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David Murrin is the author of Breaking the Code of History, the culmination of decades of personal research across a wide range of disciplines. David compellingly argues that human behaviour is not random, but determined by specific, quantifiable and predictable patterns fuelled by our need to survive and prosper. He has called this cycle The Five Stages of Empire, which due to its fractal nature is applicable to empires, all the way down to the cycle of the individual. According to David, to resolve the issues confronting us today we cannot merely study the past. The human race will need to understand this precise algorithm of behaviour that has caused us to re-enact the same destructive cycles in ever-greater magnitudes, in order to change our future. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21.
The inclusive regions of Christianity and Islam
To better understand the current situation in the Middle East, one has to understand the 1500 years since the appearance of Islam and its interaction with the older Christian Religion.
Both Islam and Christianity are what Breaking The code of History (BTCH) defines as inclusive religions, i.e. beliefs that one can join by choice, rather than exclusive religions that are only conferred by birth right. As such, historically, they were both able to spread their message and expand their influence across the Mediterranean, independent of demographic expansion, by displacing other religions.
They became the foundations of two great empire cycles that have risen and fallen with mutual exclusivity. This derives from the fact that they both shared the Mediterranean basin as their home, so when one has been strong, the other has been weak, with a synchronicity that has lasted for 1500 years.
Today, after many centuries of global dominance by the Western Christian Super Empire, America, the last of a great series of Christian empires, is in decline. Once more, synchronous to that process, the Islamic world is in ascension. Hence the wars in the Middle East and Islamic extremism in the West are not about a few violent radicals; rather, they are part of a much more profound clash of civilisations that has spanned centuries.
The timing of such power shifts seems always driven by the decline of the dominant empire that creates a power vacuum into which other young and aspiring empires seek to expand. Thus it is America’s decline as the last of the Western Christian Empires that is dictating the rate of expansion and change in the Middles East, allowing the region to follow its own expanding cycle.
The implications of this long term power shift are that time is not on the side of the West in its struggle against Jihads’ terrorism. The West faces a multi-decade challenge that requires both short-term risk mitigation and long term solutions focused on the integration of its Islamic population.
The Arab Spring
This is a somewhat misleading description of current events, which seemingly only has meaning in the Chinese culture where they view spring as a time when energy rises. But where does this energy derive from? And where will it lead the Middle East in the decade ahead? Most importantly, what strategy should the West follow to maximise its own outcomes?
Using traditional geopolitical analysis, it appears that the region continues to devolve into the quagmire of war with multiple actors and an uncertain outcome. However, if we stand back and view the region using the perspective of Breaking the Code of History and the Five Stages of Empire Model—during which the empire goes through a process akin to the human life cycle of birth, maturity, and decline—then the current situation and future prognosis become much clearer.
A more accurate term for the “Arab Spring” would be the Regional Civil War of the Islamic Middle East, in which the Islamic system is identified as being in a similar phase of its cycle to that of the Western Christian Super Empire in its late stage of regionalisation.
In the majority of systems, the end stage of regionalisation has been marked by a massive youthful demographic bulge that seeks the most effective and broadly representative values and leadership. The English Civil War (1642-51), the American Civil War (1861-65) and the Chinese Civil War (1927-50) are clear examples of this process. In each case, the challenger to the incumbent powerbase represented a much broader enfranchisement of the general population. As a result, its power ultimately prevailed, and the new militarised, polarised society then marched out into the world on its path to empire.
The energy of such a civil war questions all aspects of a society’s internal working and leadership of the challenging system. This is paralleled by the sub-civil war within the Sunni powers that has created the wave of civil unrest in Egypt and Libya and now also Syria.
These revolutions represent the sweeping aside of old regimes with centralised leadership and narrow power bases that were linked to the western construct. Their replacement will be a leadership that characterises a new Sunni Islamic identity and pride in a Darwinian process that is sweeping through the region.
This regional civil war has actually been going on for longer than we realise. However, it has only come to our notice since its expansion has threatened the West, coincidental with the end of the Cold War. The conflict has gone through a number of stages.
Stage 1: The Iranian Revolution and Challenge
The Shias of Iran rose up against Western control and created an Islamic Shia state. Once consolidated they then went to war with Sunni Iraq which commenced Iran’s bid for regional control. However, with only 15% of the region’s population, to be successful, they had to win relatively quickly before the more numerous Sunni population mobilised. Thus, the Shias have lost their first-move advantage and are now effectively on the defensive surrounded by more numerous and motivated Sunnis–hence their pact with the US and continued need for developing nuclear weapons to ensure their survival.
Stage 2: Mobilisation of the Sunni population
The vanguard was the rise of the Jihadists, who were then followed by a second phase of broad-based mobilisation against narrow dictatorships. These revolutions washed away the old cold war dictatorships and sought to replace them with a new mechanism of leadership consistent with the process of a regional civil war.
With 85% of the region’s population, it is inevitable that, at the end of the regional civil war, Middle Eastern power will be consolidated by the Sunnis rather than the Shias–much as once happened with the first caliphate, 100years into its lifespan. Thus, the final outcome of this regional civil war process will ultimately be an Islamic Middle East, governed by a single new Sunni regime. The Sunni leadership challenge falls into two categories: Jihadists and Islamic democratic nations.
The Jihadists first appeared back in 1923 in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, the most prominent of these groups are Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram. Collectively, they represent an extreme religious group able to mobilise and polarise the youth in the region to fight with little fear of death. But how is that possible?
One of the key patterns in past regional civil wars is that the victor always has an ideology perceived to provide the greatest enfranchisement for the majority. This excluded the Catholic monarchy in the English Civil War, the plantation-driven South in the American Civil War and the Chinese nationalists in their civil war.
Similarly, the Jihadists provide enfranchisement for the lowest of their fighters in their connection to God, by giving them a cause so righteous in their own minds that their lives are of little consequence. Before Western readers recoil in shock at this prognosis, we should remember that it was Protestant fundamentalism that won the English Civil War, an abiding belief in democracy and freedom that won the American civil war, and Chinese communism with its concept of equality that won their struggle.
Quite simply, Islamic fundamentalism–much as it did when the followers of Muhammad swept out of the desert in the 7th century–has the ability to unite more disenfranchised followers than any other belief system currently in the Middle East. Its success is just a question of organisation, effective leadership and lack of opposition.
As so often seen in history before, challengers to established systems and empires are always perceived as barbarians. In reality, due to the very nature of the relative position on the empire curve of the challenger and the hegemon, the capability gap is always much smaller than appreciated.
Take ISIS for example. It has fought Hamas in Syria and is gaining ground. Hamas is an Iranian-trained group who were able to give the Israeli army a tough time in Lebanon. Thus we must conclude ISIS should not be underestimated as an organisation that comprises a strategic vision, significant financial resources, and battle-hardened forces.
For years, the West underestimated the organisational capability of Al-Qaeda and now is shocked that ISIS is so well organised and funded. In addition, ISIS has now absorbed the resources of the Iraqi army and created the first Jihadist state, something that neither the Taliban nor Al-Qaeda ever achieved.
Our conclusion is that without effective western intervention, ISIS is most likely to ultimately dominate the Jihadist group. That will, in all probability, not only unite Syria and Iraq into a caliphate, but also expand across the region. If by any chance this prognosis is wrong, then we should expect another Islamic Sunni offshoot to take its place, just as ISIS sprung from Al-Qaeda.
That caveat aside, it is important to remember that the expansionary process at this stage of empire is not linear and thus we should not be surprised at the speed of ISIS’ success and consequential expansion at this stage for the war. It is possible that their success will continue at the current stunning pace, rapidly upturning the current Middle Eastern order.
Islamic Democratic Nations
This group may yet play a critical role in the resolution of the regional civil war. Turkey is a prime example: in its desire to lead the region, it has been transforming itself from a secular democratic society based on the Western model into an Islamic democracy under President Erdogan. In time, Turkey’s democracy will become more similar to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although they have been in direct competition in the past, this might bring the two nations together in an alliance against the Jihadists in the region. A potential third element to this alliance could come from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who have renounced violence and seek to gain political power through democratic means.
However, the West should temper its expectations that Western democracy might be cloned in the Middle East, as it is inevitable that Islamic democracy will appear to be very different from secular Western democracy. If an Islamic Democratic ideology group win the regional civil war, it will, in all probability, result in the formation of a Middle Eastern Union.
The West faces a long multi-decade struggle against the forces of the rise of the Middle East on two fronts: the domestic and the geopolitical.
Domestically, Western nations with significant Islamic minorities will have to enact long term policies of integration and de-radicalisation in conjunction with short-term risk mitigation security strategies that will require increased resources and measures that will unavoidably reduce individual freedoms.
On the geopolitical front, the first stage for the West is to understand the processes in this regional civil war, and to then seek to obstruct and minimise the success of the Jihadist groups and encourage the rise of the democratic nations. The one process that acts in favour of the West is that–as groups like ISIS become successful and develop a nation-state–they will then become vulnerable to the conventional means of warfare in which they are vastly disadvantaged.
Next, they would be exposed to Special Forces units in a long-term program of attacks against their key infrastructure. However, the real challenge after the Western failures in Iraq and Afghanistan will be to mobilise public support to deploy sufficient and swiftly successful resources against ISIS.
In terms of prioritising threats to the West, even if the Middle East became a Jihadist Empire, it would take well over a decade of economic growth to develop an industrial military complex that could be a threat to the West on a conventional basis. During that time, China’s rise to power will have become the major conventional military threat to the West.
When China becomes more assertive in the region, which side will the Middle East support? Because of its oil, neutrality will not be an option. We would expect a democratic Islamic Middle East to side with the West. But what if the Jihadists dominate the Middle East? Would it react like Afghanistan did to Russia, or ally with China against the West?
Project for the Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.