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Heinz Theisen {*}

Clash of Denominations

Why Western Powers should remain Neutral in Syria


In Syria, the Shiite Islam with the supremacy of Iran and the Sunni Islam with the supremacy of the oil monarchies and Turkey are fighting for hegemony in the Middle East. This power struggle gets its irreconcilability because of its deeper religious level. Due to the increasing Islamization, in the house of Muhammad the irreconcilable differences in the inheritance disputes have anew erupted. This politicized denominational war has nothing to do with the democratic spring of our dreams. It is rather comparable with the religious Thirty Years' War in Europe (1618-1648).

Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are involved as spearheads on both sides. Compared with the victory of the Islamists, al-Assad's regime should rather appear to be the lesser evil for the West and especially Israel. But the political élite does not think in pragmatic terms, as e.g. the lesser evil, but in great terms such as democracy, human rights and humanity. Due to their high basic convictions, they think that they need not be considerate of the petty objections of the majority of their citizens.

Before the civil war, al-Assad's regime was able to keep the denominational conflicts down - like Saddam Hussein before the Western invasion - only by means of secularism and brutality. Given the general Islamization of the region, the Alawit Assad had to admit that he was close to Shi'ism. Assad tends actually to a secular, socialist ideology. Today, in the Middle East, political ideologies are no longer of importance. This applies also to the democracy propagated by the West. In Syria democrats played a role only at the beginning of the uprising. They would hardly have approved of a civil war with 100.000 dead, and were thus forced into the background by the Islamist rebels who came in flocks.

Given the divisions within the Islamic world, democratic elections are like poison for the cohesion of a country. In Iraq, Lebanon and Syria - countries with Shiite and Sunni population - the simultaneity of Islamization and democratization leads almost inevitably to civil war. Due to the fact that people vote according to their religion or ethnicity, the majorities are cemented.

This is fatal, because minority rights and fundamental individual rights are not respected in the Middle East's understanding of democracy. We cannot get around the bitter insight that in multi-ethnic and multi-confessional states which are not built on a culture of enlightened universalism, democracies are oil in the fire in the struggles of cultures, religions and also tribes, as e.g. in Afghanistan. All preconditions for Western values are missing here.

Ninety percent of the world's Muslims are Sunni. The West has nevertheless chosen Iran as archenemy and not Saudi Arabia, which is everywhere funding Sunni Islamists. Iran, which formerly maintained good relations with Israel, puffs itself up as the biggest threat to Israel in order to score in the intra-Islamic, denominational conflict. Due to its proximity to Israel, the West will remain involved in the Middle East, despite its neutrality in the internal Islamic denominational war.

The fight of the denominations has pushed the conflict between Israel and Palestine into the background. Israel lives for the time being in the lee of the Islamic conflict. This might change by an American attack on Syria. In the long term, a war against Israel would be the only way to unite Shiites and Sunnis. Up to this day, only Saladin succeeded in this - in the battle against the Crusaders. In the Middle East one regards Israel, the U.S. and the West in general as the descendants of the Crusaders.

As regards cruelty, regime and rebels are in no way inferior to one another - only as regards the opportunity for it. The transitions from conventional warfare to cruelty are so fluid that there is much arbitrariness in defining the use of chemical weapons as "red line". Assad's followers are fighting for their own survival. In the case of a defeat, they would be - like Gaddafi - tortured to death. They will use all the more chemical weapons if they stand with their backs to the wall. A lasting weakening of Assad by the military strike of the U.S. and France would therefore increase the likelihood of further use of nerve gas.

The military strike would be in violation of international law. It does not allow humanitarian intervention but only self-defense. The "responsibility to protect under international law," which is added to the established international law, binds a protection mandate to the Security Council of the UN. The U.S. and the NATO would no longer get this support, because in the case of Libya they abused the mandate to protect the air space, and waged an aerial warfare against Gaddafi. The failed construction of the Security Council, which could only work by a close cooperation of the competing Great Powers, impedes the building of a new world order. The attempts of the West to create a world order have failed. They have increased the uncertainty by their enmeshments.


Chances and Risks of Attacks due to Humanitarian Motives

By the strike against Assad's regime, the U.S. wants to demonstrate humaneness, without any prospect of a solution to the conflict. Via the NATO-member Turkey, it runs as all NATO countries the risk of being entangled in an - according to rational criteria - irresolvable conflict. Eventual retaliatory strikes against Turkey and Israel could provoke an escalation. With regard to the Turkish government, the suspicion is not unreasonable that this is desirable as a pretext for an invasion of Syria. By a military strike the West would definitely be an interested party, a future intermediary role would be forfeited. There is a danger that the deterioration of Russian-Western relations becomes permanent.

If you compare the low chances for humanitarian success with the risks, the disproportion of an attack becomes apparent. The risks are clearly greater than the chances. Why should the West take risks when it with its values is fighting in any case a losing battle? Why should it actually take sides, in an - according to our categories - absurd power struggle and religious war? Shared values associate us neither with Sunni rebels nor with Shiitic rulers. And we want as little to make friends with secular dictators as with democratically elected Islamists.

Even the proponents of an attack show demonstratively reflexivity. The appearances of Kerry and Obama would redound to every 'Hamlet' production's honour. They know that in the multicultural world the claim to a universality of our values and our democratic structures is over and done with. Moralizations according to "good and evil" find no anchor in the Middle East. In every case of intervention, we will continue toiling until we are finally able to reach consensus to a new strategy.


Neutrality towards Irrationality

Our friendship with the Islamist Saudi Arabia is unnatural, and vice versa the hostility to Iran is exaggerated. The West should see both sides of the denominational struggle neither as friend nor as enemy. Instead of it, it should look for a relationship of coexistence with Islamic powers. What is needed in the clash of incompatible ideologies or cultures are not universal values but only the simultaneity of political coexistence and cooperation in civilizing functional systems. Instead of cross-cultural similarities - what matters is an organized coexistence of incompatible things, comparable to that ideological coexistence of East and West during the Cold War. In it, the ideological claim of both sides was postponed. The world has only been kept stable and open for the future.

An intensive scientific-technical and economic cooperation could foster a later deculturalization. The dual strategy of ideological coexistence and civilizing cooperation of the Cold War is therefore a model for culture struggles. As in the Soviet system, we have to hope for a paradigm shift as result of internal developments.

As in the Cold War, we must also accept that the West can not be the Saviour of the world. As before 1991 communism, today it must abandon other world regions to their inner chaos. The "apolar" world order in which we live requires a realistic assessment of our limitations and possibilities. Given the decrease of its population and its financial and military power resources, the West has no choice but to set limits to itself. After the failed universalisation, what matters now is to assert oneself. Only its soft power and economic strength will enable it to influence constructively other regions of the world.

In the inner-Islamic denominational war, the West should declare its neutrality. As regards the refugees from Syria, it should focus on the urgently needed humanitarian assistance, and maintain mutual economic interests with both sides. It would also be natural to entrust the Arab League with the task to meet its regional responsibility. Instead, the Sunni states of the Saudis, Qataris and Turks, which are on friendly terms with the West, fuel the rebellion - and thus we, too. Without their deliveries of arms, the rebellion would never have been able to assume its murderous proportions.

Russia prefers the Shiites, because in the Caucasus it is threatened by Sunni Islamists. From the outset Putin thought the sympathies of the West with Arab powers were naive. And he is right. And of course, the West must accept Russia's interests in its hemisphere, whether in the Caucasus or in the Middle East, where Syria is the only remaining power base for the Russians. Obama shares universalist illusions with his predecessor. This time, however, they are not motivated by strategic power interests but humanitarian.

Wherefrom does the West actually take the right to moral leadership in the war? Hardly from its history. We do not count Hitler among the West. But also the Allied firebombs on German cities, the atomic bombs on Japan, napalm bombs on Vietnam, the use of drones against terrorists are not more humane than chemical weapons. Demonized war aims, from Saddam Hussein, the Taliban up to Gaddafi, could as it were be thrown to the wolves, because the mentally lulled western media took part in everything, and reported even from dubious sources without first verifying them. Today's dominant political class has studied at a time when the high idea was everything whereas outlook was something for practicians. Its ignorance of other cultures contributes to the naivety with which it is constantly trying to build houses - beginning with the roof.

We do not understand foreign cultures. It belongs to the nature of the strange reality that we do not understand it; otherwise it would not be foreign. But it is inexcusable that we pretend to understand it, and presume to judge and shape it according to our categories. There is only one expression for this: Hubris! The attitude of the master race in the former colonial era has turned into the attitude of universalistic do-gooders.

There are a few individual voices who understand the tragedy of our involvement, as e.g. churchmen who have knowledge of the inevitable entanglement in guilt (original sin) and precisely therefore warn us to exercise restraint. They rightly point to the hassled situation of Christians in the Middle East, who are caught in the crossfire of zealots - like the Chaldean Christians in Iraq and the Copts in Egypt. Out of sheer fear of Islamist terror groups, the Christians in Syria stand by Assad. If what really matters for the West is its system of values, the specific concern of the West has to be their protection. In view of all the mistakes, the time has come to form a new strategy of coexistence with the Middle East. The Federal Government should contribute to this. Its position of vehemently arguing for an attack and just as vehemently to exclude its participation is the most wretched of all.


"Democracy" as the Core of Misunderstandings

A mistake of our political class is the civil religious idolization of democracy. The democratization of other cultures has long since degenerated into an ideology. With all the enthusiasm for free elections, it must not be overlooked that the elected Islamism is not compatible with individual liberties. It is part of the tragedy of Western influences on the Middle East that precisely in free elections radical Muslims come regularly to power. Accordingly, "illiberal" democracies emerge, where the majority suppresses, hassles, and terrorizes the minorities. When America and the European Union tried to make common cause with the elected Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in Egypt, they got entangled in the claim to democracy and the fight against fanatical Islam. The West runs the risk that its ideals are no longer taken seriously.

In Western liberal democracies the rule of the majority and the protection of minorities are two sides of the same coin. In contrast, the many initial attempts at democracy in the Middle East and North Africa have resulted in political regimes and systems without the protection of minorities, without religious freedom and freedom of expression. What emerged were rather governments of the majority which represent a new form of oppression. They are illiberal, reject individual liberties to a great extent or distrust them. But the meaning of democracy is freedom. If free elections restrict the freedom of the individual, the West has no reason to rush to the elected leaders' assistance.

Egypt's secular forces, including protesting youth from Tahrir Square, Coptic and other Christians and the powerful military have thrown the Muslim Brotherhood out of the government, because they wanted to prevent both a constitutional separation of power and liberal ways of life. This great coalition is only held together by the desire not to become victims of culturalism, i.e. the collective dominance of Islam alone. The latter makes all non-Muslims or non-believers to "infidels", "wards" and thus social outcasts who have no right to equal social, political, economic participation.

The priority of democracy prevents the advisable security partnership with Russia. As long as a liberal democratic community of values is demanded for a coalition against Islamism, Russia is rather opponent than partner, and there is no chance for a solution of the Syria conflict by means of negotiations. This claim corrupts also a factual relationship to the new Egyptian government. Democracy is the roof, the building has to be erected upon the floors education, civil society, market economy and legal system.


Civilizing Cultures

Given the decaying world of states in the Middle East, the heated old Palestinian nationalism is of no use. These States, which are lead by corrupt, partly Islamist regimes and are in any case ethnically and religiously torn, have become a problem. The unemployed Palestinian youth need less an own State than an own workplace. This requires a civil society.

The situation of young people and thus the future of the Middle East is dependent on other categories than on those of the old collective identities - regardless of whether they are of a political or religious kind. Politics, in the sense of action of communities, which are based on general cultural, ethnic, national, political or other "identities" is of low significance among many Arab youth. The powerlessness of politics over their problems is too obvious: unemployment and lack of perspective.

The number of unemployed young people will grow to hundred million in the Middle East and North Africa by 2020. Of the eighty million Egyptians every second person is already younger than 25 years. There are five applicants for every job. The unemployed young Arabs' need of collective "visions" is satisfied - whether they are of political or religious kind. Instead, they demand the right to build their own future. They want to be able to adopt the world as their own. This individualism is different from the old secular forces of the Arab socialism or nationalism.

The political contribution of the West and of Russia for the future of these individuals would be organizing a peace conference. It had to come together for years and would have to design a post-national order for the Middle East. In the case of Syria, the division of the country along denominational and ethnic boundaries would be on the agenda. A Syrian nation state has as little future as the Iraqi or Lebanese one. The nation states decay there before our very eyes. The deliberate division of states in the Balkans, however, has at least brought about a ceasefire.

The long-term future of the Middle East lies in a new Treaty of Westphalia. The negotiations before the Westphalian peace treaty lasted years, but they laid the religio-political foundations of Europe up to this day: coexistence of religions and separation of religion and politics, church and state. Simultaneously with it, essential foundations were laid for the later Enlightenment. It, in turn, has made possible the modern differentiations of society. Only a secular civilization would be able to preserve the many cultures of the Middle East at the level of profane functional systems such as education, science, technology and business.

The new secularist movements in the Arab world give cause for some hope. What primarily matters for them are neither denominations nor political structures but the possibility of participating in civilization. Given the simultaneity pregnant with civil war - Islamization and secularization - what the West needs is a dual strategy.

In order to avoid overstraining of its forces and a hopeless entanglement in the Arab-Arab conflicts, it should restrain itself politically and culturally. This behavior would be complemented by an even closer support in education, science, technology and business. In the long run, the cooperation in terms of civilization could then also influence and change spiritual and moral systems.


    {*} Heinz Theisen, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science at the Catholic University of Cologne, last published "Nach der Überdehnung. Die Grenzen des Westens und die Koexistenz der Kulturen" (Münster 2012)


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