Wisdom on the Greater Middle East

The Collected Essays and Reviews of J.B. Kelly: Vol. 1: Fighting the Retreat from Arabia and the Gulf
The Collected Essays and Reviews of J.B. Kelly: Vol. 2: The Oil Cringe of the West
The Collected Essays and Reviews of J.B. Kelly: Vol. 3: Islam Through the Looking Glass

by J.B. Kelly, edited by S.B. Kelly
New English Review Press; 2013, 356 pages; 2014, 354 pages; 2015, 266 pages; c.US$25 each



kellyI came across J. B. Kelly’s (left) magnificent book Arabia, the Gulf and the West (1980), when I was researching my book In Praise of Empires (2004). The essays and reviews collected in these three volumes by his son provide a compendium of his views on the failures of the imperial Western powers—first the British and then the Americans—to understand the Arabs and Islam, and their consequent failure in maintaining order in the Middle East. Today with the region in flames and millions fleeing the disorder in their dysfunctional homelands to the order and safety of Europe, the states system created after the fall of the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War has more than fulfilled Field Marshal Earl Wavell’s prediction: “After ‘the war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end Peace’.”[1]

These essays emphasise the influence of Arabophiles like T.E. Lawrence and Philby pere in presenting a romanticised view of the character of the Arab tribes. This created a climate of opinion in England where officials in charge of imperial policy chose to appease rather than deal robustly with the various machinations of Middle Eastern tribal rulers against British interests. The officials of the India Office with a more realistic view of these rulers and Islam were sidelined. After Indian independence they were replaced by Foreign Office officials intent on appeasing the Arabs, and increasingly reluctant to use military force to challenge the depredations of their rulers.

The misunderstanding of the Arabs and Islam began when Lord Kitchener of Khartoum (who became Secretary of War in Asquith’s government at the start of the First World War) changed Britain’s traditional aim in the Middle East of ensuring that their regional rivals, the French and the Russians, did not change the balance of power in the region, apart from a few territorial adjustments. Kitchener, by contrast, sought to seize the Arabic-speaking part of the Ottoman empire for the British, thereby creating a Middle Eastern empire to link and rival the one in India.

Recognising the importance but misunderstanding the nature of Islam, he sought to use it as a bulwark for the new Arabic empire by offering the religious leadership of the caliphate to the Hashemite Sheriff of Mecca. But, misunderstanding that in Islam the spiritual and temporal authority could not be split, this meant he was offering the kingdom of the Arabs to the Hashemite. This led Ibn Saud, the leader of the fierce, puritanical Wahhabi sect, to conquer the Hejaz with its holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1924, driving Hussein ibn Ali into exile. As a consolation prize the British put Hussein’s sons Feisal and Abdullah on the thrones of the newly created states of Iraq and Trans-Jordan.[2] This whole edifice, including the French dependencies in Syria and Lebanon created by the Sykes–Picot agreement, is now in flames.

In reviewing Kelly’s voluminous output of essays and reviews in this article, I will concentrate on three themes of contemporary relevance, instead of the chronological sequence in which they are arranged in three volumes by the editor. These are: The British Empire and tribal societies; the US engagement with the Greater Middle East (including Afghanistan and Pakistan); and Islam as a threat to global order.

Britain and tribal societies

Kelly’s essays on the British retreat from Aden are a particularly damning indictment of Britain’s pusillanimity in fulfilling its treaty obligations to the Gulf sheikdoms. This led to the Marxist takeover of Yemen, and the regional turmoil which continues. Yemen is particularly important, as the tribes inhabiting the bleak, inaccessible mountainous areas in the region are at the centre of the insurgencies currently tormenting the Middle East.

Kelly notes the importance of respecting tribal customs, and commends the official British policy in dealing with tribal societies: “not to interfere with the domestic institutions and customs of these states, particularly those which fall within the scope of the Shariah, or Islamic law”. He particularly commends Harold Ingram, the political officer who succeeded in establishing “Ingram’s Peace” in the Hadramuth in Yemen in the 1930s. He was following a policy first laid down by Lord Curzon for pacifying the turbulent and anarchic tribes in the North-West Frontier Province of imperial India. This has been described by Akbar Ahmad, an anthropologist, former political officer in this region and currently a professor at American University, as the “Waziristan model”.[3]

This model is based on three distinct but overlapping, mutually interdependent, though often opposed sources of authority: the tribal elder; the religious leader; and the political agent (PA) representing the central government, who was the key to Britain’s tribal administration. The PAs came from the Indian Political Service, an elite within the prestigious Indian Civil Service (ICS). As Ahmed writes, “If India was the jewel in the crown, this elite cadre was the sparkle in the jewel.”[4] They were highly educated and well versed in knowledge of local tribes, customs and language. This helped them to maintain order through indirect rule amongst the anarchic and turbulent tribes under their charge, often at great personal danger. In Curzon’s vision, the first line of defence of the north-west frontier was not British regiments but British political officers. After reading Kelly’s essays I could not help feeling that he would have made an excellent PA in the tribal regions of Arabia!

Another point Ahmed makes is resonant with the major theme of Kelly’s essays. The betrayal of these tribal societies by the British—and later the Americans—has led to disorder spilling over into widespread chaos in the Middle East. The tribes, who are fiercely resistant to modernisation, have taken to terror as an instrument of defiance against the modernising “centre”—whether national or international. Ten of the nineteen hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 atrocities were from the Asir tribes of Yemen; as was Osama bin Laden. Their actions, argues Ahmed, resulted from a breakdown and mutation of tribal and Islamic systems “triggered by what they saw as overwhelming attacks on Muslim lands and peoples”. They justified their terrorist acts by “combining the notion of revenge from their tribal background with Islamic concepts [like jihad] applied carelessly and with abandon”.[5]

Curzon himself, who travelled widely in Central Asia and had a deep understanding of tribal cultures, understood the constant threat that the tribes of the North-West Frontier Province posed for the Indian government. He is reported to have said:

No patchwork scheme—and all our present recent schemes, blockade, allowance etc., are mere patchwork—will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine[6].

Given his understanding of tribal culture, and his sympathy for PAs like Ingrams in Yemen, would Kelly ever have been in favour of the military steam-roller, adopted by other imperial powers (the French and Italians in North Africa, the Russians in the Caucasus) faced by recalcitrant and fiercely independent tribes within their borders? This question remains relevant for US policy in the Greater Middle East.

US engagement in the Greater Middle East

After the British Arabophiles, the second villain in Kelly’s story is Aramco (Arabian-American Oil Company). It was the cheer leader for the House of Saud after the Second World War when the US replaced Britain as the de facto hegemon maintaining order in the Middle East. In the post-war years US policy towards the Saudis was by and large outsourced to Aramco, which was determined “to undermine the British position in the Gulf and replace it with an American ascendancy concealed behind a Saudi Arabian façade”.

Kelly’s long essays on the Buraimi Oasis Dispute and “Arabian Frontiers and Anglo-American Relations” deal with the origins of the dispute between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States of Abu Dhabi and Oman about the Saudi frontiers, which poisoned relations between the Americans and the British in the early 1950s. In 1949 the Saudis, aided and abetted by Aramco, claimed nearly four-fifths of Abu Dhabi, where oil had been found. The Buraimi Oasis, where the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi and the Sultan of Muscat and Oman had traditional rights, which Britain as the guarantor of the security of the Gulf sheikdoms was determined to protect, became the flashpoint. Under Aramco guidance the Saudis occupied Buraimi. The British retaliated by sending about 400 levies to reassert the rights of their Gulf protégés. After a series of stand-offs and failed arbitrations suggested by the Americans, the British sent the Saudis packing and re-established the status quo border between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. The British refused to accept either of “Eisenhower’s proposals—a territorial concession or a neutral zone—a decision which hardly improved the President’s disposition”. This led to “the growth of distrust between London and Washington which was to have such a malign effect upon the course of the Suez crisis from July 1956 onwards”.

But Aramco was to be hoist on its own petard, because “the Western powers compromised, if not fatally weakened, respect for the rule of law in the Middle East by their repeated failure over a long period of time to defend their own legitimate interests in the region”. The nationalisation of BP in 1951 and the Suez Canal Company in 1956 began this story, with Britain putting up “a fairly spirited resistance to these larcenies”, but being “undermined and finally defeated by the United States”. The Western oil companies were targeted, being “subjected to a series of expropriations, sequestrations, and cancellation of concessions, all of them supinely acquiesced in by their own governments”.

The British withdrawal from the Gulf in 1970, and the defeatist reaction of the West to the oil price rise by OPEC, drew some of Kelly’s most vituperative comments. He saw the West’s appeasement of Iran and Saudi Arabia, which the US under Aramco’s tutelage saw as the twin pillars of maintaining order in the Gulf to safeguard the West’s oil supplies, as suicidal. After the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Shah, this “twin pillar” conceit of the US State Department of “pretending that the Gulf with each passing year was becoming more and more like Chesapeake Bay” could no longer be maintained. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the other pillar—Saudi Arabia—became vulnerable, “surrounded by the new revolutionary Shia regime in Tehran and Soviet surrogates in South Yemen and Iraq, and further afield in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan”.

The creation of OPEC and the rise in oil prices in 1970 and the oil embargo of 1973 was met by Western Europe, writes Kelly, by “an unedifying display of pusillanimity and sauve qui peut … which only confirmed the Middle Eastern members of OPEC in their contempt for the Western powers”. The Americans, seeing the supine reaction of their Western allies to OPEC, decided in 1974 to safeguard their oil interests supervised by entering into a comprehensive agreement with Saudi Arabia,

for the provision of arms, military training, and assistance with economic development in return for guaranteed oil supplies and promises of Saudi financial investment in the USA. The agreement amounted, in sum, to an American undertaking to preserve the integrity of Saudi Arabia and the primacy of the Al Saud within it.

The US thus cemented the accord President Roosevelt had reached with King Ibn Saud in 1945 aboard the Quincy.

Kelly is equally contemptuous of the dogma which developed in the West that physical control of Middle Eastern oil was not necessary, because “of the fashionable adage, ‘The Arabs can’t drink their oil’”. Instead hope was placed on “recycling” OPEC’s vast oil-based trade surpluses, “by the sale of an equally vast quantity of industrial goods and arms and by luring the Arabs into investing their financial surpluses in the West”.

Kelly was prescient in seeing that the vast flow of arms into the Middle East as part of this “recycling” would lead to disorder:

the states [in the region] are divided by long standing and vexatious antagonisms arising from dynastic rivalries, tribal vendettas, sectarian antipathies, territorial disputes and other historical causes. They have rarely, if ever, been able to sink their differences for any length of time; and there is no sign of their successfully doing so today. On the contrary, they are ready as ever to settle differences by the sword.

Not long Kelly wrote this essay in 1979, the sectarian war between Iraq and Iran began. It lasted for a decade, killed millions and ended in a stalemate.

This was followed by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which Kelly rightly saw as the result of Britain’s 1971 relinquishing its “maritime protectorate of the Gulf which it had exercised for 150 years”. Britain’s presence had prevented Iran from enforcing its claim of sovereignty on Bahrain, Saudi Arabia from subverting Abu Dhabi and Oman in the 1950s, and Iraq from overrunning Kuwait in 1961. With Britain’s retreat, and the Soviets and French having rearmed Iraq, Saddam Hussein, emboldened by the US tilt towards Iraq during the Iran–Iraq war, undertook his gamble. Kelly chastised the elder Bush for not pushing on to Baghdad and dethroning Saddam. He had also recommended that post-Saddam Iraq should be split up into the three Ottoman vilayats from which the British had cobbled together a kingdom as a consolation prize for one of the sons of the Sheriff of Mecca: a Kurdish autonomous state in the old vilayat of Mosul to be attached to Turkey; a separate Shia state in the old vilayat of Basra; and a Sunni state in the vilayat of Baghdad.

But, Saddam was not deposed. A no-fly zone in the north to protect the Kurds led to a de facto Kurdish autonomous region. But Saddam continued with his antics, and the heightened fears after 9/11 of his development and stocking of chemical and nuclear weapons led to the Allied invasion and occupation of Iraq. Kelly believed that the invasion of Iraq would only succeed if it aimed at the breakup of the artificial state of Iraq which he had advocated during the Kuwait war. He despaired at the blunders made by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair during the occupation. The most serious of those were the de-Baathification policy and the dismantling of the Iraqi army.[7] These led to the anti-American revolt in Anbar province, which had echoes of the 1920–22 revolt in Iraq against the British, discussed in Kelly’s last paper in these volumes.

The anti-American revolt was put down in the “surge” under General Petraeus, using methods to enlist the Sunni tribes similar to those used by the British to deal with the turbulence on the north-western frontiers of its Indian empire. By the end of the Bush administration in 2008, Iraq had been pacified. An SFO signed with the Iraqi government left a US military beach-head, to see that the political arrangements to create a federal Iraqi state were maintained. But, when Obama succeeded to the presidency, having campaigned against the Iraq War as a “stupid war”, he began to take a hands-off approach to Iraqi domestic politics. He did little after the Iraqi election of 2010 to constrain the Shia premier Nouri-al Maliki, who began the unravelling of the tentative political bargains between the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds to maintain a federal Iraq. Much worse, in his determination to end the US military presence in Iraq, Obama failed to force Maliki to accept another SFO from 2012. This meant that the military beach-head, which had been established after General Petraeus’s “surge” had becalmed Iraq’s sectarian wars and taken out Al Qaeda in Iraq, was no longer available to stop the latter’s resurgence as ISIS.

In the ensuing Syrian civil war, Obama failed to enforce his “red lines” against President Assad’s use of chemical weapons. He refused to establish a “no-fly zone” in Syria that the Turks had wanted to ground Assad’s airplanes and the barrel bombs which led to so much civil destruction. As Obama’s series of interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic makes clear, Obama has in effect washed his hands of the Middle East.[8] The vacuum left by Obama’s abdication of America’s role as the dominant power in the Middle East to maintain order, has been filled by Russia and Iran—a prospect Kelly warned against in his essays and reviews.

Kelly had particular contempt for the post-imperial pacifist European powers, who did not understand the strategic and economic importance of the Middle East, nor its tribal cultures. With the millions of refugees created by the Syrian civil war and the other failed states in the Greater Middle East, Chancellor Merkel opened Europe’s doors to immigrants from the region. Without an understanding of the tribal cultures from which many of them came, and no sifting of many of the “bare branches” who ended up on European shores, last New Year’s Eve there were mass sexual assaults in European cities from Germany to Austria, to Finland, Sweden and Switzerland.[9] This has led to the virtual end of the Schengen agreement, a pillar of the EU which allowed free movement within the union. Borders were closed and limits were placed on numbers of asylum-seekers. ISIS has used the opportunity provided by Merkel’s opening of Europe’s borders to smuggle jihadists in and out of Europe. They have been responsible for recent terrorist atrocities in Paris and Brussels, and counter-terrorist agencies fear many more atrocities in Europe.

The barbarians are now within the gates. Kelly must be turning in his grave at the Western powers’ pusillanimity and failure to maintain order in the Greater Middle East which has led to this pass.


Islam and global order

In a review of his mentor Bernard Lewis’s book The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last Two Thousand Years, Kelly remarks:

Looking back, not only over this book but over all that I have read of what Lewis has written, I cannot help feeling that he is much more admiring and much more tolerant of Islamic civilization than I have allowed myself to be.

Lewis is thus unable to take a balanced view of the threat that Islam poses to global order. In 1997 I asked him to come and speak on the Islamist threat to world peace at a colloquium I had organised at UCLA on “War and Peace”. He said he was too old to travel, but in our discussion he said that the Islamist threat is greater for other Muslims than it is for the West.

In my view[10] it is worth looking at the historic roots of the problem. The crucial difference between Islam and other religions is due to a unique feature of its cosmological beliefs: its inability to separate church and state. Whereas in most other civilisations a distinction can be made between the public and private spheres, and hence duality in the beliefs relevant to each can be accommodated, this is not possible in Islam.[11] It is only in the twentieth century that the question of privatising religion became an issue, and then only in Turkey, the only Muslim nation to formalise the separation of church and state. But Turkey too, under its current moderate Islamic government, seems to be backsliding. Clearly Islam itself is at the root of the problems of the Muslim world in coming to terms with modernity.

The Muslim civilisation that Mohammed and his successors created was the dominant world civilisation at the end of the first millennium. It was described by Muslim poets as providing “tastes of paradise”. This paradise was shattered by the rise of the West, though it was not till the Ottomans were turned back after the siege of Vienna in 1683 that this Islamic world went into relative decline.

The ancient civilisations traumatised by the rise of the West have had three major responses. The first is that of the oyster, which closes its shell. The other is to modernise, to try to master the foreign technology and way of life, and to fight the alien culture with its own weapons, as the Japanese did when Commodore Perry’s black ships appeared off the coast at Yokohama. Some Islamic countries—in particular Ataturk’s Turkey and Mehmet Ali’s Egypt—also took the second route, but only partially. The third remedy was socialism, which claimed to be able to combine modernity with tradition, through a combination of principles derived from both the Enlightenment and the Romantic Reaction.

This third remedy, which was the common response of many other traumatised ex-colonial elites, was also tried by the Muslim nationalist elites which came to power after the withdrawal of the West, as epitomised by Nasser in Egypt. Nasser realised that he had to come to terms with the low Islam of the common people,[12] to avoid social unrest. This low Islam was often syncretist and much influenced by the mystical form of Islam preached by the Sufis and their cult of saints. By contrast, the high Islam of the scholars (ulemma), from which the Islamists arose, was seen as a threat to the nationalist’s modernising ambitions and was ruthlessly suppressed. But the popular low Islam had little influence on the growing mass of educated youth in the cities. An attempt was then made to co-opt high Islam. In Egypt, Nasser in effect nationalised Al-Azhar, the Islamic seminary which had instructed the ulemma for a thousand years, and sought to get its teachers and pupils to argue for the compatibility of Islam with Nasserist socialism. But this attempt backfired, as the ulemma came to be looked upon as stooges of the state and could no longer fulfil their traditional function of mediating between the state and society.

The shattering Arab defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967 destroyed any hope that socialist nationalism offered a solution to the Muslim predicament. The military defeat was compounded by the failure of Arab socialism to increase the economic pie sufficiently. Thus, the lower middle classes and rural and urban proletariat did not share in the material gains promised at independence, which were garnered by the traditional elites.

The Islamic intelligentsia, financed by Wahhabi Saudi money, then turned to the other common remedy, that of the oyster. They turned towards Islamism and the creation of an Islamic state as the answer to Muslim woes. They sought to purify Islam from all the corruptions that had crept over the centuries into Muslim lives and thereby to regain Allah’s favour. While other civilisations have come to realise that modernisation does not entail Westernisation, and hence ancient cosmological beliefs can be maintained even when material beliefs have to change to modernise,[13] it was (as William McNeill notes) Islam’s misfortune that, despite many voices (such as Sir Syed Ahmed in nineteenth-century India) stating that Islam could be reconciled with modernity, the two remedies of the oyster and the moderniser “seemed always diametrically opposed to one another. Reformers’ efforts therefore tended to cancel out, leaving the mass of Muslim society more confused and frustrated than ever.”[14]

Much worse, unlike the other Eurasian civilisations where the growth of a Western-educated elite which had imbibed some of the messages of the Enlightenment, allowed modernity and tradition to be reconciled, in Muslim countries, Western education has in part led to the Islamist backlash. The hijackers who flew into the World Trade Center were not poor, illiterate peasants, but the children of well-off middle-class parents, with a technical education.

The important study of Fundamentalism by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences[15]—with which I was associated—found that in the Arab world, and in Muslim states from Iran to Pakistan, there is a consistent pattern in the educational and socio-economic status of Islamic militants. Fundamentalists are mainly students and university graduates in the physical sciences with rural or traditionally religious backgrounds. They are turning into Islamists, Malise Ruthven argues, because of their failure to integrate “the dual identity of the village Muslim and the applied scientist … The religious mind inherited from the village or suburb is conditioned to believe that knowledge is ‘Islamic’, that all truth is known and comes from Allah. The scientist operates in a field of epistemological doubt.”[16] Moreover, for the devout Muslim, the real scandal is that knowledge acquired through doubt has proved more powerful in creating material prosperity than the revealed knowledge of their religion. During the initial phase of Islam’s expansion, its stupendous conquests, which provided booty for the material prosperity of the umma, were seen as proof of God’s approval. The success of the post-Enlightenment West then becomes unbearable. Thus the 9/11 hijackers were motivated:

[not by] some naive faith in a paradisical future, but the final solution they found to a profoundly tragic personal predicament … These highly educated products of Western technical education … [found] their faith in the benign and compassionate deity of Islam begin to wobble. Their final act was not a gesture of Islamic heroism, but of Nietzschean despair.[17]

Paradoxically it is partly in this cognitive dissonance of educated Muslim youth that the hope for a prospective Muslim Enlightenment lies. If this were to occur, it would be able—as Hume said of the England and Holland of his time—to embrace the principle of tolerance “in opposition to the continual efforts of priests and bigots”. It should be remembered that Hume and his contemporaries of the Scottish Enlightenment were changing minds in the Western world only a few decades after the iron grip of the Calvinist kirk seemed to have closed all Scottish minds.[18] As David Hume noted in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the religious tolerance which was embraced by the English and Dutch “proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate”[19].

Many in the West had hoped that the Arab Spring would establish liberal democracies. With their separation of church and state and the establishment of a secular legal order they would lead to a similar enlightened outcome in Muslim societies. But, as Shadi Hamid has argued,[20] in these countries democracy has turned out to be the enemy of liberty, because the devout, who are the main soldiers of political Islam, inevitably want to enforce sharia law. For the parties of political Islam this remains their raison d’être. So democracy in the Muslim world is unlikely to be the midwife of an Islamic Enlightenment.

However, there is a major difference in the jurisprudence which has evolved in the two branches of Islam—Sunni (particularly the Wahhabi version) and Shia—which could provide a Scottish route to a Muslim Enlightenment. In the earlier years of the Arab conquests, when sharia was being developed, the process of interpretation and exercise of independent judgment known as itjihad allowed some doctrinal flexibility.[21] This period, particularly under the Abbasids, saw the flowering of Islamic civilisation, which came to be the intermediary between the ideas and techniques of the older civilisations of Greece, China and India. But sometime during the ninth to eleventh centuries as part of the Abbasid compromise the majority Sunnis (unlike the Shia) came to accept the ulema (clerics) as the true heirs of the prophet in expounding the sacred law, and the “gate of itjihad” was closed. This closing of the Sunni Muslim mind has been accentuated by the madrassas of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia spreading through its oil money throughout southern Asia from the Red Sea to the Pacific. Thus, Kelly is right that the attempts of Pakistani Sunni scholars to reinterpret Islam are unlikely to succeed in the current Sunni Islamist revival as epitomised by the Wahhabi Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now ISIS in Mesopotamia.

By contrast, after their break with the Sunnis after the battle of Karbala, the Shia ulema have played a very different role from their Sunni rivals.[22] The major difference is that, unlike the Sunnis, the Shia community relies on its clerics not only to interpret religion but “to make new rulings which expand on religious law, first codified in the eighth century”[23]. They are educated at seminaries, mainly in Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran. On graduating they “become a full member of the ulema, someone who can practice ijtihad”, and a mutjahid who collects religious taxes.[24] The bigger a senior cleric’s purse, the wider a patronage network he can build in the clerical ranks below him.

The Shia also developed a distinction between church and state known as the “Safavid contract”. This lasted for 500 years till Ayatollah Khomeini erased it by his theory of velayat e faqih (guardianship of the jurist—a Platonic ideal) creating a populist theocracy. But this was not accepted by other Shia ulema, most importantly Grand Ayatollah al-Khoi, and his student Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq. Nasr argues that Khomeini and his deviant theory have now lost influence even in Iran, where the traditional view of a less politicised faith represented by Ayatollahs Khoi and Sistani are “so quickly becoming popular” [25]. This victory of the old quietist Shia Islam—with its opening to alternative interpretations through ijtihad, and its implicit acceptance of the separation of church and state, over Khomeini’s politicized Shia Islam—offers the best hope of a Muslim Enlightenment.

This may seem as unlikely today as did the Scottish Enlightenment at the end of the seventeenth century, with the iron grip of the Calvinist kirk having closed all Scottish minds. Until this happens, despite the Obama doctrine, the West must remain resolute, as J.B. Kelly argued so eloquently in his essays, in countering the Islamists of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Deepak Lal is James S. Coleman Professor Emeritus of International Development Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, and Professor Emeritus of Political Economy, University College London. His most recent book is Poverty and Progress: Realities and Myths about Global Poverty.

*James S. Coleman Professor Emeritus of International Development Studies, University of California, Loa Angles, and Professor Emeritus of Political Economy, University College London.


[1]David Fromkin (1989): A Peace to End All Peace: the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East, Henry Holt, New York. Fromkin acknowledges his debt to Eli Kedourie in reviewing his manuscript. Kedourie, along with Kelly, Bernard Lewis and P. Vatikitos were, as the editor of these volume notes in his epigraph ‘About the Author’, “the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ pre-eminent scholars in the field who believed that Western policy towards the Arab world was distorted by sentimental illusions- notably that it mistook the tyranny imposed by Arab nationalist regimes for progress”. (vol. 1, p.343). I was surprised not to find a review by Kelly of Fromkin’s book in these volumes, but perhaps it came out too late after his retirement to the South of France in 1988 for him to take notice.

[2][2]See Fromkin, op. cit., p.104and Lal (2004), ps.86-87.

[3][3] Akbar Ahmed (2013):The Thistle and the Drone, Brookings, Washington D.C.

[4] Ibid, p.60.

[5][5][5] Ahmed, op. cit., ps. 106-7.

[6] Cited in Ahmed, p. 59

[7] See my In Praise of Empires, op. cit., ps. 199-201.

[8] See my “On the ‘Obama Doctrine’”, Business Standard, March 2016. Available at:

[9]These sexual assaults of women in public places are called tahrrush gamea and originated in Egypt in 2005. They typically occur under the protective cover of large gatherings, assailants encircle a woman, while outer rings of men may form to deter rescuers. The attackers may pretend to be rescuers, adding to the confusion. Women have reported digital penetration of their orifices, having their clothes pulled or cut off, being pulled in different directions, having their hair pulled, and being beaten, raped and robbed. Women in Egypt have called it the “circle of hell”. See D. Lal” “The migrant crisis and ‘Europe””, Business Standard, January 2016. Available at: business-standard-com/columnists/search/keyword/Deepak%20Lal

[10] See D. Lal: Unintended Consequences: The Impact of factor endowments, culture, and politics on long-run economic performance, The Ohlin lectures, MIT Press, 1998, 2001, chp. 4: D. Lal: “Enlightenments Old and New- Faith and Reason”, University of Queensland Law Journal, vol.33(2), 2014, and my In Praise of Empires, op. cit., chp.85-99.

[11]    Bernard Lewis, ‘Muslims, Christians and Jews: the dream of co-existence’ (1992) 39(6) New York Review of Books 50. noted, ‘for Muslims, the State was God’s State, the army God’s army, and of course the enemy was God’s enemy … The question of separating Church and state did not arise, since there was no church as an autonomous institution, to be separated. Church and state were the one and the same’.

[12]    This distinction between high and low Islam was made by the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, and was picked up in his analysis of Muslim society by Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[13]    This distinction between ‘cosmological’ beliefs (how one should live) and ‘material’ beliefs (how to earn a living) is made in my Unintended Consequences: Lal, above n 11.

[14]    William McNeill, A World History (Oxford University Press, 3rd ed, 1979) 390.

[15]    Martin Marty and Scott Appelby (eds), Fundamentalisms and the State (Chicago University Press, 1993), which summarizes and presents some of the AAAS studies, including mine on Hindu fundamentalism. In this I had reported my interview with L. K. Advani the leader of the Hindu nationalist party the BJP. He rightly noted that given the polytheism of Hinduism there cannot be Hindu fundamentalists. He said his promotion of Hindu nationalism was a purely political ploy, as it helped to garner votes from the large anti-Muslim minority of voters, who resented Muslim prosleytising and the fact that they had ruled the Hindus as conquerors for over 500 years. Its more recent stance against Christian missionaries seeking to convert tribals in India is based on similar motives.

[16]    Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God (Granta Books, 2002) 124.

[17]    Ibid 132.

[18] See Arthur Herman: How the Scots Invented the Modern World , Three Rivers Press, 2001

[19] David Hume: Dialogues and Natural History of Religion, Penguin Classics, (1799, 1990),p. 162.

[20]    Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a new Middle East (Oxford, 2014).

[21]    See Fazlur Rahman, Islam (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed, 1979) and Deepak Lal, Unintended Consequences (MIT Press, 2001) ch 4.

[22]    See Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival (W.W. Norton, 2007) and Gerhard Bowering et al (eds), Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 2013).

[23] Ibid, p. 69

[24] Ibid, p.70

[25] P.219

13 thoughts on “Wisdom on the Greater Middle East

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Shut down the Saudi financing of the madras and and western mosques and The Salafism of the Sunnis will wither.

    So will the terror attacks on the west.

  • says:

    This is a most interesting and educational article.

    What it lacks is any reference to the significance of the peril Islam represents to contemporary western civilisation. Islamic terrorism and related violence – real and frightening as they are – are not the main concern. What ought to be more keenly appreciated by the non-muslim world, particularly its leaders, is the demographic aspect of Islam as the real threat to all that is not Muslim. Given the birth rate of Muslims, both in islamic and non-islamic countries, it is only a matter of 2-3 generations before they vastly outnumbered the rest. Unless this process is reversed or at least halted, the sheer weight of numbers will guarantee Muslim dominance of most, if not all of the world. The traumatic processes within the Islamic world have no bearing on this process. Once they dominate the world, they will simply have an expanded arena in which to go on murdering each other without any outside hindrance. Any remaining non-muslims will be swiftly and mercilessly eliminated.

    • Warty says:

      Indeed a fascinating article. With regards to you statement that it lacks ‘any reference to the significance of the peril Islam represents to contemporary western civilisation’. Mr Lal did say the following: ‘With the millions of refugees created by the Syrian civil war and the other failed states in the Greater Middle East, Chancellor Merkel opened Europe’s doors to immigrants from the region. Without an understanding of the tribal cultures from which many of them came, and no sifting of many of the “bare branches” who ended up on European shores, last New Year’s Eve there were mass sexual assaults in European cities from Germany to Austria, to Finland, Sweden and Switzerland.[9] This has led to the virtual end of the Schengen agreement, a pillar of the EU which allowed free movement within the union. Borders were closed and limits were placed on numbers of asylum-seekers. ISIS has used the opportunity provided by Merkel’s opening of Europe’s borders to smuggle jihadists in and out of Europe. They have been responsible for recent terrorist atrocities in Paris and Brussels, and counter-terrorist agencies fear many more atrocities in Europe.
      The barbarians are now within the gates. Kelly must be turning in his grave at the Western powers’ pusillanimity and failure to maintain order in the Greater Middle East which has led to this pass’. (I’m sorry, some people seem to know how to introduce an italic font, but I don’t)
      Other commentators have referred to the ‘structural’ time bomb you are referring to, though I personally feel all hell will break loose in Europe before Muslim number reach tsunami proportions.

    • Biggles says:

      Bill. I suggest you read David Archibald’s book Twilight of Abundance. The deepening grand solar minimum, now commencing, will cause mass starvation in the M/E and north African countries. The runaway increase in the arab population you fear will be greatly curbed by this event.If you doubt my point about the Sun, keep an eye on weather conditions in North America, Britain and Europe this coming winter and their effects on agriculture.

  • Jody says:

    It takes little more than arrant stupidity to destroy nations and create social unrest. There would be a lot of Syrian refugees who are English-speaking and from the middle classes who will go on to contribute positively to European life. There will also be some from this same demographic who are jihadists, as we have seen with 9/11 and other atrocities in the US and elsewhere. The fact of NOT screening out these people and allowing ‘transhumance’ to effectively replace borders Merkel and her naive, politically correct, bien pensant minions need to be comprehensively jack-booted out off the Reichstag. They have left the remainder of Europe to deal with their problems. The uneducated masses of muslims will simply gather in enclaves, build their mosques, repress their women, engage in tribal disputes and create no-go zones in much of Europe. Some will be fortunate and smart enough to think for themselves and move away from all of that. Sadly, these will be in the minority.

    • Jody says:

      PS: My neighbour’s cousin lives in Graz, Austria’s second city after Vienna. She reported to my neighbour, during their very recent trip to Austria, that the people in Graz are now afraid to go out after dark and are very wary of railway stations and catching trains. I can tell you from experience, Austria was once the safest place in the world to visit and live. Not any more. Watch out for the rise of the right wing in that nation!!

      • Warty says:

        You make the ‘rise of the right wing’ sound like the re-emergence of the National Socialists, or equivalent. I think such a rise would be the equivalent of Wojciech’s comment (as an ordinary The Australian reader): it is ‘just like stretching a rubber band: it will come back if stretched too far’. I simply love quoting and re-quoting his clear ‘homespun’ philosophy. The EU and the UN human rights philosophy are examples of his rubber band being stretched too far to the left; AfD is the satisfying ‘twang’ back.

  • says:

    Philby[pere] is no doubt Hillary St John Bridger Philby an advisor to Ibn Saud and father to the infamous spy and UK traitor Kim Philby.
    St John Philby had converted to Islam, taking the name Sheikh Abdullah, spoke Arabic fluently and eventually married as his second wife, a slave girl from Baluchistan presented to him by the Saudi King.
    When interviewed by MI6 about his son’s possible career as an intelligence officer he was asked:
    ‘He was a bit of a communist at Cambridge, wasn’t he?
    ‘Oh that was all schoolboy nonsense,’ St John airily replied. ‘He’s a reformed character now’.
    Ref: “A Spy among Friends” by Ben Macintyre

    • padraic says:

      A very informative article about a complex problem. The main problem, among those alluded to by the author, is basically a power struggle between the clerics who hold power in a system where religion and state are not separate (sharia) and the reformers who want to separate religion and state, with the result that the political power passes from the clerics to those running the secular state. As he rightly points out, this battle occurred in our Western society centuries ago – the dispute between Archbishop Thomas Becket and King Henry II and Henry VIII and the Pope being good examples. In this contemporary battle in the Muslim world, the Muslim clerics see modernisation (including education for all) as the tool of the secularists to win power from them – they need a population whose education lacks a rational secular emphasis, so they can control the people and paint their secular opponents as Western stooges bent on destroying the people’s culture and way of life. The Western system has achieved a satisfactory allocation of powers to religious authorities and secular authorities and that is the challenge for Muslims. In the West, we have to appreciate and maintain the secular/religious divide and the effort that went into reaching the current arrangement and only admit others into our societies who share our secular values and accept the division of religion and state.

  • Joel OShea says:

    This journal contribution got your hardbacks onto my bookshelf.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    Nasr argues that Khomeini and his deviant theory have now lost influence even in Iran, where the traditional view of a less politicised faith represented by Ayatollahs Khoi and Sistani are “so quickly becoming popular” …. This victory of the old quietist Shia Islam—with its opening to alternative interpretations through ijtihad, and its implicit acceptance of the separation of church and state, over Khomeini’s politicized Shia Islam—offers the best hope of a Muslim Enlightenment.
    This may seem as unlikely today as did the Scottish Enlightenment at the end of the seventeenth century, with the iron grip of the Calvinist kirk having closed all Scottish minds. Until this happens, despite the Obama doctrine, the West must remain resolute, as J.B. Kelly argued so eloquently in his essays, in countering the Islamists of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

    A truly brilliant and incisive article by Deepak Lal. My congratulations and thanks.
    There is nothing quite so simultaneously depressing and terrifying as a closed mind. (I have known a few.) Religious clerics are inclined to encourage mental closure in those in their thrall, while scientific and liberal-democratic types tend to do the opposite. It is a case of education vs indoctrination; the classical Greeks vs the Persian invaders; the bohemian quarter vs the robots marching out of the robot factory.
    As I see it, monopoly of education is simultaneously Islam’s strength and its weakness. Mohammad’s worldview is so shot through with holes that his acolytes see no alternative but to do whatever they can to close down all competition to it. Conversely, the struggle for liberalism, in both government and education, will IMHO be the best path to its undoing.

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