Is It All About Oil?

The Iraq War as a Grab for Mineral Wealth

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

Read Interview with Yakgrtu Newspaper (December 2009)


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March 17, 2003

If the looming war was all about oil, Iraq would be invaded by the European Union, or Japan - whose dependence on Middle Eastern oil is far greater than the United States'. The USA would have, probably, taken over Venezuela, a much larger and proximate supplier with its own emerging tyrant to boot.

At any rate, the USA refrained from occupying Iraq when it easily could have, in 1991. Why the current American determination to conquer the desert country and subject it to direct rule, at least initially?

There is another explanation, insist keen-eyed analysts.

September 11 shredded the American sense of invulnerability. That the hijackers were all citizens of ostensible allies - such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia - exposed the tenuous and ephemeral status of US forces in the Gulf. So, is the war about transporting American military presence from increasingly hostile Saudis to soon-to-be subjugated Iraqis?

But this is a tautology. If America's reliance on Middle Eastern oil is non-existent - why would it want to risk lives and squander resources in the region at all? Why would it drive up the price of oil it consumes with its belligerent talk and coalition-building? Why would it fritter away the unprecedented upswell of goodwill that followed the atrocities in September 2001?

Back to oil. According to British Petroleum's Statistical Review of World Energy 2002, the United States voraciously - and wastefully - consumes one of every four barrels extracted worldwide. It imports about three fifths of its needs. In less than eleven years' time, its reserves depleted, it will be forced to import all of its soaring requirements.

Middle Eastern oil accounts for one quarter of America's imports. Iraqi crude for less than one tenth. A back of the envelope calculation reveals that Iraq quenches less than 6 percent of America's Black Gold cravings. Compared to Canada (15 percent of American oil imports), or Mexico (12 percent) - Iraq is a negligible supplier. Furthermore, the current oil production of the USA is merely 23 percent of its 1985 peak - about 2.4 million barrels per day, a 50-years nadir.

During the first eleven months of 2002, the United States imported an average of 449,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) from Iraq. In January 2003, with Venezuela in disarray, approximately 1.2 million bbl/d of Iraqi oil went to the Americas (up from 910,000 bbl/d in December 2002 and 515,000 bbl/d in November).

It would seem that $200 billion - the costs of war and postbellum reconstruction - would be better spent on America's domestic oil industry. Securing the flow of Iraqi crude is simply too insignificant to warrant such an exertion.

Much is made of Iraq's known oil reserves, pegged by the Department of Energy at 112 billion barrels, or five times the United States' - not to mention its 110 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Even at 3 million barrels per day - said to be the realistically immediate target of the occupying forces and almost 50 percent above the current level - this subterranean stash stands to last for more than a century.

Add to that the proven reserves of its neighbours - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates - and there is no question that the oil industry of these countries will far outlive their competitors'. Couldn't this be what the rapacious Americans are after? - wonder genteel French and Russian oilmen. After all, British and American companies controlled three quarters of Iraq's mineral wealth until 1972 when nationalization denuded them.

Alas, this "explanation" equally deflates upon closer inspection. Known - or imagined - reserves require investments in exploration, development and drilling. Nine tenths of Iraq's soil are unexplored, including up to 100 billion barrels of deep oil-bearing formations located mainly in the vast Western Desert. Of the 73 fields discovered - only 15 have been developed. Iraq's Oil Minister, Amir Rashid, admitted in early 2002 that only 24 Iraqi oil fields were producing.

The country has almost no deep wells, preponderant in Iran, for instance. Though the cost of production is around $1-1.5 per barrel, one tenth the cost elsewhere - while Texas boasts 1,000,000 drilled wells, Iraq barely sports 2000. The Department of Energy's report about Iraq concludes:

"Iraq generally has not had access to the latest, state-of-the-art oil industry technology (i.e., 3D seismic), sufficient spare parts, and investment in general throughout most of the 1990s, but has instead reportedly been utilizing questionable engineering techniques (i.e., overpumping, water injection/"flooding") and old technology to maintain production."

The quality of Iraqi oil deteriorated considerably in the recent decade. Its average API gravity declined by more than 10 percent, its water cut (intrusion of water into oil reservoirs) increased and its sulphur content shot up by one third. The fields date back to the 1920s and 1930s and were subjected to abusive methods of extraction. Thus, if torched during a Gotterdammerung - they may well be abandoned altogether.

According to a report published by the United Nations two years ago, Iraqi oil production is poised to fall off a cliff unless billions are invested in addressing technical and infrastructural problems. Even destitute Iraq forks out $1.2 billion annually on repairing oil facilities.

The Council of Foreign Relations and the Baker Institute estimated, in December last year, that the "costs of repairing existing oil export installations alone would be around $5 billion, while restoring Iraqi oil production to pre-1990 levels would cost an additional $5 billion, plus $3 billion per year in annual operating costs".

Not to mention the legal quagmire created by the plethora of agreements signed by the soon to be deposed regime with European, Indian, Turkish and Chinese oil behemoths. It would be years before Iraqi crude in meaningful quantities hits the markets and then only after tens of billions of dollars have been literally sunk into the ground. Not a very convincing business plan.

Conspiracy theorists dismiss such contravening facts impatiently. While the costs, they expound wearily, will accrue to the American taxpayer, the benefits will be reaped by the oil giants, the true sponsors of President Bush, his father, his vice-president and his secretary of defence. In short, the battle in Iraq has been spun by a cabal of sinister white males out to attain self-enrichment through the spoils of war.

The case for the prosecution is that, cornered by plummeting prices, the oil industry in America had spent the last ten years defensively merging and acquiring in a frantic pace. America's twenty-two major energy companies reported overall net income of a mere $7 billion on revenues of $141 billion during the second quarter of last year. Only forty five percent of their profits resulted from domestic upstream oil and natural gas production operations.

Tellingly, foreign upstream oil and natural gas production operations yielded two fifths of net income and worldwide downstream natural gas and power operations made up the rest. Stagnant domestic refining capacity forces US firms to joint venture with outsiders to refine and market products.

Moreover, according to the energy consultancy, John S. Herold, replacement costs - of finding new reserves - have soared in 2001 to above $5 per barrel. Except in the Gulf where oil is sometimes just 600 meters deep and swathes of land are immersed in it. In short: American oil majors are looking abroad for their long-term survival. Iraq always featured high on their list.

This stratagem was subverted by the affair between Saddam Hussein and non-American oil companies. American players shudder at the thought of being excluded from Iraq by Saddam and his sempiternal dynasty and thus rendered second-tier participants.

According to the conspiracy minded, they coaxed the White House first to apply sanctions to the country in order to freeze its growing amity with foreign competitors - and, now, to retake by force that which was confiscated from them by law. Development and production contracts with Russian and French companies, signed by Saddam Hussein's regime, are likely to be "reviewed" - i.e., scrapped altogether - by whomever rules over Baghdad next.

An added bonus: the demise of OPEC. A USA in control of the Iraqi spigot can break the back of any oil cartel and hold sway over impertinent and obdurate polities such as France. How would the ensuing plunge in prices help the alleged instigators of the war - the oil mafia - remains unclear. Still, James Paul propounded the following exercise in the Global Policy Forum this past December:

"(Assuming) the level of Iraqi reserves at 250 billion barrels and recovery rates at 50% (both very conservative estimates). Under those conditions, recoverable Iraqi oil would be worth altogether about $3.125 trillion. Assuming production costs of $1.50 a barrel (a high-end figure), total costs would be $188 billion, leaving a balance of $2.937 trillion as the difference between costs and sales revenues. Assuming a 50/50 split with the government and further assuming a production period of 50 years, the company profits per year would run to $29 billion. That huge sum is two-thirds of the $44 billion total profits earned by the world’s five major oil companies combined in 2001. If higher assumptions are used, annual profits might soar to as much as $50 billion per year."

The energy behemoths on both sides of the pond are not oblivious to this bonanza. The Financial Times reported a flurry of meetings in recent days between British Petroleum and Shell and Downing Street and Whitehall functionaries. Senior figures in the ramshackle exile Iraqi National Congress opposition have been openly consorting with American oil leviathans and expressly promising to hand postwar production exclusively to them.

But the question is: even if true, so what? What war in human history was not partly motivated by a desire for plunder? What occupier did not seek to commercially leverage its temporary monopoly on power? When were moral causes utterly divorced from realpolitik?

Granted, there is a thin line separating investment from exploitation, order from tyranny, vision from fantasy. The United States should - having disposed of the murderous Saddam Hussein and his coterie - establish a level playing field and refrain from giving Iraq a raw deal.

It should use this tormented country's natural endowments to reconstruct it and make it flourish. It should encourage good governance, including transparent procurement and international tendering and invite the United Nations to oversee Iraq's reconstruction. It should induce other countries of the world to view Iraq as a preferred destination of foreign direct investment and trade.

If, in the process, reasonable profits accrue to business - all for the better. Only the global private sector can guarantee the long-term prosperity of Iraq. Many judge the future conduct of the USA on the basis of speculative scenarios and fears that it is on the verge of attaining global dominance by way of ruthlessly applying its military might. This may well be so. But to judge it on this flimsy basis alone is to render verdict both prematurely and unjustly.

Interview granted Yakgrtu Newspaper (organ of Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) in Iraq), December 20, 2009

Q: What is your perspective about Iraq War? Do you think that is just or not?

Imagine a village of 220 inhabitants (the international community of nations). It has one heavily armed police constable (the United States) flanked by two lightly equipped assistants (the European Union and NATO). The hamlet is beset by a bunch of ruffians (the Saddam Hussein regime) who molest their own families and, at times, violently lash out at their neighbours. These delinquents mock the authorities and ignore their decisions and decrees.

Yet, the village council (the United Nations) - the source of legitimacy - refuses to authorize the constable to apprehend the villains and dispose of them, by force of arms if need be. The elders see no imminent or present danger to their charges and are afraid of potential escalation whose evil outcomes could far outweigh anything the felons can achieve.

Incensed by this laxity, the constable (the USA) - backed only by some of the inhabitants (the “coalition of the willing”) - breaks into the home of one of the more egregious thugs and expels or kills him. The constable claims to have acted preemptively and in self-defence, as the criminal, long in defiance of the law, was planning to attack its representatives.

Was the constable right in acting the way he did?

On the one hand, he may have saved lives and prevented a conflagration whose consequences no one could predict. On the other hand, by ignoring the edicts of the village council and the expressed will of many of the denizens, he has placed himself above the law, as its absolute interpreter and enforcer.

What is the greater danger? Turning a blind eye to the exploits of outlaws and outcasts, thus rendering them ever more daring and insolent - or acting unilaterally to counter such pariahs, thus undermining the communal legal foundation and, possibly, leading to a chaotic situation of "might is right"? In other words, when ethics and expedience conflict with legality - which should prevail?

According to the Catholic Church's rendition of this theory, set forth by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in his Letter to President Bush on Iraq, dated September 13, 2002, going to war is justified if these conditions are met:

"The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations [is] lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated."

A just war is, therefore, a last resort, all other peaceful conflict resolution options having been exhausted.

The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy sums up the doctrine thus:

"The principles of the justice of war are commonly held to be:

  1. Having just cause (especially and, according to the United Nations Charter, exclusively, self-defence);
  2. Being (formally) declared by a proper authority;
  3. Possessing a right intention;
  4. Having a reasonable chance of success;
  5. The end being proportional to the means used."

Yet, the evolution of warfare - the invention of nuclear weapons, the propagation of total war, the ubiquity of guerrilla and national liberation movements, the emergence of global, border-hopping terrorist organizations, of totalitarian regimes, and rogue or failed states - requires these principles to be modified by adding these tenets:

  1. That the declaring authority is a lawfully and democratically elected government.
  2. That the declaration of war reflects the popular will.

(Extension of 3) The right intention is to act in just cause.

(Extension of 4) ... or a reasonable chance of avoiding an annihilating defeat.

(Extension of 5) That the outcomes of war are preferable to the outcomes of the preservation of peace.

Still, the doctrine of just war, conceived in Europe in eras past, is fraying at the edges. Rights and corresponding duties are ill-defined or mismatched. What is legal is not always moral and what is legitimate is not invariably legal. Political realism and quasi-religious idealism sit uncomfortably within the same conceptual framework. Norms are vague and debatable while customary law is only partially subsumed in the tradition (i.e., in treaties, conventions and other instruments, as well in the actual conduct of states).

The most contentious issue is, of course, what constitutes "just cause". Self-defense, in its narrowest sense (reaction to direct and overwhelming armed aggression), is a justified casus belli. But what about the use of force to (deontologically, consequentially, or ethically):

  1. Prevent or ameliorate a slow-motion or permanent humanitarian crisis;
  2. Preempt a clear and present danger of aggression ("anticipatory or preemptive self-defence" against what Grotius called "immediate danger");
  3. Secure a safe environment for urgent and indispensable humanitarian relief operations;
  4. Restore democracy in the attacked state ("regime change");
  5. Restore public order in the attacked state;
  6. Prevent human rights violations or crimes against humanity or violations of international law by the attacked state;
  7. Keep the peace ("peacekeeping operations") and enforce compliance with international or bilateral treaties between the aggressor and the attacked state or the attacked state and a third party;
  8. Suppress armed infiltration, indirect aggression, or civil strife aided and abetted by the attacked state;
  9. Honour one's obligations to frameworks and treaties of collective self-defence;
  10. Protect one's citizens or the citizens of a third party inside the attacked state;
  11. Protect one's property or assets owned by a third party inside the attacked state;
  12. Respond to an invitation by the authorities of the attacked state - and with their expressed consent - to militarily intervene within the territory of the attacked state;
  13. React to offenses against the nation's honour or its economy.

Unless these issues are resolved and codified, the entire edifice of international law - and, more specifically, the law of war - is in danger of crumbling. The contemporary multilateral regime proved inadequate and unable to effectively tackle genocide (Rwanda, Bosnia), terror (in Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East), weapons of mass destruction (Iraq, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea), and tyranny (in dozens of members of the United Nations).

This feebleness inevitably led to the resurgence of "might is right" unilateralism, as practiced, for instance, by the United States in places as diverse as Grenada and Iraq. This pernicious and ominous phenomenon is coupled with contempt towards and suspicion of international organizations, treaties, institutions, undertakings, and the prevailing consensual order.

In a unipolar world, reliant on a single superpower for its security, the abrogation of the rules of the game could lead to chaotic and lethal anarchy with a multitude of "rebellions" against the emergent American Empire. International law - the formalism of "natural law" - is only one of many competing universalist and missionary value systems. Militant Islam is another. The West must adopt the former to counter the latter.

Q: What was the best solution to remove Baath Regime, Saddam Hussein?

War, undoubtedly, is by far the most efficacious, certain and immediate method of obtaining regime change. But see my previous answer for the risks such a course of action entails. Moreover, regime change is not one of the accepted justifications for declaring war. The concept of regime change is of dubious provenance as far as international law goes. It opens the door to breaches of sovereignty brought on by less than wholesome motives (such as the wish to secure economic gains or to resolve ideological disagreements).

Q: Under the Obama administration, what will be the future of Iraq? What are the possibilities that you expect?

It is wrong to believe that the long-term policies of the United States change with every new administration. As Obama is discovering now, many of the measures implemented and decisions taken by George Bush were unavoidable and must be continued. The same applies to Iraq: for public opinion and pecuniary reasons, the USA is seeking to withdraw the bulk of its troops, while working with and maintaining a largely friendly regime there. This is untenable. Geopolitics does not suffer a vacuum: as the presence of the USA diminishes, the void will be filled by Islamist militants and fundamentalists, sectarian and secessionist operatives (including Kurdish ones), other foreign powers (Russia and China come to mind), and rampant organized crime gangs. Finally, a new Saddam Hussein is likely to emerge, replete with a promise to restore law and order to the territory. The West will support him out of fear that, if it doesn’t, Iraq will implode.

Q: The issue Kirkuk province, and other disputed areas is one of the main problem facing the Iraqis in their quest to establish new Iraq. How can they solve these problems? Can the Americans do anything about that? How do you see the future of Kirkuk?

In many parts of the world – from the United Kingdom to Nigeria – resource-rich regions are subsidising and supporting poorer parts of the country. Sometimes this results in tensions and fighting (as in Nigeria) and, at other times, in a peacefully-negotiated increased autonomy (as in Scotland). A durable, consensual solution requires the following elements: (1) That a large chunk of oil revenues remain in the province and are used to better the lives of the local inhabitants in a tangible and visible way; (2) That decision-making regarding contracting and extraction policies devolves to the regional authorities and is effected transparently; (3) That the regional authorities are fairly and democratically elected and are representative of the ethnic and religious composition of their constituency; (4) That the regional authorities have a say (though not veto right) as to how oil revenues are used at the national level; (5) That clear mechanisms of consultation and dispute resolution are in place (if necessary, with resort to an international component). This is where the USA can come in: as one of the arbiters in cases where the regional and national authorities are at odds and cannot resolve their differences. If the issue of Kirkuk is not settled more or less in the manner I describe, Iraq will experience increasing instability with the potential to break down in the throes of an ugly civil war in which will suck in the entire region. That’s why I believe that the Iraqi government will be pressurized by the USA and the EU into settling the issue of Kirkuk and Mosul soon and for good.

Q: In these days, most of the Kurdish media are talking about the Kurdish-Israel relations. Are there any relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Israel? Do you support relations between your nation and Kurdistan? How it should be organized?

Israel has always regarded the Kurds as an important ally in its struggle for survival against murderous and extremist Arab regimes, such as Saddam Hussein’s. The Kurds are also a back channel to countries such as Turkey and Iran. Israel continues to support the Kurds in Iraq to this very minute with weapons, military training and consultants, intelligence-sharing, transfer of agricultural knowledge, and some financial and development aid. Unfortunately, both parties tend to regard each other only within the narrow confines of the martial and geopolitical benefits that they confer. This tunnel vision precludes a true, long-term alliance between the two nations, one that involves economic, scientific, cultural, educational and other non-military exchanges. Israel and the Kurds should establish a permanent bilateral council that will direct such modes of collaboration within a coordinated, long-term plan to encourage moderate elements in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Q. Can Israel do anything for Kurds in order to get their independence?

No. Israel will not risk its strategic alliance with Turkey (currently under serious strain) to further Kurdish national aspirations. Israel is dependent for its survival on the United States and for its economic welfare on the European Union, both of which are strongly opposed to Kurdish independence. Moreover: destabilizing Iraq, Iran, and Turkey (by establishing a Kurdistan) is not in the interests of Israel.

Q. How do you see the future of Kurds within Iraq?

In the short to medium term, the autonomy of the Kurdish region within Iraq will wax and wane as successive central governments seek to reassert their control either by incorporating pliant Kurdish leaders into the administration, or by subduing the more rebellious heads of clans and politicians. The next few years will be dedicated to renegotiating the issue of Kirkuk and Mosul as I delineated above. In the long-term, with the rise of a new Saddam Hussein, the Kurds will opt out of Iraq. This could well lead into a “war of independence” and an internationally-mediated secession, akin to Kosovo’s.

Indeed, the Kurds would do well to study the precedent of Kosovo.

The new state of Kosovo has been immediately recognized by the USA, Germany, and other major European powers. The Canadian Supreme Court made clear in its ruling in the Quebec case in 1998 that the status of statehood is not conditioned upon such recognition, but that (p. 289):

"...(T)he viability of a would-be state in the international community depends, as a practical matter, upon recognition by other states."

The constitutional law of some federal states provides for a mechanism of orderly secession. The constitutions of both the late USSR and SFRY (Yugoslavia, 1974) incorporated such provisions. In other cases - the USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom come to mind - the supreme echelons of the judicial system had to step in and rule regarding the right to secession, its procedures, and mechanisms.

Again, facts on the ground determine international legitimacy. As early as 1877, in the wake of the bloodiest secessionist war of all time, the American Civil War (1861-5), the Supreme Court of the USA wrote (in William vs. Bruffy):

"The validity of (the secessionists') acts, both against the parent State and its citizens and subjects, depends entirely upon its ultimate success. If it fail (sic) to establish itself permanently, all such acts perish with it. If it succeed (sic), and become recognized, its acts from the commencement of its existence are upheld as those of an independent nation."

In "The Creation of States in International Law" (Clarendon Press, 2nd ed., 2006), James Crawford suggests that there is no internationally recognized right to secede and that secession is a "legally neutral act". Not so. As Aleksandar Pavkovic observes in his book (with contributions by Peter Radan), "Creating New States - Theory and Practice of Secession" (Ashgate, 2007), the universal legal right to self-determination encompasses the universal legal right to secede.

The Albanians in Kosovo are a "people" according to the Decisions of the Badinter Commission. But, though, they occupy a well-defined and demarcated territory, their land is within the borders of an existing State. In this strict sense, their unilateral secession does set a precedent: it goes against the territorial definition of a people as embedded in the United Nations Charter and subsequent Conventions.

Still, the general drift of international law (for instance, as interpreted by Canada's Supreme Court) is to allow that a State can be composed of several "peoples" and that its cultural-ethnic constituents have a right to self-determination. This seems to uphold the 19th century concept of a homogenous nation-state over the French model (of a civil State of all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religious creed).

Pavkovic contends that, according to principle 5 of the United Nations' General Assembly's Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance With the Charter of the United Nations, the right to territorial integrity overrides the right to self-determination.

Thus, if a State is made up of several "peoples", its right to maintain itself intact and to avoid being dismembered or impaired is paramount and prevails over the right of its constituent peoples to secede. But, the right to territorial integrity is limited to States:

"(C)onducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples ... and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed, or colour."

The words "as to race, creed, or colour" in the text supra have been replaced with the words "of any kind" (in the 1995 Declaration on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations).

Yugoslavia under Milosevic failed this test in its treatment of the Albanian minority within its borders. They were relegated to second-class citizenship, derided, blatantly and discriminated against in every turn. Thus, according to principle 5, the Kosovars had a clear right to unilaterally secede.

As early as 1972, an International Commission of Jurists wrote in a report titled "The Events in East Pakistan, 1971":

"(T)his principle (of territorial integrity) is subject to the requirement that the government does comply with the principle of equal rights and does represent the whole people without distinction. If one of the constituent peoples of a state is denied equal rights and is discriminated against ... their full right of self-determination will revive." (p. 46)

A quarter of a century later, Canada's Supreme Court concurred (Quebec, 1998):

"(T)he international law right to self-determination only generates, at best, a right to external self-determination in situations ... where a definable group is denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, social, and cultural development."

In his seminal tome, "Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Appraisal" (Cambridge University Press, 19950, Antonio Cassese neatly sums up this exception to the right to territorial integrity enjoyed by States:

"(W)hen the central authorities of a sovereign State persistently refuse to grant participatory rights to a religious or racial group, grossly and systematically trample upon their fundamental rights, and deny the possibility of reaching a peaceful settlement within the framework of the State structure ... A racial or religious group may secede ... once it is clear that all attempts to achieve internal self-determination have failed or are destined to fail." (p. 119-120)

Q. Can Muslims and Israelis have good relations? How could it be achieved?

Israel has problems with Arab Muslims, not with all Muslims. The conflict with the Arabs can never be resolved for three reasons: (1) Israel is perceived by the Arabs as a foreign body, a colonial outpost of the West, whose culture, ethnicity, religion, and affiliations are alien to the region. The Arabs’ reaction to Israel is immunological and is a private case of their animosity towards the United States; (2) Both the Israelis and the Palestinians nurture and harbour identical, competing, and mutually-exclusive claims to the very same piece of land and to the same history; (3) Both parties believe that they will prevail and triumph, given resources and enough time. This set of beliefs coupled with these emotional reactions renders peace the less rational and less attractive course of action.

Q: Finally, what else do you want to say?

There is a debate in the Western media about Islam: is it belligerent by its very nature or is it being abused and misused by fanatics and fundamentalist militants?

In my view, Islam is not merely a religion. It is also - and perhaps, foremost - a state ideology. It is all-pervasive and missionary. It permeates every aspect of social cooperation and culture. It is an organizing principle, a narrative, a philosophy, a value system, and a vade mecum. In this it resembles Confucianism and, to some extent, Hinduism.

Judaism and its offspring, Christianity - though heavily involved in political affairs throughout the ages - have kept their dignified distance from such carnal matters. These are religions of "heaven" as opposed to Islam, a practical, pragmatic, hands-on, ubiquitous, "earthly" creed.

Secular religions - Democratic Liberalism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, Socialism and other isms - are more akin to Islam than to, let's say, Buddhism. They are universal, prescriptive, and total. They provide recipes, rules, and norms regarding every aspect of existence - individual, social, cultural, moral, economic, political, military, and philosophical.

At the end of the Cold War, Democratic Liberalism stood triumphant over the fresh graves of its ideological opponents. They have all been eradicated. This precipitated Fukuyama's premature diagnosis (the End of History). But one state ideology, one bitter rival, one implacable opponent, one contestant for world domination, one antithesis remained - Islam.

Militant Islam is, therefore, not a cancerous mutation of "true" Islam. On the contrary, it is the purest expression of its nature as an imperialistic religion which demands unmitigated obedience from its followers and regards all infidels as both inferior and avowed enemies.

The same can be said about Democratic Liberalism. Like Islam, it does not hesitate to exercise force, is missionary, colonizing, and regards itself as a monopolist of the "truth" and of "universal values". Its antagonists are invariably portrayed as depraved, primitive, and below par.

Such mutually exclusive claims were bound to lead to an all-out conflict sooner or later. The "War on Terrorism" is only the latest round in a millennium-old war between Islam and other "world systems".

Such interpretation of recent events enrages many. They demand to know (often in harsh tones):

But is there no difference between terrorists who murder civilians and regular armies in battle?

Both regulars and irregulars slaughter civilians as a matter of course. "Collateral damage" is the main outcome of modern, total warfare - and of low intensity conflicts alike.

There is a major difference between terrorists and soldiers, though:

Terrorists make carnage of noncombatants their main tactic - while regular armies rarely do. Such conduct is criminal and deplorable, whoever the perpetrator.

But what about the killing of combatants in battle? How should we judge the slaying of soldiers by terrorists in combat?

Modern nation-states enshrined the self-appropriated monopoly on violence in their constitutions and ordinances (and in international law). Only state organs - the army, the police - are permitted to kill, torture, and incarcerate.

Terrorists are trust-busters: they, too, want to kill, torture, and incarcerate. They seek to break the death cartel of governments by joining its ranks.

Thus, when a soldier kills terrorists and ("inadvertently") civilians (as "collateral damage") - it is considered above board. But when the terrorist decimates the very same soldier - he is decried as an outlaw.

Moreover, the misbehaviour of some countries - not least the United States - led to the legitimization of terrorism. Often nation-states use terrorist organizations to further their geopolitical goals. When this happens, erstwhile outcasts become "freedom fighters", pariahs become allies, murderers are recast as sensitive souls struggling for equal rights. This contributes to the blurring of ethical precepts and the blunting of moral judgment.

Would I rather live under Shari’a law? Don't I find Liberal Democracy vastly superior to Islam?

Superior, no. Different - of course. Having been born and raised in the West, I naturally prefer its standards to Islam's. Had I been born in a Muslim country, I would have probably found the West and its principles perverted and obnoxious.

The question is meaningless because it presupposes the existence of an objective, universal, culture and period independent set of preferences. Luckily, there is no such thing.

In this clash of civilization whose side am I on?

This is not a clash of civilizations. Western culture is inextricably intertwined with Islamic knowledge, teachings, and philosophy. Christian fundamentalists have more in common with Muslim militants than with East Coast or French intellectuals.

Muslims have always been the West's most defining Other. Islamic existence and "gaze" helped to mold the West's emerging identity as a historical construct. From Spain to India, the incessant friction and fertilizing interactions with Islam shaped Western values, beliefs, doctrines, moral tenets, political and military institutions, arts, and sciences.

This war is about world domination. Two incompatible thought and value systems compete for the hearts and minds (and purchasing power) of the denizens of the global village. Like in the Westerns, by high noon, either one of them is left standing - or both will have perished.

Where does my loyalty reside?

I am a Westerner, so I hope the West wins this confrontation. But, in the process, it would be good if it were humbled, deconstructed, and reconstructed. One beneficial outcome of this conflict is the demise of the superpower system - a relic of days bygone and best forgotten. I fully believe and trust that in militant Islam, the United States has found its match.

In other words, I regard militant Islam as a catalyst that will hasten the transformation of the global power structure from unipolar to multipolar. It may also commute the United States itself. It will definitely rejuvenate religious thought and cultural discourse. All wars do.

Isn’t this overdoing it? After all, al-Qaida is just a bunch of terrorists on the run!

The West is not fighting al-Qaida. It is facing down the circumstances and ideas that gave rise to al-Qaida. Conditions - such as poverty, ignorance, disease, oppression, and xenophobic superstitions - are difficult to change or to reverse. Ideas are impossible to suppress. Already, militant Islam is far more widespread and established that any Western government would care to admit.

History shows that all terrorist groupings ultimately join the mainstream. Many countries - from Israel to Ireland and from East Timor to Nicaragua - are governed by former terrorists. Terrorism enhances social upward mobility and fosters the redistribution of wealth and resources from the haves to haves not.

Al-Qaida, despite its ominous portrayal in the Western press - is no exception. It, too, will succumb, in due time, to the twin lures of power and money. Nihilistic and decentralized as it is - its express goals are the rule of Islam and equitable economic development. It is bound to get its way in some countries.

The world of the future will be truly pluralistic. The proselytizing zeal of Liberal Democracy and Capitalism has rendered them illiberal and intolerant. The West must accept the fact that a sizable chunk of humanity does not regard materialism, individualism, liberalism, progress, and democracy - at least in their Western guises - as universal or desirable.

Live and let live (and live and let die) must replace the West's malignant optimism and intellectual and spiritual arrogance.


Also Read:

Saddam's Thousand Nights

The Iraqi and the Madman

God's Diplomacy and Human Conflicts

The Economies of the Middle East


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