Geopolitics and Sociology of Islam
by Stephen Schwartz
The Islamic lands have stood at a pivotal point between West and East from the origin of the Muhammadan revelation in western Arabia. The geography of Islam has remained relatively static through the establishment of a second Islamic heartland in Turkey, Iran and Central Eurasia, wider than the Arab core and including much of the Indian subcontinent, up to the current revolutionary turmoil in the Arab countries and Iran. To understand Islam, as a monotheistic religion and as a civilization spanning the area from Morocco to Indonesia, we must examine two underlying aspects of its history. The first is geopolitical. The second is sociological.
Geopolitics as a formal study has been greatly influenced by two writers prominent in the early 20th century: the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan and the British author Sir Halford Mackinder. Mahan had divided the world into northern and southern zones, with an intermediary "Debated and Debatable" region encompassing South America, Africa, and South Asia. Mackinder had changed the analytical division of the planet, identifying an East-West separation. In his work Central Eurasia was labeled "the Heartland," with Europe, South Asia, and East Asia as a "marginal, inner crescent" bordering on the Heartland, and the Americas, Africa, and Australia as an "insular, outer crescent."
Mahan's theory depended on the 19th century role of naval power, and Mackinder's on the importance of the tsarist Russian empire in demonstrating, according him, the inevitable superiority of land-based military forces over seaborne warfare. Mackinder identified "the Heartland" as the "pivot" of Eurasia, which he described as "the World Island," from Spain to Japan, with Africa as its extension. His doctrine was summed up in three principles:
"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,
"Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island,
"Who rules the World Island commands the World."
Both the legacies of Mahan and Mackinder, theorists of sea power and land armies, were swept aside by the emergence of air forces as a determining element of warfare. Thus, the United States, with its superior aeronautical technology, came out of the second world war as the dominant world power, while Soviet Russia, although it ruled the Heartland and effectively commanded the World Island from 1945 to 1991 (and in some aspects of energy policy still may do so), never realized complete domination of the globe.
But I will argue that both Mahan and Mackinder, whose theories were based on transportation of armies, underestimated the force of ideas and their communication, as well as the importance of natural resources. Neither could foresee that revolutions in the transmission of information, the basis of which had already appeared during their lifetimes, in the forms of the telegraph and expanded newspaper reportage, would make ideology a weapon in the competition for international dominance, even though they eventually lived through periods of upheaval in which radical socialist and fascist ideologies were significant elements. Mahan could not have imagined that the chief importance of sealanes would come to involve the movement of oil, not soldiers. Mackinder could not anticipate that, following the rise in oil prices after the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the colossally augmented wealth of Muslim elites, changes within Islam, first in the form of radical ideology and now through democratization, would reshape the Heartland and the World Island.
Mackinder was correct in seeing Central Eurasia and its borderlands – almost entirely inhabited by Muslims – as "the pivot" of control over the World Island. He did not realize that, rather than sealanes, railways, or territory, Islam itself, as a religion standing between West and East, would become "the pivot." That, I believe, is the meaning of the current "Muslim Spring" and the new reach toward democracy in the Islamic countries. Oil wealth, and the disparity it fostered between Muslim rulers and ruled, produced the Islamist fanaticism of believers excluded from the opportunities made possible by oil income, or aghast at the decadent behavior of Muslim elites. But the same petrodollars made possible a well-financed diversion of the attention of many Muslims from their economic and social grievances, in the form of jihadism. Nevertheless, following that development, the same wealth, and the same sense of exclusion, has inevitably impelled the rise of new, younger elites, avid for the benefits of an open society.
In addition, Islam has become a "new pivot" because of the growth of the Chinese economy and the expansion of the imagined frontiers of the World Island. Trade between China and the U.S. has annexed America to the World Island – along America's western coast, rather than by its eastern coastal commerce with Europe. The World Island as I project it now extends from Berlin through Beijing and across the Pacific to California. From an economic and political viewpoint, the Pacific has become a vast lake within the World Island. The eastern boundary of the World Island now rests on the "ring of fire" countries, surrounding the Pacific and including Japan, South Korea, the U.S. and Canadian West Coast, and Chile, all dominated by trans-Pacific trade and all resting on major earthquake faults. But in discerning the future of Islam, psychological fault lines are more important than their geological counterparts. This shift in transnational commercial relationships, more than oil wealth or religious fanaticism, has pushed Islam to the forefront of current history.
It may be argued that California is marginal to the Central Eurasian Heartland, notwithstanding the great changes in transportation and communication over the past century; and the same may be claimed of the Muslim lands where the revolutions of 2011 began. But some societies are marginal because they are small and subordinate to greater powers; others are marginal on the map, but serve as borderlands in which new concepts emerge and, finally, the world's great affairs may be settled. Counter-intuitive as it may seem to Westerners, I view Islam, even in the Heartland, as a borderland phenomenon, with great potential for a new, unanticipated evolution. I believe that its historic nature as a religion between the West (Europe) and the classical East (China) explains its instability, and the sociological "detour" Islam took by expanding toward the East. That is the answer to the question of Bernard Lewis about Islamic history: "what went wrong?"
The Islamic revelation to Muhammad came in a typical borderland setting: the Hejaz region of Western Arabia, in which Mecca is located. In Muhammad's time, Hejaz was separated from the Central Eurasian Heartland by the Arabian desert and the Persian empire, and as a caravan merchant, Muhammad followed routes that linked Mecca to Christian Syria, to the north, and Yemen, which had been ruled by Jews and influenced by nearby Christian Ethiopia, south of Hejaz. The largest concentration of Jews then found in the world lived in Babylonia (Iraq), northeast of Arabia. Islam arose with monotheistic believers on nearly all of its frontiers. Hejaz was a natural place for a new message of monotheism, as an isthmus extending out from Byzantine territory.
On the other side of the Persian Gulf, relatively distant from Mecca, Persia was Zoroastrian, following a religion that did not recognize a creator-God. The Qur'an praised the monotheism of the Byzantine Christians in Syria, who had been defeated by the Persian Zoroastrians during the time of Muhammad's revelations, and predicted that, with the help of the One God, the Christians would soon expel the Zoroastrians from the lands the latter had conquered. And so it was, when the Byzantine emperor Heraclius forced the Persian armies to retreat from the territory of his empire in 627 CE, and the Byzantines then thrust deep into Persia. The relevant verses in the Qur'an are concise and powerful, beginning the surah titled "The Byzantines" (Q 30):
"The Byzantines are defeated
"In a land nearby, but even after this defeat, they will prevail
"Within a few years; the decision remains with Allah, as it did in the first prophecy [Judaism] and in the second [Christianity], and the Believers will rejoice;
"With the help of Allah, granted to those who benefit from Allah's power and mercy."
Islam, through the Qur'an, began its history with sympathy for the Christians and the West.
In addition, a now-obscure form of Christianity called Nestorianism, mainly without churches because it ministered to nomadic, herding peoples, was also a powerful force, at that time, on the Central Eurasian steppe. (Descendants of the Nestorians survive as Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in Syria and Iraq.) But the main body of Eastern Christians, as they expanded eastward, inherited the overgrown and authoritarian bureaucracies of the Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans who had ruled before them. These forms of governance became most identified with the Byzantine empire, in which the rulers exercised power through their dual control of religion and the state. This Byzantine concept is known as "Caesaropapism," with the power of the secular emperor united in one person with the head of the Christian church. Caesaropapism, or, simply, Byzantinism, was not a theocratic system with priests ruling over the people. Rather, it set up the state as the leader of religious observance, in a pyramidal society where wealth was concentrated at the summits of power.
Islam represented a new, clearer, and, for Muslims, final embodiment of the same revelation found in Judaism and Christianity. Islam had as its mission the spread of individual freedom and respect for others to the Arabs, who are descendants of Abraham's elder son Ismail, and their then-polytheistic neighbors in Asia. The "modern" and humanistic principles of individualism and mutual respect are embodied in many verses of the Qur'an. Still, Islam was diverted from the path of its original mission by its conquests in Asia.
Muslims turned to the East as leadership of the global Islamic community, almost immediately after the death of Muhammad, slipped away from Mecca, where Muhammad was born and received the revelation of the Qur'an, and Medina. The "holy cities" remained symbolic spiritually, but never regained political influence, even under Saudi rule in Arabia, 1,300 years later. Beginning with the jihad in Syria, Egypt, and Persia, at the outset of the Muslim expansion which still astonishes today, Islam was bound up with the East and its despotism rather than the West and its precedents for popular sovereignty. In Damascus, reputedly the world's oldest continuously-inhabited city, the Umayyad caliphs, who were descendants of the third successor to Muhammad, Uthman ibn Affan, established their capital and founded Sunnism, the majority tradition in Islam. There the Muslims took over the powers and habits of the Byzantine state.
Along with Byzantine Caesaropapism in Damascus, the most ancient, arbitrary, and absolutist Egyptian modes of governance were assimilated into Islamic rule at the same time. One of the great spiritual centers of Eastern Christianity, Egypt was a country that had always embodied "Oriental despotism," as defined by the sociologist Karl Wittfogel: to control the flooding of the Nile River and support agriculture, massive hydraulic works were necessary, and for them to be completed, taxation was harsh. In Egypt, Islam became identified with the characteristics of domination by the Pharaohs more than the liberation struggle of Moses – even though Moses (Musa in Arabic) is the most frequently-cited figure in the Qur'an.
Islam began as the most egalitarian of the three Middle Eastern monotheistic faiths. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, it did not recognize a religious justification for monarchies or priesthoods. The Qur'an nowhere states how a government should be organized or suggests that elite social groups should possess more power than their subjects. Nor does it command obedience to prayer-leaders, clerics, or theologians. Even the ideal community founded by Muhammad in Medina rested on personal and moral, rather than political or clerical authority. No part of the Islamic revelation celebrates or justifies the poverty, absence of accountability, and political oppression visible in Muslim countries today. Indeed, there is a sharp contradiction between the promises Islam has made of social justice, fair governance, and freedom, and the reality of life in most Muslim lands. Radicals refashion the economic and political grievances caused by this sociological dissonance into condemnation of the rulers of Muslim states, whom they reproach for insufficient commitment to the original religious principles in which all believers were equal members of a universal ummah or community of faith.
We must determine whether Islam was condemned to fail if it could not, in the long term, turn its face westward, and whether the global Muslim community can now shake off despotism and assimilate Western political and social principles – or if it is prevented from doing so by something intrinsic to Muslim faith. Partisans of democracy may use Islamic sources to mobilize Muslims for a future without despotism. This spiritual legacy and the means to draw upon it will be elaborated, insha'allah, in my forthcoming contributions.