Political scientists, along with other specialists as well as laypersons, have spent the last seven years grappling with the implications for international relations of the attacks of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath. The impact of 9/11 around the world, and on the Middle East in particular, has been enormous. The effects on development, democracy, and human rights are vast, with sharp change and conflict increasingly characterizing Western relations with Muslim countries. As a subset of this phenomenon, ties between the Arab world and the West also shifted.
However, although 9/11 is a turning point, there is no consensus on its roots or implications. As an antidote to the sterile contention shrouding the event, the rigorous work of Dan Tschirgi (pronounced as if combining the two French words “cher” and “guy”), professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, provides sober analysis.
Turning Point puts into a proper context the implications of 9/11. Flying in the face of the puerile shortcuts that so many in the West have taken during the past few years, Tschirgi’s book includes original insightful cases of the global challenge of asymmetric warfare. Applying his theory of “Marginalized Violent Internal Conflict” to three cases, Tschirgi elucidates the roots of insurgency through the struggles of underdogs to preserve their identities in an unfriendly world. He demonstrates the dynamics through which the oppressed in modern times struggle against tyrannical states by looking at Mexico’s Zapatista conflict, the struggle of Egypt’s authorities against the Gamaa al-Islamiyya, and the Nigerian government’s fight against the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta. In doing so, he raises many issues related to the Middle East and American policy toward the area.
Tschirgi’s thesis is that 9/11 was not unique, but an understandable — though deplorable — reaction to Arab marginalization and Western threats to regional identity. As a corollary, he debunks the “exceptionalist” approach to the Arab world (the presumption that Western social science fails to fathom the Arabs). Tschirgi also suggests two broad policy recommendations: that the US has no duty to support Israeli expansionism, and that an American withdrawal from Iraq must come as early as possible.
With a new US administration looming, we may now be looking at a post-post-9/11 era. It has become one of the clichés of the current American presidential election campaign that the economic crisis has replaced the Iraq war as a main issue. In fact, the two are indirectly related. Just as sloppy corporate governance in the banking sector caused the subprime crisis, poor governance in Washington unleashed American hubris and greed, which lead into the Iraqi swamp.
Harmony within and among societies suffers because of a resurgence of fundamentalism and its antithetical aggression, Western or otherwise. All are losers in this situation. The danger raised by the terrorist threat is as real today as it was in September 2001 and indeed before. However, the American rampage in Iraq and elsewhere around the world is equally dangerous, and indeed interacts with real or imagined threats of terrorism in a vicious circle. The solution would thus seem to lie in the re-engineering of America to allow it to regain the moral high ground it occupied during parts of the 20th century.
This is clearly a tall order; in any case, Tschirgi’s balanced scholarly work does not delve into such issues, nor does he have final answers — no serious social scientist ever has. However, he sets the stage for policymakers or laypersons to address important questions rationally: Where are the US and the Arab world going from here? Have the major challenges changed? Are new priorities emerging? In this way, Turning Point generates healthy debate about policy alternatives for other scholars to build on — and policy players to ponder: McCain, Obama, and Hillary, please take note. At a time when dabblers too often dominate the discussion of contemporary world affairs, this thoughtful work from an established American scholar with decades of experience in the complexities he analyzes is refreshing.
In this grim new world, our duty is to engage peacefully with potential or actual adversaries. Modern technology means that war and other forms of physical violence have become luxuries we can no longer afford. For example, for the US to talk to Iran or Syria, instead of blustering and vituperating, is literally a question of world war or peace. The alternative is to refuse to listen to the other side, a crime of which the Middle East is as guilty as the West. In such mess, works of the caliber of Turning Point are welcome.
Riad al Khouri is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, and Senior Fellow of the William Davidson Institute, University of Michigan.