The Battle for Civilisation

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

In my previous essay, I argued that ISIS and the Islamic State are demonic forces that pose an existential threat to civilisation. We face a battle against barbarism, not a clash of civilisations. Fighting the barbarians who slaughter innocent men, women and children is a battle for civilisation – for ancient ways of life, ancestral homeland, millennia-old traditions and different faith communities such as Oriental Christians and the Yazidi who confront an impossible choice: forced conversion, expulsion or death.

Faced with this horror, we need an alliance of civilisations. That means nothing less than a thorough rethink of our foreign policy and a complete strategic re-alignment. What is required is an end of support for either secular nationalists or Sunni extremists and a radical rapprochement with the forces that can defeat ISIS and the Islamic State – the Kurdish Pershmerga, Iran, Syria and Russia. Fanciful? No doubt. But small steps will merely exacerbate the current crisis. Unprecedented events call for extraordinary measures.

1. How did we get into this mess?

The current crisis is usually blamed on the Western colonial legacy and the recent interventions, above all the Iraq invasion. Of course there’s much truth in this, but the roots can much wider and deeper. They stretch back to the formative period of Islam that saw a schism between Shia and Sunni Islam, which was never overcome and which has only intensified in recent decades. There is contest for supremacy in the Near East, and it pits the Shia Crescent against the Sunni arc – the former stretching from the Lebanon via Syria, Iraq and Iran all the way to Bahrain, while the latter encompasses Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the remaining Gulf States.

The 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq marked a new chapter in this long-standing feud, emboldening Iran and unleashing a wave of sectarian cleansing that has destroyed the delicate balance of coexisting communities under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. But the sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni has raged for centuries and flared up in many placed without direct foreign intervention – from the so-called Assassins back in the seventh century via the puritanism of Ibn Taymyyah in the late thirteenth century to Wahhabism in the eighteenth century. More recently, the Wahhabis have sponsored hate preachers and extremists across the Near East and the entire Muslim world, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan where Wahhabi madrassas have displaced the indigenous Sufi Islam that has always been much more mediated and plural.

Of course the catastrophic mistake on the part of the West was to back those Sunni regimes that financed and backed extremist Wahhabism, above all powerful elements within Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. The same is now happening in neighbouring Syria where a modicum of pluralism has given way to a deeply divided country. The regime of Bashar al-Assad certainly missed a unique opportunity to democratise the country at the start of the demonstrations back in 2011 and the repression has been unbelievably brutal. However, the West chose to ignore repeated warnings by diplomats and experts about supporting a Syrian opposition that was largely extremist and bent on installing an extremist Sunni regime.

Without the No vote in the British Parliament on 29 August 2013 and Russia’s decisive efforts to broker a deal on disarmament, airstrikes against the Assad army would have led to another disastrous regime change and a Western-backed government in league with the forces of ISIS. This shows once again the obsession with short-term results and the absence of strategic thinking. A headline in the New York Times put this well: President Obama’s proposed intervention in Syria was like a ‘drive-by shooting’.

Taken together, the various Western interventions have made a sectarian conflict a lot worse. Lord Maurice Glasman, a Labour Life Peer in the House of Lords and a fierce critic of current British foreign policy, sums up the multiple failures well:

And what happened to the trillion dollars invested by us and the United States in ‘upholding the territorial integrity of Iraq’ and ‘training and equipping’ the Iraqi army?

The answer seems to be that we unwittingly armed and funded the army of the Islamic State. It started with a group of 70 vehicles leaving Eastern Syria carrying about 800 soldiers. Within 72 hours they had conquered a land mass four times the size of Britain.

The Iraqi army dissolved in a puff of smoke. Not only did more than 50,000 soldiers desert their posts and run but they abandoned all the new, expensive kit that we had bought for them: fleets of white land rovers (1,500, I was told by a senior Kurdish general) hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, tanks, ammunition and artillery. The Islamic State also took all the money from the banks, calculated to be at least $500million.

The outcome of our Middle East policy over a bloody and treasure-spending decade has been to arm and fund the greatest threat to peaceful co-existence that exists in the world. It is the biggest foreign policy failure since Appeasement. […] We have armed our enemies and refused to arm our friends. This madness has to stop. [1]

2. Imperialism and the tragic demise of constitutionalising monarchies

In addition to various Western interventions since the 2003 Iraq invasion, there are deeper roots, starting with the carve-up of the Near East to create nation-states (as part of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Pact) and key errors since 1945. Here one may note that if British foreign policy since 1945 has been subject to indirection even more than indecision, then western foreign policy in general may have been subject to a grand illusion. Disaffected commentators like Lewis Namier and Elie Kedourie have noted that the British obsession in the Near East with both the naturalness of nation states and the naturalness of ethnic and cultural over religious groupings had the effect of promoting Sunnism at the expense of religious minorities in the region, especially Christians and Sufi Muslims. The reason is that in local and traditional terms, pan-Sunnism was all that either ‘popular national identity’ or ‘pan-Arabism’ could really mean. Once the corrupt nature of so many secular regimes was exposed, their demise was always going to produce radical Sunni extremist regimes.

In consequence, Kedourie concluded that the British failure in this region, which we can now see is a direct factor in the growth of political Islamism, was not (as so many think, here and elsewhere) the consequence of imperialism. Nor was it simply the outcome of an arbitrary tendency to divide colonial subjects into religious groups – not so arbitrary, and not so mistaken in India where the policy only went wrong when combined with nationalism in the postcolonial era. But in fact it was just the opposite.

In other words, the over-hasty abandonment of imperial trusteeship combined with a liberal (and actually Christian liberal, under the influence of Arnold Toynbee) imposition onto another culture of categories of nation, ethnicity, economic class was the real reason. By contrast, oriental cultures, near and far, tend to function more according to a really quite random being either in or outside the state apparatus on the part of individuals and groups, giving rise to characteristically factional, not social conflicts. That requires more plural arrangements than either secular nation-states or religiously extremist regimes.

Seen in this light, the collapse of constitutional monarchies was perhaps the single greatest tragedy. As James Dawson concludes,

The British-sponsored monarchies in Iraq, Egypt and Libya did not last. However, the Hashemites continue to reign in Jordan, with Abdullah I (1921-1951), Talal (1951-1952), the well-respected Hussein (1951-1999) and Abdullah II (1999 onwards). The Jordanian kings, cousins of Iraq’s monarchs, have successfully introduced modern concepts of the nation-state, administration and education. But this could have been said of the other monarchies. They fell to ideas of pan-Arab nationalism and are now beset by Islamism. [2]

To avoid further sectarian cleansing, it’s urgent that various countries consider either introducing constitutional monarchies where there are dysfunctional republics (secular or religious), or constitutionalising absolute monarchies (as in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States). A constitutional monarch could provide a limit on the power of the executive while avoiding the perpetual temptation of absolute power. As a real symbol of unity, monarchy offers an umbrella for deeply divided societies where appeals to either nationhood or sectarian purity simply won’t work.

Of course this will be dismissed as either reactionary nostalgia or utopian dreams. However, most stable regimes around the globe are constitutional monarchies, and most countries in the Near East have long-standing imperial traditions that would support a radically reconfigured constitutional settlement, above all the former Persian and Ottoman empires.

3. The death of the status quo and the birth of a new strategy

None of the official responses to this situation has been adequate. The West is proposing a combination of aerial bombings and humanitarian aid – so more of the same that helped cause the current mess. Other countries are right to denounce the Western policy of unilateral regime change – whether in the name of liberal humanitarianism or the neo-con crusade, but they offer little by way of alternative.

Insisting on national sovereignty and territorial integrity is illusory in a context where the artificially created states created the problem in the first place. By ignoring the legitimate aspiration to self-determination (for example on the part of the Kurds), sectarian cleansing will only get worse and is likely to end in the break-up of countries such as Iraq and Syria anyway.

To avoid a further escalation of the violence and the spiraling out of the control of the current crisis, the West needs to adopt a new strategy aimed at defeating ISIS and the Islamic State. The following six steps would go a long way towards brokering a new settlement for individual countries and the wider Near East.

First of all, arming our friends who are at the forefront of the fight against barbarism. That means arming and funding the Peshmerga Kurds. Over time, it also involves creating a Kurdish state. Turkey and other countries may not like this, but the alternative is surely far, far worse.

Second, offering asylum to the Christians who are being systematically persecuted and driven out of their ancestral homeland. Western immigration systems have consistently privileged the wealthy over those in real danger – a scandal that is intolerable in the current context. Britain and others must urgently open their doors to Iraqi refugees – just like many Shia Muslims in the South of the country who have opened up mosques and homes to nearly 20,000 Christians.

Third, working towards a broad, inclusive government in Iraq that has the support of all groups, including the traditional Sunni tribes who hate both Al Qaeda and ISIS. Over time, this requires long-term foreign involvement to help build up civic institutions and create an army that can withstand the onslaught of forces such as the Islamic State.

Fourth, talking to senior figures in Syria about a concerted effort to destroy the safe heaven and military base. Even from the perspective of Western interests, the regime of Bashar al-Assad looks like the lesser evil. In any case, the West does deals with China, with Saudi Arabia and even with North Korea. Working with Assad offers a better chance for a solution to the Syrian crisis than the status quo or an ISIS take-over.

Fifth, doing a deal with Iran – credible security guarantees (including a commitment not to launch regime change) in exchange for an equally credible renunciation of Teheran’s nuclear ambitions. This, coupled, with a wider rethink about Iran as the inheritor of Persia and the possibility of cooperation to defend civilisation against barbarism.

Sixth, abandoning the increasingly anti-Russian hysteria and working with Moscow to defend Christians and others against Islamic extremism. Russian cooperation is key in securing Afghanistan after the full withdrawal of US and British combat troops later this year. Likewise, the Kremlin can help broker a deal with Iran and Syria. Except the Vatican, the Russian Federation is about the only country in Europe and the wider West to have consistently denounced the persecution of Christians in the Near East. Crucially, Russia as a culture remains Christian and is firmly part of Christendom – whatever elites are in charge there or elsewhere.

Only a grand strategy can save Christians and other minorities from utter annihilation. The West needs to be pro-Christian, pro-Kurdish and pro-Iranian. In our battle against barbarism and in favour civilisation, what is needed above all is courage and leadership. That’s what underpinned the victory over Nazism and Fascism. And that’s what can help us defeat the Islamic State.


[1] Lord Maurice Glasman, ‘This is a battle for civilisation… the UK cannot remain neutral’, The Mail on Sunday, 10 August 2014, available online at
[2] James Dawson, ‘Why Britain created monarchies in the Middle East’, New Statesman 15 August 2014, available online at