Libya no longer has – or is – a state. The political field throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by the various fiercely competing brands of Islamism, while the religious field has been in a state of profound disorder since the abolition of the Caliphate following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. A degree of order was effectively restored to it by intelligent nationalist movements which, once in power, promoted a ‘national Islam’, the better to subject religion to raison d’état and curb its more dangerous and sectarian enthusiasms. During the Cold War, both the Western powers and the Soviet Union had an interest in courting nationalist governments, and the competition between them gave the nationalist governments some room to manoeuvre. With the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the West was in a position to impose terms, and has been increasingly hostile to nationalist regimes. This hostility has expressed itself through the Western impulse to intervene, even if some shreds of the old discourse of respect for national sovereignty can still be heard. In the cases of Iraq and Syria, the Ba’ath Parties have offered relatively easy targets for Western condemnation: given the harsh and dictatorial nature of these regimes, the West has been able to deploy human rights arguments of a politically liberal character. But these arguments should not be confused with the motives behind Western policy.
LRB 11 October 2012 | PDF Download