In his most recent “Newsweek” article, famous American writer Fareed Zakaria asked whether America’s war on terrorism will continue for a hundred years or more, and [discussed] the extent of the impact that this will have upon the role of the American state, and its intervention in social affairs. The writer’s issue specifically concerns the United States, and he proposed that during all the wars that it fought previously, the US has become accustomed to increasing the state’s influence and capability of intervening in social affairs, but that this is something that requires greater financial, human and security resources in order to deal with exceptional circumstances. But the issue which worries America is that these “exceptional circumstances” have historically only lasted a few years, such as in the periods during which World War I and World War II took place. The state would then return to its role as a ‘guardian’, leaving society to run its own affairs, and initiative and business to individual competitors. However this time is different. The war against terrorism is not the kind of war in which armies are organized, and opposing states fight until fatigue ultimately settles the conflict, or one party triumphs over the other, signaling a new world order. This is another kind of war, an extended conflict, a mix between the Cold War and an actual war. It is being fought in the hearts and minds of people, as much as it is on the battlefield. It is being fought by parties in a multitude of different countries, such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, as much as it is being fought on specific battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A source of concern for Fareed Zakaria, is the state of the American nation, if this war was to continue for a hundred years. Historically, the Hundred Years War did not resemble this current war on terror, but rather lasted 116 years between 1337 and 1453. It basically revolved around who would govern France after the ruling family – based in Normandy – had invaded England, which had then sought to put an Englishman upon the French throne, and thus a war for the throne began. This was a war between two armies, an English army and a French army, which developed in the midst of conflict, famine and plague. However, the current war [America’s war on terror], may be more similar to the Thirty Years War – from 1618 to 1648 – which began as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants within the framework of the Holy Roman Empire, or what remained of it. It began as a religiously tinted conflict, but it soon grew into a battle over the balance of power, control and domination, not only on an international level, but also on a social level as well.
What concerns us here is the question posed by Fareed Zakaria, which he has devised within a specific U.S. framework, because [the war on terror] is no less important in the context of Islamic or Arab countries, where the war holds significant influence over the development of societies.
In a way, our Hundred Years War began with colonial campaigns in Arab and Islamic countries, during the 19th and 20th centuries. These campaigns did not have any religious overtones, whether on the side of the aggressor or the resistance. However, this was then followed by a 60 year war over Palestine after Zionism – and it’s deep religious roots – arrived in the region. Since then, there has not been one instance where Islamic groups have not used this to evoke sentiments of guilt amongst Muslims. It is true that religious dimensions have emerged in the internal politics of Arab and Islamic countries, which is something that is rooted not only in history, but also in response to the challenges of the time in which we live. Sometimes, these roots have manifested themselves in the form of reform, and at other times in the form of radicalism, or even suicide attacks. In each case this has been a source of shock for society, either on the path towards modernity and progress, or returning to the origins of the sacred and perennial wisdom.
This state of shock has had consequences for political power, which was based on the birth of the nation state. It found itself facing not only problems of ‘national security’, in confronting external threats from the colonizer or the potential aggressors, but it also faced the problem of a ‘deteriorating sense of nationality’, as calls for Islamic unity were imposed upon its citizens, and this opened the door for cross-national links.
In this climate, political power has become a puzzle in itself. We do not know what exactly constitutes a ‘foreign attack’ on dimensions of our national character, of which religion is only one component. We cannot tell whether something is an external threat to national security, or a domestic threat that threatens internal disintegration. The experience in Iraq is an example of this, where the bloody dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was based on the protection of internal and national Iraqi unity. Thus the US invasion had elements of foreign occupation, accompanied by internal disintegration and division, wrapped in a superficial envelope of democracy.
In Arab and Islamic countries, the war against terrorism has appeared at times to resemble a civil war. Sometimes this has raged, other times it has died down, sometimes it has been explicit, and other times it has been hidden from public view. If we take only one thing from the “Al-Jama’a” television series which was aired on most Arab satellite television channels during the month of Ramadan, it should be the point about the depth of the historical confrontation between the Egyptian ‘state’ and the Muslim Brotherhood, and a tide of terrorist existed prior to the July revolution, and after the developments that took place in the Egyptian political system during the last six decades. Although the Muslim Brotherhood can not be classified at present as a ‘terrorist movement’ in the general sense, its ideas represent a large jug, from which many movements obtain the beginnings of their extremism and radicalism. Thus, this renders the Muslim Brotherhood only a hair’s breadth away from violence, murder and terrorism.
This civil war, which increases the momentum of the global war against terrorism, has almost infected every Arab and Islamic state. It influences relations between different religions, even amongst various Islamic sects, and between the various races that inhabit Arab and Islamic countries. Often it affects the traditional tribal structure of Islamic communities, unraveling this until nothing remains except chaos and violence until it is like a sick person who unable to harm others begins to harm themselves. We have only to look at the situations in Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, in order to predict that this war will exceed one hundred years. It has been ongoing since the birth of Arab and Islamic political unity, which ended after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and continued through the demise of colonialism, and the move towards independent states.
Returning to Fareed Zakaria question and the Hundred Years War, although the question was initially intended for the United States, it is in fact far more relevant for us!