The long-run politics of the Islamic-Christian conflict.

9/11 is over ten years ago now, and after two take-overs of Islamic countries (Iraq and Afghanistan) and internal turmoil in the Middle East and Pakistan, the contours of where the conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and ‘the rest of the world’ is going to is becoming clear. To set the stage, it is first of all handy to note some broad political realities because they tell you where the conflict can and cannot go:

  1. There are about 2.3 billion Christians  and a bit over 1 billion Muslims in this world. The Christian world is far richer and better organised on a per capita basis than the Muslim world, and even at current economic growth trends, this will continue to be the case for a long time.
  2. Christian faith is spreading faster and it is spreading in the more important areas of new political power: amongst the Chinese, Christianity is taking off, both amongst the Chinese who immigrate to the West and within China itself. In contrast, Islam is getting nowhere in the Chinese world, nor in other Asian areas where it has no historical presence. Hence the emerging world powers in Asia will be firmly on the same side as the Christian West if it comes to any conflict with Islam.
  3. Islam, like Christianity, is a broad church with many denominations and streams. Sunnis, Shiites, Allawites, Sufis, Wahabis, etc. Only the more radical salafist movement, which is primarily Sunni and primarily funded from the Gulf, has a ‘pan-Islamist’ agenda of world take-over.
  4. Inside the Muslim world radical Islamists, with or without the help of their governments, are really starting to crack down on Christian minorities within their own country. The Copts within Egypt; the ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Pakistan; the 40% Christian minority in Nigeria; the Southern-Sudan Christians; etc.; are facing persecution, rape, killings, and cultural cleansing.
  5. Within the West, large Islamic minorities are facing integration problems and find the culture in which they reside uncertain as to how to deal with them. Their presence has meant a great desire within Western elites not to escalate the conflict. For who amongst us really wants to see ourselves at war with some 10% of our own population? It is the great pacification within Western countries that breeds a reluctance to get bloody hands elsewhere.

Now, what do these fairly basic observations tell us? Mainly, it tells one that at a broad level, Islam cannot win. If it came to a true, full-on, no-holds-barred conflict, there is only going to be one winner and everyone knows this. The ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘War against the infidels’ are thus contained by the reluctance of the West to escalate the problem. It is essentially by our patience and unwillingness to get too much blood on our hands that this conflict is allowed to keep simmering. However, should the Islamic world truly unite and openly and seriously challenge the rest of the world to a fight to the death, then a bloodbath the likes of which this earth has never seen would ensue. No one in a position of power wants that, not even the radical salafists. Hence, no one is really aiming for a truly global conflict, particularly not any government. Radical Islamists are in that sense like barking dogs: allowed to live on and spread their message only whilst they are fairly ineffective and it costs too much effort to oppose them.

What one is really seeing is thus a conflict contained by the realisation on all sides that the irksome phenomenon of Islamic militancy has no real chance of ‘winning the global struggle’. The best that radical Islamists can hope for is to purify their home countries and erect Sharia-law type regimes in those places.

What are the odds of a gradual shift of the Sunni-dominated countries sliding into a window-dressing facade of Islamic purity? Well, one would have to say ‘pretty good’. Whilst the economic reality is is that these countries are and probably for some time yet will be ruled by parasitical elites, the headline policy of many North African countries is indeed sliding towards Sharia-law. Like it or loathe it, but the fundamentalist message has huge popular appeal inside the Middle East and outside of it. It generates fanatical support and quite successfully manages to retain that support over long years of adversity for its message and its messengers. The main reason why this is so is the inability of other successful forms of government to really take roots inside these countries, which in turn is mainly a function of the dominance of agriculture and resources as the basis of the economy, where neither of these activities are conducive to Western-style representative democracy. It is the parasitical elites arising from agriculture and resource-exports that ultimately are responsible for the frustrations of the majority of the Arab and Sunni populations and it is those frustrations that find a focal point in radical Islam.

In order for things to improve, we need the demise of the resource sector that keeps places like Saudi Arabia and Libya in a semi-authoritarian system. Put bluntly, the Arabs have to run out of oil. That is projected to happen in the next 40 years or so, after which it might take a few decades or so for their economies to restructure such that they too become democratically-inclined.

These countries see their economies gradually change in many other ways too: all the Islamic countries are expected to urbanise, go through most of their natural resources, and become more service based. In many ways, the underlying long-run indicators are very positive: fertility rates have really come down in the Islamic world,  life expectancy and education is increasing, the degree to which people have access to modern communication and outside information is increasing, etc. In terms of population attributes, the Islamic world in general will be ready for Western-style nation statehood in about 40 years time. Then, radical Islamism will be a poor second to ‘normal’ democratic conflict resolution.

Yet, at the moment, the Arab and Sunni-dominated countries naturally fit a theocracy.

In countries where the economy is more ‘Western’, like Turkey, the political structure is indeed more Western. There, they worship different heroes amongst the pantheon of Islamic scholars, such as the early 20th century scholar Said Nursi, who advocated a more personalised version of Islam that is more commensurate with citizenship.

What are the odds of Islamic Puritanism really displacing all other forms of Islam inside the countries where it wins? Again, in many places, one would have to say ‘pretty good’. The Saudi-Arabians managed to eradicate Sufism when the Wahabbis there came into power. Iraq is seeing an exodus of its Christians. Pakistan seems about to start purifying some of its regions. Even in Indonesia, regional purification is underway. Hence we are looking, in the medium term, at Islamic purity as the headline religious order in homogenised regions in the Sunni-dominated part of the Muslim world. And the way it will get there is not pretty, though not as bad as, for instance, the ethnic cleansing seen in Europe just after WWII.

How bad is this Islamic purity going to be and how worried should the rest of the world be about this? Here, the probable answer is ‘bad, but not as bad as feared’. What tends to happen to fanatics when they come into power and get their hands on the resources of whole countries is that they are seduced by luxury and laziness. This certainly happened to the Ayatollahs in Iran. The Middle East has a very long history of this phenomenon, with Ibn Khaldoun documenting hundreds such cases in the Middle Ages. Pretty quickly, after the initial purification drive, pragmatism starts to be the order of the day and economic wealth becomes the main concern of formerly religious elites. This in turn forms a soft landing of the worst excesses of the initial fanaticism. It is thus the early years of the victory of Puritanism one should fear.

So how does the fanaticism actually arise? The fanaticism is mainly home-grown inside these countries and in a large part arises due to the parasitical aspect of internal economic relations. The way it works is that parasitism creates huge resentment for which pan-Islamic fundamentalism has become the outlet of choice. That internal parasitism is coupled to a degree of indignation at the overt general military and economic superiority of the rest of the world, lead by religions and behaviour seen by Islamists generally as ‘inferior’. That indignation will probably remain for a very long time and will always find some reason to be offended by ‘us’, but the importance of that indignation would be much less if the domestic reasons for fanaticism are taken away.

Hence the following predictions: bad news in the medium run for all non-Sunnis in Sunni-dominated regions; Sharia law will most likely be implemented in some form throughout the Sunni world; gradual normalisation of the economies of all these regions in the next 30-40 years; eventual normal political institutions in most of these countries within 60 years, with the resource-rich regions normalising last.

And how will the West and China live with these changes? The main role of ‘our’ presence is to take the worst edges of this long-run transition by punishing any behaviour too clearly against our own interests. We will thus undoubtedly try to keep the cultural cleansing currently underway to an acceptable level of horribleness. We will undoubted increasingly force any Islamic regime to keep its fanatics inside their own borders, at the pain of going after individuals in the elite themselves. And otherwise, the great game of coopting regimes that have things we want (oil and other resources) will continue as long these resources are there. Indeed, it is mainly the competition between Western and Asian countries for the resources inside the Arab world that prevents us from reaching a more forceful attitude towards the cultural cleansing that is occurring right now.


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28 Responses to The long-run politics of the Islamic-Christian conflict.

  1. Sancho says:

    I can’t see much evidence for the idea that a decline in oil wealth will reduce the appeal of religious fundamentalism. Populations don’t tend to become more rational as their fortunes decline, as we can see from the straight-up mediaeval tone of the American right this year.

    Paul even writes that “Pretty quickly…economic wealth becomes the main concern of formerly religious elites. This in turn forms a soft landing of the worst excesses of the initial fanaticism. It is thus the early years of the victory of Puritanism one should fear.”

    Less wealth will curb fanaticism but fanaticism has historically been curbed by more wealth?

  2. Palaly says:

    One issue not addressed in the article is population growth rate. Am I right in thinking that the Islamic population growth rate is higher than the no Islamic population growth rate. The factors that favour this are the accepatance of polygamy and the status of women i.e. non working non educated etc.

  3. Paul Frijters says:


    it is not so much the level of wealth that breeds fanatics. Much more its distribution and in particular the way in which new generations of men are excluded from wealth and women that breeds fanaticism. this internal structure in turn is quite dependent on where the wealth is coming from: resources (oil/agriculture) or a modern economy (industry/services). You cannot exclude people as well from the latter as from the former and you cannot tax people as easily who do the latter as the former for the latter is based on investments in people’s heads and the former on things you can more easily see, amass, and guard.

  4. derrida derider says:

    Yes, the failure of Ba’athism (authoritarian and nationalist, but secular and hence supportive of religious minorities as allies against the Salafis) was a catastrophe from the West’s POV. It just goes to show we should be careful of what we wish for, because right from its emergence in the 1950s we fervently wished its failure.

    I never cease to marvel at the role of contingency in history – Marxism and other quasi-deterministic views of history seem to me to be constantly being rebutted by events. If Ibn Saud hadn’t been spellbound by a couple of Wahhabi preachers …

    • Tel says:

      I for one am not the least bit sorry to see the end of Ba’athism, but still don’t believe we got good value in return for the blood and treasure spent getting that.

      You do underestimate Western skulduggery though; Ba’athism emerged, it was transformed into a useful tool and then disposed of. Now the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged, sure we can work with that…

  5. Sancho says:

    Thanks Paul.

    That’s an important distinction, because wealthy Arab nations don’t seem too short on violent fundamentalism, and North Korea’s leadership cult isn’t diminished by poverty (at least it seems to outsiders).

  6. Tel says:

    Zenginin mal?, fakirin çenesini yorar – The rich man’s wealth tires the poor man’s jaw.

    I did happen to download a sheet of Turkish proverbs, why do you ask?

    Sure, I recognise there’s a real problem here (good of you to write an article BTW), but I don’t buy the Marxist class war analysis. Lebanon is interesting because the Christians and Muslims learned the hard way that they have to work together. Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia are also interesting because they could go either toward extremism or away from it. From a class war perspective you would expect Indonesia to go nuts — lots of low paid factory workers, big difference between the wealthy and the poor, but what we actually see is government maintaining control and simultaneously rejecting Western cultural hedonism (e.g. Lady Gaga) and also arresting radical Islamic bomb makers. Yes, there’s been some persecution of Christians in Indonesia, but it has been limited, and managed from above, very different to the grass-roots lynch mobs popping up in Egypt and Africa.

  7. Paul frijters says:


    I agree things are not as bad in Indonesia as in the Middle East. Partially that is due to high growth, improving government services, greater regional concentration of groups, and being further away from the Gulf. Still, I worry about Indonesia. It has adopted the headscarf, which is not traditional at all. It has form when it comes to major pogroms on minorities including the Chinese, and, as you say, inequality is high. Still, its lack of natural resources and it’s reliance on industry, services, and exports with countries close by that are very different awake me hopeful that things won’t get too bad there and will be more cosmetic than fanatic.

    • john r walker says:

      Indonesia is of course cultural very diverse. However there are aspects of the Javanese culture that make fanaticism really taking off less likely. Whilst devout enough, much of the older pre Islamic conversion practices continue. There was a town (forget the name) where for years the main road did a marked ‘u’ around the site of a pre Islam spirit figure ( a friend who grew up in a not culturally unrelated Malay rice farming Kampung used to talk about the many people who would regularly go to prayer and then the next day consult a shaman/witch doctor).
      Javanese culture was a trading and rice farming culture – haggling/ bargaining and co-operation are pretty basic in to such cultures and this may protect against fanatics gaining real power.

      Mind, Naipaul back in the nineties wrote a prescient essay about Islam and moral panic that drew its leitmotiv from an old observation by Conrad of panic and anger on the banks of a Javanese river.

  8. Nick says:

    Paul, I was wondering if you know much about the UAE and how they fit into the picture? I don’t know much at all to be honest, but I’m looking forward to Jan when I’ll be heading there to do some software dev for some new science courses at a couple of the unis. A colleague returned last week, and said it’s quite amazing. If you’re a native Emirati (about 20% of the population I think), not only do you get free health care and education, you actually get given a block of land and a house built to live in!

    • Paul Frijters says:

      yes, the EUA has so much money and there are so few Emirati that they can afford to not work at all and leave it all up to foreigners. The Emirati themselves are a relatively homogenous group whose main source of income is oil, the wealth of which is distributed amongst other Emirati on the basis of citizenship, so not much strife there, obviously. Clearly exceptional circumstances.
      Friends of mine who worked there were amazed too.

      Still, in terms of its role in this conflict, the EUA is cited as one of the major sources for money for Islamic militants elsewhere (far behind Saudi Arabia, of course). Its own internal politics is a heriditary absolute monarchy, which of course in no way will support democracy elsewhere. So yes, liberal as the EUA is in its own country, it is part of the problem and wont change till oil runs out.

    • Sancho says:

      UAE isn’t a candidate for Islamic fundamentalism because most of the population is Hindu and Buddhist.

      The migrant workers built the place and the Emiratis are very careful to make sure they don’t try to claim it. There’s an undercurrent of tension because the nominal owners of the place would be dead meat in a workers’ revolt.

      I was in Abu Dhabi for two months in 2008, when the GFC was first crashing down. The building sites that were teeming months earlier were empty, and the authorities were deporting workers like mad

      One Sri Lankan bloke said they were pulling thousands of SE Asian workers into site offices, taking their blood pressure and temperature, then deporting them on the grounds that they had a communicable disease.

      So, yeah. Not religiously or socially homogeneous enough to support proper religious fascism.

  9. Nick says:

    Hmm, this is what I never liked about Guardian editorialised versions of Wikileaks:

    “The other major headache for the US in the Gulf region is the United Arab Emirates. The Afghan Taliban and their militant partners the Haqqani network earn “significant funds” through UAE-based businesses, according to one report. ”

    Nowhere in the cables linked to does it say the UAE are a “major headache” for the US, and “significant funds” through UAE-based businesses is a complete and utter misquote of the cable in question. Aside from the fact that two of the 9/11 bombers were Emeratis by birth (neither had lived in the country for at least 15 years), the UAE and its leadership appear to have almost no connection with Islamic terrorism. Even the UAE branch of the Hannaqi Fellowship has just 60 members.

    On the contrary, they appear to have co-operated fully with the US in assisting to shut down attempts at terrorism. They also host US military bases and have widely been regarded as a target themselves for doing so. On another note, they support a Palestinian state, yet have actively sought to shut down any organisation preaching anti-semitism.

    I’ve no particular reason to go into bat for them right now other than an interest in learning a bit more – and I’m sure they’re a long way from perfect on lots of fronts – but painting them as ‘part of the problem’, when neither the US nor anybody else believes this to be true? I’m not seeing it, Paul…not based on that link anyway.

    “UAE isn’t a candidate for Islamic fundamentalism because most of the population is Hindu and Buddhist.”

    Is this true, sancho? I can’t find any source which says less than 75% Muslim across the total population.

    • Paul frijters says:

      Ok, that sounds pretty convincing. I am truly surprised to hear the Guardian misquoted the wiki leaks cables. The Guardian isnt the only paper that ran that line but they are prime sources when it comes to wading through these cables, of which there are so many that I have not personally gone through more than a couple. Perhaps the EUA are less part of the problem than I thought.

      • Sancho says:

        Regarding population, the US State Department has this to say:

        “According to the most recent Ministry of Economy census (2005), 76 percent of the total population is Muslim, 9 percent is Christian, and 15 percent is “other.” According to unofficial data, at least 15 percent of the resident population is Hindu and 5 percent is Buddhist. Groups that constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Parsi, Baha’i, Sikh, and Jews. These estimates differ from census figures because census figures do not take into account the many “temporary” visitors and workers while also counting Baha’is and Druze as Muslim.”

        I assumed based on the overwhelming number of South East Asians in UAE society. I’d be interested to know what the numbers are like with the ostensibly temporary workers included.

      • Nick says:

        Paul, I’ve said this before on other forums, but I’m still disappointed that Assange decided to go with the major news publishers. The manifesto of Wikileaks (pre-US cable dump, admittedly an event they couldn’t have predicted, and which changed everything) was to publish and allow experts in given fields and regions to be able to analyse and comment on primary documents, and fit them into a broader context for the reader. Not for journalists to simply paraphrase and summarise, and quite possibly, misunderstand them. I’m sure there were some excellent Guardian articles on various cables, I’m even sure that I read some…I just don’t think that was necessarily one of them.

  10. Nick says:

    Sorry, Haqqani Felllowship…

  11. Nick says:

    Sorry again, Fayez Bannihammad had only left the UAE a year before 9/11 by the looks of it…I misread. Interestingly, he grew up on the Gulf of Oman in the emirate of Sharjah. The only emirate with a complete ban on alchol, it has the “strictest decency laws in the UAE”, the highest rate of canings and executions, and has declared it illegal for unmarried men and women to be alone in public places…

  12. Mel says:

    A quick google and you’ll find stories of westerners in the UAE being fined for eating in public during Ramadan, jailed for kissing in public etc …

    Sounds like a shit heap to me …

    • Sancho says:

      It’s more that there’s a gulf between public and private morality.

      The private bars at international hotels are packed with drunk Emiratis who are models of Islamic piety everywhere else, and the thriving gay party scene in Dubai is simply treated as invisible.

      As for “kissing in public”, at least one case against a British couple was because they were flat out boning on a public beach. That’s an offence even in the most liberal of countries, but because it happened in a Muslim nation it got reported as something only the Taliban would prosecute.

      Corruption is endemic, of course. Nothing gets done without bribes and highly diplomatic discussions about them.

      • Paul Frijters says:


        yes, that whole element of pretending not to see the violation of public morality is hard to understand. Where are the limits: if its ok in an international hotel to get plastered, why not at home or in a local bar. Same with the gay scene: what is the actual rule?

        • Tel says:

          Paul, either you know the answer and are just probing, or you completely miss the point. The whole idea is that there is no actual rule. By designing the official rules to be unrealistic, you guarantee good scope for the corrupt to make a profit both directly by selling the sin stocks, and later on by blackmail selling the cover up.

          For example, during the most recent Ramadan, it was well over 40 degrees C during the day in the Middle East (and typically around 10% humidity), and people are expected to do a fair day’s labour under these conditions while also going 12 hours without drinking water. Personally, my understanding of human physiology is such that I don’t believe anyone can perform heavy manual work in hot, dry conditions without a drink and survive. However, apparently millions of people did it, must be a miracle or something.

          Allow me to be a bit balanced: in the modern Western world we have chosen the path of complexity to make our laws unworkable. No one can seriously expect to live a lifetime in a Western country without screwing up some official government form or other. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but knowledge of the law is not possible, not even for professional lawyers who might manage to attain knowledge in some specialist area but yet remain ignorant in other areas. As a consequence we can be sure that every one of us has broken some law somewhere, without the slightest clue that such a prohibition even existed. This is by design. We cannot stand up and be confident that we are righteous and correct, we just hope to keep our heads down and not get picked on.

          The purpose of the system, is what it does.

        • Sancho says:

          I don’t think it’s that complicated.

          The egalitarianism of western society is a historical anomaly. Most societies simply accept that the upper classes enjoy rights and privileges that the lower orders don’t, as long as they don’t flaunt it.

          That model, of course, is what the Right is eternally trying to return to. The new aristocrats are the financiers and business executives, but their role in the conservative world-view is no different to the dukes and lords and kings of old.

          The swing at the western legal system is off-topic. Our laws have created an interpreter caste (lawyers) and often exclude ordinary people from participation and justice, but the fact remains that it’s the best system developed thus far and is more just than any religious legal model.

  13. Tel says:

    Any thoughts on how a recent badly made and deliberately provocative film about Mohammed might reveal where this is all heading? Not that the film itself is remotely interesting, only the reaction to it.

    For context though, running around dressed as a vagina is also deliberately provocative. Singing punk protest songs at the alter of an Orthodox church is also deliberately provocative. Chaining yourself to machinery is also deliberately provocative. Just pointing that out in case anyone forgets what our society is all about.

  14. Paul Frijters says:

    Tel, Sancho,

    whilst I agree with Tel that the complexity of our laws guarantees we are all legal sinners, I do not think this is by design. Far and wide as I look, I cannot find the room in which such things are discussed and decided. Indeed, the higher up you go the more you hear about how ridiculous it is that we have such complex laws. Whilst they create discretion for those who can afford lawyers, they also create layers of complexity that require armies of lawyers to be hired by the wealthy, something they don’t like either.
    Similarly, the legal ambiguity of the system in Dubai is unlikely to be there by design, though i can well imagine that it is kept in place because it delivers benefits to some people. Yet, i am more interested in the social norm aspect of the situation: the whole business of public ‘face’.

    The same issue comes up with this recent US-produced film (apparently made by someone previously shooting soft-porn movies): why care so much about what someone a whole continent away puts on celluloid? Of all the things to worry about! Compared to the disgusting videos of beheadings put online daily by religious Islamic fanatics, it is peanuts, but more importantly, ‘so what?’. Why does everything out in the open everywhere have to conform to a particular notion of ‘appearances’? All the answers I can come up with make me more and more on the side of the Americans.

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