History moves about like waves great and small crashing upon shores near and far; ripples in oceans might lay low the foundations of an ancient edifice while a mighty tsunami in a small sea crashes harmlessly upon the walls of a castle keep, protecting deep within the aspirations of those who are, like all of us, the victims of history. Because everything falls away, it is only a matter of time and a little bit of luck; happenstance upon the rolling road of wonder, that amazing story of humanity of which there is no end.
So how do we know when something has changed? When something has fallen away and something new is on the horizon? How can we contemplate so great a consequence as that which fells emperors and lays waste to nations and imprisons the fate of billions? For as Jesus once said of the poor; will we not also have the wars always with us?
I recently finished “Faith at War” by Yaroslav Trofimov; a book that is about the greatest epic battle of my lifetime, the fight against totalitarian Islam. Oh, I know, we’re not supposed to say that. We’re supposed to say “violent extremism” or some such double-speak. But we know what the fight was about; I say was, because I think that chapter in our history is over. Not that all Muslim countries are now democracies; and of course there are still terrorists out there content to bomb churches. But ‘over’ in that the utopian draw of the caliphate which inspired the frightening wickedness of a movement is spent; nobody sees castles of crystal in the sands beyond the next bloodbath. Sure, there are still insurgencies that burn at the inverse of epicenter the world over, and many of these are in Muslim countries so they might have a “revolutionary Islam” feel to them to the un-informed observer. But they are more a symptom of the coming anarchy – not the one that has ended.
As I said, Trofimov’s book is about the world at the height of the “war on terror” – that moment when the monumental imperial might and laser focus of the empire of the west (if I may call it that) were directed at controlling and stamping out the latest in a long line of challenges to western liberalism (in the correct sense of the word). If first there was fascism, then there was communism, next there came Islamism. It probably started in the 1970s with the fall of the Shah of Iran, spawning the Iranian revolution (which continues to fund terror) and then rippling into groups like PLO and people like Carlos the Jackal and Yasar Arafat and onward (into the alphabet soup of groups we have all heard so much about). As the Jackal once said, “Revolution above all, is today Islamic”. Its greatest victory was had on 9/11 – unquestionably; and was probably the day the “shooting war” really started (think Germany’s invasion of Poland perhaps). And for the next 17 years, the history of US foreign policy, of western foreign policy in fact is told by the efforts of our governments to contain the spread of this war.
A war that has ended. But when? I would argue, though many disagree, that it ended with the fall of Raqqa. Utopias only inspire if they remained unachieved. Al Qaida somehow understood this in some twisted way. ISIS never did; and assuming the trappings of legitimacy taken from obscure passages in their holy books they built their bricks and mortar utopia. And it was hellish. Just like Nazi Germany was a terrifying place of scarcity and violence; just like communist USSR was a land of famine and enslavement – the Caliphate of Sham was a place wicked and base, far from the ideas of the golden age 800 years ago, which they promised to rebuild.
“Faith at War” was written in 2006, right during the main efforts to prosecute this war. It emerges from stories of a journalist traveling to the front lines of the “war on terror”: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bosnia, Mali – in order to understand from ordinary citizens and members of communities what were the realities of this war, the motivations for (and against) it and its repercussions in their lives. And as such it was engaging and easy to read and I found it for the most part with no axe to grind, no agenda and was not overly preachy. I found the stories interesting, certainly Trofimov had some harrowing experiences and close misses and has earned the right to tell about them. His anecdotes about some of America’s mistakes in the war effort were perhaps sadly comical.
Nevertheless, overall I walked away from the book feeling that Trofimov somehow missed the point. He never really delved into the philosophy, never understood the grievances of those who fought the war, and did not seem to understand the historic moment in which he was writing. He was not well versed in the ancient histories of the lands he visited nor did he “get” the civilizational components of the struggles he chronicled. I came away without a better understanding of the war on terror, which ostensibly was what the book was supposed to help with.
And now the war is over – yes it is over; although it is possible that it has taken the EU with it, the last 11th hour casualty. Then again, perhaps the collapse of Europe is more a part of the coming anarchy; the massive austral edifice of ‘liberal’ power and capitalism that is teetering and about to fall, eaten away as it has been by the tiny ripples in the form of migrant streams. Yes, I think that may be the story that is only now just starting to play out, and demanding to be adequately understood in order to be competently written. Hopefully Trofimov will do a better job at this one.