Turning Change into Chaos

Early U.S. presidents warned that foreign entanglements could endanger the Republic, but it turns out that modern U.S. interventions are hazardous to the rest of the world as well, achieving neither democracy nor human rights, while spreading chaos and death, a tragic turn addressed by ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

A renowned Arab religious scholar in the Fourteenth Century, ibn Taymiyya, is sometimes quoted as saying,  Al-zulm afdal ‘ala al-fawda , “oppression is to be favored over anarchy.”

Although ibn Taiymiyya was no establishment figure in his time, this perspective was welcomed by all rulers since it provided explicit religious justification in support of arbitrary and often oppressive authority.

President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush (with First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush) walk to a White House event on May 31, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush (with First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush) walk to a White House event on May 31, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Maybe there’s not a lot new here: all rulers at all times and all places like to wrap themselves in the robes of religious, ethnic or patriotic legitimacy in order to maintain power.

But there’s something else: ibn Taymiyya lived in a period when the holocaust of the Mongol invasions was sweeping across Asia and into the Middle East sowing destruction. It was a time of fear, widespread violence and war, calling for political caution. Sound familiar?

Is this thought, then, the product of a political reactionary? Or does it represent a fundamental insight into basic human psychology? Which of us, when confronted with anarchy in the streets, possibly getting murdered or kidnapped while simply going out to buy a loaf of bread, might not prefer authoritarian crackdown to unbridled chaos; where just staying alive is the best we can hope for in a precarious political and social environment?

Ask Iraqis who got liberated from Saddam Hussein, or Libyans liberated from Gaddafi. Or Syrians today. Might the ugliness of the earlier dictatorships not look better, where at least if you stayed totally out of politics your lives were fairly safe and predictable?

After all, when life, family, the social order and survival are at stake, our basic political values can get pretty rock-bottom conservative.

Sadly, these words from the Fourteenth Century Muslim world may be disturbingly relevant to today. It’s part of a political debate that reverberates through all of human history.

At the level of states, great powers tend to prefer order, virtually any kind of order, to chaos in the world in which they operate. That’s how dictators thrive and gain external support; even democratic states value foreign dictators who can keep the lid on.

The U.S. has rarely shrunk from supporting ugly dictators or regimes if it believed it to be “in the national interest.” (Unless that specific regime happens to be directly anti-American in which case terror, destabilization, or overthrow is welcomed.)

The U.S. is not especially worse than other major powers in this respect, but its global reach means that it engages in this particular kind of hypocrisy more widely and frequently than most other states.

But the chaos that flowed out of the U.S. overthrow of Saddam in Iraq, Gaddafi in Libya, and efforts to overthrow Assad in Syria, has not only inflicted massive suffering on the populations of those countries, but has left Washington (and the European Union) worse off than before, and spawned ISIS out of Iraqi and Syrian turmoil.

President Obama wisely decided not to go that same route a fourth time in recently deciding that likely alternatives to Bashar al-Assad would be worse than Assad himself. (Obama’s “liberal interventionist” advisors were not happy.)

So, is oppression more tolerable than anarchy? And for whom? It seems even European and American publics, hardly experiencing anything at home that could remotely be called anarchy, are still willing now to ratchet up the level of police, military and intelligence surveillance powers to avoid even the possibility of any kind of terror incident.

People will pay nearly any price if they believe it might make them safer. You don’t have to be a Fourteenth Century Muslim cleric to make that observation. So what is the message here, then?

One message is that liberalism is a delicate flower. We are disinclined to be more generous, open, tolerant or broad-minded when conditions are dangerous. We see this clearly in Western politics today, in the U.S. presidential debates, or in the mood of European societies in the face of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Multi-culturalism and tolerance become unwelcome words.

It’s not just Muslims who think this way. It’s Chinese as well who have gone through political, economic and social hell for half a century of communist experimentation before emerging into the present era of relative prosperity and order under a Chinese government that runs a tight ship.

Nobody wants to hear suggestions for an overthrow of the neo-communist order there. Don’t rock the boat, let’s cherish and preserve what we have painfully gained and work for political progress, if any, only through baby steps. Few will risk known stability in the hope of gaining some abstract and untested improvements.

Along similar lines, why don’t Muslims call for huge overhaul of their interpretations of Islam in contemporary Middle Eastern states? When bullets are flying, calls for social and theological change is unthinkable; it’s safer not to address such volatile issues.

These arguments about order are fundamental to the philosophic conservative vision, the true conservative vision and not the grotesque caricature of conservatism that has hijacked most of the Republican Party in the U.S. today.

In the end almost all of us embrace this conservative principle to some extent: don’t rock the boat if you have a lot to lose. What we disagree about is how to interpret “rocking the boat” or “having a lot to lose.” It’s all a matter of degree. What risks will we take, what experiments will we undertake, for what putative gain?

I write these words with some trepidation since this conservative political philosophy has been exploited and used to justify atrocious policies on the part of all kinds of dictators around the world, as well as justifying unacceptable foreign policies of the U.S.

Looking at the world around us today, it looks like we are entering a new conservative age globally, driven by fear of chaos and the increasing spread of violence across so much of the world. Ibn Taymiyya would have recognized this phenomenon immediately.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) www.grahamefuller.com

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4 comments for “Turning Change into Chaos

  1. Zachary Smith
    January 19, 2016 at 11:45 pm

    President Obama wisely decided not to go that same route a fourth time in recently deciding that likely alternatives to Bashar al-Assad would be worse than Assad himself. (Obama’s “liberal interventionist” advisors were not happy.)

    I’m sorry, but the use of “Obama” and “wise” in the same sentence makes me want to gag.

    IMO there was no ‘wisdom’ involved at all, but rather a belated recognition that starting WW3 for Israel wasn’t really a very good idea. The ‘recent’ part is correct, though. Only a month ago BHO was still spouting his standard BS about Assad.

    US President Barack Obama has once again called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in order for the country to have peace and stability.

    “I think that Assad is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop the blood, for all the parties involved to be able to move forward in a nonsectarian way,” Obama said during an end-of-the-year news conference Friday afternoon at the White House.

    He called the Assad government illegitimate, saying bringing peace to the war-torn country is impossible “unless the government is considered legitimate by a majority of Syrians.”

    http://217.218.67.231/Detail/2015/12/18/442292/US-Obama-Syria-Assad-Daesh

    Obama is totally responsible for Libya, the recent destruction of the Ukraine, and the attempted dismantling of Syria.

    The man simply hasn’t stopped lying. He knows very well that Assad won a legitimate election, and would do so again by even larger margins if one were held today.

    Which of us, when confronted with anarchy in the streets — possibly getting murdered or kidnapped while simply going out to buy a loaf of bread — might not prefer authoritarian crackdown to unbridled chaos; where just staying alive is the best we can hope for in a precarious political and social environment?

    What’s with the “might” business? Only a complete fool – or a brain-damaged Libertarian – would take the unbridled chaos route.

    At the level of states, great powers tend to prefer order — virtually any kind of order — to chaos in the world in which they operate. That’s how dictators thrive and gain external support; even democratic states value foreign dictators who can keep the lid on.

    Unfortunately, small powers don’t necessarily follow this logic. Israel would simply rejoice if every Muslim nation in the region was reduced to the status of failed states. On another recent thread an author spoke of a Saudi Arabia – Iran war. Both nations would be hurt badly, and nobody except a certain murderous & thieving little apartheid nation would benefit at all.

  2. John
    January 20, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    When, oh when, will otherwise intelligent and informed authors stop mistaking dischord and “anarchy”?

    The US and Europe have recently seen anarchy in their streets, in the form of the general assemblies at the heart of the Occupy and Indignatos movements. The Syrian Kurds, in Rojava, have openly embraced anarchy in the form championed by Murray Bookchin, and have, in doing so, led the way in the fight against Daesh, even while being attacked by Turkey on their rear flank. (The YPG and their counterpart, ignored by patriararchal media, but equally as important, the YPJ, are explicitly organized under Bookchin’s ideas), just as anarchists provided the most effective resistance to Franco’s fascists in the leadup to WWII.

    Even the well known symbol of anarchism is an A for Anarchy, inside of an O for Order.

    For an otherwise intelligent author, writing an article on authoritarian tendencies of the human psyche, of all things, to misuse the term “anarchy” in such a gregarious and malignant way, is quite appalling. It is also greatly indicative of the authoriarian cravings of Liberals.

    I do hope that this misuse of words comes from a position of ignorance and lack of critical self examination on the part of the author, and is fone unthinkingly on his behalf, rather than done knowingly, intentionally, and thus maliciously.

    If it was, indeed, done without ill intent, I would suggest that the author read the writings of such luminaries as Emma Goldman, Murray Bookchin, Errico Malatesta, Noam Chomsky, Pyotr Kropotkin, David Graeber, and many others, before ever using the word “anarchy” again.

  3. J'hon Doe II
    January 21, 2016 at 9:51 am

    John >>> “For an otherwise intelligent author, writing an article on authoritarian tendencies of the human psyche, of all things, to misuse the term “anarchy” in such a gregarious and malignant way, is quite appalling.”
    .
    will the real Graham E. Fuller please stand up… ?

    https://libya360.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/graham-fuller-uncle-ruslan-the-cia-and-the-boston-bombings/

    • John
      January 21, 2016 at 7:39 pm

      Jhon, very interesting… you provide an interesting Balance there….

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