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.


Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

2 thoughts on “The long-run politics of the Islamic-Christian conflict.”

  1. The analysis that suggests that Islam cannot win presupposes some sort of Clausewitzian grand battle. What about a long, drawn-out war of attrition that lasts for decades? Look at Irish terrorism, it started in the 19th century and went right up until about 10 years ago when we started worrying about Islamic terrorism.


    1. Bennet,

      oh, I agree. A long fairly low-level attrition-type struggle is what we are in. What I am saying is that it is understood on all sides that the fanatics cannot achieve the annihilation of their adversaries. The impetus behind this struggle should fade though after the oil runs out and the Muslim world has become urbanised and locked into manufacturing and services.
      I agree that the Irish struggle is a good example of the limits of what a smaller and poorer group can achieve against much bigger and richer opposition.


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