History News Network ( http://chnm.gmu.edu/hnn/ )
By Juan R. I. Cole
Juan Cole is professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan.
The world in 2002 is plunged into war or preparation for it in a number of significant hotspots. During the past decade, we have entered the age of postcolonial wars that are aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington has called this the “Age of Muslim Wars.” But most of these struggles have not had an Islamic character at all. Christian Serb nationalists, after all, launched the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Gulf wars were started by secular, Arab nationalist Iraq. It so happens that Africa and Eurasia contain large numbers of Muslims, which makes them statistically more likely to be involved in wars in those postcolonial regions. Moreover, the West tends to ignore deadly wars among postcolonial Christians, in places like the Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uganda or not to think of them in these terms, as with Northern Ireland.
The armed conflicts in the world since the 1980s have largely been postcolonial struggles in the Balkans, Asia and Africa. The northern tier of this zone of conflict had been dominated by the Soviet empire, the disintegration of which plunged it into contention. Afghanistan’s chaos derived in large part from Soviet imperial overstretch. Bosnia, Kosovo, the Armenian-Azerbaijan war and the civil wars in Yemen and Tajikistan all had this post-Soviet context. The renegotiation of national identities after 1991 helped inspire the revolt in Chechnya, which the Russians have been brutally crushing.
The dead hand of Western European colonialism is responsible for some other major clashes. The British withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1969 after nearly two centuries of dominance, creating a power vacuum for the tiny oil sheikhdoms they had fostered. The British had managed to draw modern Iraq’s borders so as to leave it without a deep water port. From 1980, Iraq sought to redress this omission through violence and to replace the British in the region. The collapsing Soviet Union was in no condition to dissuade its ally. The United States was finally drawn into the Gulf by the Iraq wars as a guarantor of the security of states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Muslim activists with an international consciousness are enraged about the suffering of ex-Soviet Muslim populations such as the Chechens and Bosnians. (Several of the September 11 hijackers initially left their homes in Saudi Arabia to fight for the Chechens against Russia.) They fume about the situation of the Kashmiri and Palestinian Muslims, repressed by ambitious successor states established after a botched British imperial exit. Another sore point for them is conflict in Algeria between a colonially-formed (and formerly Soviet-allied) state elite and lower middle class Arabic-speaking youths in the casbahs who have no prospects. They see these situations as part of an “invasion” of the Muslim realms for the past two centuries by states of Christian or Jewish origin, or their cultural protégés. All of these conflicts have origins in the era of European, including Soviet, imperial rule, which left Muslim populations at a disadvantage when it ended. Their anger at the U.S. projects on us, often unfairly, their discontents with this European and Soviet colonial heritage.
Such adventures as the Soviets in Afghanistan, the French in Algeria, and the British in the Gulf, Palestine and South Asia have unexpectedly given birth to demons for our 21st century world. Imperialism depended on dominating, humiliating and exploiting others, and on drawing artificial boundaries for European strategic purposes. The way out is not, as some are now saying, a new wave of Western imperialism. That is how we got here in the first place. It is the fashioning of a world of equals in which Muslims receive the same rights as others, to self-determination or enough autonomy to foster self-respect. Only when the age of colonialism is truly over can the postcolonial wars end.