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Scott Anderson, an historian of the Middle East, has performed an invaluable public service with his piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. His article “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart,” is both a great primer on the deep, complex roots of a regional crisis that keeps jolting the rest of the world, too, and a powerful challenge to most of the voices – including mine – who have been speaking out on American policy toward admitting Middle East refugees and toward its own existing Muslim community.

As RealityChek regulars know, I’ve been much less clear on defining a U.S. approach going forward than in criticizing those who, within the Obama administration and without, have demonized as bigots and xenophobes anyone insisting that tighter restrictions and more monitoring are essential. That’s because, despite my adamance that the nation faces a Muslim problem at home as well as abroad, and that debunking what I’ve called “denialism” is a vital first step toward urgently needed reform, I haven’t been able to formulate feasible, specific ways of preventing Americans resident in the country from turning into home-grown terrorists.  I do favor immigration bans or at least freezes on war-torn Middle East countries where reliable vetting is absolutely impossible, but no one should imagine such measures alone will keep the nation safe.   

Anderson’s portrait of the Middle East should prompt rethinking by everyone. Supporters of basing new measures largely or solely on religion – and specifically, on what they see as the dangerously reactionary, intolerant, anti-Western nature of Islam – will be struck by the relatively small role played by religion in the author’s analysis. But if you think about it seriously, you don’t have to view Islam as a model of peace and progressivism, or ignore evidence of grossly outsized American Muslim participation in terrorist activity, to recognize that the religion is widespread in a huge, populous part of the world – Southeast Asia – where it hasn’t been a major security threat. Moreover, the large Muslim populations of India and Bangladesh don’t qualify, either. (At the same time, due largely to the – often Saudi Arabian-funded – propagation of fundamentalism, an extremist threat has certainly been growing in these areas.)

At the same time, “Fractured Lands” strengthens the case for thoroughgoing immigration and refugee policy changes by presenting abundant evidence that the nation (and world) do face a special problem from the Arab Muslim world. Anderson rightly describes both the domestic and foreign influences that led him to observe that “In my professional travels over the decades, I had found no other region to rival the Arab world in its utter stagnation.”

Those who have finished the compelling picture Anderson has drawn of disastrous foreign meddling and imperialism in the Middle East could reasonably be tempted to claim that outsiders have actually been the main problem. After all, as the author reminds, the early 20th century Europeans practically ensured eventual chaos by creating states with no regard for “national coherence, and even less to tribal or sectarian divisions.” The logical follow-on point: Immigration curbs would amount to the contemptible version of “blaming the victim.”

But again, the experiences of other parts of the world push back strongly against this position. Much of East Asia, for example, was controlled by Europe for long stretches of modern history. (And the United States ruled the Philippines for decades.) True, Japan remained independent, and China was at least nominally so. Foreign imperial ventures in the region, moreover, don’t seem to have resulted in borders that so flagrantly ignored ethnic realities.

But both Japan and China suffered horrific destruction during World War II, Korea was all but flattened in the 1950s, and Indochina experienced a similar nightmare in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, several Asian countries that emerged from the imperial era were religious and ethnic polyglots to some extent – like Malaysia, Singapore, and especially Indonesia. And don’t forget the subcontinent! Yet even counting the latter’s brutally violent post-independence breakup into Hindu-dominated India and overwhelmingly Muslim (East and West) Pakistan, they’ve cohered much better than the Arab Muslim countries, not to mention leaving them in the dust economically.

So it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that East and South Asia have, despite towering obstacles, somehow created the ingredients for longer-term success that have totally eluded the Arab Muslim world. As a result, it’s just as hard to avoid asking why anyone would expect even the beginnings of Middle Eastern progress along these lines in the foreseeable future – and why, without immigration policy overhaul, the region won’t continue to send violent extremists abroad, including to the United States.

The challenge, then, to everyone involved in the Middle East immigration debate is clear. Status quo fans will have to reject their denialism. And restrictionists will need to come up with properly focused, workable curbs. Of course, election years aren’t the most promising times for such consensus building. But don’t expect much sympathy on that score from the terrorists.