Seldom has it been more important for Americans to form a realistic assessment of the world scene. But our current governing, college-educated class suffers one glaring blind spot.
Modern American culture produces highly individualistic career and identity paths for upper- and middle-class males and females. Power couples abound, often sporting different last names. But deeply held religious identities and military loyalties are less common. Few educated Americans have any direct experience with large groups of men gathered in intense prayer or battle. Like other citizens of the globalized corporate/consumer culture, educated Americans are often widely traveled but not deeply rooted in obligation to a particular physical place, a faith or a kinship.
Most of the 7 billion people on Earth today are not such modern atoms. As in the past, they live in territorial ethnic groups and language communities — extended family units that in turn connect with national and religious identities uniting adult males. Such brotherhoods blend the blood ties of kinship with the shared blood sacrifice of religious military covenants.
If we are to be realists, we must understand that such large communal loyalties, for which men will gladly fight and die, explain a great many of the world’s conflicts — and mark the pathways to peace. American and European educated elites may be outgrowing the “superstition” of religion, the “chauvinism” of nations. But armed men elsewhere navigate by a different compass.
Let us enter their world for a moment, in the name of realism.
Russia: Waking up Orthodox
For modern individualists, nothing is so enlightened as our present era. So it was considered a major insult in the West to tell Russia’s president that “you just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country.”
But Vladimir Putin sees the 19th century not as an inferior age but as the time before his Orthodox nation was seized by an atheist movement from the West that poisoned the soul of a Christian people. He knows that the battle for Sevastopol in the Crimean War (1857) was lost by Russians at the hands of an unholy alliance of Muslim Turks and nominally Christian British and French troops.
There is no question to Putin (or most of his citizens) that Crimea is part of an organic unity called Russia, baptized 1,000 years ago and paid for with blood. But Orthodox Crimea is not Catholic Poland. The Russian nation’s claim to one implies no claim on the other. (And eastern Ukraine is likewise a special case, where use of the Russian language marks the key fault line.)
The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state representing international communism, sworn in the end to abolish all nations and religions as ruling-class frauds. Mother Russia and the Orthodox Church were its first victims.
Must it be said that Russia is not the USSR and Putin is not Stalin?
Russians remember clearly that 100 years ago this summer the Catholic Austro-Hungarian empire and the Lutheran German Reich united to crush the national aspirations of Orthodox Serbia. Russia came to the aid of her religious and ethnic sister nation, setting off World War I. Weakened by the struggle, Russia was hijacked by revolutionaries.
In the 1990s, the first European capital to be bombed since World War II was Belgrade, in Orthodox Serbia. Russia protested again — this time without arms. The Western NATO alliance is no longer Catholic or Protestant, but it is still capable of the old enmities against the East.
The resurgence of the Orthodox religion and her nations is the last in a long series of religious revolts against the atheism of Soviet Communism. Decades earlier, Catholic Hungary and Catholic Poland from the west, and the Islamic fighters in Afghanistan from the south, undermined that godless empire with the steely resolve of theocratic nations (a term that seems less sinister when we remember its heroism against the atheist superstate).
Freed from the armed atheism of the Gulag, Russians are not embracing the unarmed atheism of the Western sexual revolution. Nor will they privatize their national resources in the name of capitalist liberty. Solzhenitsyn taught us decades ago that Russia would one day wake from its Soviet nightmare, not as a Western democracy but as a devout Orthodox nation.
For decades, American Catholics ended worship services with prayers for the conversion of Russia, for a healing of the breach in Christian brotherhood that divided European nations from Russia and made both vulnerable to the homicidal states of pagan Nazis and materialist Reds.
Must Christians be divided again as another worldwide enemy assembles to attack us?
Before we reduce our national policy debate to “Putin is a bully” and “Obama is a wimp,” shouldn’t we ask whether Russia is really America’s No. 1 geostrategic enemy? The soulless bureaucracy of the European Union and its military arm — NATO — may harbor more enmity against a Christian Russia than Christian Americans should.
Asia: Land of the rising nations
Let us pivot to Asia. Henry Kissinger has said that while Europe attempts to move beyond nations as primary political and military actors, nation-states are ascendant in Asia.
China retains the Communist Party, but it seeks a non-Marxist national identity. Possibly it will be found by reading Chinese-American Eric Liu’s “A Chinaman’s Chance,” in which he calls for “a corrective dose” of Chinese values for America. These would include piety, manners, duties over rights, long-term thinking, humility and moral character.
China, the vanguard of the Red Revolution, is gone. But China, the nation at the middle of the Earth, is alive and well and rising.
Japan under Shinzo Abe will no longer shun its military history by refusing to pay homage to its war dead, a sacral act of national and ancestral piety. India has elected a visionary Hindu nationalist (Narendra Modi) to replace the secular rulers who dominated their post-World War II era. Pakistan can only become “more Muslim” in response. Asia is becoming more religious and more nationalist as Christians in Vietnam, Korea and the Philippines and Muslims in Indonesia all seek ways to combine devotion to God, nation and community.
American colleges may be shaping male metrosexuals and feminist careerists, but Asian nationalists take inspiration from such patriarchal icons as Singapore’s remarkable founding father Lee Kuan Yew and nurture cultures that are not just a collection of individuals.
Middle East: Out of many conflicts, one
The area of the world where clear thinking about religion, nations and armed men is most necessary for realists is, of course, the Mideast.
My daughter spent five years in Egypt and Saudi Arabia teaching women during the Arab Spring, so I hope I can be spared charges of misogyny when asserting that more education for women will not resolve the wars between armed males in the Holy Lands. Her work and the aspirations of First Ladies Bush, Clinton and Obama remain a noble enterprise. But the realist’s goal here must be to understand large groups of men at war — who is shooting at us and why.
What transforms small collections of angry men into large groups capable of making war are religious, nationalist, linguistic and ethnic loyalties. This religious paradigm is an incomplete explanation. But it is the key to open the larger lock.
The great divide in the Muslim word between Sunni and Shiite is a thousand years old. The Sunni comprise 85 percent of 1 billion worldwide Muslims, and two-thirds of Mideast Muslims. Almost all Muslim countries are majority Sunni. There are Shiite majorities in Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan. The civil war in Syria rages along this same religious fault line. Bashar Assad and his small Alawite clan are identified with the Shiites, ruling a nation 75 percent Sunni and 10 percent Christian.
The Al-Qaida prolongation of the war in Iraq was as much about a violent multicountry Sunni opposition to the majority Shiites ruling their own country as it was a fight against American “crusaders” who had overthrown secularist Sunni Saddam Hussein. This Sunni resistance is now under ISIL and holds northern and western Iraq.
The Sunni troops have symbolically eliminated the border between Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the Sunnis are a minority fighting the recently empowered majority, while in Syria they are the majority fighting a long-entrenched Shiite military government led by Assad. The ISIL slaughter of Shiites surpasses the considerable violence they have done to Christians. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is not Al-Qaida but a rival in the same Sunni purification movement. It is better-armed and better-led, and it is tapping a deeper stream of religious consciousness.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia were two Muslim countries that supported the United States attacking the Assad Shiite government. They are both dominant Sunni powers. Saudi Arabia is the home of 15 of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers and the birthplace of the Sunni purification movement, which has been the driving force in the re-emergence of political Islam in the last century.
This worldwide religious purification movement in Sunni Islam is associated with Al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wahhabi tradition, the “jihadists,” ISIL and a host of other Salafist variants. It seeks to revitalize Islamic communal forms in obedience to the will of God in the lands of Islam.
The grandfathers and fathers of today’s militants fought British colonialists, Hindu nationalists and Soviet communists in the 20th century. Now the sons depict the United States and Israel as their greatest enemies outside the Muslim fold. They often treat the very notion of a nation state as a Jewish-Crusader imposition of an illegitimate political form on the deeper Islamic communal bond of the “Ummah” represented by the office of the caliphate. The ISIL establishment of a new caliphate is a dramatic raising of stakes in an attempt to assemble all Muslims as a common fighting force.
For all their hatred against the “enemy without,” this purification movement is as adamant against the “enemy within.” Those include the post-World War II secular nationalist leaders who from Turkey to Egypt to Iraq to Syria created modern police states that opposed attempts to return to Islamic patterns of governance.
Another Sunni enemy of the radicals is the Hashemite King of Jordan, who sees the protection of Christian communities as an obligation of Muslims. The Egyptian military now ruling Egypt is an enemy as well. It overthrew the government of the Muslim Brotherhood — a purification movement that won election after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood supported another Sunni purification movement in Gaza called the Hamas. When the Egyptian military took over Egypt, it cut off support for Hamas, which made the recent Israeli offensive against Hamas much more feasible and deadly.
Established Sunni states want no part of purification political movements in their homelands but are often supportive as the radicals move away from home. And to reject the political ambitions of the purification movement is not necessarily to oppose enforcement of sharia customs. This is the great contradiction at the heart of Saudi Arabia, which is a stringent opponent of political purification movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia but is also the major source of support for jihadists around the world. Internally, there is no more rigid enforcement of restrictive sexual and religious practice than in “The Kingdom.”
And the Saudis share with the Sunni purists a disdain for the Shiites. They see Iran as their enemy. Any movement by Israel or the United States against Iran would be supported by Saudi Arabia.
In short, Iran is not part of the Sunni purification movement. It is its best-organized enemy. It would be helpful if at least a few of our political leaders could shake off religious ignorance long enough to see (as Nixon once saw in China) that this huge country on the edge of our battleground may make a more natural ally (or at least cobelligerent) than an enemy.
Solutions in the Mideast can no longer be reduced to one-person-one-vote democracy movements. A just state, no matter how originally formed, is the one that performs its rudimentary duties of protection for men to live, work and, not least, worship in peace.
The necessity of worshiping God “properly” is not viscerally felt by most government careerists in the United States or Europe. But realism about human communal forms might provide a more realistic basis for American foreign policy than visions of ever-expanding individualistic license. As another daughter says, “that is so First World!”
A world of difference
Success in our struggle against the Sunni purification movement will depend on isolating the force we are fighting from the larger religious group the extremists want to drag into a war against us. Extremist religious movements depend on the cultural ignorance of their foes, who mistakenly strike at members of the whole religion when aiming at the extremists. This only links the extremist and his co-believer by the experience of common suffering.
Our strategic task is to define the enemy narrowly to isolate him, while widening the circle of allies and co-belligerents who oppose him. This demands religious, historical and geographic literacy.
In our war against the Sunni purification movements, there are many natural allies: Christian nations like Russia and Serbia; Shiite states like Iraq and Iran (as well as the Syrian remnant governed by Assad). Meanwhile, established Sunni states like Jordan and Egypt, and the Sunnis of the non-Arab world, do not have to be lumped with our enemy by our own inability to make distinctions. All Muslims don’t look alike. All Sunnis don’t look alike.
Above all, we need to see and understand the male communal forms that rule most of the world. They don’t look (or think) much like the careerist power couples who run so much of American journalism and politics. We are one nation among many. The world is made in God’s image, not ours. The liberated Westerner cannot remake homo religiosus or homo politicus in her image.
What good has been all our diversity training if we cannot distinguish centuries-old cultures and the beliefs that sustain them from university faculty committees? Let us recognize the deep communal loyalties of religion and nation, the better to understand: Who can be our allies? Who must be our foes (remembering there are no permanent enemies)?
This is the task of all realists who must determine our nation’s role amid our separated brethren and fellow sons of Adam.
David Pence, of Mankato, is a physician and teacher.