In the timelines earlier in this chapter, I have aimed to show that there have been some governments in the Muslim World that had ‘progressive’ characteristics. Arab nationalists like Nasser improved conditions ‘from above’ for previously marginalised and dispossessed sectors of society (even if only for a short period of time), though without giving citizens any real democratic control over their destinies. Ba’athists did the same, though often much more along ethnic lines and with more brutal internal repression. [The achievements and negative impacts of state nationalism in the region will be discussed in greater depth between Chapters Two and Four.]
While ‘communist’ regimes took power in Yemen and Afghanistan, attempting to lift people there out of poverty, their belief in authoritarian and bureaucratic progress ‘from above’ made it easier for Western imperialists to rally opposition against them. Afghanistan, as will be seen in Chapter Five, would prove to be a turning point in the existence of both Soviet-style revolution and radical Wahhabi-influenced Islamism. The former would fade away with the USSR’s failures in the Afghan conflict (which turned out to be the superpower’s Vietnam), but the latter would be bolstered by the support it had received from the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Having shown it could defeat communist secularism, it began to make plans to take power elsewhere in the Muslim World, taking advantage of the political unrest that had been left behind by colonial division of land, dictatorial secularism, and imperialist intervention in the region.
Where secular nationalist and communist governments were successful, it was generally because of their opposition to Western colonialism and imperialism. However, by repressing religious groups or not giving them control over their own destinies, they laid the foundations for their own collapse. Imperialists, meanwhile, having realised the importance of religion in the region, actively supported Islamists in exchange for either loyalty or support in the fight against anything progressive that might put their economic interests at risk. The rise of Wahhabi extremism in Middle Eastern politics, therefore, can be explained as both a direct and indirect consequence of Western (and in particular American) attempts to undermine progressive movements. In late 2014, analyst Ulson Gunnar would say that “the lack of biting [Western] sanctions” against Islamist allies in the Middle East was “an indictment of the West’s lack of sincerity in its “war” on ISIS”. In the rest of this book, I will look at precisely how Western interference has affected areas formerly controlled or influenced by the Ottoman Empire, and how it has shaped the turbulent political scene we see there today.