The Arab world is a pluralistic region that lacks pluralism — the ability to manage and embrace differences peacefully. As such, the Middle East’s pluralistic character — Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, Alawites, Jews, Copts, Yazidis, Turkmen and an array of tribes — has long been managed by iron fists from above. But after we removed the fists in Iraq and Libya, without putting a new bottom-up order in place, and the people themselves tried to remove the fists in Syria and Yemen, without putting a new live-and-let-live order in place, a horrifying war of all against all has exploded.
The fighting has laid bare just how much the last 60 years of predatory leadership in that region failed at human development and citizenship building. The whole Arab world package, with its artificially straight-line borders, was held together by oil and brute force. In the wreckage, people are falling back on the only identities they think might keep them safe: tribe and sect.
It is a measure of how far things have unraveled that many Iraqi Sunnis prefer the lunatic Islamic State, or ISIS, than to fight and die for a pro-Iranian Shiite-led government in Baghdad. I have never seen it this bad. The Middle East analyst Simon Henderson captured the disintegration well in an essay in The Wall Street Journal in March, writing, “The violent chaos in Yemen isn’t orderly enough to merit being called a civil war.”
The fundamentalist mindset seems to be taking hold everywhere. The Middle East Media Research Institute posted a video from last month of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Naqib, a lecturer on education at Mansoura University north of Cairo, criticizing ISIS, but he added, “There is no doubt that they are much better than the criminal Rafidites (Shiites), who kill the Sunnis because of their Sunni identity.”
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Otto Scharmer, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who works with communities trapped in perpetual conflicts, defines the main features of the fundamentalist mindset by its opposites: What is the opposite of an open mind? he asks. “You are stuck in one truth.” What is the opposite of an open heart? “You are stuck in one collective skin; everything is us versus them and, therefore, empathy for the other is impossible.” And what is the opposite of an open will? “You are enslaved to old intentions that originate in the past and not from the present, and so you cannot open up to any emerging new opportunities.”
If that zero-sum mindset continues to prevail, you can only weep for the future of this region when there is much less oil, many more kids and much less water. It will be a freak show.
For now, I see only two ways coherent self-government can re-emerge in Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Syria: If an outside power totally occupies them, snuffs out their sectarian wars, suppresses the extremists and spends the next 50 years trying to get Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis and Libyans to share power as equal citizens. Anyway, it’s not going to happen. The other is just wait for the fires to burn themselves out. The Lebanese civil war ended after 14 years by reconciliation-through-exhaustion. All sides accepted the principle of “no victor/no vanquished,” and everyone got a piece of the pie. That’s how Tunisia’s factions managed to find stability: no victor/no vanquished.
We cannot effectively intervene in a region where so few share our goals. For instance, in Iraq and Syria, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have acted as “arsonists” and “firefighters.” First, Iran pushed the Iraqi Shiite government to crush the Sunnis. When that produced the Islamic State, they sent pro-Iranian militias to put out the fire. Thanks a lot. And Saudi Arabia’s long promotion of the puritanical, anti-pluralistic, anti-women, Wahhabi brand of Islam helped to shape the thinking of ISIS and the Sunni fundamentalists who joined them. The Saudis, too, are arsonists and firefighters. Indeed, ISIS is like a missile that got its guidance system from Saudi Arabia and its fuel from Iran.
U.S. policy should be “containment, plus amplification.” Let’s help those who manifest the will to contain ISIS — like Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and the Kurds in Iraq — and amplify any constructive things leaders in Yemen, Iraq, Libya or Syria are ready to do with their power. But we must not substitute our power for theirs. This has to be their fight for their future. If the fight against ISIS is not worth it to them, it surely can’t be for us.
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.