In the aftermath of the Brussels terror attack many will call for a military solution to the Islamic State problem. Yet the new science of Cliodynamics predicts that the long-term result of the military victory over ISIS will be the opposite of what is intended.
A decade ago I made a prediction about the aftermath of the Allied occupation of Iraq. Here it is:
Western intrusion will eventually generate a counter-response, possibly in the form of a new theocratic Caliphate (War and Peace and War, Penguin, 2005).
Why was it possible to foresee the rise of the Islamic State so long before 2014, when it suddenly showed up on everybody’s radar, rapidly expanding its territory in Iraq and Syria to proclaim a worldwide Caliphate, just as I predicted? Simply because that part of the Middle East was becoming a particular kind of place, a place with a distinctive evolutionary trajectory. It was, to use my own term, turning into a metaethnic frontier, a zone where grand alliances of multiple nations and ethnic groups—metaethnic communities—struggle for territory and survival. Metaethnic communities are the broadest groupings of people that include not only the familiar “civilizations”—Western, Islamic, Sinic etc—but other historical groups, such as Turco-Mongolian steppe nomads. These supranational collectivities are integrated by a shared ideology, such as Christianity, Islam, or Confucianism. In my work on the largest patterns of history, I have studied such zones intensively: the steppe frontiers of China and Russia, the Christian/Islamic frontiers in Iberia and Anatolia.
And even in 2005, ISIS was staring us in the face.
The basic idea of the metaethnic frontier theory is that intense warfare breeds strong states. War is destructive, but it also exerts a powerful evolutionary pressure. By destroying brittle competitors, it allows the more cohesive groups to survive and expand. War on metaethnic frontiers is particularly intense, and often even genocidal, because deep cultural divides make it easy to dehumanize the enemy. And indeed, the historical evidence has shown that strong, expansionary states are particularly likely to appear in regions in which imperial frontiers coincide with faultlines between metaethnic communities. Just one metaethnic frontier, the one between the pastoralist societies of the Great Eurasian Steppe and the belt of agrarian communities abutting it, produced a string of Great Eurasian empires in China, Persia and Russia. Together with my colleagues we developed a mathematical model of this dynamic. To an astonishing degree of accuracy, given its simplicity, it was possible to generate the observed pattern of state formation in Ancient and Medieval Eurasia between 1500 BCE and 1500 CE.
In another study I traced the metaethnic frontiers in Europe during the last two thousand years. Data showed that location on a frontier (such as the one between the Roman Empire and the “barbarians,” or between Islam and Christendom in Iberia and in the Balkans/Anatolia) predicted the subsequent rise of an empire with 86 percent accuracy (see Chapter 5 of Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall).
In other words, the metaethnic frontier theory has been translated into mathematical models, and model predictions passed the test of data.
Which brings us back to the prediction that the metaethnic frontier theory suggested in 2005 about Iraq.
Following the Allied invasion and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 the United States invested a huge quantity of treasure, effort, and human lives (both American and Iraqi) in the project of building a state in Iraq. Not the least part of this effort was the attempt to build and equip the Iraqi army. Yet at the first push from the Islamic State fighters, this army crumbled and fled, leaving its weaponry behind.
By contrast, ISIS has created a highly effective military force. It has conquered large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, simultaneously expanding on multiple fronts against Iraqi Shiites, Syrian Alawites, and Sunni Kurds—all this despite the American bombardment from the air. It is now clear that ISIS’s advance against the Assad regime could only be stopped in the Fall of 2015 by a combination of the Russian air force together with Hezbollah and Iranian troops stiffening up the Syrian Army on the ground. The Syrian Kurds, aided by American air power, have also been able to stop the Islamic State, and indeed reconquer a significant amount of territory by the end of 2015.
Somehow ISIS managed to create in a very short time a well-organized and well-financed (if tyrannical and predatory) state. Now the Caliphate has reached far beyond its territory by striking at all of its main enemies: the Shiites in Beirut, the Kurds in Ankara, the Russians in Egypt, and the “crusaders” in Paris and Brussels.
Why was state building in Iraq by the West unsuccessful, while state building by the new Caliphate so horribly effective? The surprising answer is that, actually, state building by the West was a success, and the name of this success is ISIS.
The occupation of Iraq by the U.S. and allied forces created a zone of direct contact/conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations—a metaethnic frontier, to use my terminology. And metaethnic frontiers, as we have seen, are the breeding grounds of empires, such as the Chinese empires over the last two thousand years, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire—even the original Caliphate in the seventh century.
(to be continued)
“metaethnic frontier” is very descriptive. Far more subtle than the disputable “Clash of Civilizations.” My favourite phrase for this “designated area of approved conflict,” is “theatre of war.” This term slipped into the Bush/Rumsfeld/ et al post-2001 discourse, almost as a thesis on how to allow the battle to happen, but let it run its course – literally – off, off Broadway. In other words, war was acceptable, anywhere but downtown USA. The plan became, in the American showbiz tradition, the trope of “let’s put on a show.” kick out grumpy Saadam, the corrupt theatre manager, then bring in all the kids to sing and dance in some triumphant show stoppers with dazzling costumes and special effects, then all the players, attracted by the fireworks, would be drawn in to one place to meet their destruction. Unlike the usual Judy Garland Micky Rooney scenario, things didn’t quite have a happy ending. The other players proved adept at improvised theatre and basically took over the show. Meanwhile, production costs broke the box office and all the military contractors and crooks became like the protagonists of The Producers. minus the jokes.
Can your work make predictions on the effects of ISIS in Europe? In other words will ISIS force the European Union to become more integrated, grow into a super state?
If we had a stark juxtaposition between ISIS and the EU, yes. Unfortunately, things are much more complicated, with fault lines running right through the European core. After all, the perpetrators of Paris and Brussels massacres grew up right next to the EU headquarters.
The late Rensis Likert used the phrase “the sense of personal worth and importance” to encompass what he considered a primary driver in human affairs. This, too, plays into the issue under discussion here. I go further and argue that for reasons having to do with kin selection in the context of mate selection, we come configured with psycho-physiological systems that boost us when can give ourselves high marks on this particular Likert scale whilst invoking processes of self-destruction is we cannot. Thus, when an alien “other” moves into out world and achieves dominance this threatens us big time. If a high degree of integration with the incomers is not an option, we face a stark choice between giving up the unequal struggle and descending into the state of hopelessness and high mortality that typifies so many native peoples, or constructing a narrative about which the oppressed can rally. With the present clash with Islam, the psychological hurt is being experienced not only as a result of the ill-advised military interventions. Israel/Palestine is a running sore which has entailed multiple humiliations and the mass immigration into Western countries has produced a second generation whose day to day existence makes it clear to many that they are neither liked nor wanted. Again, those strongly affected by this face a stark choice between, metaphorically, curling up in a ball, or swallowing whole a world view that recovers their self-esteem by redefining them as brave warriors of Allah justly punishing the infidels. It is unsurprising that a significant number take the latter course. What can be done about it is, of course, another matter.
Its easy to reject any theory that starts with the Iraq war or 9/11 which is all that the scholars of the West, including this gentleman are familiar with. The goal of a caliphate was espoused as soon as the last one fell and the Muslim Brotherhood formed by Al Banna and Qutb was the most passionate about how to establish one. Osama Bin Laden initially shared the idealogy and goals of the MB but then diverged in his methods, when the MB renounced violence and formed Al Qaeda. The plan for a caliphate by Al Qaeda was formed before 9/11 or the Iraq invasion (as can be confirmed by reading Fouad Hussein’s book on his interview of Zarqawi as early as 2005 – anyone can google articles summarizing his interview). MB in turn wants to form a caliphate surreptitiously by waging cultural and education war from within. My point is, Iraq war and 9/11 and actual wars are only the tip of the iceberg and the background idealogy is more important and pre-dates events of the last 20 years.
Theories can and are espoused by many people, but without a fertile environment, ideology can not be implemented.
Could ISIS exist in a Iraq run by Saddam Hussein? No.
Likewise, could Marxism be implemented in Czarist Russia? Yet Marxism was espoused decades before. And would Czarist Russia have collapsed without WWI?
My point was that wars and ISIS themselves are the least of the problem. The point is that the idealogy and goals of ISIS has existed long, long before. Yes, as you say, some event might have provided an opportunity for a tactical grab, but focusing on the tactical event itself, misses the larger point. Furthermore, I consider ISIS to be a bunch of fools, the smarter idealogues don’t put themselves in harm’s way and prefer silent cultural change, for example the MB in Egypt, the AKP in Turkey, etc which have been around for far longer. They all would like to have a caliphate (or at the least, the presence of religion in politics and religious law and education). They are the bigger problem. ISIS is only a tactical tool. I consider the fact that a majority of Muslim majority countries with the support of their majority populations have Islam as the official religion in their constitutions, favor sharia and endorse death for apostasy to be a far bigger systematic problem of extremism than a few thousand ISIS fools. That environment and education in Muslim countries is far more responsible for the development of ISIS than any single event or war.
And my argument is that focusing on theories overlooks a lot. You’ll always find crazy, cruel theories and ideologies everywhere, but they don’t take root everywhere. Communism and fascism didn’t spread in the US and UK (though we do have Trump now) even though people in those countries certainly knew of those ideas. Why is that?
Sharia law is not a foreign concept anywhere in the Muslim world, yet imposing sharia law is highly popular in Iraq yet very unpopular in Lebanon and Turkey. Why is that?
I didn’t speak about any imagined theory but practice! I agreed with you that a fertile environment is needed, but that environment is the religious brainwashing and cultural stranglehold that the clergy holds over the population. Which is what I call idealogy. This is not some imagined theory. To ignore this reality would be to look at an incomplete picture.
Turkey thanks to Ataturk’s legacy is much better on separation of religion and state. But, AKP is rolling back the gains. And, you can’t blame the regression on any war or western imperialism although of course demonization of the other and victimhood is a popular consipiracy theory of idealogues everywhere. How would Khomeini exist if he did not build up a perpetual conflict on religious lines? Lebanon officially implements a lot of sharia despite a large non-Muslim population, so I’m not sure why you would cite that country on sharia? Lebanon has also been involved in a lot of wars so it would actually serve as a counter-example to your point – that a chaotic, war situation (even with Israel) needn’t lead to an extremist population.
Many parts of the world have suffered colonialism and imperialism. They don’t all revert to religious fundamentalism. And, to ignore the practice and mechanism of the religious clergy in establishing political fundamentalism which pre-dates recent events by calling it theory is disingenuous.
Not disingenuous. The reality is that clergy exists, and you’re not going to get rid of them. Yet it’s also reality that events and actions have differed a lot despite you being able to find the same ideology (in different proportions) in many places.
I’m imagining nothing. I saw that Nazism was practiced in Germany and yet did not take root in the UK or US. Yet is there anything intrinsically different between Germans and Brits? If ideology is all that matters, why weren’t the Nazis just as successful in the UK as in Germany?
BTW, what sharia do you see implemented in Lebanon?
Richard: good point. We can understand the success and failure of armed groups, such as ISIS or the Bolsheviks, by examining the evolutionary pressures molding them.
VS: If by “this gentleman” you mean me, you are sorely mistaken. I’ll have more to say in the next installments, but for now let me just say that I lead a project building a massive historical database (Seshat Databank), and we are reaching far, far beyond the last 20 years.
I will look forward to your future work for sure, and will be glad to be mistaken. But, may I suggest my reference again:
This article is from 2005 about a plan that was formed before 9/11. So, I don’t find your claim at the start of this article extraordinary when that was the stated plan to start with! Note here that I am not saying that your claim is wrong but that it is not surprising. Please note that the caliphate was planned for 2013-2016 in Iraq and Syria by Al-Qaeda/Zarqawi back before even 9/11 according to this interview of Zarqawi. And, this suggests an accounting of facts and conditions before 9/11, going as far as the Muslim Brotherhood and the fall of the previous caliphate in the 1920s.
Any serious attribution of motivation of ISIS must look at the past, before 9/11. For example, as in these works:
VS, “Note here that I am not saying that your claim is wrong but that it is not surprising.”
It is surprising for me! I read this Spiegel 2005 article not long time ago. They recycled it in the wake of Paris attacks. I have just reread it, and there is nothing there that predicts the spectacular rise of ISIS less than two years ago. It is basically a review of a book by a Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein who gained the trust (or so he said) of several al-Qaida members.
Now, Al-Qaida and ISIS are not one and the same. So much so that ISIS battled al-Nusra, the Al-Qaida off-shoot in Syria, and beat them. Anyway, Al-Qaida never managed to develop into a movement and become a real force like ISIS.
Returning to the Spiegel article, Hussein describes the plan that includes:
attacks on Turkey and Israel (!) in 2007-2010;
the collapse of the hated Arabic governments in 2010-2013;
bringing about a new world order – an Islamic caliphate in 2013-2016;
from 2016 onwards – a period of “total confrontation” “between the believers and the non-believers” ;
final stage – “definitive victory”, the World Caliphate by 2020, although the war shouldn’t last longer than two years.
The author of the article calls this scenario a “proof both of the terrorists’ blindness as well as their brutal single-mindedness”, “both frightening and absurd, a lunatic plan conceived by fanatics who live in their own world”. And it was.
This is not to point out that the Arabic governments of the Persian Gulf are alive and well, or that the world order is still the same and so on, but that these plans described by Hussein were seen in 2005 by everyone, including intelligence services, as what they were – yet another expression of the utopian dream of the world caliphate which has been around for the last 1,400 years. In this sense you should never be surprised that some sort of caliphate is in the works or soon will be.
As I know, it takes about a year to publish a book, so Turchin wrote his a year before Spiegel published their piece. Anyway, there is no comparison between his prediction and a millennial Islamic dream.
VS, ” the fall of the previous caliphate in the 1920s.”
Meaning Ottoman Empire?
There was a much more recent albeit small caliphate established in Chechnya in 1990-s in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Much cheered and celebrated in the West, BTW, and much lamented later when Putin brutally destroyed it as they tried to expand to the neighboring provinces.
I agree, but what should be done? The demographics play in favour of Islamic extremism, and while the palestinians don´t have their country and dignity jihadism will continue on the rise. Israel will never give an inch of land to palestinians, and more important, will not give an inch of Jerusalem. We seem to be all hijacked by this dinamic.
How do the demographics favor Islamic extremism?
Throughout the Arab world (besides Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen), the fertility rate is below 3 now and is dropping.
Jihadism and Islamic extremism also have very little to do with the Palestinians.
The Belgians and French who blew themselves up in Brussels and Paris were petty criminals and disaffected youth (who smoke, drank, and did all sorts of un-Islamic stuff) before who latched on to Islamic extremism, not deep ideologues or Islamic scholars.
The foot soldiers are irrelevant and are mere pawns in the hands of the idealogues. The idealogues are the ones running the show for cultural change which would entrench themselves and the Islamic clergy with political power (who might consider themselves scholars but that would be a misuse of the word). Very much like the idealogues of Christendom before enlightenment.
I think you are being unduly kind to Christendom. After all, what were the great Imperial “missions” of the European powers and “manifest destiny” in the USA other than a intellectual top-coats for the wholesale dispossession (and not infrequently, slaughter) of indigenous peoples? My guess is that for all their rhetoric about global domination, ISIS would happily settle for the continental “achievements” of folks with the same colour of skin as me during the nineteenth century. Looking in the other direction, your point is strongly supported in a book extract I have just read, which says that contemporary accounts make clear the Muslims then living in the Holy Land were both traumatised and appalled at the relentless savagery of the Crusaders.
I would remake my point above. In seeking to explain this kind of horror, we should go beyond the notion of civilisations grinding up against each other and asked what is it about our evolved natures that makes such barbarism almost routine?
So what is the solution?
Antonio: see the next installments in this series
This makes much sense to me. Adding this: So what, at least in part, generates a metaethnic group?
Answering in a physics / evolution context, that is, referencing what information has been doing over time.
Arguing that processing information is the fundamental verb of reality. Here’s one distillation from physicist David Deutsch: “Any final state contains information about the system’s initial state and about what has happened to it since. So, the motion of any physical system, because it obeys definite laws, can be regarded as information processing.”
In bio, cultural and tech networks various aggregate structures of information exist — trees, bacteria, people, gov’ts, apps, etc. — those structures are essentially collapsed, patterned information, still dynamic. Those structures are built largely by ongoing information processing that yields distilled relationship infrastructure in the form of code: genetic, epigenetic, language, math, moral, religious, legal, monetary, software, etc.
Metaethnic groups interface with reality (relationships) via a particular cultural code set (and maybe the are some epigenetic, genetic groupings as well? I don’t know.)
Per our species new numbers and technology, the reach of the cultural network / organism in and across geo eco bio cultural & tech networks, and across time, is unprecedented. We need a transcendental cultural coding structure that yields a supranational governing structure that matches our expanding reach. We need to adhere to this from the biological network: “The rule of thumb is that the complexity of the organism has to match the complexity of the environment at all scales in order to increase the likelihood of survival.” Yaneer Bar-Yam “Making Things Work”
Think that supranational coding structure / mechanism is software code.
Think that this horizontal cultural transmission mechanism, software code, can be a tool in resolving metaethnic conflict.
Re Culture, Complexity & Code: