Over at The Guardian, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair opines that this century’s most “epic” battles will be over religion, not political ideology. In his own words: “The battles of this century are less likely to be the product of extreme political ideology – like those of the 20th century – but they could easily be fought around the questions of cultural or religious difference.” For evidence to back up this claim, he points to a number of ongoing conflicts today. The overwhelming majority of these are occurring in the Arab World and Pakistan, although Blair throws in Russia, Central Asia, Burma, Thailand and the Philippines for good measure.
Blair is hardly the first person to make such arguments. 20 years ago last year, Samuel Huntington argued that civilizations, including Islam, would replace political ideologies as the most important force in international politics. Especially since 9/11, many have felt religion is the driving force in world politics today.
But Blair makes a number of errors in reaching his mistaken conclusion that religion and culture will dominate world politics in the 21st century. The first, as noted above, is that his focus tends to be on the greater Middle East. Although a lot can change in 84 years, there’s nothing to suggest that this will be the Middle Eastern Century. As Hillary Clinton put it, “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq.”
Second, and related, Blair overlooks the importance of great powers in driving international politics. With the possible exception of Russia, none of the countries Blair notes in his examples of places profoundly divided by religion are slated to be great powers in the 21st century. Rather they are bit players on the world stage. And while bit players may dominate headlines in the short term – particularly when they are engulfed in civil wars – they don’t define the world over a longer term like a century.
That has and will continue to be the province of greater powers. Thus, the 19th century was the British or European Century because it was in Europe where the greatest portion of world power was located. The 20th century, on the other hand, was the American Century because the United States commanded such a large share of world power at crucial points in the 20th Century, including immediately following WWII and in the post-Cold War era.
By that measure, the 21st century is almost certain to be the Pacific Century, with important roles being played by crucial rising powers outside of Asia including Brazil, Turkey, and possibly Iran. And in Asia and amongst many of the rising powers outside of it, nationalism is the most important ideational factor. Indeed, for non-Western rising powers — many of whom suffered from colonialism or at least quasi-colonialism — nationalism continues to hold much greater importance than is often realized in Western capitals.
For this reason alone, the 21st century will likely be another age of nationalism, not religion. But even outside of Asia and the other rising powers, including in places where religion ostensibly predominates, nationalism is usually the most important ideology. Take the Middle East, for example, where religion and sectarianism seem most prevalent. While there’s no denying religion and sectarianism’s importance in the Middle East, we have repeatedly seen nationalism trump these factors when the two were in opposition. For example, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in the 1980s, he was certain that the Sunnis on the Iran side of the border would rise up against the regime in Tehran. Instead, they fought their Iraqi brethren fiercely. The same proved true when Iran later invaded Iraq under the belief that Iraq’s Shi’ites would join forces against Saddam.
Similarly, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Sunnis from across the Arab world flooded to the country to fight the infidels. Not surprisingly, they sought sanctuary within Iraq’s Sunni communities. Iraq’s Sunnis, however, viewed them entirely as foreigners and before long would embrace the infidels in seeking assistance to fight the foreign Sunnis.
Even al-Qaeda itself is more animated by nationalistic causes than its pan-Islam message would have you believe. Osama bin Laden, for instance, clearly was most interested in seizing power in Saudi Arabia, which was evident from his tirades against the Saudi Monarchy and his decision to establish al-Qaeda cells in the Kingdom immediately after 9/11. It was also Saudis and Yemenis (bin Laden’s family lineage traced to Yemen) who were primarily drawn to al-Qaeda’s message, particularly in the pre-9/11 years.
Jihadism expert Fawaz Gerges calls bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri “religiously hyper-nationalist[s],” and has observed: “The bulk of al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers were, as we have seen, Saudi and Yemeni, indicative of the local, nationalist context of bin Laden’s struggle, as opposed to the globalized, borderless public utterances. Stripped of its rhetoric and drama, bin Laden’s call was aimed at inciting opposition against the House of Saud and destabilizing the regime.”
And this is true in other places where leaders use religion and ethnicity at most as pretexts to gain support for movements that are ultimately aimed at securing state power. The bottom line is that the wars in the Middle East and Africa today are being fought over national power, not on behalf of religion as may have been the case in certain eras of histories like the crusades.