Niall Ferguson and “the Islamic world”

28 Sep

Historian Niall Ferguson had a bizarre opinion piece in the Financial Times at the weekend. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about it is that it was a ‘rush job’. Drawing on PRIO data, and Pinker’s arguments on the long decline on violence among humans, it sought to make a number of big statements on trends in war and conflict. Given that the article was written by a historian, it was surprising to see the following extremely a-historical and unreflective claim:

“In 2000, according to my calculations, 35 per cent of the fatalities in armed conflicts were in wars involving Muslims. In 2014 it was 79 per cent.
This is not the clash of civilisations prophesied by Samuel Huntington. Much of today’s conflict is between Muslims. Certainly religion is not the sole cause for increasing conflict, but it is surely more than a coincidence that global warfare is so concentrated in the Islamic world.”

To be fair to Ferguson, he was writing in a newspaper and so he did not have the space to fully develop his arguments and attach justifications to them. Nevertheless, Ferguson’s claims are breathtakingly sweeping. His statements show little understanding of the history of ‘the Islamic world’ (whatever that is). And he’s the historian.

He conflates ‘Muslims’ into a single category which airbrushes the tremendous diversity found within the faith. The ‘Muslim-ness’ of many regimes is subservient to their strategic interests. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example, are happy to persecute some Muslims in alliance with western partners. Their raison d’etre as states is the continuation of the ruling autocracies. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly ‘Muslim’ about that. It is simple power politics.

Ferguson also fails to mention to the wars ON Muslims and Muslim-dominated countries perpetrated by the US and its allies over recent decades. Turmoil in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and other countries is a direct result of intervention by western states. As we know, these interventions were poorly thought-through and executed. They destabilised the entire region and have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. These were wars of choice. Bush, Blair, Sarkozy and many other western leaders had opportunities to pursue other routes. They chose not to take them. Their long wars against Muslim-dominated countries have done much to objectify ‘Muslims’ as suspect communities. One gets the sense that Ferguson’s article is in this territory. At one end of the spectrum is the sort of ‘othering’ we see in Ferguson’s article. At the other are the opinions of US Republican Presidential hopeful Ben Carson.

Startlingly, Ferguson omits to mention geo-politics. This is odd given his interest in empire (indeed, his regard for empire). He, of all people, should be aware of the geo-political role played by the wider Middle East. A key reason for wars and authoritarianism in the region rests on oil, the western imperative to defend allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the ‘grand game’ of containing Iran.

Finally, the claim that ‘global warfare is so concentrated in the Islamic world’ is simply rubbish. It rests on the notion that warfare is something that occurs on the battlefield, and fails to take into account the long trains of events and processes that lead to battlefield deaths. A quick look at the arms industry tells us that ‘global warfare’ is located – firmly – in the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (states that often declare themselves to be ‘the international community’). And if we look beyond the arms industry, to the manufacture of narratives that construct and other particular identity groups, then any reasonable analysis would need to include those actors that frame ‘the Islamic world’ (still confused about what that is) as a propagator of war. It is worth asking if Mr Ferguson constitutes part of that industry.


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