Books that radically transformed my worldview as a political scientist
In this age of booming social media and explosion of information, written works—essays or books—have to compete not only to capture the attention of readers, but, most importantly, to open new vistas of understanding of the unremittingly complex world around us.
Two books that radically altered my global thinking as a Political Scientist were Paul Kennedy’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order. Kennedy’s book deals with the reasons why great powers rise, sustain their primacy for a while, and why their decline and eventual fall becomes a reality. Huntington’s study is focused on how there will always be a conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations. He did mention Chinese and Western civilizational conflict, but, to me that had no promise of durability as the conflict between the Islamic and Western civilizations.
I fully concurred with Kennedy’s thesis largely because, aside from convincingly making his case about the decline of great powers of yesteryears, it sounded so relevant in explaining the potential decline of the US hegemony and the rise of the primacy of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) in the coming years. Even though I did not fully agree with Huntington’s thesis originally, it made me focus on an issue that has been important to me both as a Political Scientist and a Muslim. It was during the post-911 era when I was convinced that Huntington’s comprehension and elucidation of the conflict between the United States and Islam was way ahead of its time.
To my way of thinking, there is a powerful linkage between the arguments of Kennedy and Huntington. All great powers wanted to remain dominant until the last moment, when they became convinced that the era of their great was over because of the mismatch between their economic wealth and their aspirations for global domination. Moreover, a number of historical developments were forcing them to pass the baton of political dominance to another rising great power. The Ottoman Empire’s miserable failure in the realm of modernization led to its eventual demise. Important though it was, failure to modernize its economic section was not the sole reason for it. The shenanigans of two other colonial powers of the 1920s—Great Britain and France—also played a crucial role in materializing it. The dissolution of the Ottoman empire provided the conflict for dominance between the Islamist groups and the West its current volatility and ostensible permanence.
I also applied the theses of these authors to understand the civilizational conflict between Islam and the West. Islam has always been a religion and a political force. In the latter capacity, Islamists have fought the Western colonization of their polity. At the end of the colonial era, they continued their fight with the Western-oriented autocratic rulers. In both eras, the ultimate objective of Islamist forces was to bring about the dominance of Islam within their polity.
Paul Kennedy’s thesis persuaded me that the resolve for achieving and sustaining political dominance is congenital to all counties. His explanation of decline of two great powers of the past—the Ottoman empire and the British empire—made a powerful contribution to my own understanding of the current race between the so-called declining superpower, the United States, and its rising peer competitor, the PRC. In order to support its superpower status, the United States must sustain an incessantly adaptive economic system and avoid the “imperial overstretch” at all times. Despite the fact that it has been facing an uphill battle since the global economic meltdown of 2008, the United States appears largely successful. But the race for primacy between these two great powers is far from over.
Huntington’s book convinced me that the conflict between the West and the world of Islam has every potential of remaining highly obdurate at least for next several decades, or even longer. Islam as a political force never wanted to remain subservient to the West. The Muslim autocratic rulers accepted their subservience to the West (largely the US), because it guaranteed their regimes survival. The Islamist forces, especially those that became prominent since the 1990s, decided—quite wrongly—that the only way to beget the dominance of Islam was to overthrow the autocratic regimes. When they failed to achieve that objective by carrying regional jihads, they decided to declare global jihad against the United States, the ultimate symbol of Western dominance and the supporter-in-chief of those autocratic rulers.
For the United States, any significant success of Islamists groups in bringing about regime change even in one country may result in the potential occurrence of similar realities in others. That cannot and should not be allowed to happen. For the Islamists, the struggle to establish the primacy of Islam should be won at all costs, even by dying for it. So, the conflict between the Islamist forces and the United States appears to have no end. This conflict, in the words of Huntington, is focused on the remaking of world order. The only way to resolve it is through the extinction of Islamists or the United States, or through the emergence of a modus vivendi between the two. The jury is still out as to which option will be adopted especially by the United States.
Finally, these two books continue to influence my next book-length project, which will be about the ostensibly endless conflict between the Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. That conflict promises to be more obdurate than the one between the United States and the Islamist forces, because it has been around for almost fourteen hundred years.
Ehsan M. Ahrari is a former professor at the US Air War College, the National Defense University, and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. He is the author of The Islamic Challenge and the United States: Global Security in an Age of Uncertainty, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (February 2017)