For decades or perhaps even centuries, disparate societies around the globe have been growing more and more intertwined. A single world culture is emerging; or at least the history of the world as told in different places is merging into the single history of us all.
No matter who tells the story, however, in the long view looking back, the main event of the last five hundred years has been the expansion of "the West". In this collection of intertwined societies, people have made startling advances in science, technology, industry, and socio-political organization, which has enabled their civilization to dominate the globe.
The expansion of the West triggered friction and reaction throughout the world, as non-Western societies sought to accommodate an alien culture newly in their midst. Today, the balance between East and West is leveling out. China is rising to join Japan in the front ranks of world powers, and East Asian countries such as Korea are rapidly developing into modern economic dynamos. It's not that East Asia has become Westernized: it's rather that East Asian societies have absorbed the breakthroughs pioneered by "the West" into their own cultural frameworks. As a result, West and East are increasingly intertangled and out of their interaction is emerging a narrative that includes them both.
The world, however, does not consist solely of West and East. There is also the Middle: that vast territory west of China and east of Europe, stretching from northern India to the steppes of Central Asia. When we speak of the Islamic world, this is the territory we are referencing. The bundle of intertwined societies inhabiting this part of the planet has had a contentious relationship to the Western version of modernity and to the West itself.
Ten years ago, when terrorists toppled the Twin Towers of New York, two mismatched world historical narratives collided, and a painful struggle broke out between Islam and the West, which soon involved the world. The United States reacted to the great terrorist crime of 9/11 by leading a coalition of mostly European countries to war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the conviction that Islamic extremism could be stamped out by military means. This campaign provoked a counter-reaction from Islamists-that is, from politicized Muslims animated by an internationalist ideology framed in apocalyptic Jihadist rhetoric. These radicals exploited the bloodshed to recruit new cadre into their Islamism movement. The war deepened existing divisions in the world and the deepening divisions served to justify the war.
But that first wave of reaction and counter-reaction has crested. Eight years of violence doused early Western optimism about transforming Muslim societies into parliamentary democracies by force. The destruction of Iraq's Ba'athist regime unleashed a turmoil that the world is still trying to contain. The expulsion of Afghanistan's Taliban brought to power a "corruptocracy" unable to stabilize or govern that country. The Taliban were destroyed quickly and easily, but Talibanism metastasized into an insurgency that continues to swell and spread.
Today's Taliban, however, are not the original Taliban. Today's insurgency in Afghanistan is not the movement launched by al Qaeda. This insurgency is fueled less by apocalyptic internationalist Jihadism than by xenophobic localism with long roots in Afghan history.
Indeed, local history is reasserting itself through the Islamic world. Unresolved struggles internal to these societies is poking up through the stark narrative promoted for so long both by Muslim Jihadists and by the Bush Administration, the narrative of an apocalyptic winner-take-all global struggle between two sides.
In 2008, newly-elected U.S. president Barack Obama went to Cairo and made a landmark speech addressed to Muslims. He traced the world's current turmoil in part to the legacy of European colonialism, which humiliated Muslim societies for centuries. But he also rebuked Muslim governments that steal from their own people, a group that included many government maintained by the United States. Finally he rebuked Muslim governments that exploit real grievances, such as those of the Palestinians, to distract attention from their own oppressive policies.
But while rhetoric is no substitute for action, it does have power. The summer after Obama's speech, reformists in Iran mounted an electoral challenge that almost toppled the entrenched hard-line clerical regime there. Contrary to the buzz among Western pundits, those reformists were not pro-Western democracy activists. They were Iranians engaging other Iranians about Iranian issues, presenting themselves to their electorate not as enemies of Iran's revolution but as its saviors, marching to restore the revolution's "original values."