Are We Living Through World War III?

An artist's rendition shows the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Czech Countess Sophie Chotek, during their visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914. The assassin, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, left, of the group Black Hand, was captured. The incident precipitated World War I. (AP Photo)

Roger Cohen isn’t the first person to believe Islam is suffering a civil war. What’s actually happening is a lot worse.

We’re in the middle of a Third World War.

In last week’s column, “Orlando and Trump’s America,” Roger Cohen tries to predict the consequences of Omar Mateen’s nightclub attack. He fears Mateen’s massacre “just ushered Donald Trump to the White House, Britain out of the European Union, Marine Le Pen to the French presidency, and the world into a downward spiral of escalating violence.” Omar Mateen, Cohen argues, is the 21st century’s Gavrilo Princip.

The man who ends one age and starts another.

But the bumbling, stumbling Princip, whose ridiculous assassination attempt succeeded against all odds, seems an odd comparison to Mateen; for one, while Mateen did declare allegiance to ISIS, and referenced America’s and Russia’s war on the Islamic State–alleging that he would kill innocents in revenge for the innocent Syrians killed in Western airstrikes–it’s not clear that this was primarily, or exclusively, politically-motivated violence.

A number of commentators seem to believe Mateen was struggling with his own sexuality. But Cohen does not hesitate to assign Mateen to larger, world-historical forces:

Islam is in epochal crisis. Its Sunni and Shiite branches are mired in violent confrontation. Its adjustment to the modern world has proved faltering and agonized enough to produce a metastasizing strain of violent anti-Western jihadist beliefs to which Mateen — like the San Bernardino shooters — was apparently susceptible.

This paragraph rapidly descends into one of the most nonsensical analyses of the modern Muslim world. It’s not just silly, reductionist, and wrong, but embarrassingly evasive, the mirror image of Muslims who, confronted with radicals who kill in the name of Islam, insist that “this has nothing to do with Islam.”

Of course it has something to do with Islam.

It’s the Islamic State. But it was also the Islamic State in Iraq, and how did it get there?

If there is a “civil war” within Islam, it’s a multi-sided conflict of hopeless complexity, in which the West, including the United States, isn’t just involved, but deeply complicit, as are countless Muslim agitators, instigators, or enables. And many other countries and forces beside. What makes this World War so different from the last ones, though, is that instead of a series of imperial powers facing off against each other simultaneously, we see great powers use the core of the Muslim world as an arena for proxy conflicts. The hinge year might be 1979; before which, as Andrew Bacevich points out in his excellent study, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, there were no American combat deaths in the greater Middle East, and after which there have only been American combat deaths in the greater Middle East.

In the late 1970s, after a series of coups, the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan to prop up its preferred client government, and the United States worked with select allies to back fundamentalist movements on the ground, preferring the more religiously extreme. Afghanistan has known war, occupation, starvation, extremism, and hardship, for some thirty-seven years now, and there appears to be no end in sight. Much more happened beside, but the nadir might have come with the Bush administration. Secular, democratic, modern.

And violent.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on the obviously false pretext of weapons of mass destruction. A claimed intent to democratize the region was manufactured later, and credulously clung to by analysts who should know better. If Cohen thinks Islam has struggled to come to terms with modernity, perhaps it’s because modernity wasn’t the abstract arrival of a set of concepts in a classroom, but repeated and horrific invasions by far more modern armies with air forces that could not be challenged, and long-distance strike capacities that made them all but impregnable. That superiority perhaps fooled us into thinking there could be no downsides.

We could invade, we could meddle, we could harm, we could ravage, but we wouldn’t actually see any consequences. Our country has tilted towards fascism after several dangerous, but by no means existentially threatening, terrorist attacks; is it really surprising that countries that have all but been destroyed, several times over, harbor and sustain irredentist, apocalyptic terrorist movements? Determining whether Mateen was himself directly “radicalized,” as the term goes, by these events is kind of like determining if a specific weather event was the result of climate change. We speak of broad patterns, but our assuredness breaks down at the granular level.

But it does look like a World war all the same.

In 1979, the Soviet Union, an empire made up of what are today 15 nations, invaded Afghanistan; the U.S. worked with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, like Egypt and China, to offer assistance and arms to mujahidin fighters to resist and defeat that occupation. In 2003, the United States mustered a coalition of some forty-nine countries, which was strong enough to swiftly topple Iraq’s government, but not strong enough to pacify Iraq, establish a new government, or secure it from foreign fighters.

Jihadists poured into Iraq, intent on creating havoc; newly empowered Shi’a forces often allied with Iran. This has long been a global conflict, though we have trouble seeing that because we tend not to pay close attention to our foreign policy decisions. If, after all, Cohen can’t seem to understand that the last few decades has seen a mess made of the Middle East by international actors of vastly disproportionate capacity, then is it any wonder many Americans experience the rise of international terrorism as an event without material causes? To point this out is not intended to say one part of the world has greater blame than another, but to insist on the origins of the present conflict, so that we might actually end it.

Various actors, from religious leaders to national politicians, invested in decisions that have only produced more violence, more harm, more mistrust, and more suspicion. It took us a lot of years to get to this point, and it’ll take us years to get out. But we only will if we accept that this is not just because Islam is undergoing an abstract civil war, but because forces that want violence, or have no response to violence, or are just oblivious to where it comes from, have been shaping the decisions too many of us have been making.

Because the scary thing is, there are people out there who want this World War to become a lot bloodier, a lot uglier, and a lot scarier.

We saw what one of them could do last weekend in Florida.