What Lessons of the Past Tell Us About the Islamic Surge

It would be preferable to err on the side of caution and address the Islamic surge with less complacency.

When governments confront a crisis, they typically ransack their organizational memory for solutions that worked in previous crises and seek to apply them to the present one.

For example, the debate over the urgency of preventing Iran from going nuclear frequently invokes Cold War deterrence models. Could the mutual assured destruction (MAD ) that forestalled a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War be replicated between Israel and Iran once Iran has acquired a nuclear arsenal? The optimists say yes, because even Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while ideologically extreme, are not suicidal. Iran, they argue, will act in the same way that the Soviet Union did once it realized that in a nuclear environment it could not resort to war to advance communism. The pessimists reply that, given the regime's Shi'ite millenarianism, Iran would not display the same caution exhibited the Soviet Union.

Organizational memory regarding the history of both Christianity and the Soviet Union is also at work in the surprisingly unruffled reaction by the West to the Islamic electoral sweep in North Africa, and the growing likelihood that an Islamic regime could set up shop in Syria upon the fall of the Assad regime. Likewise, the proliferation of so-called "Sharia-controlled zones" in various European neighborhoods has at most resulted in superficial legislation against minarets and headscarves.

This sense of composure harks back to the failed attempts by Christianity and communism to establish a global state. Optimists believe that, pretensions aside, attempts by Islamists to forge a global caliphate will prove similarly futile. Any attempt will ultimately succumb to polycentrism - the rivalry between competing Islamic centers and wannabe caliphs.

The Soviet Union enjoyed undisputed leadership of the international communist movement during the Stalinist, "socialism in one country" era. At the time, the USSR reigned as the capital of communism, and other parties looked to it for ideological guidance and material support. In return, non-Soviet communists generally acknowledged that the Soviet national interest was identical with the interests of socialism worldwide. This attitude even survived problematic Soviet diplomatic actions such as the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact. European communists began resistance to Nazism in occupied Europe in earnest only after Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union.

Communism's territorial advance following World War II, and particularly the communist victory in the Chinese civil war, ended this era. It became increasingly difficult to assert that Soviet foreign policy and the interests of global communism were identical. Communist leaders outside the USSR resented Moscow's pretensions to dictate policy to them. Already by 1948, this tension produced the rift between the USSR and Tito's Yugoslavia, and in 1963, the more devastating Sino-Soviet split was an open reality.

Islam is not immune to this process. Turkey's Islamic Justice and Development Party, for example, was actually more influential when it was the only mass Islamic party in power, as other Islamic parties sought its guidance and support. When Muslim parties came to power in our region, however, they were quick to reject Turkish tutelage. In Libya and Syria, they had witnessed the contradictions between a Turkish foreign policy based on a "zero problems" national strategy and Turkey's "duty" to aid the Islamic cause.

Those looking to the Cold War for assurance are also encouraged by the inability of a pretender to Islamic leadership to approximate the combined advantages once wielded by the Soviet Union in terms of military strength, ideological primacy and diplomatic clout.

Saudi Arabia may control the holy places and vast amounts of petrodollars, but it lacks military power and must embarrassingly rely on American protection. Qatar, while being home to the influential Al Jazeera and the religious jurist and Holocaust approver Yusuf al-Qaradawi, may punch above the weight of a princedom, but can never aspire to the heavyweight title. Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal, but its politics are a shambles unworthy of emulation. The Turks will never be Arabs even if they were to ditch Ataturk's legacy completely and reinstate Arabic script.

On the other hand, those harping on Cold War parallels may resemble generals fighting the last war. The absence of an Islamic equivalent of the Soviet Union and the impossibility of creating one can actually work to the advantage of global Islam. Local Islamic movements can put aside fears of domination and exploitation by larger Islamic players. As with Al-Qaida, the franchise approach that preserves independence may prove more efficient at propagating the faith and asserting power than policy dictates emanating from a single global Islamic center.

The communications revolution allows the various franchises to keep in touch and share techniques, experiences and successes. It also insulates adherents of the Islamic "franchises" against cross-pressures from their immediate environment. As political commentator Christopher Caldwell has noted, if 20 years ago, a Muslim immigrant in England watched the BBC and Monty Python, now he watches Al Jazeera.

Communism during the Cold War had to compete with nationalism and religion, and sometimes (see Poland ) with the two combined. Secular post-nationalist Europe simply does not provide the same level of competition to Islamic supremacists. It was legitimate to warn about communism's evils during the Cold War; today, you are guilty of Islamophobia for raising similar concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood and its tributaries.

Historical parallels aside, it would be preferable to err on the side of caution and address the Islamic surge with less complacency.

Dr. Amiel Ungar writes a monthly column in Haaretz English Edition.