How did the U.S. government perceive Islam as a political force in the old days? For an answer, I propose a look at a "confidential" 76-page study (declassified in 1979) published sixty years ago tomorrow by the Military Intelligence Service of the U.S. War Department.
The 1946 report, which I have posted online in pdf format (warning: it is a large document that may be slow to load), is the inaugural issue of a series of weekly reports titled simply Intelligence Review. This series presents "current intelligence reflecting the outstanding developments of military interest in the fields of politics, economics, sociology, the technical sciences, and, of course, military affairs." Chapter headings in this first issue include: "Transition of Major Powers to Peacetime Military Systems," "Manchuria: Soviet or Chinese Sphere?" and "Wheat: Key to the World's Food Supply."
Of particular interest is an 11-page chapter that deals with "Islam: A Threat to World Stability." It opens with some bleak observations:
With few exceptions, the states [in the Muslim world] are marked by poverty, ignorance, and stagnation. It is full of discontent and frustration, yet alive with consciousness of its inferiority and with determination to achieve some kind of betterment.
Two basic urges meet head-on in this area, and conflict is inherent in this collision of interests. These urges reveal themselves in the daily news accounts of killings and terrorism, of pressure groups in opposition, and of raw nationalism and naked expansionism masquerading as diplomatic maneuvers.
The report then explains these two urges and rightly begins by focusing on the long shadow of the premodern period.
The first of these urges originates within the Moslems' own sphere. The Moslems remember the power with which once they not only ruled their own domains but also overpowered half of Europe, yet they are painfully aware of their present economic, cultural and military impoverishment. Thus a terrific internal pressure is building up in their collective thinking. The Moslems intend, by any means possible, to regain political independence and to reap the profits of their own resources. … The area, in short, has an inferiority complex, and its activities are thus as unpredictable as those of any individual so motivated.
Looking at Muslims in psychological terms is characteristic of that era, when social scientists frequently viewed politics through the prism of individual behavior. (For a famous example of such an analysis, see Ruth Benedict's 1946 study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, which argued that the Japanese national character is formed in part by stringent toilet training techniques.)
The other fundamental urge originates externally. The world's great and near-great Powers cover the economic riches of the Moslem area and are also mindful of the strategic locations of some of the domains. Their actions are also difficult to predict, because each of these powers sees itself in the position of the customer who wants to do his shopping in a hurry because he happens to know the store is going to be robbed.
In an atmosphere so sated with the inflammable gases of distrust and ambition, the slightest spark could lead to an explosion which might implicate every country committed to the maintenance of world peace.
The introduction concludes with a justification for the present analysis: "An understanding of the Moslem world and of the stresses and forces operative within it is thus an essential part of the basic intelligence framework."
The chapter proceeds with a one-page sketch of Muslim history that includes this observation: "At the present time there are no strong Moslem states. The leadership of the Moslem world remains in the Middle East, particularly in Arabia." Given the backwardness of Arabia in 1946, this statement was either very ill-informed or very prescient.
The bulk of the chapter looks at forces that weaken or strengthen Muslim unity. The former include a lack of a common language, religious schisms, geographical separation, economic disparities, political rivalries, and what the report indelicately calls a "prostitution of leadership." This last is not so much an excoriation of Muslim kings, presidents, and emirs, but a review of how several non-Muslim powers, ending with the Soviet Union, have claimed to be the Protectors of Islam. The analysis includes the notable observation that "Moslems are properly suspicious of their leaders."
Forces that strengthen Muslim unity make up a second, shorter list: the pilgrimage to Mecca, classical Arabic, modern communications, and the Arab League. A mention of the hajj leads to one dramatically wrong prediction: "The scarcity of shipping during the war reduced the usual horde to about 20,000-30,000 per year. While the numbers will probably increase now, they are not likely to reach their former proportions." (In fact, the pilgrimage breaks new attendance records practically every year and now numbers three million pilgrims, many times more than ever was the case before 1946.)
The chapter on Islam concludes with an eye to the U.S. rivalry with the Soviet Union. Far from viewing Islam as a "bulwark against Communism," as later was the case, the Military Intelligence Service sees Muslims as easy prey for Moscow. It finds Muslim states "weak and torn by internal stresses" and deems their peoples "insufficiently educated to appraise propaganda or to understand the motives of those who promise a new Heaven and a new Earth." The analysis ends on a sober note:
Because of the strategic position of the Moslem world and the restlessness of its peoples, the Moslem states represent a potential threat to world peace. There cannot be permanent world stability, when one-seventh of the earth's population exists under the economic and social conditions that are imposed upon the Moslems.
This voice from the past prompts three observations. First, its blunt expression is remote from today's carefully worded government analyses (even classified ones) intended to offend no one. Second, the perception that the Muslim world (then making up one-seventh of the world's population, now about one-sixth) could impede world stability is deep and remarkable. Third, many of the themes wracking today's world could be discerned two generations ago – the frustration of Muslims, the sense of longing for an earlier era, the political volatility, the susceptibility to extremist ideologies, and the threat to world peace. This confirms, again, that 9/11 and attendant aggressions should not have been the shock they were.