Sand Shortage


Milton Friedman's notion that "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there'd be a shortage of sand," has been borne out for decades in US energy policy. Sitting on top of the world's most prolific supply of oil, coal, and gas, every president since Richard Nixon has promised energy independence. The result: an energy dependence that led to the September 11 attack by Osama bin Laden.

With terrorism financed by oil revenues (Saudi Arabian, for the Sunni variety, and Iranian, for the Shiite variety), fretting terrorists evidently anticipated an oil shortage. Who could blame them? When the oil ran out, they would be left with sand. Disconcerted, therefore, by America's voracious energy appetite, bin Laden complained, "Muslims are starving to death and the United States is stealing their oil." That, and our military presence in the Arabian peninsula, provoked his famous 1998 fatwa, exhorting God-fearing Muslims "to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

But Muslims were not starving because of US oil theft. We paid a fair market price of untold trillions (plus an annual premium of $30–60 billion in taxes to protect the Persian Gulf, even before 9/11). Hunger — along with poverty, ignorance, disease, violence, and despair, to name a few other maladies common to the region — was the result of Muslim governments put in charge of the oil fields.

In the early 1900s, when oil was first discovered in the Middle East, the Muslim world had been in decline from its former greatness for over 100 years. Defying the principles of free market capitalism, and at least a few laws of probability, Muslim political leaders managing Muslim oil — the greatest single source of naturally conferred, easily accessible wealth in the 20th century — extended the decline for another 100 years.

Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500?

The descent of Muslim military power, economic strength, and scientific leadership began, ironically, around the time the American republic was born and Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. The subsequent adoption of democracy and capitalism by the US and European nations produced immense prosperity and an ever-widening gap between the West and the Muslim world. Today, by any meaningful measure of achievement, Muslim countries lag dramatically behind the West. During a 2010 interview on Al-Arabiya Television, Saudi scholar, Ahmad bin Baz (the son of the former Saudi grand mufti, Abdul Aziz bin Baz), explained,

We Muslims have found ourselves at the tail end of the world's progress. The Muslims are always on the receiving end, and their only role in life is to receive from others. Western society has become the society of innovations. It is Western society that produces and adapts itself to the changes of life, whereas we Muslims have become passive recipients of all these innovations, and all we do is sit down and ponder whether these innovations are permitted or forbidden by Islam.

Muslim leaders are no doubt perplexed by their abysmal failure to rejuvenate Islamic civilization. Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500? Why has the terrorism of Islamists (i.e., religious tyrants from organizations such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the nation of Iran) been so slow to advance the Muslim cause? What other strategy might invigorate Muslim innovation, should corruption, cronyism, intolerance, bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny fail?

Give up? Here's a clue: it involves neither democracy nor capitalism. Instead, some Islamist intellectuals have decided that the future of Islam lies in a global Caliphate. They even have annual conferences for indulging in the fantasy. A promotional video for "Caliphate Conference 2012" proclaimed that "the Islamic Caliphate is the only social and political system that has the right solutions to the political, social and economic problems of humanity" and asserted that "the relentless decline of Capitalism has begun. The time has come to fight against poverty. Time to obliterate the injustices. Time for the correct system."

While the precise architecture of the "correct system" is a little sketchy, many of its core concepts — common bonding tenets, mandatory for all self-respecting Islamist intellectuals — are well known. These include (a) totalitarianism, masquerading as religion, (b) absolute rule by Sharia law, the legal codification of the Quran, (c) hatred of Jews, (d) blame to Jews (for caliphate failures), and, of course, (e) death to Israel.

When (or if) the Caliphate begins its transition from a pan-Islamic state to a global empire, the failures produced by the spreading dystopia and cultural havoc will be too numerous and varied to indict Jews alone. Thus, Islamists can be expected to add Christians and other infidels to (d) above.

As a surprise to Israel (not to mention the residents of cities such as Mecca, Damascus, and Cairo), Jerusalem will be the capital of the Caliphate. And as a surprise to capitalism (not to mention the billions of people it has lifted from poverty, more people than any other economic system in the history of mankind), it will be blamed for the world's poverty. Add “Capitalism” to (c) and (d).

A Sunni (al Qaeda) version of the Caliphate is scheduled to be victorious by 2020, right after four years of the "final battles against nonbelievers." However, given the pace at which Iran is developing its nuclear weapons, a Shiite version may be established sooner — unless, of course, al Qaeda steals its nuclear capability from a crumbling and sympathetic Pakistan. Picking a winner is troublesome, as is the idea of a Shiite theocracy having a nuclear bomb among its weapons and a “Death to America Day” among its holidays. Foreign policy experts tell us that Iran seeks its nuclear capability to gain a seat at the table of power. On the other hand, says former CIA director James Woolsey, al Qaeda simply wants to "blow the table up." It's a safe bet that “America” can be added to (c), (d), and (e).

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region.

America's hedonistic culture mocks the "purity" of Mohammed-era ideals. The conspicuous progress of American capitalism undermines Islamist efforts to reconcile Islam with modernity. To the more eager Caliphate builders, the salve for this incessant irritation might be an EMP attack. A small (1 KT) nuclear weapon or two, detonated at an altitude of as low as 40 km, would destroy our infrastructure (power, communications, transportation, etc.) and, as a bonus, instantaneously fry our blasphemy-spewing smartphones, TVs, radios, and other electronic devices. According to the 2008 “Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack,” its effect would be “something you might imagine life to be like around the late 1800s" — not the 7th century, but a start.

If the Islamists prevail, their caliphate will be the first since the previous Islamic Caliphate was dissolved by Kemal Atatürk in 1924, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Islamists are nothing if not ambitious, and patient.

That patience is about to be tested. Thanks to capitalism, America is now in the early stages of an oil and gas boom, despite all efforts by our federal energy intellectuals to stifle fossil fuel production. As Gary Jason pointed out in A Totally Fracked Planet, "We will reach energy independence in the not too distant future, thanks not to any corrupt crony green energy industry (solar, wind, ethanol, or biodiesel) but to the vast resources of shale oil and gas made available by advanced fracking technology." Privately owned US companies, employing innovative drilling techniques and private capital, on mostly private land, have made the US the fastest growing oil and natural gas producer in the world. The US is expected to be independent of all foreign oil, except for oil imported from Canada, by 2018.

During the last ten years, capitalism has been turning our long dependence on Middle East oil into little more than a bad memory of the 40 years of feckless policies concocted by our federal energy stewards. And it will turn the dream of Islamists into a nightmare. Try running a totalitarian state on oil revenues, when Brent crude drops from today's price of $110 per barrel to $70 by the end of the decade. What will Caliphate Conference 2020 have to say about world domination when dwindling Saudi Arabian and Iranian terrorism contributions squeeze prospective caliphate budgets to nothing?

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region. He may have pondered over the use of sand when the oil beneath it ran out. Perhaps he recognized that excessive reliance on oil was the real source of the Middle East plight — that all the while, Muslims were more dependent on their oil than Americans. If Muslim leaders meted out freedom and opportunity, instead of crumbs from the table of oil revenue, economic diversity would result. Industries such as manufacturing, banking, tourism, and agriculture would expand and thrive. Who knows? As America becomes the new Middle East, the Middle East could become the next Silicon Valley, creating thousands of companies, millions of jobs, billions in tax revenues, and trillions in profits to shareholders— as it did here, in capitalist America. Why not? Unless you are an Islamist, there is no reason to believe that Middle Eastern Muslims are not as intelligent, industrious, and ambitious as American Muslims.

Meanwhile, according to an NBC News series on the economic and political ramifications of the American oil and gas bonanza, things will be looking up in America. Lower energy costs are making American businesses more profitable and competitive. New and better jobs are being created. With lower product prices and rising incomes, our standard of living will increase. And we will buy unprecedented quantities of any blasphemy-spewing, Islamist-mocking semiconductor devices Silicon Valley can invent. Semiconductors, by the way, are made from silicon, which is, in turn, fabricated from silicon dioxide — aka, sand.

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Fred Mora

Nice article. These things need to be said while it's still legal.

Steve, you couldn't have published this article on a British or French web site: The Muslim lobbies already made sure criticism against Islamism is assimilated to discrimination.

The spread of radical Islam has a huge role in current events. See how some formerly prosperous African countries have been devastated by civil wars brought by Muslim factions in the name of Sharia law. Heck, look at Lebanon.

However, the high-value target for Islam is of course the US: Once a significant Muslim voter block appears, no national candidate will be elected without professing at least indifference to Israel. The goal of this voting block will be to have the US cancel its substantial military and economic aid to Israel, and stay neutral during the next Arab-Israeli war.

Jon Harrison

The best estimate is that Muslims constitute about 1 percent of the US population. They will never dictate US Mideast policy through the voting booth. (And please note that young Muslims register to vote at a lower rate than just about any other group.)

If only we would cancel the military and economic aid programs that benefit the murderers of the men on the U.S.S. Liberty, not to mention poor Rachel Corrie. If you think Muslims are ever going to make that happen, then I've got a bridge for sale.

On the other hand, you're correct that citicism of Muslims and Islam is not particularly welcome in British media (I don't look at the French press on a consistent basis). I have great sympathy for the concept of maintaining national identity; I see no reason why Europe must accomodate itself to mass migration from the Muslim world (this of course makes me a fascist or worse in the eyes of the European and American Left). On the other hand, anti-Muslim prejudice here in the U.S. is unjustifiable. The vast majority of American Muslims are not terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, but law-abiding citizens. For every Major Hasan there are hundreds of Muslims who serve honorably in the armed forces. And that says a lot, given U.S. support for the occupying power in Palestine.

Steve Murphy

Glad you liked it. And I agree that news coverage of jihadist activities is inadequate, and often suppressed. The idea that a caliphate is "very much on the fringe of Islamic thought" (Jon Harrison's comment below) is probably only held by the Western media (and the Obama administration). In researching 'Sand Shortage,' I found that Islamists organizations have grown and spread significantly in recent years, especially since the Arab Spring.

These include the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (with representatives from 57 Muslim countries), al Qaeda, al Shabaab (fast becoming the new al Qaeda), the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and many others (Wahabists, Salifists, etc.). They routinely publish statements and release videos proclaiming the coming caliphate. But you find little, if any, coverage by US news outlets. If you read Middle East news and view the numerous videos produced by these Islamist organizations, you will not come away thinking that the caliphate is a fringe idea. It might be an absurd fantasy, particularly to intellectuals, but there seems to be significant popular support throughout the Muslim world.

Jon Harrison

There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Hizb, a group founded in the 1950s and the organizer of the "Caliphate Conference 2012" you mention, has an estimated 1 million members worldwide. What percentage of the Muslim population is that (get out your calculator)?

Al Qaeda is a small terrorist organization that has suffered repeated hammer blows from the US, particularly under the augmented drone program carried on by the Obama Administration. The Muslim Brotherhood is currently being smashed by the the Muslims who control the Egyptian government and armed forces (and there appears to be extensive popular support for the government's actions against the Brotherhood).

Radical Islamists hate the West and are a danger in that they are willing and sometimes able to carry out terror attacks like Boston and Nairobi. They are not in a position to conquer the West or seriously threaten the existence of the US or any other Western country. They lack the support of any major Muslim government (including Iran, which may occasionally use them as a geopolitical tool in places such as Iraq, but does not share their Wahabist-inspired, Sunni fanaticism). They also lack widespread popular support in the Muslim world.

I'd love to see evidence from your "research" that comes from serious sources such as The Journal of Mideast Studies, Foreign Affairs, or The Economist. The fact is, advocates of a new Caliphate such as Hizb are on the fringes of Islamic thought. There is no mass movement within Islam for war with the West. The idea you're presenting, that radical Islamism is threatening to overwhelm us, comes from places such as the Gatestone Institute and Fox News.

News coverage of jihadist activities is inadequate? My inbox overflows with reporting about jihadist activities. I can't find the time to read all the info published on jihadism. The notion that there's some media conspiracy to deny us knowledge about radical Islam is ridiculous.

This site is becoming more and more a refuge for articles and commentary from members of the Charles Krauthammer fan club. Too many authors entertain the reader by jumping into intellectual pools that are empty, drained of water.

Steve Murphy

Calm down Jon. My entire essay was political satire. I'm sorry that you missed the humor in the many ironies and absurdities it addressed. It was not a treatise on the imminent threat of an Islamic caliphate. If you read the essay, you will find that your claim ("The idea you're presenting, that radical Islamism is threatening to overwhelm us") is clearly false. Indeed, I merely stated that "some Islamist intellectuals have decided that the future of Islam lies in a global Caliphate," and referred to it as a "fantasy." Little did I know that some readers would interpret "some Islamist intellectuals" as "most Muslims" and "fantasy" as "real."

I'm also sorry that you spent so much time arguing against points I did not make. In fact, I largely agree with everything you stated in you last reply (except for the sophomoric insults and spurious comments regarding my research). My only point of disagreement seems to be with your claim that a caliphate is a "fringe" idea. It is not. The Islamist organizations, groups, factions, etc., that I referred to in my reply to Fred's comment, have been regularly spouting caliphate propaganda for years. Why would they continue this line of recruitment and agitation if only a "fringe" was listening? The Islamic intellectuals who advocate a caliphate are no doubt a fringe. The Muslims who believe in the caliphate or finance caliphate proponents are much more than a fringe.

In your initial comment (10/19), I understood "fringe" to be a relatively small number of the most radical jihadists. In a later comment (10/23), you stated "My point, if I was not clear, is that the vast majority of Muslims are not working toward any radical program of war on the West." and that you (Jon) "can't think of a single government in the Islamic world that is working diligently for the restoration of the Caliphate." I agree with both points, and have said nothing to the contrary. Apparently, however, your definition of fringe has morphed into something just short of a vast majority of Muslims or a sovereign Muslim nation on the verge of forming a caliphate. If this is your new definition, then I concur; it is a fringe.

I think there is almost no chance for an Islamic Caliphate to materialize. I believe all of the arguments (different languages, customs and traditions; nationalism too deeply rooted; Sunni-Shia differences; economic plight; etc.) favoring that view. But when I continually see how easily millions of Muslims throughout the entire Muslim world are incited to violence against the West, I can't help but think that a caliphate is just one charismatic leader (someone with the fanatical devotion of a bin Laden and the oratorical prowess of an Obama) away from becoming a reality.

Jon Harrison

I am (and was) pefectly calm. But yeah, the satire went entirely over my head. Possibly I read the piece too fast, possibly I just took it as an essay based on slender evidence and personal bias. Such have appeared here from time to time. The issues involved are of particular interest to me, though how I can use that as an excuse for misreading you, I'm not sure (give me time on that). Anyway, sorry.

I do wonder though about your conception that "millions" of Muslims have been incited to violence against the West. Where are these millions, and what acts of violence have they committed? When I look today at Muslim violence against the West, I see several thousand active participants, but not millions.

I'm not trying to defend Muslims or Islam. I have a strong distaste for all the Abrahamic religions, and Islam is nowadays the most intolerant of the three. Muslims who seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of us are our enemies, no doubt about it. But they do not represent the majority of Muslims.

In any case, we need to remember who came first with the sword. The Islamic world was not attacking the West prior to the second half of the 20th century (it had, of course, been on the offensive at various times between the 7th and 17th centuries). The West took large chunks of the Muslim world as colonies (or "mandates" as they were called) after World War I. The West facilitated the expropriation of the Palestinians in 1948, and to this day America supports the occupying power in Palestine. America and Britain overthrew a democratic government in Iran in 1953, for purely imperial reasons. The US invaded Iraq twice; in neither case was Iraq (brutal though its regime undoubtedly was) threatening us. When 9/11 happened and the "Arab street" cheered, Americans wondered, "Why do they hate us so?" Just maybe it was because they had grown tired of being on the receiving end.

There are about 300 million people in the US. Several million of them, perhaps tens of millions, believe that their god is the one true god, and that his "only begotten son" (actually a Jewish carpenter who suffered crucifixion) will one day return to rule over the world. People who don't believe this nonsense are, according to the believers, doomed to eternal damnation.

Among the believers are some who have a crusader mentality. It's not just an Ann Coulter calling on America to conquer and forcibly convert the people of Muslim lands; there are even some people in the military with similar ideas (see Mikey Weinstein's books). And of course there are crackpot preachers ready to burn Korans or do whatever is required to gin up the faithful. The point here is that if these people were on the short end of the stick, rather than citizens of the mightiest nation on earth, they might very well adopt a "Christian jihadist" stance. The weak and oppressed will turn to all sorts of bad behaviors in order to strike back at the strong. In some ways it's surprising that more Muslims haven't been radicalized by the actions of the West.

Steve Murphy

My claim that millions of Muslims are easily incited to violence against the West is based on crowd size, summed over all of the instances of violence (acts of terrorism, street protests gone awry, religious demonstrations, fatwas, caliphate binges, etc.) that have occurred since 9/11. It's an order of magnitude estimate, with no statistical foundation. I figure that it's more than hundreds of thousands and less than tens of millions. So, you've got me there. My estimate is no doubt high.

On the other hand, to get me back in the ball park, simply remove the "against the West" constraint. That is, include incitement to violence in general (in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, etc.), against non-Western infidels and other Muslims, and "millions" seems low.

I agree with your comment, "it's surprising that more Muslims haven't been radicalized by the actions of the West." However, economics, population growth, and Islam itself are drastically bigger obstacles to Muslim progress. And, you are correct, I cannot prove this claim either.

By the way, I don't understand your problem with the Gatestone Institute. I have read a number of its articles. They were all excellent and all written by Muslims. Was I just lucky to have picked the good ones?

Jon Harrison

Fair enough. I believe authors should have the last word, but since you asked about Gatestone . . .

It's a neocon site inspired by people like John Bolton. I don't dislike it because I disagree with it, but because it's slanted. It has an agenda and its purpose is to promote that agenda, rather than asking difficult questions and searching for truth. (This is not to say that its content is all lies, of course.) Granted, how many people/organizations/websites are simply trying to enlighten people and elucidate truths? But as I'm anti-neocon, anti-US intervention in the Mideast, and anti-Zionist (at least with respect to Palestine), I'm bound to find it wanting.

Enjoyed this discussion. Thanks for taking the time to expand upon and clarify your views. That's always welcome in this corner.

Jon Harrison

Believers in the Caliphate fantasy are very much on the fringe of Islamic thought. They are comparable to our own bible-thumping "The End is Near!" televangelists intellectually, though they have far fewer followers. This latter fact might indicate a healthier Islamic mind (or a sicker Western one) than we might care to recognize.

Spenglerians would see the decline of the Islamic world as a natural process. For them culture is a an organism, subject to a life cycle like any other living thing. As Spenglerians see it, Islam long ago entered its decrepit phase. The West, meanwhile, is also on a path of decline, roughly comparable to Arabian culture as it stood in the early second millenium, C.E.

Cheaper fuel oil and gasoline would be some recompense for living in a period of cultural decline, particularly here in chilly Vermont.


Jon, what's the basis for concluding that very few Muslims support imposition of a caliphate? My impression is to the contrary. How about some polling data from Muslim countries?

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