For the last year at least, I have been studying the history of the Middle East (ME), from the crusades forward to today. The purpose of this is that I do not like talking about things I don’t really understand or even know the relevant facts. I did my research two ways. First I read the history as written by western writers, and then I read it over again but this time as written by Arab writers. Believe me, the histories are quite different because of this difference in perspective.
As the capstone to this research, I finally treated myself to a book by a man I have always respected because I have heard him on TV speaking about ME issues for several years and he is the most logical and believable source I have ever heard. He is the late Dr. Fouad Ajami, and the book of his that I read was entitled THE DREAM PALACE OF THE ARABS. I intend to read his other books, but this is such an encyclopedic presentation of the implications of clashes of cultures and religions in the context of ME history that I deem myself extremely lucky to have selected this one to begin with.
Born in Lebanon, Dr. Ajami is a Shiite of a Persian family, whose detractors mainly argue that a Persian cannot possibly have reliable insights into Arab culture because he is not an Arab. You have to do much better than that. None of them have presented dissenting views backed up by actual experience anywhere near as comprehensive as his. He has been present on location as it were to most of the significant developments in the ME since World War II and has personally known most of the important commentators and participants in the events as they were occurring. Finally, I trust him. Beginning in the early twentieth century with the discovery of the value of petroleum resources in the ME, world economics played a larger role than those arising simply from religious differences and from the strategic implications of hegemony in the Mediterranean area. ME trade has depended upon access to Mediterranean ports, and conflict in the ME is strategically affected by control over those same ports. It is no longer a case of Christianity versus Islam, although that issue is still at play in today’s conflicts. Ridding the ME of infidels is still a battle cry of fundamentalists. Moreover, within Islam itself, Sunnis and Shiites believe that their religious differences (which are slight by any measure) justify annihilating each other.
Judaism and Christianity went through similar evolutionary struggles from the time of the political Jesus through the Protestant Reformation and the development within the Jewish community of more rational sects refusing to be mind controlled by orthodox rabbis who are no different from any hyper orthodox ayatollah, even today.
The resistance to the advent of reason as a modification of orthodoxy in all religions is the common thread. Rational Islam/Judaism/Christianity versus the orthodox regimes has been the common thread in each community. Now however, in the face of the IS phenomenon, there is another contrapuntal rhythm at play, the near term implications of which will probably have more of a decisive impact upon the ME than the progress of any of the cultural/religious differences in play up to this moment. That other issue springs from the development of technology and its impact upon the economic health of the region.
City Arabs can live on trade within and without the region. They have ready access to universities and medical resources that others do not. Comparatively they are wealthier, better educated because of easier access to schools that teach things in addition to religion, and much better opportunities for higher education to become professionals and scientists as well as highly literate. In Arab culture literature and especially poetry are jewels. Just as the Greeks have philosophy, the Romans are famous for law, and the Persians are famous for their artistry, Arabs have poetry and dreams expressed in most beautiful ways. Country, tribal Arabs, living on agriculture and wandering wherever grazing is available for their herds live at a subsistence level. Bad weather and crop failure have frequently meant that their source of protein is eating locusts. It has often been just that bad, a biblical scenario from Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams about feast and famine and how to plan for famine. Their schools, if any are usually madrassas taught by mullahs and limited to religion. Their opportunities for higher education are extremely limited. There are certainly exceptions to this, but this is the divide between urban rationalists and country orthodox.
Petroleum changed the pitch of their playing field in large measure, providing training and employment opportunities for hundreds of thousands. Places that were not worth having before 1920, such as Kuwait and Qatar suddenly became extravagantly wealthy kingdoms garnering recognition from western nations never before justifiable. Imperial hegemony requires that the conquest and occupation/control of the geography be profitable. England’s withdrawal from the ME was due to its position being a drain on an already impaired economy after World War II. France’s withdrawal was due in large part to the same rationale, plus the fact that France has never, since Napoleon, been a recognizable military force. Even today it would be better to oppose France than to have to rely upon France as an ally. Asked to join in military campaigns, France always has declined to pitch in. It is comic that since the Paris attack of December 2015 France is actively bombing the same people it refused to confront only a couple of years ago. It is more comic that France is now asking the nations to whom it refused help to come join them in confronting their enemies. Payback is a bitch.
What is happening to cause the struggle over religious differences to be irrelevant and utterly destructive to the economic interests of the inhabitants of the ME? It is a combination of the impact of technological advancement superimposed upon oil glut supply not likely to change in the near future. If you don’t have a higher education and are fit only for agriculture and manual labor you will never get out of marginality. Prospects of perpetual poverty with little chance of escape make it rather easy for extremist religious leaders to radicalize young men and women. Where life is privation and misery there is no perceivable downside risk to violent overthrow.
Look at today’s petroleum situation. Oil prices are extremely low, so low that Saudi Arabia is borrowing money to finance its operating expenses – a historical first I believe. The Saudis don’t see oil price relief on the horizon for the foreseeable future. Russia is awash with its own oil and gas resources. The US does not need near as much foreign oil because of the development of fracking and other phenomena, like the alternative energy sources coming on line swiftly and effectively. Iran is re-entering the market now that it has signed the treaty intended to limit its future nuclear development to nonmilitary purposes. The glut will be exaggerated enormously by this. IS is selling Iraqi oil through Turkey. What has accounted for the enormous wealth of the ME since the beginning of the 20th Century is now and more aggressively hence forth becoming substantially irrelevant as an engine of prosperity or a cassus belli into the foreseeable future. Where does that leave the ME?
It leaves the ME with wealth concentrated in the hands of very few who are indifferent to the plight of others. Saudi Arabia has been somewhat of an exception to that, but now, with a different agenda, is less likely to continue the benefits its population has enjoyed up to now. In addition, Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahabism from which Al Quaeda has sprung and from which it still derives a great deal of financial support. The Saudi royal family owes its coming into power to the Ibn Wahab family and many in the royal family strongly support Al Quaeda even if that is not something to publicize. It leaves the ME with hundreds of thousands of poor with no opportunity for improvement in sight and urged by orthodox religious leaders to revolt against their own government and against foreigners in their midst.
As has forever been the case in history, none will make the sacrifices needed to make life better for the desperate, not Arabs and not the west. History teaches that societies would rather confront disparities through conflict than through assistance, and that is likely to be the continuing situation in the ME.
That brings us to the issue of harmonization of religious differences and hostilities for the purpose of enabling a confederacy of Arab nations. This has been tried many times, as well as attempts before to establish an Arab Caliphate, but never successfully. Just like normal people all over the earth, there has not been sufficient congruity of interests to enable one large State. Europe is a perfect example of the failure of unity, and even now in its attempt to unify economically there are constant destructive forces at play.
If the region cannot depend upon oil and gas into a far future, then its economy needs to evolve into a technological/scientific/industrial engine. It will be forced to provide a population dedicated to the new economic order with sufficient dedication for it to come to fruition within the next fifty years. In order to accomplish that it will be necessary to rationalize religious hostilities that are now so utterly destructive of economic opportunity.
Where are the harmonizing doctrines to facilitate this and what must be moderated to permit it?
A good starting point would be to recognize the congruities of all Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They all recognize and commemorate not only the one God, but venerate the same leaders, prophets and messengers (except that Judaism stops at Jesus and Islam stops at Mohammed). They all perceive the same fundamental precepts that enable one to lead a full and blessed life. They all foretell the coming of their later forms, from Judaism to Christianity to Islam, and from Catholicism to the Protestant Reformation. They are all constructed of the same material, language. Language, as Dr. Ajami so perfectly points out, is the human expression of the edifice of its cultures. What we see when we study the sacred texts is the language of the time expressing the culture of the time, in each end every of the Abrahamic lines.
The problems of today stem from the rift amongst those who see the sacred texts as a still photograph and those who see it as a motion picture. The prime natural force that changes language is the same as that which alters cultures. The world does develop in many ways. It is not stagnant in any aspect. Languages and cultures may evolve, but the essential sacred fundamental premises do not change. It continues to apply to each culture as it evolves. The sacred texts never become obsolete in their fundamental precepts.
It is not God/Allah, therefore, who commands us to observe these fundamental precepts in some monolithic orthodoxy that never grows or develops in its manners of observance. Rather it is the leaders of absolutist orthodoxy who forbid reason and rational perception as a vehicle. Judaism has its absolutist sects and leaders, as do Christianity and Islam, who teach conflict as a corrupt means to preserve their community mind control. If people were not taught to hate and despise and ostracize everyone who does not follow every ritual in the same manner, and believe every principle only in the exact function that it had when it was first pronounced, the barriers to the joint exploitation of progress in compliance with our fundamental precepts would fall and the Rabbis/Priests/Mullahs would no longer be able to teach destructive beliefs that were never stated or intended in or by the sacred texts.
These precepts of divine intent have never changed, but they fit today’s world as perfectly as they did the world when they were first given to humanity by God/Allah. They remain the same, and their applicability to life is such that they do not prevent or impede humanity’s potential to attain joint achievement. Within each faith that is true. Muslims do not need to struggle against each other in order to obey the will of Allah. Catholics do not need to claim that only they are entitled to salvation and that all non-Catholics are doomed to hell. Jews do not need to continue to claim that they have a monopoly on the relationship between humanity and God and that only they possess and interpret the laws of God. All that conflict is irrational and destructive. Orthodoxy must, therefore, be confronted with rationalism, a rule of reason that enables compliance with God’s will and the mutual enjoyment of the gifts of God.
Of course religious leaders will oppose this. It will cost them their power over the human community. The community itself will have to rebel against orthodoxy in order to bring about an end to perpetual conflict that robs so many of us of God’s gifts.
The ultimate question presented by this article is will the people of the ME force a rule of reason upon their religions so that when their present wealth becomes practically useless in terms of world scale there will remain other sources of endeavor and an educated, essentially harmonious human community in the ME. As of now, that prospect looks rather dim. It seems we would rather kill each other off as we have always done.
At least, for this year I have been granted the joy of learning not only the history of the ME but also a perspective into its possibilities were its beauties only valued as much as opportunities to dominate. I will have to settle for that, but will pray for better.
By Seamus Muldoon, Himself
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