WHEN "WORLD"S COLLIDE
The REAL reasons behind Middle Eastern strife and terrorism
Wednesday, April 10, 2002
by RICHARD E. BERG-ANDERSSON
Science is not an account of facts but a criticism and analysis of facts, and History insofar as it is a science is not a mere record of events but an analysis of the relationship of events. It is an analysis of the main operating causes that determine the general flow of human affairs"-
Human History- if one dates this record from the development of true Civilization some 5,000 years ago- has been primarily dominated by large multi-national/multi-ethnic entities, Major Civilizations (Super-Cultures, really) which I tend to term "World"s (as in "the Islamic World", "the Western World", etc.) [NOTE: we would today say that a "World", as I have herein defined it, would be "multi-state" rather than "multi-national/multi-ethnic"- but the "nation-state" is a comparatively modern development (not all that much more than 1,000 years old in its earliest incarnations) and, in times where a Metropole (the core of a given "World") had become the seat of an Empire, an entire given "World" would- indeed- BE the state!] Most of the stuff of History, therefore, has consisted of peoples being the center of such a "World" or being conquered by a given "World" or merely being influenced (either positively or negatively- in truth, usually both) by a nearby "World"; so-called "primitive" Cultures (those near enough to a "World" to be noticed by it and then be seen to be "way behind the times" in terms of that "World") tend to get short shrift on the broader stage of Human History.
There have been 19 clearly-definable "World"s throughout the 5,000-plus years of Human Civilization, by my reckoning (and it is MY reckoning: I have seen counts of "Civilizations" numbering, in some cases, more than significantly higher than 19-- however, there seem [to ME] to be only 19 that have so dominated the pages of the countless tomes written about World History to be considered "World"s in the sense in which I am here using that term), of which 8 survive to this day: however, two "World"s (the African and the Japanese) have been heavily Westernized over the last century to a century and a half (and this after the Japanese had already been so 'Sinocized'- that is, influenced by China- before attempting to cut themselves off from the influence of other "World"s for a few centuries) while a third (the Persian) has been equally heavily Islamized, leaving 5 "independent" "World"s which have so dominated World History of late and, thus, today's current events. These "Big Five" are- from West to East- the Western World, the Slavonic (Russia-oriented) World, the Islamic World, the Indian World and the Chinese World: nation-states, great and small, are either major contributors to a given "World", dominated- where not subjugated- by a given "World" or torn between two or more "World"s and not a single spot on the globe today is (given modern worldwide communications/information technology- such as the Internet on which you are now reading this) immune from any one of these five modern "World"s.
The fact is that this global reach means that each of these "World"s interacts with the others in ways- and, more to the point, with a speed- that would have been impossible only a century ago (keep in mind that, 100 years ago as I write this, Marconi had only- months earlier- shown that radio was a practical long-distance, potentially global, communications medium; the airplane, meanwhile, had yet to fly successfully). Yet each "World" has its own cultural definitions, developed over the whole history of that "World", which it continues to jealously guard against "outside encroachments"- despite the influence and, indeed, acceptance of ideas and concepts originating in another "World"s culture. Thus, the modern Democratic Republic- a Western conception- can now be seen evolving in Russia: but it is a Slavonic democracy and not a Western democracy that has been forming there; a quick perusal of the Russian Constitution shows powers given therein to the Federation's President that would not be at all acceptable to the vast majority of Americans, regardless of Party or ideology, if they were to be given to the President of the United States (in some senses, just as the American President is an "elected English King who happens to serve as his own Prime Minister", the Russian President is something of an "elected Czar"-- yet the key word here, of course, is that, unlike King or Czar, the respective Presidents are "elected" for limited terms and with checks and balances built within each respective Constitution that best fit the culture underlying the "World" of which each nation-state is a part). One suspects that if, as many foresee, China were to someday fully democratize, it would develop a Chinese democracy and not a Western one such as that, more or less, imposed on nearby Japan after World War II.
In terms of age, the Chinese and Indian Worlds are quite old; comparatively, the Western, Islamic and Slavonic Worlds are rather young (though the Western has direct roots in the defunct Hellenic and Roman Worlds, while the Slavonic also has roots therein through the intermediary of the defunct Byzantine World). It is these three younger Worlds that are rubbing against each other in the Middle East (as they have been for well over a century) and it is the friction therefrom (primarily, since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, from the Western rubbing up against the Islamic) that is, to a great extent, fueling the most recent conflagrations- from the West Bank to Afghanistan. Much of the problem is that, in the course of the last Century, oil has been thrown onto these Middle Eastern fires... literally! (since that oil has generated wealth that has allowed Osama bin Laden and the House of ibn Sa'ud both to finance the growth of their respective puritanical visions of Islam)... but the flames are actually fanned more by a Western export to the Islamic World than by that which the Western World imports from the Middle East and that export is secular Democratic Republicanism.
I was watching a commentator on TV over this past weekend trying to explain to Westerners the seemingly inexorable intertwining of Religion and Politics/Government in the Islamic World- "something that has no parallel in Christendom", he said. If you take his statement solely at face value, he is correct- for there IS (present tense) no parallel in MODERN Christendom: however, if you are talking about MEDIEVAL Christendom, one can say there WAS once parallel in Christendom for, prior to the Protestant Reformation and the concomitant (where unfortunately named) Counter-Reformation (for the Council of Trent was itself an internal reformation of the Roman Catholic Church), one finds parallels aplenty! The Church had- in the course of the Medieval period (most notably seen in the disputes between Pope Gregory VII and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV over Lay Investiture in the late 11th Century)- come to see itself as the overseer of Human Thought and, in this field, held itself over both Prince and Peasant alike. The ReformationS- in BOTH Protestantism and Catholicism- began to bring the dignity of the Individual, as opposed to that of the Institution (whether Church or Feudal Overlord), to the fore in the West, a process which continued with the acceptance of the concept of Separation of Church and State that is the underpinning of both American Democracy AND American Religiosity.
But Separation of Church and State is clearly anathema to both al-Qa'eda (and their minions in Afghanistan, the Taliban) AND the Wahabism (the puritanical Islam) of the ruling family of Sa'udi Arabia: Why? Basically because Islam is nearly 600 years younger than the Christianity that eventually became the original unifying force of the nascent Western World- therefore, the Islamic World is- in a sense- that many centuries behind the West in this regard and, thus, has not yet really fully joined the battle for the dignity of the individual over the institutions of religion that the West has already fought (and, in a sense, continues to fight when one- for example- looks at such issues as Abortion and, more recently, Same-Sex Marriage that so lately show up on the radar screen of the American political agenda). However, forces within Islam are about to take that battle head on! Moreover, they are taking to that battle with tools borrowed from the Western World: for example, the Self-Evident Truths that All Are Created Equal and Are Endowed By Their Creator (to a Muslim, this- of course- would be Allah) With Certain Unalienable Rights including Liberty. No wonder both the followers of Osama bin Laden and the House of ibn Sa'ud are so nervous!!
Not all that long after the terrorist attacks of September 11th (but before we had launched the War Against International Terrorism in Afghanistan on 7 October), a military analyst for one of the cable news services here in the U.S. opined that President Bush's comments that these were "attacks on our way of life" were, at best, rhetorical flourish and, at worse, just plain stupid; his argument was that September 11th was all about the Will To Power- simply a show of force that was best met by superior force. To me, his comments were the very essence of not being able to see the forest for the trees! The fact is that what al-Qa'eda did WAS an attack on the concept of Natural Liberty that underpins Our Political and Legal System!! For why were the targets chosen- and, more importantly, IN THE ORDER they were chosen? One plane hits one of twin tallest buildings in the economic capital and media nerve center of America, the latter guaranteeing a worldwide audience when the second of the Twin Towers is hit by a plane; meanwhile, a third plane was aiming for the White House but hit the Pentagon- a secondary target- instead AFTER the Twin Towers had already been hit; the fourth plane, that which crashed in Pennsylvania, was certainly headed right for the Capitol itself. The symbolism is patently obvious (and would have been even more obvious had the D.C.-bound planes actually hit their intended targets... if you are an American reading this piece, think of what would have crossed your mind had there been flames coming out of the White House on your TV screen all that day and the days following instead of from that collapsed section of the Pentagon? What would a collapsed Capitol Dome- the very dome that President Lincoln himself had insisted be constructed even while he desperately tried to Save the Union during the Civil War- have meant to YOU??) and there can be NO question what message al-Qa'eda was attempting to send here! There can be no doubt whatsoever that al-Qa'eda was- on September 11th- declaring Holy War on the very Western ideals that were now competing with its own philosophy of Islamism (a kind of "Islamic Fascism"- though the analogy here is not exact) for the hearts and minds of those in what is known colloquially as "the Arab 'Street' "!!
Likewise, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (at least in its latest form) can be seen as a part of this same struggle. Israel, while historically and conceptually the Jewish State dreamt of by the earliest leaders of the Zionist Movement as it coalesced in the late 19th Century, is- at its heart- a secular Democracy, a parliamentary Republic no different in its constitutional essence as any similar such Democracy in continental Europe. The notion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank was a political issue IN ISRAEL precisely because many Jewish Israelis do not necessarily buy into every single nuance implied by the notion of all the land of what we call Palestine having been promised to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac! The fact is that Israel, as an entity, represents a toehold of the Western World within what is otherwise the sphere of the Islamic World: there are ARAB Israelis who vote in elections and have representation in the Israeli Knesset and who have access to equal justice in the Israeli courts of law (secular courts of law, as opposed to rabbinical courts which handle religious matters pertaining solely to Orthodox Jewry). Religion is- thus- an excuse for, rather than a cause of, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: as powerful a motivator as Religion might be, it merely serves as a screen- a decoy- for what the "real deal" actually is!
'Twas ever thus, however!! Read any good historical account of the Crusades and tell me that the Crusades were primarily about religious edification within the goal of what we today would call "liberation" of the Holy Land by Christians from the Muslims who- to these Medieval Christians- wrongfully held it. The Crusades were no less about those dirty five-letter words- POWER and MONEY (along with who should have them!)- than any other rank political dispute. Glorifying these endeavors with the cloak of Religion did not, in the end, make them any the more glorious. To take a more modern example: is the conflict in Northern Ireland REALLY about Religion (Protestant vs. Catholic)? Hardly! Yes, Protestants in Ulster tend to stand with the one-time British Empire while Catholics tend to side with the idea of a United Ireland but there ARE Catholic Unionists along with Protestants who support the goals of the IRA!! The fact is that the breakdown in Ulster is much more economic than it is at all religious: the wealthy in Northern Ireland tend to benefit from being a "country" of the United Kingdom while the working poor generally see this political relationship as exploitative of them. Religion is here a smoke-screen, a blind and, yes, at times a motivator for either side in the conflict. The same is true for both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, except that- here- the battle is less over control of the means of production than over land, pure and simple (although land is, of course, an economic commodity as well).
This explains why al-Qa'eda has taken a great interest of late in the Palestinian cause. Much has been made of the fact that Osama bin Laden hardly noted even the existence of the Palestinians until rather recently (preferring to, at first, concentrate on the presence of American military forces on Sa'udi soil as a reason for his followers to hate America)- but bin Laden well learned on which side his bread was buttered! The success of Israel (most notably the success of ARABS in Israel [keep in mind that Arabs are poised- given present birthrates- to outnumber Jews in Israel within a generation]) within the Eastern Mediterranean rim that was- until the middle of the 20th Century- so clearly a part of the Islamic World has become a living symbol of the ability of Democracy to soon emerge elsewhere within that very World. Arab countries (with much European support, by the way- as misguided as such support, in fact, is!) are openly countering America's notion of someday helping to overthrow Saddam Hussein: why are such nations as Sa'udi Arabia (which we defended from Iraqi aggression a mere decade or so ago) and Kuwait (liberated from Iraqi oppression in that same conflict) acting so conciliatory towards Saddam? It's very simple: name the two nation-states within the Islamic World that are currently the closest to achieving an at least Islamic form of Democracy (because they have the necessary political and economic infrastructures that can rather easily then be transformed into democratic institutions in each of those spheres)-- they are: Iraq and Iran! If Saddam is overthrown and the Iraqi opposition comes to power, Iraq will most likely be transformed (and much easier than Afghanistan ever will be!) into an Islamic version of secular Democracy. Western-influenced secular Democratic Republicanism will then no longer be the province of a nation-state on the mere fringes of the Islamic World (say, a Turkey or [in what is still only potential] an Indonesia or a Malaysia); rather, secular Democracy will be living and breathing right there in downtown Baghdad- itself once the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate!! Likewise, the Shi'a mullahs who currently govern Iran are as nervous about the democratic potential within their own country as their Sunni counterparts, the Wahabists who govern Sa'udi Arabia, are about the democratic potential of Iraq then having influence on those elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula.
So what are we, then, to make of the recent peace proposal re: Israel and the Palestinians put forth by the Wahabist Sa'udi Crown Prince Abdullah? In a sense, it can be seen as an equivalent of the Truman Administration policy of Cold War "Containment": let Israel exist, it proposes, within its pre-1967 borders- itself an outgrowth of the original United Nations partitioning of the old British Mandate of Palestine back in 1947- and maybe, just maybe, the dangerous (to the Wahabists) seeds of Western secular democratic republicanism will be stopped- at least for a time- from seeping into the rest of the Islamic World. But, or so it is abundantly clear, these seeds cannot be stopped forever: for every Palestinian teenaged suicide bomber who is videotaped reciting from the Qur'an before heading off for his or her latest act of abject martyrdom there is also a Palestinian- perhaps even more than one- who can come to believe in the fullest meaning of the words of the American Declaration of Independence, that
[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
It is in the interests of al-Qa'eda, in the furtherance of their religious totalitarian vision, to fan the fires of terrorism rather than to stoke the flames of hope among Palestinian youth: this, too, must be fought- for it is as much a part of achieving total victory in the War on International Terrorism as any accomplishments on the battlefield. The Palestinian martyr and the Palestinian seeking the aims of that largely penned by Thomas Jefferson both might equally hate that which they each see as their oppression by an occupying power but at least the latter plainly seeks those unalienable rights to pursue happiness, to be free and to live life that the former- in the bitterness that leads to taking orders from madmen that, in turn, leads to martyrdom- cannot possibly ever honor!