Meltdown in the Middle East:
A Startling Thought
I’m going to ask all of you who read this to temporarily disable your reaction circuits, place your opinionation drive into neutral, turn the alarms and sirens off and try very hard to stay with the following thread of discourse through to its end before searching for tar, feathers and/or items of your home arsenal of deadly weapons (normally reserved for break-ins, home invasion, personal assault and various other kinds of grievous social insult) with which to register your possible response to what I am about to say.
All of the above precautions are very important, especially given the fact that most astute observers of contemporary American culture seem to agree that polite, courteous exchange of opinion, outlooks, ideas and viewpoints as an aspect of social dialogue appears to be on the verge of extinction in our nation. I should state in advance that what I am about to offer for your consideration may come across as quite a radical proposition to most of you, who subscribe to one or more of the various recognised (institutionalized) religious faiths.
Ok. Now that (I am presuming) your guns are safely holstered, baseball bats deposited in the hallway closet and other deadly articles stashed out of immediate reach, here goes.
Most of us were caught quite off-guard by the very recent and abrupt socio-political developments in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has come under intense pressure to resign and/or abdicate (if you will, since he has in the past several decades functioned as autocratically as any absolute dictator) his position as Egypt’s chief head of state.
Even those of us who have spent many years living and working among the Arab peoples of Southwest Asia (I myself personally spent 10 years in the Arab nations) didn’t really see Egypt’s present precarious crisis coming, but to some extent that’s probably because our attention to Arab affairs was focused elsewhere (Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, even though those aren’t really ‘Arab’ areas, strictly speaking). As anyone who maintains any vestige of currency in world affairs knows, in the past 10 years it has become increasingly easy to become grossly distracted or have our attention otherwise diverted by the ongoing conflicts that America has either precipitated or been involved with, since the seminal 9/11 terrorist attack on New York City’s World Trade Center.
I should offer the explanation that our understanding of terrorism in most cases has suffered from an inherent Western tendency we Americans have of making little real effort to learn about the other societies and peoples we invade. It was certainly true of Vietnam and the SEA conflict of the 60s and 70s, but it is equally true of the depth of our awareness about the Middle Eastern region and its profoundly different form of culture and society. In both cases, we simply succumbed to bellicosities without a lot of preliminary analysis and waded right in to the respective frays with banners flying and drums banging.
Our enthusiastic involvement in Iraq, during both the first Gulf War (1991) and the second (2001), was precipitated by that same tendency referenced above to make sweeping assumptions backed up by little factual data and fueled principally by extremely biased interpretative partisan assessments and fostered by highly partisan political factions with great influence, at the highest levels of American government (i.e. the Jewish neo conservative gang consisting of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perl, Douglas Feith, William Kristol and the Project for a New American Century crew, etc.). As I have said many times, had any of these enthusiastic proponents of war in Southwest Asia not been ridiculously pro-Israel, or had they had the slightest genuine cultural understanding of the Islamic peoples they wished to protect Israel from, and had the American people not been so emotionally swept up in their own reactive patriotic dogma after the 9/11 event, we would never have gone into that part of the world spurs to the flank, with the wild hope of installing a Western style (read: American) democratic form of government in the vacuum (so it was hypothesied, at least) left after Saddam’s fall.
Unfortunately for all of us who occupy the North American continent (excluding our long-suffering neighbors to the north, Canada) and the rest of the Western world as well, we ourselves are the product of a religious radicalism that first touched down on the eastern shores of our nation several centuries ago (ironically motivated in large part by an attempt to obtain freedom of religion, as the extant rationalisation explains things). That spirit of rigidly religious moral rectitude (unignorably Christian, of course) that motivated our white European ancestors remains strong in general terms, despite the continuing breakdown of institutional (i.e. ‘church-based’) faith in America today. In the late 1980s it became wedded with the extremely powerful and very influential pro-Zionist sentiment that has been illicitly sharing Ms. Liberty’s bed for decades now.
America and Israel have common ties, not least among these religious roots that the Hebrew and Christian faiths have shared since antiquity. Today, having forcefully inserted itself in the Palestinian region after the Second World War (and drawing heavily upon US guilt over not having done more to forestall the depredations directed against Jews by the Third Reich), Israel has insinuated itself into a close alliance with the US by serving as an important intelligence outpost in the midst of an otherwise profoundly Islamic part of the world that America poorly (if at all) understands. In exchange for US military assurances in its continuing fight for survival, Israel provides valuable intelligence and covert support for the furtherance of United States interests in the Middle East. Think of Israel as a sort of virtual Fort Apache in hostile red-indian country, if you like. At least it’s a useful analogy most Americans can relate to.
Apart from the political, military and intel mechanisms established between Israel and the US, an equally powerful and concurrent (but far more subtle) effort has been made by Zionists to persuade Christian Americans that America has far closer commonalities with Israel (read: the Hebrew faith) than with Islamic nations, by virtue of that same shared source of faith (Old Testament roots, etc.). The fact that Christians, Jews and Islamic people alike all share these same religious roots (albeit to varying degrees) has conveniently been obscured or at least considerably lessened by those who would promote a strong US/Israeli bond at the expense of a more balanced Christian understanding of Islam.
This subtle undercurrent of emphasis on ‘more common ties’ between Judaism and Christianity has taken hold to a remarkable extent among more fundamentalist Christians over past years, a trend that recent terrorist acts by Islamic radicals (e.g. Al Qaida and the Afghanistani Taliban, et al) have only grievously aggravated and strengthened. Israel obviously relishes news of each new, brutal incident of suicide-bombing, since it underscores their message that all Islam is comprised of fanatical, suicidal maniacs. Of course this is no more true than the assertion that all Christians are raving, right-wing conservative fundamentalist Republicans. Radically extreme Islamic fundamentalists are a distinct minority among the many millions of more moderate Islamic belief, but they gain by far the most disproportionate public notoriety.
The events that have recently taken place in Algeria and now in Egypt are to a substantial degree a predictable result of naively oversimplified American policies, misunderstandings and inept political analyses that have merely served to polarize and further accentuate the already yawning gulf of regard that lies between the non-Islamic West and the world-wide Islamic faithful. Interestingly, while Israel has traditionally welcomed any disruptive force that keeps its immediate Islamic enemies fragmented, disunified and disorganized, an event of the present sort…a wave of intensely Islamic sentiment rising among the masses of Islamic peoples that feel they have been somehow constrained or otherwise wronged by secular authority… is undoubtedly putting some pretty serious wind up Israel, so to speak (as well as the entire Mubarak government).It doesn’t take much alacrity to grasp the consequences for Israel of a former neutral neighbor state suddenly turning into a radical Jew-hating nation.
All of this is merely context upon which to build the following hypothesis for my purposes here and I should say that I was in part prompted to broach this subject spurred on by a conversation I had yesterday with a colleague who happens to be of the Buddhist Jodo Shinshu Sect. I was refreshing my understanding of comparative theologies in that conversation, in this sense associated with Eastern philosophy’s take on that ultimate question, “What’s it all about?”, since my studies of Buddhism, Shinto and the sub-sects and branches that have developed from them are now many decades behind me.
At any rate, I was reflecting on the fact that humankind has been somehow ‘gifted’ by coincidence (call it the result of random bio-chemical events that have occurred over millions of years, if you like) with the frustrating capability to endlessly reflect on our impermanence by virtue of a massively overdeveloped frontal lobe. To the best of our knowledge, we are the only life form on this planet thus endowed. All the other life forms we share the planet with don’t have the ability to wonder about their own existence (as far as we are able to determine) and fear their own ultimate demise; they simply live in the present moment, are born, eat, mate, compete for sustenance with each other and expire without so much as a single uncertainty about the entire process. Only human beings seem to have evolved into creatures that spend a great deal of their time endlessly pondering imponderables (i.e. the boggling complexities of the ‘ultimate question’ alluded to above).
The result of all our mordant reflection on what life is all actually about has stimulated the formation of great numbers of religious explanations over the course of the past several hundred centuries, most often involving some sort of mystical, highly speculative attempt to construct and associate things in a manner that makes ‘sense’ out of the seemingly nonsensical. Owing to the fact that there is no uniform standard of awareness, intelligence, perception, intuition or intellectual ability with which to understand these things, more often than not some exceptionally enlightened person has typically to come along, view the chaos of human affairs with a vague distaste and subsequently formulate a system of ‘beliefs’; he must then also organize or orchestrate the logistical and theoretical support required to impose that theology on others (with enough efficaciousness to succeed, a process that can and often does culminate in violent compliance). Thus we have ‘religion’, which is generally regarded as a systematic attempt to convince human beings to get along amicably and live together in an environment within which all may survive and mutually profit.
One of the problems that crop up with these ‘systematised explanations’ (usually well after they have been rigidly dogmatised) is that not everyone has the mental agility required to smooth over the inevitable inconsistencies that crop up in even the most convincing dogma, no matter how skillfully thought-through or cleverly conceptualised. Then too, because EVERYTHING is still just a hypothesis without any actual proof, sooner or later, another person comes along with a vaguely different philosophical itch to take on the same dogma and before you know it, B*A*N*G, a new and schismatic sub-sect or branch is created that makes things get even more complicated. After several hundred centuries of this sort of activity continuing to compound itself with near ‘laws of physics’ consistency, it’s no wonder at all that human affairs are just as severely beset by these interpretative differences of theological angst as they are enhanced or benefitted. After all, the history of human warfare up until the most recent centuries (those associated with the rise of capitalism and its entire resulting pantheon of economic theories and practices) is inextricably tied to the development and spread of various religious interpretations of what life is all about. Prior to the introduction of capitalism, human beings warred almost exclusively over religious differences of opinion, but after Karl and his proletarian buddies formulated their understandings of what capitalism is all about and codified them, the scenario has become even more complex. Now we humans argue, fight and kill each other over economic issues with almost as much enthusiasm as we used to, over religion alone. Impressive progress for a race of opposed thumb, sentient life forms that arose from primeval bio-slurry, surely!
At any rate, it seems fairly clear that religion ranks high up on the top ten hit-parade list of casus belli whenever groups of associated people let their disagreements become violent enough to kill others in promulgating them (QED: the entire history of human existence). Only with the world-wide rise of money as a virtual substitute for god itself has that status quo changed!
If one accepts the basic premise that extreme variances of opinion, outlook, attitude, interpretation, and/or belief are chief catalysts when it comes to instigating social upheaval, then it follows that ALL forms of religion are equally dangerous when taken to the extremes they often seem to wobble off to. Any radical interpretation of a system of religious beliefs that takes things beyond an amicable set of mutually beneficial, basic rules by which to co-exist peacefully, and advances them to the sort of harsh, inflexible dogma that mandates physical elimination of others, is a danger to be avoided like the tax collector. Thus religious (or philosophical) extremism in any form, whether Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Druidic, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, etc., poses an inherently serious threat to the survival of all others in any mass social grouping.
It’s one thing to be a slightly whacko religious extremist out in the middle of the desert surrounded only by several others of the tribe who subscribe to those isolated beliefs and an entirely different thing when that religious zealot commands the attention and respect of millions of people across the planet who are ready to take up arms and commit acts of social and personal outrage. Especially when the views of that ‘holy man’ in reference are subscribed to by the entire population of some national entity that commands the scientific technology required to develop weapons capable of destroying the planet (i.e. WMD and Iran, Pakistan, or…possibly even the USA). In other words, the moment angels, prophets and other fantastic visionaries are introduced into the muddle of observable empiric phenomena in peoples’ minds, then further admixed in a rich milieu of fissionable nuclear technology, all bets are off in terms of there being favorable odds of continued amicable relations with another group that are visually or behaviorally distinctive from one’s own.
In past ruminations on religion and theological philosophy I have frequently referred to the fact that the rise of Islam in particular has been strongly influenced by the starkly inhospitable and often outright hostile geographic and climatic conditions of the desert regions that must surely have severely baked Prophet Mohammed’s brains more than a bit, out there in the remote wastes of Arabia (it was, in fact, an idea suggested to me by a good friend who is an Egyptian, a highly educated medical researcher I worked with the Saudi Arabia). I have been less keen to suggest that radical Christians (especially those espousing extremist racial dogma), although the product of a far more hospitable and moderate set of climatic influences, are just as capable of creating circumstances within which violence may be fostered and supported, but it’s certainly just as possible a proposition, when you think things over carefully. A simple sidelong glance at the Christian Nazis of Germany who allowed the Jews to be ‘eliminated’ by Hitler should suffice as a perfect example of that.
Any formularised outlook that suggests that human beings are not all members of the same family, despite visual, environmental or cultural differences, ought properly to be regarded as contrary to the best interests of civilized moderation. By contrast, and in my opinion, any such systematised outlook that espouses the opposing view should properly command our respect. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to understand that hatred, violent bias, extreme prejudice and closely related negativisms are all qualities that are not supportive of the conditions human beings need to most benefit from and thrive. As for Christian extremism, fortunately those of the Christian faith who are in this latter, unhappy category of antisocial misanthropy (including but not limited to white supremacists, racists and other of that ilk) are but a very tiny minority of the greater mass of those who call themselves followers of Christ. While the same can be said of Islam, this fact fails to broadly register most of the time, due to the profoundly disturbing nature of Islamic terrorist acts.
At present in the Southwest Asian region, the rise of Islamic extremists and radicals must be viewed as arising from a complex set of interrelated conditions that have as much to do with basic economic conditions as with extreme interpretations of religious dogma. This is certainly true in Algeria and in Egypt, nations that have a very low level of basic literacy and that are teeming with masses of disprivileged individuals who lack the basic necessities of life. As any student of history well understands, although mass uprisings are typically instigated by a small group of astutely focused focused intellectuals, before long the raw emotions and passions that are released in any social transformation inflame the lower class masses to act in a manner that very often simply furthers extreme violence and brutality; very quickly this popular angst takes on an unmanageable life of its own. It is a further given of such movements that sooner or later the intellectuals responsible for initiating change will be rather suddenly purged from positions of control within the movement, once the movement is self-perpetuating, the vacuum of their sudden absence being filled by charismatic persons perhaps possessed of great mass appeal, but lacking higher capabilities to coordinate and/or orchestrate the surging masses of followers.
Of the several dynamics that appear to comprise the present popular impetus still developing in Egypt, the broadest underlying catalyst seems to be closely associated with general dissatisfaction over the great poverty afflicting the lowest classes of Egyptian society. Lacking meaningful jobs, incomes and/or ability to perform some meaningful function (read: occupational skills), the least well-off masses of Egypt (a nation traditionally known as the ‘poor man’ of the Middle East) sense an opportunity in the massive demonstrations to change the oppressive status quo that President Mubarak has maintained for nearly three decades. At the same time, Islamic radical factions have not been unaware of the opportunity to further their extremist agenda in these crowds of poorly educated, impoverished people. Thus, Islamic radicals’ view the suddenly rising wave of resentment over Mubarak’s regime as a god-given (if you will permit the term here) opportunity to turn that broad economic dissatisfaction into extremist religious fervor to perpetuate their cause.
While there is little disagreement that Mubarak’s regime has done far too little to redress the complaints of Egypt’s poorer classes or improve their well-being, the great strategic concern for the United States is that what began as a localised protest in Algeria (rising from similar complaints of poverty) may yet well become a tsunami-like groundswell that acquires enough widespread popularity to threaten the hard-earned secular gains that have been made in some Middle Eastern nations (such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Yemen, Syria, etc.), over the past half-century. The last thing the United States wishes to see, naturally enough, is a return to hard-line Islamic fundamentalism, in Arab nations that have transitioned to some degree of secular governance (Egypt and Turkey come to mind). The possibility occurs, most depressingly, at the very tail-end of a full decade or more of very costly American effort (the Gulf wars and Afghanistan) to stabilise the region along lines that favor US interests. Yet despite that overall strategic aspiration, the American President’s public declaration that Mubarak must end his term immediately appears to run dangerously counter to that goal. It is worthwhile to note that in urging Mubarak to step down, the United States has also gained disapprobation from many other major players in the Southwest Asian area (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, etc.); this has the unhappy effect of further isolating the US even from its formerly close partners and allies there and would indicate (to me, at least) that the same spirit of passionate amateurism that held sway in Washington over the past two decades (regarding Arab affairs) STILL exists in the Obama Administration.
The popular rebellion that wracks Egypt right now is comprised of a loose coalition of several distinct groups. One such group includes the lower class poor (known as fellaheen an Arab term for ‘peasant’). Another consists of young students and middle-class adults with some academic background, who although moderate in their expression of Islamic faith, view the present regime as being unacceptably repressive and inflexible. Excluding the intellectuals or intelligentsia, perhaps the most worrisome group is that comprised of Islamic supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a hard core faction that has been agitating for a return to strict Islamic codes (the Sharia) and cultural ways for decades. Concerning the last group, a fact seldom recalled is that Palestine’s Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (the Brotherhood has been peripherally implicated in and sympathetic with general terrorist actions for many years).
While my own opinion, based upon what I know about the Arab peoples I have personally lived among and worked with, is that a true Western style democracy (read: after the American model) will never successfully take root and flourish in Southwest Asia (sorry about that, neocons…), there is nonetheless a lot of room for a form of enlightened, moderated political and social altruism to create drastically needed reform in an area that has stubbornly resisted change for centuries. Although ancient tribal affiliations and forms of social organisation shall likely frustrate any attempt to truly westernise Southwest Asian national entities, Jordan’s head of state is just one example of what carefully titrated and enlightened change may accomplish in terms of spreading wealth more justly throughout the less advantaged social and economic classes. Jordan’s Abdullah II is a highly educated, very westernized individual who has repeatedly demonstrated understanding of how the western model may best be sufficiently altered to conform more closely with the existing, ancient Middle Eastern status quo without running at complete cross purposes with traditional Islamic cultural elements.
I’ll take the liberty of injecting a personal note here, with some bearing on Egypt and the Egyptian people. Egypt, as any schoolchild soon learns, is the modern descendent of one of the oldest civilisations on Earth. With a history reaching back more than 4,000 years into antiquity, it is more than a bit ironic that modern day Egypt, far from being a vibrant, healthy and advanced nation among peers, is in fact a fairly weak, economically lackluster country. Despite its historic ancient past, modern Egypt suffers (like so many other Arab nations) from a pronounced inferiority complex today. Often referred to informally as ‘the poor man’ of the Middle East, many of Egypt’s brightest and most capable individuals seem to visibly suffer from an intense form of all-pervasive self-doubt…regardless of their personal accomplishments. One result of that is that many of those Egyptians are extremely sensitive to the slightest insinuation that their nation and its culture are not at the forefront of Arab world affairs today and they are quick to take insult over perceived (often unintended or trivial) slights .
I learned this in my own associations with highly educated Egyptians who were drawn to Saudi Arabia for practice of their professional livelihoods, due to the difficult economic problems that perpetually plague Egypt. It didn’t take me long to understand this aspect of the Egyptian personality and the need to treat my Egyptian friends with a certain sense of delicately balanced respect and recurrent reaffirmation of their personal worth, regardless of any other considerations.
Despite its history, Egypt remains today mired in poverty and occupied by a population consisting mainly of poorly educated peasants who suffer from the effects of perpetual poverty (as they have for almost thousands of years). Although Egypt’s upper classes tend to be well educated and capable, they too are often stymied by Egypt’s lack of dynamism, the yawning chasm that separates the majority of poor from the privileged elite and a basic lack of economic infrastructure to support them. Then too, Islam is Egypt’s principal religion, with only a relatively small population of Coptic Christians. When one combines Islam with poverty and ignorance, the result is often rather unpredictable, although ignorance and religious passion themselves more often combine to produce dangerously inflamed fanaticism than moderated balance and equilibrium in this part of the world. The Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to exploit this status-quo in Egypt for decades, held in nominal check only by Mubarak’s iron rule. Now that the Egyptian ‘people’ have risen up in response to the precipitating catalytic incident in Tunisia, extremist Islamic radicals everywhere have become substantially heartened.
Given all of the above nuances of cultural affairs in this part of the Middle East, it isn’t difficult to understand that although Egypt may indeed be a ‘sick man’, at the very least Mubarak has managed to hold things together so as to permit a certain sort of grudging peace that has worked to Israel’s advantage up till now. With the possibility of Mubarak’s handing over power to an Islamic coalition, it doesn’t take much thought to understand the threat Israel perceives in the present state of affairs and a better compromise for everyone would appear to be to ease the transition through a cooperative Egyptian coalition that is phased in less precipitously.
From my standpoint, there is yet a lot that may change circumstances in Egypt even as they are continuing to develop, since I share the belief that the state of Israel has no more inviolable legitimacy than any other nation that claims ‘God’ owes them something, given that Israel literally inserted itself into Palestine by force, but perhaps it’s time to return to my central point here, after having described the unhappy potentials that present Egypt’s crisis poses to everyone.
The point I’ve managed to deviate so perfectly away from in the foregoing paragraphs is that any human society, culture, nation, civilisation and/or group that is the product of ‘religion’ is just as potentially flawed as any other the world has seen since human beings left their warm primeval protoplasmic broth and ascended to their spot at the top of the biological food chain. Religion of any type, be it Christian, Islamic, Jewish, or any other type of ‘organised faith’ remains an inherently hazardous dynamic in a world that is far better suited to empirical pragmatism…nothing more nor less. Until better hard understanding of things we may now simply guess at abstractly comes along, the best set of values to organize human society around seems to be one that respects the dignity and value of all sentient and biological life. I suppose you could sum it all up by saying ‘Love the Earth and everything on it.” It truly can be that simple!
One last thing: my recommendation is that the moment anyone comes along and states “God says…” you’d best head for the hills just as fast as your little mortal legs can carry you and be afraid...be VERY afraid!