01 January 2009

Preferatory Unscientific Reflections on the War in Gaza

Pundits in the media talk endlessly about the Middle East conflict and the quest for peace in the Middle East. Feeding off violence in Israel, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or sensational terrorist attacks anywhere in the world, media frenzy creates its own fog, obscuring the real issues and trapping the political actors themselves into posturing for the press in search of public support for their policies. Yet the publics they pander to are themselves in a daze, unable to discern the true issues at stake, always surprised at the outbreak of war.

Few members of the public are equipped to analyze what they are hearing and seeing via the internet, radio and tv, and often the public response is emotional—rushing to support of the victims, innocent or not; shutting off the news completely because they perceive no connection of it to their own lives; or buying into the concept of the “cycle of violence” wishing only “a pox on both their houses” for the combatants’ inability (read refusal) to come to terms on what to outsiders seem to be inconsequential matters. However, with nuclear proliferation in the region now a reality, the looming threat of apocalyptic worldwide warfare has begun to sink into public awareness. Lines are being drawn. The axis of evil, in the public mind, still exists, and includes states not on the official list.

With the tsunami of unfiltered, graphic news, public opinion is becoming an ever-more important factor influencing foreign policy. No longer do we have secret treaties drawn up in back rooms. Nor do we have carefully crafted, albeit tendentious propaganda to sort through. Instead, we have "public diplomacy." New institutes are producing more and more “experts” who are studying how best to influence public opinion in favor of government policies by using the practices developed by public relations and media specialists. These experts, unlike the area-studies experts produced in the 1980s and 90s by international affairs programs, do not help to analyze what is happening and to forecast how to approach international crises, but they too are to engage in the fog of war and media coverage.

The Middle East, it is now well known, is fractured on multiple levels broadly across the region and deeply within the complex societies that make it up. This has been true for millennia. And it is true beyond the Middle East. Conflicts may be connected to one another historically, but what we are experiencing is not a cycle of violence, but a long war that has evolved and localized. Where some have seen religious conflict as the source of political violence, others have seen it as a consequence of nationalism and imperialism. Still others recognize conflict as not because of religious or political differences, but as the expressions and consequences of our human nature. Warfare is endemic. We are violent.

In the West, reason has been deemed the best arbiter for deciding the common good, while today the umma is torn between rationalism and fundamentalism (scriptural literalism) in structuring a just society.

In the West, religious freedom has been equated with political freedom. Note here that I'm not talking about secularization, which has been read as the removal of religion from the public sphere. People of faith read it as the separation of Church and State, that is, there ought to be no church established by the State. Citizens have the freedom to follow any faith, adhere to any religion, attend any meetings that they wish. They simply ought to have no power to coerce others into following their ways. And they respect the freedom of individuals to do as they please, so long as they do not harm anyone in the process.

In Islamic societies, the state has been understood as the guarantor of the spiritual welfare of the community. Political decentralization and multiculturalism has been the ascendant philosophy in the West, while centralization and homogenization has been in the ascendant in Islamic societies. Thus, it may be asked, who has the best understanding of human nature?

These questions have been asked, and answered, before. In Islamic societies there have been those who have believed that rationalism, not fundamentalism, should be the foundation of statecraft.

Should the state seek to ensure the spiritual welfare of its inhabitants? The West has responded with an emphatic no, while the Islamic world has answered, yes. Israel, caught between Islam and the West, has not yet decided, allowing religious authorities from each officially recognized religious body to exert control over their adherents’ private lives, with state support. This is the oft-discussed millet system that the Jewish State inherited from the Ottomans that remained in place throughout the years of the British Mandate.

Israel has been fighting several battles all at once. First, she has fought to save the lives of Jewish people by serving as their refuge from religious and political persecution. Secondly, she has fought for her survival as a political community among her Muslim neighbors. Thirdly, she has allowed multiple battles over religious authority to fester. Israel’s ambivalence relating to religious freedom and equality has been the result of political considerations. On the one hand, Israel seeks to create a space for Jewish identity, and thus has developed strong connections throughout the Galut (diaspora) and in the West, especially among Christians who have recognized her place in the international community for humanitarian, strategic, cultural, and religious reasons. On the other, she has asserted the civil equality of Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities in the state. However, in reality she has fostered only the Orthodox Jewish community’s political power, subsumed into the very idea of Israel as a Jewish state. This despite the presence of many other varieties of Jewish identity and observance, as well as Jewish adherents to other faiths in Israel.

Muslims, as a community, following decades of uncertainty, for the most part rejected Israel’s claim to what the British called “Palestine” at the end of World War One. It took a rather long time for this position to become dominant, however, and that dominance resulted from an intentional process of the politicization of the Muslim community backed by Britain’s enemies, the Germans, and by the British themselves, who during the interwar period continued to follow their policy of divide-and-rule. Arab Christians, on the other hand, were supercessionists who believed that the Church had replaced Israel, and that therefore there simply could be no justification for a Jewish claim to Palestine. Having lived as dhimmis alongside Jews under Islamic governance for centuries, the Arab Christians chose to ally themselves with the Muslim majority, supporting the idea of secular Arab nationalism. During the interwar period, this alliance was not necessarily a right-wing or left-wing matter; there existed briefly during a time when what Albert Hourani brilliantly called “the Liberal Age” in the Middle East, when the Western conception of the state—that is, secularization, or the separation of Church and State—briefly gained acceptance in the region as liberal education began to make inroads into the traditional societies of the region.

However, the unresolved rivalries between the Europeans during the build-up to the Second World War had enormous influence on the frail liberal regimes of Central Europe and the Middle East. National socialism in Germany crushed liberalism in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, which saw the emergence of fascist parties in all of the communities there. Likewise, Communism resonated in Middle Eastern societies, eager to break the hold of traditional elites throughout the region. Hitler and Lenin’s ideas found enthusiasts—from Jabotinsky to Aflaq to Saadeh, who reinterpreted romantic ideas of ethnic nationalism and class solidarity into support for authoritarian political parties, of the Right or the Left, depending upon which power offered to provide the most military, economic, and political support against the Zionists.

Mulling over the political writings of Arab and Zionist nationalists from that period, one is often struck by their syncretism and eclecticism, merging Islamic, Christian, and Jewish ideas with Nazi and Communist ones. The strange syntheses produced in the interwar period now seem more comprehensible, as we ourselves contend with the seemingly incoherent mixture of Iranian Revolutionary Shi’ism with fundamentalist Sunnism (themselves incredibly syncretistic and eclectic) in the ideologies of Hamas and al-Qa’ida. What is at stake is not philosophical coherence, but pragmatic alliances in pursuit of political power.

And that is the one constant in all of this is the pursuit of power—the power to assert control over land, people, and resources, and today, as in the dark days of WWII and the Cold War, over public opinion.

This pursuit of power is motivated by either the desire to protect or to exploit. The way that these two aims have been understood in modern times is the same as they were by the ancient Hebrews and Greeks: liberty or tyranny. Ultimately, human nature will express itself no matter what the regime, for both the bad and the good. In the Abbasid period of Islamic history, the war of ideas known as the mihna, sometimes translated as "inquisition" in the sense of state persecution of schools of thought," is instructive to us today. This ideological battle was waged between the Mutazalites, who argued for the use of reason (falsafa, or Greek Philosophy) in statecraft, and the Ash'arites, who argued for scriptural literalism as the only legitimate political authority. The latter were the Wahhabis of their time. The Abbasid regime initially favored the Mutazalites, but at the same time promoted the licenciousness in its court, forever equating reasoning and libertinism (sin) in the Muslim mind.

The caliphate persecuted the fundamentalists until, after several decades, public opinion in the realm came to strongly support them, and the tables were turned. Why was this? The caliph turned to the Shariah-minded for public support. While the fundamentalists preached their sermons to the public and taught their doctrines to eager students, the philosophers worked in solitude, translating Greek works but not educating the masses. What they accomplished spurred the intellectual development of the West, but was forgotten by all but a few in the East until much later. Thus ended the most illustrious period of the Baghdad Court, which is enshrined today in the minds of many Arab humanists as the highest expression of Islamic Civilization. To fundamentalist Muslims, the excesses of the Abbasids overshadow their scholarly, artistic, literary, and technological attainments. Today's Salafists (fundamentalists) believe that the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258 was divine retribution for the sins of an un-Islamic regime. They feel the same way about the Ottomans, and believe that today's Arab states will have a similar fate. They seek a return to what they imagine is pure Islam, unsullied by sinfulness, controlled by a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the law as it was ostensibly practiced by Muhammad in Medina.

So what we are actually seeing is conflict over how humankind ought to control our nature, for good or for bad. Since the Reformation, the West has increasingly been divided over whether individual liberty or material welfare should be the highest aim of politics. Since the Holocaust, the West has overwhelmingly rejected the notion that the Church and the State ought to be one. The state no longer makes any claim concerning its role in the spiritual condition of its people in this world or the next. Muslims, on the other hand, remain divided over how best to secure the eternal fate of the community. Should the State allow for religious freedom, or should it control the religious affairs of the ummah in this world, to guarantee their fate in the hereafter? Is heaven more important than this world? Or does what happen in this world matter when it comes to heaven? The Muslim world has not yet repudiated the quest for a universal state. Let us pray it will not take another Holocaust to convince them that they must.

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