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The Middle East Conundrum

Review By Jane M. McCabe
Dreams and Shadows—the Future of the Middle East
By Robin Wright
464 pp. The Penguin Press. 2008, $26.95


During the 1970’s I attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. There I developed an interest in Islam and have studied it ever since. In 1996, I purchased a Koran and diligently studied it verse by verse, surah by surah, comparing various passages to their biblical counterparts. In 2001, I published a book on religion called Revelation! The Single Story of Divine Prophecy to Abraham and His Descendants—the Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Its lengthy sub-title is not as happenstance as it might sound, as all three of the great monotheistic religions of the world claim Abraham as their father. He lived around 2000 bc, migrating from Ur in present-day Iraq to present-day Israel. He was the father of both Ishmael, from whom the Arab people are descendant, and of Isaac, from whom the ancient Hebrews and thus the Jewish people are descendant. Both are races of Semites. Because of this, I think of the Jews and Arabs as cousins, long-lost cousins, who share the same ancestor.

Christianity emerged from Judaism in the first Century ad and spread to the surrounding gentile nations. Christians also claim Abraham as their father but in a spiritual rather than a biological sense.

The Koran tells of Abraham and Ishmael building the Kaaba in Mecca and of Ishmael handing the black stone to Abraham to place in its niche there. The Bible neither confirms nor denies this.

Though it may be naïve of me I reason that since the Jews and Arabs are long-lost cousins, so to speak, if they would acknowledge their common paternity, tensions might lessen.

I think of the Jews, Christians and Muslims as three brothers—the Jews the oldest, the Christians the middle son, and the Muslims the youngest.

Islam did not emerge until the 7th Century ad—when the Prophet Mohammed received Revelations in a cave near Mecca, the recitation of which were compiled into the Koran.

When Mohammed died in 632 ad he designated no heir to lead the small community of Muslims residing in Medina. Immediately a dispute arose among them that has haunted Islam ever since. Some felt that their leader should be Mohammed’s closest living male relative, which would have meant the mantle of Islam would have fallen to his son-in-law Ali. The prevailing group wanted their leader to be elected by the community. The first three caliphs were elected democratically. The breach among them has divided Muslims ever since.

Shiite means “follower of Ali.” In the greatest schism ever within Islam, the Shiites broke away within 30 years of the Prophet’s death. Ali eventually became the fourth caliph, but after his murder in 661, the issue of political succession again arose. The Shiites wanted Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson to be caliph, but the more numerous Sunnis wanted to pick again from outside the family. A battle ensued near Karbala in today’s Iraq, in which Hussein was brutally murdered by Ummayad troops. He thus became the supreme Shiite martyr. Each year on the anniversary of his death, Shiites reenact his struggle during the ten days of Ashura.

Why mention this? It's because animosity between Sunni and shiites is still germane today. Without this understanding one cannot understand the Middle East, where most countries are Sunni, but southern Lebanon, southern Iraq, and Iran are Shiite. If you wonder why the war in Iraq has waged senselessly for the five past years, it’s because Sunni Baath party, a minority, controlled the country under Saddam Hussein. Once the country was "liberated" and democracy imposed, the Shiite majority gained p;ower, setting off waves of reprisals.

I am encouraged by reading Robin Wright’s Dreams and Shadows. Ms. Wright strikes an optimistic note in her introduction:

“Islamic extremism is no longer the most important, interesting or dynamic force in the Middle East…Regimes have been forced to adopt the language of democracy whatever their real intentions or conniving to prevent it…activists [are] now trying to hold them to account…The new momentum has spurred talk of mahda (Arabic for “awakening,” or “renaissance”.

The challenge of change today is tougher than anywhere else in the world…The region has the largest proportion of ruling monarchies (eight) and family political dynasties (four) in the world…Democracy unleashes existential dilemmas.”

A major engine of change is young people hungering to be part of the modern world. Information technology provides access to the outside world as never before. Satellite television means that the news cannot be controlled by local governments. Greater exposure is helping to inform and change public attitudes. The osmosis of globalization has spurned a rich discourse in democracy and other ideas.

“The Middle East has already gone through enormous change. In the 20th Century, three pivotal events redefined the region. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Middle East for five centuries, redrew (actually, it was the Balfour Declaration that redrew the map) and gave birth to modern states after World War I. The creation of Israel in 1948 changed the region’s political dynamics and spawned the world’s longest conflict. (1948 was also the year the United Nations was established.) The 1979 Iranian revolution introduced Islam as an alternative political idiom.”

Ms. Wright is a reliable guide to current Middle Eastern politics, as complicated and contradictory as they are. An American, she first landed in Beirut in 1973 during the outbreak of the civil war. During the next 30 years she lived in and traveled throughout the region, often to visit heads of state or dissidents who have been influencing events. She covered the Shah of Iran and the revolution that ousted him, Yasser Arafat, as the world’s most notorious terrorist of the 1980’s, the Palestinian-Israeli peace accord during the 1990’s, Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran in the 1980’s and with Kuwait in the 1990’s. She has traveled with Secretaries of State—Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright and Condoleeza Rice.

In the introduction she says, “This is a book about disparate experiments with empowerment in the world’s most troubled region. My goal was to probe deep inside societies of (the?) Middle East for the emerging ideas and players that are changing the political environment in ways that will unfold for decades to come.”

THE PALESTINIANS

When Zionists captured Palestine in 1948 thousands of Palestinians fled to neighboring countries. Others were quarantined either on the West Bank or Gaza strip, thus sparking the hostility that has dominated the political landscape since. Because of Israel’s tiny size and strategic location giving the Palestinians their own homeland has proved almost impossible.

Of interest is that 1948 is also the year when the United Nations was established, BECAUSE only when there was a collective body of nations who would protest if one nation infringed on another could the ancient law of those who conquer rule could be challenged. The Israeli takeover of Palestine is arguably the last time one nation could take land from another without outside protest. When Saddam Hussein overran Kuwait in 1990 it set off a storm of protest at the UN. It bears saying that the boundaries for nations in the Middle East, as they were in Africa after the colonists left, were artificially drawn by Westerners after World War I.

The Palestinians were so over-whelmed by Israelis technological and economical superiority that for many years they were helpless victims of this coup. Initial protests were little more than bands of disaffected youth throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. Then in the 1980’s along came Yasser Arafat who emboldened the Palestinian Liberation Army and established Fatah as its military wing.

There are two Palestine’s today, and they are very different from one another. Fatah controls the West Bank with Ramallah as its capital, and Hamas controls Gaza. Arafat’s government is considered to be corrupt. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (more about them later) and emerged as a credible political and security alternative to Fatah’s long standing dominance.

Recently, Israeli invaded Gaza, a small strip of land on the Mediterranean, where there is already extreme poverty and high unemployment, in response to Hamas’ lobbing rockets into Israel. Hamas’ charter gives reason for Israel to protect herself: it echoes the PLO’s original covenant pledge to obliterate her. Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin says, “Martyrdom operations are the result of Jewish Nazism.”

Egypt is the heart and intellectual center of the Arab world. Since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1980 it has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak, whose regime has continually imprisoned and tortured dissidents. Now, however, once passive individuals, particularly women, are daring to become whistle-blowers.

Actually, since the early part of the 20th Century (after Egypt achieved independence from Great Britain) there were those who advocated governing according to the precepts of the Sharia, namely Hassan al Bana, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and Sayyid Qutb. Qutb’s writing has inspired countless Muslims world-wide.

The Muslim Brotherhood is arguably the most effective political movement in the Middle East. Their creed can be best summed up as “Islam is the solution,” yet they seem to understand the pragmatic realities of the 21st Century. After a devastating earthquake in Cairo in 1992, the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups were the first to respond with food, blankets, and welfare for thousands left homeless. Engineers put up temporary shelters; medical staff treated the injured. The Ikhwan also gave a thousand dollars to each family to rebuild. The government’s reaction, like here after Katrinna, was belated and limited.

Their support among Egyptians is such that if there were a truly democratic election instead of the farces that Mubarak orchestrates, the Muslim Brotherhood would most likely win, and it would establish the Sharia as the basis for government, something the United States, for all its talk about democracy being the answer, wouldn’t be happy to see happen.

In 1954 President Nasser charged the Brotherhood was trying to assassinate him and jailed thousands of it members. Among those jailed was Sayyid Qutb, the most influential ideologue that the Brotherhood has ever produced. Qutb was radicalized in the United States in the early 1950’s when he was dispatched to a small teachers’ college in Colorado. The American experience repelled Qutb because of what he viewed as its excesses and materialism. “Humanity makes the greatest of errors and risks losing its account of morals,” quipped Qutb (couldn’t resist that one) “if it makes America its example.” My God! If Qutb already ascertained the materialism of American culture in the 1950’s, what would he have thought of the 1990’s and of the current financial crisis due to greed?

In his book Milestones, Qutb calls on the faithful to topple illegitimate regimes and create pure Islamic states to free mankind “from every authority except that of God.” In 1966 he was hanged for treason, but his legacy is scarily enduring, as he influenced Zawahiri, Khomeini, and indirectly Osama bin Laden.

Recently Egyptian women have formed organizations to monitor fraudulent elections. The name of one is We’re Watching You!

LEBANON has been called the Switzerland of the Middle East. Its population is the most diverse of any Middle Eastern country, comprised of Christians—Maronites and Catholics; Muslims—Shiites and Sunnis, Druzes and Armenians. As such, it is a maelstrom of diversity, but in the 1070’s the various forces erupted into a civil war that tore the country apart and destroyed much of Beirut, the capital. Things were further complicated by Israeli incursions when Yasser Arafat’s PLO made its home in the southern part of the country.

Thomas Friedman made his career as a journalist and spokesperson on Middle Eastern affairs with his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem. In it he tells not only of the ravages caused by the October, 1983, bomb explosion at Beirut’s International Airport, which killed thousands of Americans, but of Syria’s hold on Lebanon. From it I learned that Syria’s president Hafez al Assad sent troops to kill his own people in Hama when they dared to oppose him.

The Lebanese people hold the Syrian government responsible for the 2008 Valentine’s Day assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a politician who did more to help Lebanon’s flagging economy than any other. Hariri’s assassination not only turned him into a martyr, it has become the rallying cry for millions who insist on their independence from Syrian domination.

Shiites control southern Lebanon’s suburbs (dahiya) and from them has arisen Hezbollah (“Party of God”) and a leader by the name of Skeikh Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah has been able to accomplish things Arafat and others could not, namely forcing the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. After Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in 2006 raid into Israel it prompted another Israeli invasion. A year later the Israeli army was still in southern Lebanon and Olmert’s plummeted to less than three percent. Nasrallah produced what three generations of Arabs have yearned for: military effectiveness. When Israeli forces withdrew his popularity soared—he has been called “The Hawk of Lebanon.”

SYRIA is the most medieval of any Middle Eastern country, a country whose leaders cling to draconian, Soviet-style repression to quell dissidence. Despite Syria’s strategic and historical importance (home to the Umayyad mosque built in the 7th Century, crossroads for trade) it remains one of the least modern of Middle Eastern countries. This is because of the iron grip of its previous president, Hafez al Assad, whom Henry Kissinger called the “shrewdest Arab leader.” When Assad died in 1999 his son Bashar assumed the throne. He promised reform and is of a milder temperament than his father, however, alas, when his regime is challenged he resorts to his father’s methods. The clan has been compared to the Corelone family in The Godfather.

Yet the Syrians love to debate and has many reformers. Before Bashar clamped down there was talk of “The Damascus Spring.” They urge change but the change they desire may have to wait until the Assad’s are deposed. Thousands of Iraqis fled into Syria as violence in Iraq escalated. The regime’s biggest critic is a man by the name of Riad al Turk, who has spent the greater part of his life in prison yet still has the courage to speak out.

IRAN is perhaps the most interesting of Muslim countries. I say Muslim rather than Arab because the people of Iran and Iraq are not Arabs but the descendants of the ancient Persians, who were the most powerful people on earth in the millennium before the birth of Christ. Alexander the Great invaded and brought Persia under subjugation in 330 bc. Persia gave birth to Zoroastrianism, a precursor to Christianity. Muslim armies took over the area in the 7th Century, the Mongols under Genghis Kahn in the 12th Century, and following them Tamberlane.

Baghdad was a center of science and culture in the 10th Century. The character of the Persians is considerably different from that of austere Arabs—they are gregarious, artistic, and pleasure and debate loving.

Ms Wright begins her second chapter on Iran by using Teheran’s irreverent, free-for-all traffic as a metaphor for Iranian politics. Western perceptions of a country are often monolithic when in fact it often contains considerable diversity; in no country is this truer than in Iran, where the society is split between the reactionary clerics and progressive thinking youth and intellectuals. The pendulum of powers swings between these two opposites.

This review is very difficult for me to write, simply because of the surfeit of information contained in each chapter. After having carefully read it, when I went back to gather the information I wanted to present, many chapters were a blur in my mind. So, rather than recount all the presidents Iran has had since the 1979 revolution after the Shah was deposed that brought Khomeini to power, let me focus on just two men, Abdolkarim Soroush (because he’s after my own heart) and Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejah, the dark-horse major of Teheran who beat the sophisticated, demure Ali Akbar Hashemi Rajsanjani (I could go around all day saying his name because it’s so euphonious) in Iran’s 2005 presidential election, another example of the pendulum swinging back to the puritanical, conservative camp. The skinny short man with a populist economic message appealed to Iranians made poorer by the revolution. Soroush is a reformer who says, “The essence of religion will always be sacred, but its interpretation by fallible human beings is not sacred—and therefore it can be criticized, modified, refined, and redefined.” Soroush argues that there is no single right path in Islam—and no single right religion. “…I’m trying to say that Christians and members of other religions are well guided and good servants of God.”

Readers may recall Ahmadinejah’s visit in 2007 to the United States to address the United Nations and where he gave a speech at Columbian University. He had already offended Jews by denying the Holocaust and by saying Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth. When confronted by the indignant president of the university, the skinny, five foot, four inch little man who favors wearing clothes that make him indistinguishable from a street sweeper, reprimanded the president for his lack of graciousness to a guest.

All of this might be amusing were it not that now Iran has been elevated to foremost enemy of the United States, because of its uranium enrichment program and the fear it intends to develop a nuclear bomb.

Ahmadinejah warns that the United States has lost its way and alienated the entire Muslim world. In a televised interview he opined that our current economic crisis is the beginning of the fall of Western civilization.

MOROCCO is another Middle Eastern country still controlled by a monarchy, although in 1999 when, following the death of his father Hassan II, Mohammed VI assumed the throne, initially it seems as though his would be a more lenient reign than the 38-year reign of his father. In Egypt and Syria, one a ruling dynasties, the other a monarchy, leaders may talk the democratic talk but they are reluctant to relinquish power. When the voices of dissidents become too vociferous they resort again to jailing and torturing those who oppose them.

You’ll just have to read the book if you want all the information Ms. Wright imparts, as it’s impossible for this reviewer to give you much more than a taste of its contents.

Some Moroccan women have become spokesmen for women’s rights. I read Fatima Mernissi’s memoir, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, in which she tells of her mother’s longing to escape beyond the confines of the hudud (sacred fortress) where she was restricted to the women’s quarters along with her husband’s other wives, sisters, cousins, grandmothers, and children, to be let out only on religious holidays when they had to be veiled and accompanied by a male family member.

Fatima’s mother dream was fulfilled in her. Her mother persuaded her father to send her to school. She was then allowed to go to college, to the Sorbonne in Paris for graduate work, and obtained her doctorate from Brandeis University, where she wrote her doctorate on harem life and how to break out of it.

Mernissi maintains that practices discriminating against women are misinterpretations of the Koran, which has many verses supporting women’s rights. The first convert to Islam was Khadija, a prominent business woman who ran a caravan trade across the Middle East. She hired Mohammed, eventually proposed marriage to him. After his Revelations she became the first Muslim convert. His third wife Aisha provided one forth of the hadiths, or traditions still considered authoritative in guiding Muslims. Islam’s core egalitarian values, she believes, are the best vehicle for change.

"Equality isn't a foreign idea (neither is democracy) and doesn't need to be imported from other cultures. It is at the heart of Islam. Allah spoke of the two sexes in terms of total equality as believers.”

This statement reminds me of a verse from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

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