Since the events of September 11th 2001, the Middle East and the Islamic religion have been at the forefront of Western thought. This interest has led to a war on terror, heightened security measures throughout the world and a dramatic increase in racial profiling. Often labelled as terrorists, fundamentalists and militants, Muslims have become possibly the most misunderstood group of people today. Over the next three weeks, Gauntlet writer Sarah Malik examines the history of Islam, the evolution of Islamic militancy, the effect of outside forces on the Middle East and what the future holds for Muslims. This week topics such as Hamas, the Palestinian exodus and American foreign policy are examined.
I speak of desert without repose
Yellow as death
Wrinkled like parchment
Face turned to the sun
Surviving a hurricane off Tunis-the waters so rough and treacherous he had to be lashed to the ship's wheel-Edward William Lane sailed into Egyptian waters and encountered the Mohammadans in 1825.
"The first sight that met his eyes was singularly impressive," writes Lane's grand-nephew, Stanley Lane-Poole. "It was the time of afternoon prayers [jum'aa], and the chant of the mueddin had just ceased."
The Mohammadans, as many Westerners of the era incorrectly called the Muslims, were purifying themselves in the sea and submitting to Allah in salah, or prayer, on the sand.
Lane was disappointed at first by Egypt, not finding it "Eastern" enough. He found instead what Lane-Poole called a "bastard Paris." When he stepped onto the golden sand, the Pasha Mohammad Ali, who was impressed with Napoleon Bonaparte, was hard at work modernizing and industrializing his country.
Unlike Europe at large which had been coming "almost since the time of Homer," according to Edward Said, to overpower, use and rule the Muslim lands, Lane wanted to understand the Oriental world.
"I was to adopt [the Egyptian's] language, their customs, and their dress," he wrote in his journal.
He took on the Arab name Mansur Effendi and devoted the last three decades of his life to constructing a monument of the Mohammadans he had met and lived amongst, a massive lexicon about the Arabs.
The Near East of Lane's nostalgic fantasies erupted in nationalistic rage a few years after he died in 1876. The Orient that had fascinated Europe modernized and radicalized, demanding independence from the English and French. The early nationalism was secular, bursting into popular anti-Western movements and revolutions when the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, promised Sherif Husayn Arab independence but abrogated that pledge. These movements took many forms: in Turkey with the Young Turks, in Iran with Reza Shah Pehlavi, in Egypt with Colonel Arabi, Saad Zaghlul, the Wafd and National Front parties.
Pan-Arabism has been institutionalized in the Islamic religion, though the concept of ummah (community) is not specific to race or ethnicity and instead tightly binds together all believers. Muslims often refer to each other as brother or sister; all, theoretically at least, are members of a global dar al-Islam (House of Islam). This nationalism found a permanent home in poetry. Modern ghazals, or love songs, are intense in their ode to the poet's homeland. The nationalist longing is not just for independence, but praise for pan-Arab unity in the face of imperial intervention. According to post-colonial theorist Edward Said, the former colonial powers passed on the baton of Oriental domination to the Americans after World War II, allowing the United States to continue in the same cultural and ideological manner as the British and French had.
In nearly every case in the early 20th century, secular nationalist heroes became ghosts. To sum up the continuing plight of the Middle East into a couple of sentences would be to fall into the same trap of simplification that has led to Western misunderstanding of the people of the Middle East. Generally speaking though, oppression soon followed the secular nationalism. People, lacking civil and legal structures, turned to the mosque-the one institution infiltrating every aspect of life but lacking the power to oppress. True sovereignty remained elusive when the British, French and then Americans retained their exploitation of Oriental lands. Secularism failed when Israel was created despite unanimous Mideastern protest and when it didn't offer a coherent strategy once independence was achieved. Islamic militancy was born due to the sum of these facts, and oppression at the local and the international level continues. This oppression is justified by the facts of Islamist terrorism and America's two goals-according to Gilles Kepel in The War for Muslim Minds-of ensuring a stable supply of oil and maintaining Israel's security.
The descent into Islamic extremism along with the popularity, and the danger, of Islamist militancy is typical in every Muslim country. Hamas-while struggling schizophrenically between identifying itself as a government and as a resistance movement-enjoys support among welfare societies, clinics and schools. When Yasser Arafat supported Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, he lost the support of the rich Gulf countries and the petroleum riches were directed to Hamas, which acted as a challenge to Arafat's secular Fatah party, offering urgent social services Arafat was no longer able to.
Palestinians and others again flocked to Hamas' unyielding side when Arafat yielded to the 1993 Oslo Accords, recognizing Israel, and imposing on the people a "peace" that to the four million Palestinian refugees meant only that they could never return to their homes in Israel proper. This added to the collective material and ontological despair already afflicting the people due to the Israeli Absentee Property Law, which allowed the Israeli state to claim the property of refugees who had been forced from their homes with the creation of Israel in 1948.
The Palestinian exodus weighs heavily on Muslim consciousness, reflected in the term Nakba given to the event, meaning catastrophe. According to University of Calgary political scientist Dr. Tareq Ismael, the 1922 census shows that Arabs accounted for 90 per cent of the population in what is now Israel. At the time of the Balfour Declaration, less than 10 per cent was Jewish. Thus, nearly all of Israel's land was not so long ago Arab land.
Arafat won the Nobel Prize in 1994 for his efforts toward achieving peace in the Middle East, but his role in securing the Oslo Accords meant Israel wouldn't be forced to address the asymmetry in deaths and abuse.
"The IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] distributed truncheons to its troops and encouraged them to break the bones of Palestinian protestors," wrote academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, noting in the first intifada from 1987 to 1990, the Swedish branch of Save the Children found that around 25,000 Palestinian children required medical treatment.
Mearsheimer and Walt said that for every Israeli child killed, 5.7 Palestinian children lost their lives. Later, after the second intifada, the Israeli paper Ha'aretz called the IDF a "killing machine."
No matter. If Arafat couldn't secure justice for the families and civilian victims, Hamas promised justice would become a street side business. Hamas is still defined as a terrorist organization in the West's dictionary, though one senior Israeli military official said in a recent issue of Vanity Fair that current Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was the best choice for Palestinian Authority leadership.
Pick someone from the battered Salah E-Din Street in Gaza and they are likely to tell you Haniyeh was never allowed the chance to better the Palestinian territories and build up a new, acceptable identity for Hamas as a governing organization. The West can refute this, but to the Palestinians it has become a great source of impotent frustration. As it turns out, the renewed poverty of the Palestinian territories is likely to combine noxiously with renewed anti-Israeli sentiment and lead to greater suicide bombing. Emmanuel Sivan, professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, pointed out that Hamas is largely composed of teenage, urban males who are attracted to the organization by an unemployment rate of 50 per cent among young men.
Want to witness an amazing matter?
Set me free, and see how often God I flatter.
"One could interpret this as a triumph of extremism," wrote William Arkin in The Washington Post, explaining the popularity of Islamist militancy. "A more accurate portrayal is that it is the natural product of failed states. It is the people's hope, that something-anything-will replace their governments
and provide opportunity and identity that is not McDonald's."
Arkin thus dashes the assumption Muslims in the Middle East are somehow attuned to the 'inferior' Islamic extremism while people in the West are similarly drawn naturally to the 'superior' system of democracy. The American rhetoric of bringing democracy to the Middle East assumes the locals don't understand democracy. Thus, democracy, despite its denotation, must be ironically imposed on a passive population who without Western help would never think to strive toward it. This reaffirms the very passivity neutering the population. Leo Strauss-the intellectual well from which U.S. contemporary neoconservatives like Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and others sprung-portrayed in his work a profound pessimism about the common man. To Strauss, man is impressionable and weak. In Strauss' vision, leadership can, and should, use secrecy, deception and force.
This American methodology is virtually the same as that of the tyrannical Mideastern regimes who have a legacy of imposing their will on a population they paint as an ignorant, mindless mass. This is ironically similar to al-Qaeda ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri's referral to people as passive and slothful in Knights under the Prophet's Banner.
"The jihadist movement must move toward the masses, defend their honor, prevent injustice, and guide them along the path leading to victory," he wrote.
The commonality between the three is a Machiavellian methodology most dangerous in the hands of the Mideastern and American governments, for they hold the real, lasting power.
Arkin's point finds evidence in Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution. With the hard hand of the state coming down on the people under Reza Shah, his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and SAVAK, the secret police, opposition was castrated and the mosque remained the only empowering outlet of frustration. In this claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone was closely watched, the mullah became the social worker, the soapbox on which frustration found expression and the only liaison between the state and the people. The mullah was prominent because of the khutba-the lecture given at prayer time addressing, among other things, current and correct politics. Most appealing of all, the mullah's solution is indigenous. In this atmosphere, it was logical and facile to believe in a black and white, cosmic unfolding as promised by the Shia ideology.
Thus, everywhere in the Middle East, the primary order of the day for the near-ubiquitous Islamist terrorist is not the enraged desire to obliterate the West with the most macabre street theater possible, but the legitimate goal of replacing the local governments holding their people by the throat. The primary enduring and most important obsession is the "near enemy," yet the "faraway enemy" (Al-Zawahiri's terms) has been made the subject of worldwide attention, effectively making the future of the Muslim secondary-and therefore less important-to the safety of the West.
This is a fact, considering terrorism as a Western everyday concern is nascent, but Middle Eastern states have been oppressing their citizens to choke Islamist militancy since at least 1928 when the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in Egypt. As President, Syria's Hafez al-Assad killed between 10,000 to 25,000 people in Hama in 1982 in an effort to rid Syria of the Muslim Brotherhood. The crime was soon forgotten when al-Assad strategically supported the coalition forces in the Gulf War and the U.S. bestowed its goodwill on the government.
The British, French and Americans have supported despotic, totalitarian governments and overthrown popular ones. The Muslim Brotherhood claims it became militant because the state barred it from legitimate politics. Osama bin Laden would perhaps adopt similar reasoning.
"It's always been hard for me to understand how we can say people who support [him]-who are willing to give their lives to destroy the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia-how we can describe those people as people who hated freedom," said CIA agent Michael Scheuer, who was in charge of the group instructed to find Osama Bin Laden.
Again Iran is an excellent case study. Oil was discovered in southern Iran at the turn of the twentieth century. To capitalize on the discovery, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was established, cementing a partnership between the Persian Shah and the English government. England acquired a 51 per cent share in the company, but in reality only one per cent of the revenue from oil production stayed in Persia (the country's name would change to Iran under Reza Shah). Nationalists capitalized on citizens' anger over the inequality, expressed in mass demonstrations, and in 1951 Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh of the Jebhe Melli party came to power as Prime Minister of Iran with a popular platform promising nationalization of the oil company and lasting democracy. Despite winning a majority of votes, he was a threat to U.S. interests in the region and was removed from power in 1953 by an American and British-funded military coup d'etat. Under the reinstated regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, which the U.S. supported, the Majlis (parliament) was castrated until all power came to rest in the hands of the Shah, despised by the public for allowing American oil companies to control 40 per cent of Iran's oil supply.
"Modern Iran has produced few figures of Mossadegh's stature," Stephen Kinzer wrote in Overthrow: America's Centuries of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.
Mossadegh was Time Man of the Year in 1951 and on Jan. 7 1952, the magazine called him "the most world-renowned man his ancient race has produced for centuries." Mossadegh's overthrow left a legacy of Iranian hostility.
"No 20th century event has fueled Iran's suspicion of the United States as his overthrow has," wrote Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times. "The Mossadegh cult has been revitalized by resurgent nationalism and frustration with the strictures of Islam. Dr. Mossadegh inspires the young, who long for heroes and have not necessarily found them, either in clerics or kings."
Khordad, a local daily paper, referred to him as a "symbol of the struggle of the Iranian people throughout history against colonialism."
With negatively-perceived American-led intervention in the Middle East, terrorism has become an odd mixture of anti-Western nationalist sentiment and the fight against the "near enemy," or desire for a Shariah state, driven by the common Middle Eastern problems of overpopulation, unemployment and inequality in riches. Under Western state microscopes, though, all terrorists are equal, and all Muslims are suspect.