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July 24, 2011

Brief historical overview of complexity/diversity of Islamic mosaic

By Arthur Scott 

What makes American understanding of what is happening in the Middle East and for that matter the world so difficult, often leading to erroneous national/policy conclusions, is the American penchant to reduce the complexity of peoples, cultures, states and religions into simplistic terms. Going back to the Puritans, the American mind set has been programmed to see things in black or white and to explain the world always within the American frame of good guys/bad guys, right/wrong, winners/losers. The United States did this during the Cold War and in Vietnam, missing splendid opportunities to be creative in diplomacy and in economic responses rather than relying exclusively on the sword. To offset the fallacy of reducio absurdum tendency, I offer this brief historical overview of just how complex the Middle East really is, and why it is essential to come to terms with its “Complexity” so that we can end the terrible human and material waste that has characterized the region since the 1970’s because of faulty historical assumptions/analyses by Washington leaders.     

Islam, as a cultural mosaic, is a challenging variety of languages, histories, and traditions.  In North Africa, there are the Berber tribesmen; in Western Africa, there are the Sudanese states of Ghana, Mali and Songhai; in the east, Zimbabwe has a large Muslim population.  Arabs inhabit the Gulf region; Iranians are in Persia; of the Afghan tribes, Pashtuns and Tajiks constitute 63 percent of the population. Farther east, there are Malays in Indonesia and the Muslim tribes of the Philippines.  

Each of those groups has a distinct history and culture. And over the last 500 years they've seen their way of life challenged by Western imperialism and colonialism. Since 1492, Muslims inhabiting the lands between 45 north latitude and the Tropic of Capricorn have perceived their way of life threatened by Western technology, science, and secularism.  Examples include the Spanish and Americans in the Philippines, the Dutch in Indonesia, the British in India-Pakistan, and the French and British in the Gulf region and North Africa.  Oil has become a major geopolitical factor increasing the West's presence in the Middle East. 

Today's Middle Eastern map is the result of the actions of European diplomats who, at Versailles in 1919, carved the region into mandates to meet their own needs rather than the needs of the peoples who lived there.  When it was all over, the British acquired Iraq, Tran Jordan, and Palestine; the French got Syria and Lebanon.  Unfortunately, peoples like the Kurds were totally ignored - their aspirations for an independent Kurdistan were never acknowledged.  The Kurds, Indo-European/Sunna, today are a people without a country and find themselves scattered across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.  In addition, following World War I, the Great Powers established puppet constitutional monarchial regimes to do their bidding. 

Since World War II, the pro-Western secular regimes have either fallen or have been changed by powerful forces including first nationalism/secularism a la Nasser and then by religious revival including “fundamentalism”, extreme expression of the Islamic resurgence.  Islamic resurgence can be dated with a series of critical events:  

  • the energy crisis of the 1970s, which led to the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
  • the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979 and his establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state
  • Iraq-Iran War in the 80’s between Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini ending in a draw
  • Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the  late 70’s mobilizing the Mujahedeen freedom fighters consisting in part of Osama bin Laden/Taliban who saw themselves as jihadists fundamentalists
  • Intensified in the 90’s by the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs in the Balkans and Russian destruction of the Chechnya capital of Grozny

These political events signaled a shift in the relationship between the West and Islam. They restored confidence and pride to Muslims who for centuries felt that they were on the defensive against Western impact. They were inspired to recover their history, culture, and religion.  

Basic tenets of Islamic resurgence include:   

  • a more critical acceptance of Western technology and science
  • a rejection of Western materialism and globalism
  • a return to the Five Pillars of Islam (belief in one God, prayer, pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting, and charitable giving)
  • wearing traditional Islamic dress, especially the veil in the name of sexual modesty
  • a jurisprudence based upon the teachings of the Shariah (Islamic law manifested in civil and other forms of jurisprudence)

Politically, Islamic resurgence runs the gamut from fundamentalist regimes in Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan to conservative and liberal monarchies in the Gulf region, to the more secular, militaristic, and authoritarian regimes of Libya and Pakistan and those who are struggling with democratic currents including Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Turkey. All governments have had to make concessions to the growing popularity of “Islamic Resurgence” including Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki as he attempts to reconcile the Shiia majority and the Sunni minority into a cohesive whole after horrific sectarian violence engendered by the American invasion/occupation.  

“Islamic Resurgence” is a largely middle class/intelligentsia movement that attracts university students, professionals at every level, civil servants, merchants, traders, and bankers.  For example, Ayman Zawahiri, a principal figure with Al-Qaida, is an Egyptian physician who founded the Islamic Jihad. This   group known as “Islamic Brotherhood” was implicated in the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Rural, traditional people who have migrated to cities are also attracted to “Islamic Resurgence”.  Hezbollah in Lebanon has established important networks that address the religious, medical, and educational needs of the urban/rural poor as did Hamas in Gaza.  In Istanbul, Turkey, mu’mins (those of faith) educated in elite Western Universities successfully challenged the monopoly of the military/secularism under the leadership of a democratic reformer, Recep Tayyip Erdogan,  with Islamic sympathies, who in 2002 led his Justice and Development Party to victory.  At present the Turkish high court is struggling over a suit levied by women students to wear the hijab while attending the University. 

One issue that has not played well in the Islamic World is the Palestinian crisis.  This conflict started with the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, intensified with the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat in 1974, and came to a head with the Intifada (uprising) movement of 1987/2000.  Under American auspices, the last decade and a half have witnessed a torturous peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians marked by terrorism, assassinations, massacres, setbacks, and broken promises.  A final agreement today remains elusive.

 U.S. involvement in the peace process is seen by most of the Muslim world as more favorable to the Israelis.  This anti-U.S. attitude as reported by “Al Jazzera” has deepened with America's continuous military assistance to Saudi Arabia.  Compounding Arab fundamentalists’ hostility was the American 5year embargo on Iraq, which was implemented in 1991, which took a terrible toll on the civilian population.  Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida exploited these U.S. actions to justify a war of terrorism against the "infidel" United States, leading to the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 that plunged the world into its first major conflict of the twenty-first century. 

Unfortunately 9/11 has triggered many popular misconceptions about Muslims: first they are violent terrorists when in point of fact only 1% of total Muslim population can be so classified.  Another popular myth is that Islam oppresses women.  Again this is untrue.  Islam teaches that men and women are equal before Allah; a woman must consent to marriage and has control over her mind/body as well as over money/property.  Injustices against women are culturally bound as reflected by the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Ironically Muslim nations have produced more women Presidents/Prime Ministers than in America.  Tansu Ciller of Turkey and Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia are women leaders in largely Islamic countries; Pakistan was on verge of seeing Benazir Bhutto return to power before her assassination in 2008.  Even in revolution-torn Algeria, significant gains are being made by women in education and employment so that a woman in a hijab can drive a taxi to make a living. 

As detailed in this very brief historical survey, the Middle East can hardly be described as a monolith.  One of the best books on the theme of Islamic complexity is Vartan Gregorian’s Islam: A Mosaic, Not A Monolith, which I use in my classes.  Middle East complexity is today being played out by what we in the West call “The Arab Spring”.  Predictably, each Arab country as it struggles for “democratic reform,” has to do so within the context of its geography, history, culture, religion, resources and political legacies.  The Syrian state is a classical example of great complexity; ethnically it consists of 90% Arabs, 7% Kurds, 4% Assyrians/Syrians and 2 % Armenians.  Religiously it’s comprised of 74% Sunni Muslim, Alawite 12%, Druze 3%, other Muslims 1 % and a sizeable Christian population of 10%.  My next article on Syria will look at its religious diversity and the political implications of such on transforming Syria and its geopolitical consequence on the Gulf Region.

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies