10 April 2011

Islam Today Part 1: A Complex of Cultures

A common historical and geo-political error is to view cultures or movements in monolithic categories or terms. By oversimplifying there is a tendency toward sweeping generalization, wrong questions, and the obvious wrong answers.
In Cold War era geo-politics the most poignant example of this can be found in the Western assessment and interpretation of Communism. Only after the Sino-Soviet Split and a bit of reflection regarding Vietnam did American policymakers and advisors begin to grasp their error. Sadly the Korean and Vietnam Wars had already happened. But even the wisdom gained by the 1970's played out in D├ętente and Realpolitik was abandoned by the Reagan White House in the 1980's. Conservatives with their tendency to simplify the message, marketing ideological soundbites, in the end won the day, and right up until the end of the USSR, most Americans believed they had God on their side in the war against the Evil Empire. While no one laments the fall of that or any Evil Empire, those who claimed and still claim to have God on their side have learned nothing, and march on in blind ignorance, regardless of the domestic and international costs of their Sacralist wars and worldview.

If Orwell taught us that Power needs an enemy to help manipulate the masses, then when Soviet backed Communism fell we should have expected a new enemy to appear shortly thereafter. Those wielding Western Power needed a justification to continue expanding, and leaders have long known that fear is a powerful tool to help them to that end. It creates a malleable public practically begging the State to expand.

In the post-Cold War period, more than any other movement Islam has served in this capacity. To most in the West, and especially in the United States, Islam is viewed in monolithic terms. This is not only a historical error but one that plays prominently in public perceptions of the Middle East.

From our vantage point, we can easily see significant differences between not only the theologies of different Christian groups, but also significant cultural variation. We see for example a vast chasm between the culture of Great Britain versus that of Roman Catholic Italy and this is amplified when contrasted with Russia and Bulgaria. Beyond that there are a host of other groups which fall under the socio-cultural category of Christian. There are Chaldeans and Copts in Iraq and Egypt, as well as Armenians as well as various tribal forms of Christianity in Africa and East India. There are literally thousands of sects and sub-groups which all fall under this large umbrella known as Christianity. If Islamic commentators referred to Christians as people who support corporatism and militarism, there are many other "Christians" here in America and abroad who would violently disagree. If a commentator looking at Christians in the Third World suggested that all Christians were poor and lived in huts, Christians in North American and European contexts would rightly dismiss the commentator as one who doesn't know what he's talking about. It would be a terrible and very inaccurate generalization, and yet we in the West make such judgments on a daily basis, lumping the one billion plus Muslims into a universal category. They are no more united than Westerners are. Up until just recently, most of Western/European history has consisted of wars between 'Christian' peoples. The same is true in regard to Islam. They like 'Christians' have done their share of conquering, but they have never really been unified. They too have dreamed of Sacralized Monistic Society, but it has never come about. We know that when the Church accommodates itself to culture, it ends up being conquered. The same is largely true when it comes to experiments in Sacralism. Rather than find the key to Social Monism, they (whomever they may be) find the curse of Babel rearing its head. Ethnic and cultural divisions destroy the unity. It was true in Medieval Europe, the Islamic Middle East, and even with 20th century Communism, another movement meant to bring about an International Monistic Society. They all fail…thankfully. Though this may sound shocking, I would say the same for the Plutocratic/Corporatized Democracies, which of course as anyone knows are really democracies at all.

Due to Colonialization and its 20th century fallout, Christianity (speaking broadly) has spread over a larger geographical area than any other religion in history. But Islam is close behind in terms of variety. Like Christianity it can if necessary be grouped into large categories. I have condemned generalizing on a macro-level, but once we recognize the composite nature of any movement, for the sake of discussion we can speak of divisions and categories as long as we understand these are often composites in and of themselves.

A Western Example….

Take Christendom. We can speak of East and West, Orthodoxy and Catholicism. In the West we can speak of language groups and we can speak of Northern and Southern Europe. We speak of individual nations referring to people-groups, or we can speak of political entities. In Western Europe, or Northern Europe, we can speak of the British Isles and the culture they have produced. But even then we can further divide and speak of significant cultural differences between the English and the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish.

These differences might seem insignificant to someone from China, but to the people of Britain they are quite important. But even there we can further divide and contrast Glaswegians with Hebrideans. We can recognize differences between the folk of Essex versus the inhabitants of Cumbria. There are significant differences between the culture and attitudes found in the south of Wales versus the Roman Catholic Irish of Ulster. These peoples having some things in common have been shaped by history, geography, religion, and many other factors, leading to a multitude of small differences. The sum of these differences can lead to different values and social responses to different issues. These have to be taken into account if we're to understand what would motivate say the Irish to want to kill Lord Mountbatten or to bomb pubs in London. Would it be fair for a Bangladeshi observer to say…ah, all Christians are terrorists? No, it would be absurd.

The whole Irish issue must be understood in its context. There's a history, a story behind all that has happened that explains Irish extremism. I'm not commenting on the right or wrong of it, I'm merely saying that for someone else on the outside to make a sweeping generalization knowing nothing of the background is simply foolish. Are the issues between the Irish and English really about religion? Is it really the Catholic/Protestant divide that drives the conflict? Or is that merely part of the story? Anyone remotely familiar with the situation would say, it's complicated. Indeed it is. Is it any less when it comes to the Islamic world?

For example most have heard of the split between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims. This is an ancient division stemming from a dispute over descendancy from Muhammad their prophet over who would head the Caliphate, the kingdom (at that time unified) of Islam. Over time the differences increased and there have been many more divisions, particularly in the Shiite realm. There are some groups which sometimes are categorized as beyond what can even be considered Islam, though existing in the same cultural context, they are greatly affected by it. So as we might say Mormons are not Christians, you can't understand Mormonism apart from a Christian social context. The same is true in the Greater Muslim world. They too have a multitude of sects, Alevi, Ahl-e-Haqq, Yezidi, Alawite, Druze and Ismaili all fall short in some ways of what could be defined as mainstream Islam and yet they all require Islam as a backdrop in order to be understood.

Culturally speaking, three main streams can be identified. An oversimplification to be sure, but it’s a starting point.

The Arab or Arabian culture being the cradle of Islam in the 7th century has always exercised a strong influence on the entire Islamic world. The Quran is in Arabic, and the theological concepts are expressed in Arabic terms. Certain Arabic words have also by necessity entered into the vocabulary of all people within the Islamic pale. The values and culture of the pagan Arabs prior to Muhammad entered into Islam with some modification of course. Mohammad lived on the caravan routes in Arabia and is known to have had considerable contact with Jews, Nestorian Christians, and others.

In fact in the early day of the Islamic conquest it was viewed as a Christian heresy rather than a distinct religion. Mohammad claimed to be the Paraclete of John 14, and declared Jews and Christians people of the Book. But as the Christians had superseded the Jews, Islam superseded Christianity. A clever argument still used today. The words of Jesus were corrupted it was said, and very much like Liberal Theology of today, it is Paul of Tarsus who becomes the villain, creating a religion that Christ did not teach. They would argue Christ has been hijacked by Paul. Many in the mainline Churches and seminaries have a similar belief. They don't believe Jesus was a Prophet as the Muslims do. In their case, they reduce him to a mere man, unique, but ordinary.

The Muslims swept through the Byzantine world undoing the re-conquest of Justinian just a century before, subjecting the people to yet another generation of endless war. They pushed toward Constantinople right about the same time their North African flank was crossing the Pyrenees. More than any period, Europe or Christendom if you prefer, was under the threat. From two fronts, the seemingly uncontrollable wave of Muslim attackers assaulted the European continent.

Charles Martel of the Franks stopped them at Tours in 732 and they were also defeated at Constantinople. Europe was saved. Many today speak as if Christianity or the Gospel was under threat. This stems from a misidentification of the Church of Jesus Christ with a geo-political cultural entity. So, while I'll acknowledge Christendom was saved, I reject the theological notion that supports it. History is, what it is. I'm very interested in the story, but I have no interest in championing these or later wars in accordance with the recent fad in Protestant circles.

The Muslims also conquered the once impressive Sassanid Empire of Persia, a feat equally impressive to the vanquishing of Europe. Persia was forced to abandon their Zoroastrian and Zurvanist teachings and embrace Islam. But it must be remembered, the Persians had long possessed their own rather sophisticated culture, reaching back into remote antiquity. The Arabs were upstarts, primitives from the desert. The Persians had ruled empires, reigned over incredible cities and ruled lands from Egypt to India. Though converted to Islam, they remained solidly Persian and this is a recurring tension throughout the subsequent history and is very much an issue even today.

In the centuries following the Muslim conquest another people poured out of Central Asia, the Turks. Wielding the power of light cavalry, compound bows, and brilliant tactics they smashed both the Arab and Byzantine powers, and before long became a dominant force in the Middle East. As they migrated west, they adopted Islam, but already had a strong sense of identity and culture. Having no interest in shedding this, they resisted Arabization. Over the next several centuries they conquered the Byzantine Empire and through interbreeding and assimilation became the Turks of Turkey that we know today. Linguistically they are still tied with their cousins in Central Asia, the Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz. They became both Asiatic and the heirs of Byzantium. They are both Asiatic and European. That is their charm, the glory, and their curse.

The situation is further complicated by other groups like the Kurds who are divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria with smatterings throughout Trans-Caucasia. In the North Caucasus Islam takes another form among the Chechens, Ingush, Circassians and the various peoples of Dagestan.

The Kurds have fought everyone and been betrayed by everyone. They have their own languages and culture. The Turks often despise the Arabs and refer to them as dogs. The Arabs consider the Turks to be sub-Muslim. The Kurds are both respected and despised. The Persians are a complicated people looking back with pride, and forward with a sophistication and confidence that has long irritated their neighbours. The Arabs have become fabulously wealthy and view themselves as the custodians of Islam and in the case of Mecca and Medina they are literally. Everywhere the Arabs have settled and Arabization has occurred, there are underlying tensions and regional variations. Arabs live in Lebanon, but they're quite different from the Arabs of Egypt or those of Tunisia.

These are all generalizations of course. When I speak of Persians, we think of Iran, but even within Iran there are a host of different peoples. They may all be citizens of a country called Iran, but there are great differences between Baloch and Gilaki, Azeri and Kurd, Turcoman and Lur.

Turkey has strained relations with the Kurds and Armenians. Most of the Kurds are Muslims, but are reputed to 'wear it lightly.' In fact the Kurds (an absolutely fascinating people) are very diverse with Sunni, Shiite, Alevi, Yezidi, Yarsani, Jewish, and Christian populations. Kurds at one time allied with Armenians against the Turks and Armenians have long enemies with the Azerbaijani Turks or Turco-Tatars as they used to be called. The whole northwest of Iran was historically part of Azerbaijan and the people there are Turkish speaking Azeris. These tensions have sometimes created the seemingly implausible crypto-alliance between the 'christian' Armenians and the Shiite Persians.

The Turks until recently didn't get along with the Syrians. When the formal Turkish state was formed in the 1920's, they grabbed the region of Hatay which historically was Arabic and belonging to the region that was geographically and culturally continuous with Syria. Of course Syria and Lebanon are fictitious countries that were created by the French Mandate, just as Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and much of the Arabian peninsula were created under British influence. The Turks have damned up portions of the Euphrates angering Syria, leading them to look to Turkey's other regional rival Iran. Remember Iran has a large Turkish speaking population whose ethnic cousins are free just north of the border in autonomous Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan itself was split by the Persians and Russian in the 19th century.

Syria and Iran find not only a common foe in the Turks but in Israel as well. Syria lost the Golan Heights in 1967 and many of the Shiites of Lebanon and the Palestinian areas look to Iran as the leader of the world Shiite community.

Then in the middle of all this, you have the American backed Shah in the 1950's-70's standing contra Baathist Iraq. The Americans were supporting the Kurds in Iraq through the Shah, but then when the Shah started to have trouble with his own Kurdish population, they backed off and betrayed the Kurds.

Then when the Shah was overthrown and the United States looked to their former enemy, Iraq as a new friend, now the Iraqi Kurds were not only not supported, but were out of favour entirely. Post 1991, the Kurds in Iraq became heroic freedom fighters, while just across the border in NATO member Turkey's realm, the Kurds were nothing more than brutal terrorists.

Egypt and Jordan became American proxies and obviously the Saudis have long played a dangerous and duplicitous game. They've long acted as American clients and agents in the region, but at the same time they have surreptitiously supported the growth of Wahhabism. As the Middle East has slowly reared its head and shaken off the remnants of colonialism and its various proxy administrations, all too often this politicized version of paleo-Islam has proved a rallying point. Previously unknown in places like Pakistan and the Caucasus, it is becoming a major vehicle for the frustrated and angry youth of the Middle East.

To be continued....

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