Saturday, April 26, 2003

Israel as Islam in microcosm
Another tidbit I picked up from Lewis: Israel is a real puzzle, an infuriating, inexplicable conundrum for Muslim intellectuals. For millennia, since the Diaspora in about 70 A.D, Jews have lived in the Middle East and other lands that in the seventh through tenth centuries became Islamic. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many more came to live in the Middle East and North Africa. The status of the Jew was laid out in the Koran, along with that of other unbelievers. They were generally tolerated, although nowhere did they have as many or as secure rights as Muslims. Jews continued to live alongside Muslims until the establishment of Israel in 1948. Then, most were expelled from Islamic lands like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Libya, among many others. This movement of over a million Jews can be seen as the mirror image of the Palestinian "Naqba", when, for whatever reasons (I'm not getting into all that!) many Arabs who had lived in what is now Israel left. Other Jews, of course, came from Europe to Israel.
The frustrating fact for the Arab intellectual is that when the Jews who for millennia had lived in the Islamic world came to Israel, they prospered on the whole as well as the Jews from the West. And even the over a million Arabs who stayed in Israel did much better than their brethren who left and went to UN-sponsored terrorist nests in the West Bank and Gaza or to other Islamic lands. So it isn't contact with Islam, growing up in an Islamic society, race or religion that makes Islam so poor compared to the shining city on a hill that, despite the best efforts of the terrorists, Israel has become. It's not being in the Middle East, or being persecuted by the West - who was more persecuted than the Jews by Europeans? Judaism had been regarded with "contempt", Lewis says, by the Islamic world, even though the faith followed and provided much of the tradition of Islam. It just wasn't as developed as Mohammedanism. Mohammed as the "last prophet" had gone beyond Moses, Abraham and especially Jesus and had brought religion to its final perfection. So why then does the Islamic world seem powerless today? In Israel the West and the East had met and successfully synthesized a powerful and wealthy society, based on a religion chastised by Mohammed as imperfect! Why could the same process not work in Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq? Perhaps it can. Perhaps the Islamic world's mistake is in not taking Israel as an example rather than a reproach. We in the US should not be hesitant to play the role of the new Mongols, shaking things up and allowing the consideration of such heretical ideas as religious equality, capitalism, and separation of church and state if that intervention can bring the Islamic world to a better place. No guarantees!
What's going right
I just finished reading Bernard Lewis' "What Went Wrong?", a survey of the relative decline of the Muslim world. What a time to read such a book! I'm reminded that the border between present-day Iraq and Iran was for centuries the border between the Arab caliphate and the Persian world. Baghdad, at least until the last time it was conquered, in 1258, was the outpost, marking the extent of Islamic power to the rest of the world. With the conquest by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and the later expansion by the Turks into the Persian and Arab lands, Baghdad became less important. Looking through Muslim eyes, a conquest of Baghdad can be expected to have consequences. Also looking through Muslim, and especially fanatical Muslim eyes, the toppling of the statues of Saddam takes on an importance not much remarked on in the West. The modern, quasi-Fascist regimes of Saddam in Iraq, the Assads in Syria, Pahlevi in Iran and, to a lesser extent, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, have been blamed for much of the weakness of the modern Islamic world, especially after the cataclysmic losses to Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and the continuing failure of the Palestinians to push the Jews into the sea. In classic Islam, statues were forbidden. Even portraits were not considered kosher (ha!), although, as Lewis points out, that stricture was much ignored, especially by the Ottomans. Few Americans realize how much modernization was attempted by the authoritarian Islamic regimes and how much these measures, such as the education of women and the introduction of infidel science, were resented in the Muslim world. The Iranian revolution in 1979 gave us a clue. The Shi'ite resurgence in Karbala and Najaf last week is another sign of that deeply conservative strain. So, to topple a statue is not just a rejection of the regime of Saddam, who did after all have a Koran written in his own blood. It's also a rejection of Westernism and infidel ideas such as statues. The discovery of pornographic paintings and liquor in Saddam's henchmen's hideaways would have reinforced this impression. To hear the Shi'ites cry "Down with Saddam" and then in the next breath, "Down with America" seems to say the least ungrateful. But it's perfectly consistent. The fall of Saddam is a gift of Allah, a conquest over modernity and the infidel. It is not surprising that Allah used the Americans and the British to accomplish this. Didn't he use the infidel Mongols in 1258 to sweep aside the Persians? Did not this conquest lead to the expansion of Islam? Looking from Isfahan and Qom, it might seem that the tide has turned against the Sunni, thanks to the M1A1 and GPS-guided bombing. It's a funny world.

Monday, April 21, 2003

OK, so I've just read Bernard Lewis's "The Middle East' and think I know all about it. And I've had a bit of Pusser's rum, which let's face it most of the British mariners who in the sixteen hundreds landing at Byzantium had also had. And heard the muezzin and seen the mosaics. But I think Tommy Franks and Rumsfeld and W. and even Chalabi himself have perhaps a case of envy of the Prophet. For who could have foreseen this, one year ago? Who could have imagined, as Zappa said of Kansas, who could have conceived of the freak-out, as Zappa said of creamcheese, and here we are in Najaf and Karbala and Mosul and Baghdad itself, the home of the caliphs? This is history, folks, history of the American sort, revenge of the Yankee kind, millions for defense but not one cent for oil.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Randi on a roll
James Randi has a great website. His current weekly journal is a corker - astrology, numerology, witchcraft, atheism, Pepys - how can he hit so many of my hot buttons at once? Read. My only difference with Randi - other than that his name is just one character away from Ayn Rand's - an obvious clue that he's sub-etherically connected to her spirit - is that he leaves no room at all for the influence of the unknown. Maybe that's what makes me an agnostic rather than an atheist. I don't pretend to know for sure that there is not and could never be a God as conceived by the religionists, even Vernon Howard. I would consider it a tragedy if the question were uncontrovertibly resolved one way or the other, since that would spell the end of inquiry. But I do know for sure Uri Geller cannot bend spoons with his mind.
Stop, go, honk
Can't believe this NY Times article where they say that without working traffic lights, Baghdad is in chaos. I've never been to Baghdad, but in Cairo, no one pays any attention to traffic lights, unless there's an armed guard standing at the intersection, which there hardly ever is. They just steam right through, standing on their horns, merging wildly with whoever is coming from whatever other direction. The concept of obeying a traffic regulation when there are no immediate consequences is foreign to the Arab world. But these same people will voluntarily refrain from even having a drink of water all day in Ramadan because the Koran is interpreted to say they have to. Maybe it's because traffic lights are a Western innovation, or because if you can't depend on Allah to protect you from dying in a traffic accident, what's the use of all that praying and refraining anyway?