My Mom, born and raised in rural West Virginia, didn’t have the opportunity to get too much of an education. Her wisdom was gathered from her parents by observation, and by her respect for, and observation of the other adults around her. She was not particularly articulate, but she expressed her wisdom quite often by quoting her version of some old sayings. I heard many of them over and over, and of course they are committed to memory.
“Don’t criticize someone else until you’ve walked a country mile in their shoes.”
And, if you can imagine this being spoken with a West Virginia accent, “Them that don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it.”
Much of what I see and read on social media about Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East has convinced me that most people, or I should say most of those who express themselves politically on social media, know very little history, very little about interpreting it, and very little about either Islam or Christianity. Read on, and give some thought to what I’m writing. We’ll get back to this discussion at the end.
Let’s try putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes for a while, and while we’re in them, lets talk a little bit about history.
How would we feel if the victors of a major world war came in, sliced off the South and the West and created six or seven countries or political units out of the territory based on their economic interests, not ours, occupied the land with their military to make sure we followed their rule, set the various ethnic groups and religious groups against each other for their own benefit, and displaced thousands of people from their homes, cities and provinces? How would we feel if a few privileged leaders turned the mineral wealth of the nation over to foreign developers to extract, and received massive amounts of money for doing so, while the majority of the people, already suffering under the weight of poverty, were at the mercy of their own corrupt leadership and the occupying military? The few elite rulers, privileged by tradition and heritage, become fabulously wealthy, while the bulk of the wealth and resources benefits foreign investors, companies and countries.
I don’t think many Americans would sit still for that. We’d do whatever we could to throw the foreign invaders out.
That’s a very unlikely scenario for the US, but it is everyday reality in the Middle East. From the Turkish border to the bottom of Saudi Arabia, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, the mostly desert sub-continent of the Middle East was under the control of one or another Islamic nationality from about 1200 right up to 1917. The Caliphates, during which the various sects of Islam developed, eventually gave way to rule by the Ottoman Turks. As the power of the Ottoman Empire waned, and the emperor decided to side with the Germans in the First World War, mainly against his traditional enemy the Russian Czar, and against growing British imperialism, the price they paid in the peace settlement was the loss of the territory that is now occupied by Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Syria.
The area was really never stable. Strong, dictatorial, absolute rule by shieks and royal families was the main means of peacekeeping. But for most of the Arabic inhabitants of the region, absolute rule was at least in the hands of other Muslims. The uneasy relationship between the various sects of Islam, such as the Sunni and Shi’ite groups, along with the non-Arabic Persians, Kurds and Turks, and Christian minorities like the Armenians, often flared into violence and war.
All of that changed when the British took over in 1917, gaining control of the area through the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles. Now, the Middle East was under foreign control. The British saw the economic potential of developing the oil resources, and building transportation over the trade routes to India. There are those who could argue that British rule was a humanitarian improvement, and maybe the case could be made that the British were probably less oppressive than some of the previous rulers of the region had been, and that their intentions were honorable, desiring to bring democracy and freedom to oppressed people, but that’s really not what happened, and it certainly isn’t how it was perceived. The British priority was economic, not political, and the people of the region didn’t see their presence as a positive thing, nor different in any way from their previous experience. Their way of fighting back, since they did not possess the means to face a well-equipped and well-trained army straight up, was to do as they had always done, and that included sabotage, duplicity, corruption and terrorism. That’s not justifying those things, mind you, it is simply explaining why things are the way they are.
The United States became involved through its alliance with Britain, and its involvement in the Second World War. We supplied the Russians with Lend-Lease goods through a corridor that ran through Iran. We helped the British keep the Germans out so that the flow of Arabian oil could supply the allies in Europe. And it was American pressure following the war that opened up Palestine for increased Jewish immigration, leading to the establishment of the modern state of Israel. And once again, while we insisted that the British grant autonomy and independence to the various states of the region that they created for their economic interest, both Britain and the US maintained a heavy military presence in the area to manage the development of resources, mainly oil, protect the trade routes, and that has always involved favoring and dealing with certain royal families and nationalities with favor, while treating others as enemies.
The paranoia about militant Islam in this country, and the ignorance of the geography and history of the Middle East, is the source of major misinformation about the Islamic faith, and everything associated with it. The constant complaining and whining about why peaceful Muslims don’t become outraged at the results of the brutality of terrorists, and why they don’t condemn the terrorist networks and organizations that sponsor it, is a symptom of the ignorance about the culture and religion. These are people who have lived under oppressive regimes for generations, for hundreds of years. When they have protested injustice and oppression, they’ve been massacred as a result of it. They believe in an uncharitable, unloving god who holds their fate in his hands. Protest gains them nothing. But sacrificing themselves to their god, on the altar of war, is the quickest and easiest path to heaven. There may be some, among the terrorists, who are aiming at world domination, or the extermination of all “infidels,” but for most, it is simply a matter of defending what is theirs. They want us out, because they see Christian influenced Western culture as a corrupting influence leading people away from Islam. And they see an independent state of Israel as an imperialist outpost designed to protect the presence of the Western powers in the Middle East.
We’ve seen how this goes, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve learned much. Our interference in Iran, and support for the government of the Shah led to a fundamentalist Islamic regime led by clerics, and set Iran back years in its development. The Assad dictatorship in Syria resulted from support of the regime by Russia, which is now not able to protect its friend, and into that vacuum comes ISIS, or ISOL, founded on the old idea of the historical Caliphates, which represent Islamic political and military power at its peak. Our interference in Iraq, twice, has helped that country unravel, and open the door for ISIS to roll through Western Iraq. Because they are Sunni, they have widespread support while the US backed Shi’ite government is trapped and surrounded in Baghdad.
If all of that were happening to us, how would we respond?
That’s not to excuse terrorism. But understanding it is the first step in eliminating it, and it will take a lot of understanding to bring peace to the Middle East. It may never happen. But we need to get out of the business of contributing to its development.