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The Complex Nature of Middle Eastern Problems By: Bassam Madany
Middle East Resources | Wednesday, January 07, 2004


In the aftermath of World War II, several changes had to be made to the map of the world. For example, the boundaries between Germany and Poland were adjusted, and what used to be East Prussia became part and parcel of Poland. The Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 by Great Britain into India and Pakistan. That resulted in great upheavals and bloodshed. Many Muslims left India for the new Islamic state, while most Hindus who found themselves in what became Pakistan, had to relocate and settle in India. Eventually, almost all of the old and new nations learned to accept each other’s existence. Not so in the Middle East where one situation has defied solution. I refer to the Palestinian-Israeli problem.

Back in 1946, the United Nations decided to divide the land of Palestine between its Arab and Jewish populations. The Palestinians and their Arab neighbors opposed the partition plan. So, when the State of Israel was born on May 15, 1948, war broke out between the nascent Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. Since then, several wars took place between the antagonists. Now, more than half a century later, peace in the Holy Land remains elusive. It is very hard to believe that ten United States presidents have had to deal with this problem, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush.

Personally, I have been aware of this unending crisis since my youngest days. One of my earliest recollections is my attempt to decipher the Arabic script of a headline in a Beirut newspaper in 1936. It dealt with a Palestinian leader, a forerunner of Yasser Arafat, who was leading a rebellion against the British that administered the Holy Land under a mandate given by the League of Nations. He and his followers were resisting the influx of European Jews into Palestine after the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.

Then, for two summer seasons in 1943 and 1944, I worked (in Syria and Lebanon) as a civilian in a branch of the British Army, known as the RASC (Royal Army Service Corps.) My superior was a Jewish sergeant from Tel Aviv; the second in command was a Palestinian Christian corporal from Jerusalem, whose brother was a well-known singer on the radio station of the PBC (Palestine Broadcasting Corporation.) Both used to talk about their aspirations and dreams for the future. Once in a while I wonder what happened to them since 1948.

Years have passed, and I have been living in the United States since 1958. Geographically, I am far away from the Middle East, still I cannot forget the Palestinian problem. My entire ministerial calling has been with the lands of my birth. For thirty-six years, I broadcast the Gospel to the Arabic-speaking world of North Africa and the Middle East. Thousands of listeners used to correspond with me, and many of them were Palestinians.

In 1966 while traveling in the Middle East, I paid a visit to two elderly sisters who lived near the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem. At the time, it was located in an area under the control of Jordan. Late in May 1967, I received an air mail letter from them, telling me about their fears as the war clouds were gathering. Hostilities between Egypt and Israel were imminent. Having no where else to go, they planned to stay in their little home. After the end of the Six-Day War, I saw pictures of the awful devastation that took place near the place where the two sisters lived. I never heard from them again!

Then, in June 2001, I received a heart-rending message from an Evangelical pastor in the West Bank. He told me of the sad incident that occurred as he and his family, were on their way to Jerusalem to attend the graduation of one of their sons. At the checkpoint separating their town from East Jerusalem, the Israeli Army stopped their car. The pastor and his family were not allowed to proceed further. They missed that very important occasion in the life of their son.

Why has this problem persisted, defying all attempted solutions undertaken by well-meaning world leaders? I have not stopped reflecting on this subject, reading about it, and around it. I say around it, since quite often, we tend to isolate this problem from its larger context. You see, this matter does not just involve Palestinians and Israelis; it has to do with the Islamic concept of the world. After the first Arab Islamic armies conquered the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, they regarded the world as being either within Daru’l Islam, (i.e., the Household of Islam) or falling into the domain of Daru’l Harb, (i.e., the Household of War.) Once a specific area came within their domain, it had to remain Islamic for ever!

This brings me to comment on a very helpful book. The author is Bernard Lewis. For several years, he lectured at the University of London. Then he moved to the USA where he taught at Princeton University. He retired in 1986, but continues to write and lecture on Islam and the Middle East. He has authored more than two dozen books on this subject.

Professor Lewis’ book, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, was published by Random House, NY, in 1998. It offers some needed background for the understanding of the people and politics of the Middle East. One of its main themes deals with a complexity that arises from the fact that Middle Easterners identify themselves both ethnically and religiously. However, the religious element is and remains the dominant one. The root for this outlook is embedded in the history of the last 1400 years.

Within the vast Islamic empire, the conquerors classified people according to their religions affiliation. One was either a Muslim or a follower of one of the earlier religions. Muslims enjoyed all the rights and privileges accorded to them by the Islamic Shari’a Law. As for others, such as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, they were given the status of dhimmis, i.e., the “protected ones.” This “protection” was actually a mere euphemism as it entailed many restrictions imposed on non-Muslims. Thus, one’s identity was not primarily defined by an ethnic or geographic factor, but by one’s religious faith. This classification continues to the present day. A Middle Easterner’s primary identity resides in his or her religious faith; secondarily it is defined by the state within which he happens to live.

For example, on my Lebanese Identity Card, I was registered as a Protestant Christian. In the 99-member Lebanese Parliament (before the upheavals of 1975), we had one Protestant representative! The president of the republic had to be Maronite, i.e., of the Roman Catholic faith, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the Parliament, a Shi’ite Muslim. Usually, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went to a Christian of the Greek Orthodox Church! This way of identifying Middle Easterners created a serious crisis whenever relations between the various religiously-defined groups were strained. Quite often, Muslims even though living within a distinct country such as Lebanon, felt that their ultimate identity (and therefore loyalty) resided elsewhere, within the Islamic Umma. That kind of allegiance practically nullified the modus vivendi that had existed in Lebanon since the 1920s, and that led eventually to the loss of freedom in a land that used to be known as the Switzerland of the Middle East.

As Bernard Lewis put it:

During the centuries-long confrontation between the states of Europe and the Ottoman Empire, the Europeans always saw and discussed their relations in terms of Austrians, Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, and other nationalities versus Turks; the Turks saw it in terms of Muslims versus Christians. In pre-modern Muslim writings, the parochial subdivisions of Christendom are given scant importance. In the worldview of Muslims, which they naturally also ascribed to others, religion was the determinant factor of identity, the focus of loyalty and, not less important, the source of authority. P. 22

In these words, we notice how the religious factor is of utmost importance in our relations with the Middle East or any nations within the vast Islamic world that surrounds it. Secular Western writers tend to ignore the critical importance of religion in Islam and what constitutes a Muslim’s ultimate loyalty. They tend to forget the fact that in contrast with Christianity, Islam is an amalgam of religion, politics, and culture, in one indivisible entity. If this thesis is correct, and I believe that the history of the last 1400 years supports it, then we may ask: why do some writers and politicians continue to ignore this fundamental fact about Islam? Islam is more than religion, and has always maintained an exclusivist political worldview. It has no room for non-Muslim entities (i.e., states) to freely exist within the context of the Household of Islam.

The history of Pakistan affords us a modern example of why Muslims believe that they ought to live in an environment that is officially and legally Islamic. Before the end of the British rule, the most outspoken representatives of Indian Muslims requested the Raj not to leave before the partition of the subcontinent. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this is why the Islamic state of Pakistan was carved out of India. That event signified that at the end of European colonial presence in Asia and Africa, Muslims would not tolerate living under non-Muslim rule. Since they identify themselves primarily as Muslims, their first loyalty goes to the Islamic Umma. Ideologically, Muslims feel at home only within Daru’l Islam.

Back to the book of Bernard Lewis.

In the modern world, the political role of Islam, internationally as well as domestically, differs significantly from that of its peer and rival, Christianity. The heads of state or ministers of foreign affairs of the Scandinavian countries and Germany do not from time to time foregather in a Lutheran summit conference. Nor was it customary, when the Soviet Union still existed, for its rulers to join with those of Greece and Yugoslavia and, temporarily forgetting their political and ideological differences, to hold regular meetings on the basis of their current or previous adherence to the Orthodox Church. Similarly, the Buddhist nations of East and Southeast Asia, the Catholic nations of southern Europe and South America, do not constitute Buddhist or Catholic blocs at the United Nations, nor for that matter in any other political activities.

The very idea of such a grouping, based on religious identity, might seem to many modern Western observers absurd or even comic. But it is neither absurd nor comic in relation to Islam. Some fifty-five Muslim governments, including monarchies and republics, conservatives and revolutionaries, practitioners of capitalism and disciples of various kinds of socialism, friends and enemies of the United States, and exponents of whole spectrum of shades of neutrality, have built an elaborate apparatus of international consultation and even, on some issues, of cooperation. They hold regular high-level conferences, and, despite differences of structure, ideology, and policy, have achieved a significant measure of agreement and common action. P.26

There are also large and growing numbers of Muslims living as minorities in countries with non-Muslim majorities in Asia and Africa, and latterly also in Europe and the Americas. For these minorities, especially in the democratic West, the question of relations between Muslims and others arises in a new and largely unprecedented form. P. 112

As we focus our attention on the Palestinian-Israeli problem, we have to recognize that the basic identity of a Palestinian Muslim is intimately connected with his religion. And since his religion has supplanted both Judaism and Christianity, neither of these faiths possesses any legitimate claim to land of Palestine. The underlying problem is theological, thus it remains radically different from all other international problems.

The secularized West cannot and does not understand this basic religious motif for the Palestinian’s refusal to accept Israel as a valid political entity within the vast Islamic world. It is up to Christians to speak boldly about this subject, and to point out to all parties in this conflict that genuine coexistence in our globalized world is a must. The continual refusal to accept the existence of Israel as a sovereign state leads to more violence and to acts of terror that spill beyond the borders of the Holy Land.




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