I just finished Professor Yaqub’s 24 lectures on the history of the Middle East 1915-9/11. I found it very interesting, and remarkably depressing. Alicia is going through the same thing right now as she is studying the history of development practice. It feels like a history of dashed hopes. This, I think, is true of all history, but this type of history especially.
At the end of the lecture series, Yaqub categorized what amounts to two camps, with most people falling somewhere in between, with responses to the question of why Middle Eastern-US relations are so bad. One camp points to specific modern day grievances, such as American support of Israeli oppression, the iraqi sanctions that led to roughly 500,000 iraqi deaths, and the presence of American infidel troops on holy Islamic soil on the Arabian peninsula. Another camp points to specific ancient cultural and civilizational differences that make bad relations in many ways inevitable no matter what happens. He mentions Bernard Lewis and Huntington as the big names in this second camp.
A few weeks ago, I finished Bernard Lewis’ “What went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.” I had just gotten the book from the library, having no idea that it was an important work in the field, and by an important thinker, who was often invited by GWB to the White House to advise on Middle East policy. (Lewis was also the guy who said that Middle Easterners respect power and a firm-hand. “Staying the course” was then the wisest strategy in nearly any tussle with them.)
Lewis’s basic idea is fairly straightforward: what went wrong? Christianity was initially the political and religious rival of an emerging Islam. But, for years and years, this rivalry was not taken seriously because it was painfully obvious to anyone who travelled to medieval Europe and medieval Arabia that the Arab world was way way WAY ahead of them in virtually everything: the arts, human rights, literature, mathematics, architecture….every standard of civilizational progress. (Interesting fact: for centuries, oppressed peoples fled Europe for shelter in the more tolerant and peaceful Arab world.) Eventual domination of Christianity and the west by Islam and the Arabs seemed inevitable.
As we all know, however, the moors were kicked out of Spain. The Ottomans were stopped twice at Vienna. And the tide slowly started to turn. For years, middle easterners had not even been looking at the west, assuming that they were barbarians and generally pathetic. Suddenly, they were being forced to adopt western ways of doing things just to keep up, especially ways of conducting warfare, but also things like clocks and standard measurements of weights. Not only was it necessary to adopt western ways of fighting, they had to have westerners come and teach them how to create effective armies, a huge blow to civilizational pride. The knock out punch, if you could call it that, was Napoleon’s escapade in Egypt, in which a relatively small force of 30,000 Europeans captured what I believe was the most populous Muslim state at the time. Lewis thinks that this “clash of civilizations,” a phrase he coined, led to an underlying resentment and hatred which permeates and undermines western-middle eastern relations today.
While I was initially compelled by this theory, I have come to believe that it is not very relevant. America was widely liked at the beginning of the 20th century. A benign power not yet tested, most American interest in the region was philanthropic, and middle easterner greatly preferred America to France or England.
I think two factors did more to erode the American position in the Middle East than anything else: our willingness to do almost anything to contain the Soviets and our continual support for Israel.
Why does American values stop so quickly at the water’s edge? Anyone who knows me knows that I very selfishly desire meaning over money. In the same way, I wish America was a little more philanthropic in its foreign policy; we would all feel better about ourselves.
Will Airhart, in a comment to an earlier post, mentioned that when we have intervened, it has not worked out. I want it to be clear that I am not advocating interventionism at this time. I am simply advocating not helping governments suppress it citizens. In the Middle East, we have generally acted as if we were France in 1780, but instead of coming to aid America, we provided arms to England in order to suppress the American revolution.
This sort of thing we keep doing, even now that the Soviet Union is gone.
I love the Kurds. The Kurds in Turkey and Iraq have been oppressed for years. The reason why they have not been allowed to form their own country seems to be that Turkey is an ally of the US, a NATO member. This pushes the US to not allow the Kurds in Iraq to form their own state either, because empowered Turkish Kurds might threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey.
I love America for the Marshall Plan, for our overall restraint post WWII, for our continual evolving government, for our constitution, for many things. But I hate America for how its treated the people of the Middle East.
Ok. I want to talk about more fun things now. My next book is Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict the XVI.