Having resolved to weld the West, where he came from, together with the East, where he had fought, Alexander the Great told his officers in an address not far from today’s Baghdad: “Consider the world as your country, where the best will govern regardless of tribe.”
Delivered in 324 BCE, what came to be known as the Oath at Opis underpinned a quest that resulted in the role with which the Middle East grapples to this day: linchpin of the world.
“I do not distinguish among men, as the narrow-minded do,” explained Alexander, who demonstrated his multicultural quest by marrying his Persian nemesis Darius’s daughter, and then ordering his lieutenants from east and west to follow his example, and marry their enemies’ kin.
Alexander died the following year, and his hopes that war would be succeeded by peace, and tribalism by meritocracy, were quickly dashed, but his legacy lived on. Egypt, whose pharaohs had ignored the world beyond its north shore, now shed its insularity and shouldered the world’s most cosmopolitan metropolis.
A transcontinental nexus that to this day bears its founder’s name, Alexandria was history’s first engine of globalization. Through its bustling seaport, Egyptian grain sailed to Greece and Rome, and European vessels imported pottery, olives, wine, and oil, while the new city’s streets heard a multilingual cacophony, as if to vindicate Alexander’s humanistic statement, “I am not interested in people’s country or race of origin,” since “I consider all persons, black or white, as equals.”
Alexandria, the town where the Bible was first translated from its original Hebrew, thus became the cultural junction where Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Jewish scholars exchanged ideas by the world’s first great library.
The cultural bridge that the Middle East thus became later morphed into a spiritual inspiration, as the monotheism that the region produced and originally kept for itself, was taken to the rest of the world, first by Christianity, then by Islam. Pilgrimage, which had previously annually brought thousands of Jews from three continents to Jerusalem, now brought millions from myriad nationalities to assorted destinations across the Near East.
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In the modern era, the cultural centrality for which the Near East was famous in antiquity, and the religious centrality that was its hallmark in the Middle Ages, gave way to a new type of centrality. The relevance that the region lost with the industrial revolution and with religion’s decline was restored with the digging of the Suez Canal, which revived the region’s status as a bridge between continents, empires and civilizations.
By sheer coincidence, this new geographic centrality was soon joined by a new economic relevance, as the Middle East’s abundant oil became crucial for the world’s development.
The modern Middle East was thus refashioned not only as a maritime connector, but also as a global energizer.
Such, in brief, were the contours of the Middle East’s contribution to the world’s prosperity and integration.
Yet alongside this legacy there has less glorious Middle East, one that posited it not as the world’s connector, but as its divider.
THE EAST-WEST divide that produced the great wars between Persia and Greece returned in earnest a thousand years later, with the clash between Christianity and Islam.
Some argued that the gap between the two faiths inspired a civilizational rift that defined the Middle Ages.
In his ambitious thesis Mohammed and Charlemagne, the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne argued that Islam was an expansionist faith that viewed free trade negatively and set out to end the Mediterranean’s role as economic hub by splitting it militarily and emptying it commercially.
The Muslim design, he claimed, was so successful that Europe was marginalized and then sank into feudalism’s economic stagnation.
The thesis that was originally celebrated for its originality and imagination was later exposed as largely farfetched.
Pirenne, it turned out, knew no Arabic, ignored the Arabian Peninsula’s great mercantile history and also Muhammad’s background as a merchant as well as the rise of an urban Arab middle class during Islam’s first generations, and also Christian Byzantium’s ban on Muslim navigation in the eastern Mediterranean.
Whatever its roots, the Christian- Muslim rift resulted in Middle Eastern Muslims and European Christians invading each other’s realms, for centuries. Islam’s ultimate loss of most of the Arabs’ and Ottomans’ European possessions, and Christianity’s loss of the Crusaders’ Middle Eastern conquests, were underscored by Arab rulers’ active obstruction of European influence when they razed the Holy Land’s coastal towns, lest European invaders return.
Added up, these constituted a harsh blow to the Middle East’s global centrality even before European navigators’ great discoveries, which further marginalized the region.
Fortunately, by any reading of today’s international system, the Middle East is once again central. Unfortunately, this centrality stems from the wrong reasons, as yesteryear’s civilizational bridge has morphed into a global powder keg.
OUR CENTURY opened with a great Middle Eastern attack on Western civilization.
The September 11 assaults on the free world’s nerve center in Washington and commercial heartbeat in New York is but the most memorable of numerous attacks on Western targets, from London, Paris and Madrid to Boston, Ottawa and Melbourne.
The common denominator among these was their Islamist motivation and mostly Middle Eastern background.
So intense has the wrath emanating from this region grown that its targets have long crossed the rich world’s borders. Having struck the former Eastern bloc from Moscow and Volgograd to Burgas, Bulgaria, and also the former nonaligned bloc, from Bali to Buenos Aires and from Nairobi to Mumbai, the Islamist fires that the Middle East has kindled now straddle an African belt stretching from Nigeria to Somalia, and have already leaped from Afghanistan and Pakistan to China and Myanmar.
The Middle East, in short, has become the biggest threat to the world’s security. Worse, it is also threatens the world’s stability.
The rapid decomposition of Middle Eastern countries, most notably Iraq and Syria, but also Lebanon, Yemen and Libya, makes it the world’s most unpredictable region, whose number of failed states is second only to is number of civil wars.
The Middle East’s political meltdown is radiating into Europe, by igniting an immigration that has hardly begun, yet is already cracking Europe, in two ways: Horizontally, the Middle Eastern immigrations are driving a wedge between the veteran European powers and their relatively new partners in formerly communist capitals like Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest and Prague.
And vertically, the new immigration is pitting conservatives and centrists against the liberals who welcome the new immigrants. This is in addition to the growing nationalist challenge in France, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, in response to the growing sense of instability spurred by Middle Eastern events.
The Middle East, then, is the current international system’s paramount challenge, and as such must be a contemporary diplomat’s main concern.
The extent to which our generation’s diplomats will impartially explore the Middle East’s instability, the dynamics of its radiation, and the ways to prevent and confront them will shape the world’s direction in coming years.
In this regard, two writers’ books should be recommended reading for any diplomat, and mandatory for those serving in the Middle East.
The first is Brian Whitakker’s What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East? in which The Guardian’s former Cairo correspondent concludes from years of service in the Middle East that its crisis stems largely from its tribalism and education.
The former, he argues, hinders social mobility, obstructs meritocracy, and fosters chauvinism, and the latter encourages obedience and memory and discourages criticism and imagination.
Equally indispensable are Bernard Lewis’s writings, most notably What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, in which our era’s leading historian of Muslim civilization maps the emergence of the mental, industrial and economic abyss that yawns between the Muslim world and the rest of the world.
In an earlier article that inspired this book, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1990, Lewis argues that what drives the Middle East’s wrath is a sense of humiliation, “a growing awareness among the heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors.”
Such analyses are of course debatable, but the debate they stir must define this generation’s diplomatic agenda.
Whatever the roots of its anger, the Middle East has come to threaten the future of the entire world.
The rest of the world will therefore have no choice but to formulate a strategy for removing this anger, by detecting its social, economic and cultural causes and addressing them – politically, militarily and educationally.
The political and military aspects of this challenge are being taken up, albeit slowly and disjointedly, by many governments and security agencies. The educational effort, whose aim will be to defeat the clerics who brainwash the Middle Eastern masses – has yet to be launched. This task must be led by the current generation of diplomats.
Alexander’s bridges have been felled, and history begs their restoration.
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