The Region: Crusades long gone, but jihad lingers on

Middle East analysis requires historical perspective.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
A 19-year-old man is tortured and beheaded for a bad joke interpreted as blasphemy. A father is accused of killing his son because he converted to another religion. They are not Muslims but Christians, and the place is France in the mid-1700s. There was a time when Europe often behaved in ways parallel to that of Muslim-majority countries today. Yet by the end of the 1700s, this was changing. In the first case cited above, the king and even Catholic bishops failed to save the unfortunate Chevalier de la Barre, but the outcry led to the end of such actions. In the second case, Voltaire led a campaign that saw Jean Calas's name legally cleared on the grounds that he was the victim of an unjust frame-up because he was a member of the Protestant minority. It's true, then, that there are parallels between Western and Middle Eastern societies. But even leaving aside important doctrinal religious issues, the crucial difference between the two is that phenomena the West has left far back in the past continue to exist in Muslim-majority counterparts. The Crusades ended eight centuries ago; jihad continues. And other critical differences differentiate between the two civilizations. One is that progressive opinion, intellectuals, governments, even many of the Christian churches themselves, fought for progress in the West. They didn't say "These are our sacred practices, our lifestyle and thus must remain forever unchanged." They didn't let fear of being labeled "Christianophobic" paralyze them. Another is that four centuries of rethinking, struggle and debate were needed to create contemporary Western democratic society. Such processes have, at best, barely begun in the contemporary Middle East. IT'S EXTRAORDINARY that much analysis of the region - possibly the most important intellectual endeavor of our times - is conducted in an ad-lib fashion based on the latest newspaper interview, underpinned with wishful thinking. Yet if we're going to be serious about this task, serious historical perspective is needed. Most should be based on the region's own distinctive past and world view. But since people insist on making transregional analogies, here's a way of doing one. Consider the following statement: "The world is not ruled by an intelligent being." Instead, religion has created a deity who is a "monster of unreason, injustice, malice and atrocity." Who said this - someone last week in the West? No, it was the French writer Jean Meslier in 1723. That statement, too hot to publish at the time, was a few decades later part of mainstream French discourse. Oh, and by the way, Meslier was a lifelong Catholic priest. THE BASIS of democracy began in 1215 in England with its Magna Carta. The battle to have a legitimately accepted division between religion and state was waged and largely won there in the Middle Ages. A basis was laid for secular-dominated society. True, in the 1500s underground Catholic priests in England were tortured and executed, while Protestants in France suffered even worse. Yet at the same time, English universities were teaching the classical tradition which, in Italy, formed the basis of representational art. The works of Shakespeare and his fellow creators depended on this freedom, background and example. A basis was laid for a pragmatic, empiricist, utilitarian culture that stood on the scientific method. That was the Renaissance, or rebirth. For the West, the great civilization of classical times was being rebuilt. But Greece and Rome are not part of the Arab-Islamic tradition, where representational art is viewed with suspicion. The time before the coming of Islam is rejected with horror. To this day, secularism is almost a hanging offense in the Middle East; and democracy, as it is understood in the West, is deemed inappropriate. Much of Europe's cultural production in the 16th through 18th centuries could not be produced and widely accepted in the Arabic-speaking world today. Of course, these things do appear, but usually as imports from the West, which raises suspicion and gives ruling forces - clerical and state - a strong incentive to demonize the West in order to limit the appeal of subversive ideas. THE GREAT historian of France, Alfred Cobban, wrote that the new secular ideology triumphed there between 1748 and 1770, after already flourishing in Britain and the Netherlands. Even in the Catholic Church "the persecuting spirit was dying down." The English, Dutch, American and French revolutions were not triumphs of traditionalism, as in Iran, but of greater democracy. Many Westerners continued (as they do today) to be religious, but more open and tolerant. This struggle between the old and new societies characterized much of the 19th and 20th centuries, yet the trend was steady. Perhaps fascism - and arguably communism - were the final reactionary movements, and World War II was the last struggle. Yet victory required 500 years of rethinking and education. There's no such history in the Middle East, while several additional problems block movement toward moderation and democracy here. Whatever one thinks of specific Islamic doctrine as generally interpreted, the big problem is that it remains so powerful and hegemonic. Arab nationalism is anti-democratic, repressive and statist. Islamists seek a somewhat revised version of the eighth century, albeit with rockets and mass communication. IT IS also worse because Middle East regimes and revolutionaries know Western history. They are aware of the fact that while pious Western philosophers and scientists sincerely believed open inquiry and democracy didn't threaten traditional religion and the status quo, they were wrong. Openness led to revolution and to modern secular-dominated society - a West with all the ills decried by those in religious, ideological and political power in the Middle East. They also know what happened to Soviet-bloc dictatorships that experimented with more freedom. And they know that accepting Western ideas makes people want to change their own societies. On top of that knowledge, they have weapons, technology, new means of organization and communication to block any change that tries to make its way through persuasion or threat. This point applies as much to Iran's Islamist rulers as to Syria's pretend-pious ones or Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi monarchs. FINALLY, it is worse because there's a powerful, growing movement - radical Islamism - posing an alternative to modernism. The question is not merely of tiny, marginalized al-Qaida but also the governments of Iran, Syria and Sudan; the Saudi regime; powerful mainstream societal influences, Hamas and Hizbullah; the Muslim Brotherhood, and many others. In comparison, while there are courageous individual liberals, there's no real liberal party anywhere in the Middle East, no liberal-controlled media or liberal proselytizing university. In Egypt the only liberal organization has been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood. So while the great majority of people want a good life for themselves and their children - while they breathe air, drink water and bleed when they are pricked - as they did in Ice Age caves, ancient Rome, medieval France, imperial China, Inca Peru and the central deserts of Australia - that does not mean everyone thinks the same, or that all societies and governments are basically equivalent. Anyone who doesn't understand history is doomed to be battered by it. The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and Turkish Studies.