As the plot thickens regarding which set of obfuscations will play out this summer over a hypothetical change of course in Iraq, it might be useful to imagine what would have happened had an outside power intervened in the European religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Would there have been a Sun King, Napoleon, Bismarck, the Austro-Hungarian Empire - Hitler? Or would the Europeans have reverted to the Dark Ages, continuing to live in a semi-feudal state?
We can’t know the answers to those questions, but we can see the parallels between the Protestant/Catholic wars and the strife between Sunnis and Shias. The Muslim religious conflict is as inevitable as was the infra-Christian conflict. And as with those European wars, the Muslim struggles are not only about religion, they’re also about equity. Territorial struggles are about having an inherent right to maintain something that one possesses in the face of a stronger player. Struggles about God are about the inherent right of conscience, which ultimately led to the notion of equity.
Until we realize that our intrusion, motivated by the need for oil, into a region whose centuries’ long dichotomy is exacerbated by the march of history - of which we are the prime motors as inventors and carriers of modernity - no plan for exit will be convincing. We will continue to weigh alternatives in terms of oil gained and lives lost instead of seeing Muslim lands as simply going through the same process that the Europeans went through five hundred years ago. The notion of a direct relation to God espoused by Protestants is mirrored by the Shia conviction that God wants them to treat their brothers as equals, as opposed to the more elitist ethos of the Sunnis, which could be compared to Catholicism.
Muslims the world over have to be left in peace to complete their transformation from feudal societies, with their corresponding rites, into modern polities with altered rites. Consider for example the much more relaxed forms of Islam in Southeast Asia. (The question immediately comes to mind whether Arab Islam retained a feudal outlook because for so long its neighboring Christians did, while Asian Islam benefited from the influences Buddhism and Taoism.)
Astonishingly, recent issues of both “The Economist” and “The Nation” included remarkable analyses of the Middle East crisis. Both spell out its complexity in unexpectedly similar terms: Under the headline “Martyrs or Traitors’, the conservative “Economist” writes: “In Lebanon right now the Hizbullah movement calls the beleaguered government of Fouad Siniora traitorous because it is propped up by France and America.” Somewhat more ingenuously: “Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, needs to keep his distance from America to fend off accusations that he is a puppet of the occupation.” But then: “America’s allies cannot stop the martyrs by calling them traitors. America has made itself deeply unpopular in the Islamic world by invading Iraq and standing by Israel. This is bound to taint any Muslim leader who looks as if he owes his position to American military or economic power.” In this lead editorial, “The Economist” provides an interesting detail: the new Palestinian Prime Minister appointed by Mahmoud Abbas is a former World Bank employee.
The left-wing “Nation” emphasizes the failure of the Oslo Peace Accords to fulfill Palestinian expectations, due essentially to a joint UN-Israeli policy of undermining first Arafat, then Abbas. It also emphasizes that “the more direct cause of the Gaza mini-war lies in the Bush administration’s cynical manipulation of ‘democracy promotion’”. Israel’s failure to pursue serious negotiations or release prisoners, even as it built a war of separation and expanded west Bank settlements, “weakened Abbas and the secular leadership in the eyes of the Palestinians.” (It’s) failure to involve the Fatah government in its pullout from Gaza allowed Hamas to claim that armed resistance had triumphed. Finally, Hamas’s contrasting lack of corruption compared to Fatah, and its record as a provider of social services were more important to voters in last year’s election than ideology. This is the same behavior that secures Hizbollah’s position in Lebanon, that has won support for many liberation movements around the world, and a long standing reputation got the Italian communists during the Cold War that ultimately led to left-wing governments that included them. Unfortunately the plan appears to be to keep Hamas out of the picture. It will be too bad if Tony Blair doesn’t realize that would be repeating the mistakes made in fighting the Soviet “evil empire”.
When a steadfastly conservative and an equally steadfast progressive publication see a political issue in similar terms, it’s time for all concerned to take notice. Window dressing can no longer obscure the fact that the US and Israel are denying the Palestinians the right to be governed by those who won a fair and open election, and the Lebanese from supporting Hizbollah’s elected representatives. The reason alleged is that both refuse to recognize Israel (as if a policy decision should trump an election!). According to “The Nation”, Hamas’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and his political adviser, Ahmed Yousef, have both stated in recent op-ed pieces that they can live with a two-state settlement, or at the very least a long-term hudna, or truce.
The obligation of states to formally recognize each other in order to avoid war is a twentieth century invention. In fact, I do not believe it has existed outside the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. While not wishing to provoke readers who may find it difficult to view Israel objectively, I believe that the Palestinian demand that Israel PROVE ITSELF TO BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR before granting it formal recognition, is perfectly reasonable. As a diplomatic tool that has always existed in diplomacy, a truce should meanwhile satisfy the Israeli requirement of security.
Beyond enabling a two-state solution, a truce would enable Israel to pursue a policy of “constructive engagement” with its Arab and Christian neighbors. That in turn would enable the larger Middle East region to pursue a similar evolution toward modernity to the one which saw Europe progress from religious strife to the industrial revolution, democracy, and finally, the creation of a European Union. In this process, it is counter-productive for outsiders to decree that Muslim but non-Arab Iran should not play a key role, just as a centrally located and strong Germany did throughout European history. That President Ahmadinejad has been forced to institute petrol rationing as a shield against international sanctions, suggests that Europe and the US should be helping Iran build more refineries so that it can rely on its own, for the moment, abundant supply of oil, meanwhile recognizing that Iran has as much right to prepare for nuclear energy when that supply dries up, as we do.
The Middle East will modernize just as did Europe. The big difference is that the world is a smaller place, and everything is related to everything else. So it behooves us to try to meet our energy needs in ways that do not exacerbate the inherent difficulties of the modernization process.