Them and us: points of view

Young men and women have been, and will continue to be, fighting and dying in the Middle East, and though they do so in the names of their home nations, I wonder if they really understand WHY they are doing so.

In the Gulf War and the War with Iraq and the War in Afghanistan, did any of the soldiers wonder why other folks were shooting at them?

I have never served as a soldier.

I lacked the ability to willingly follow orders unquestionably in arenas of death and destruction, blood and sweat, tears and terror.

I respect their ability and willingness to do so, but I pray for the day when a peaceful planet makes the job of a soldier obsolete.

What follows is a combination of my own observations, as well as a paraphrasing of Bernard Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, written in the hopes that those who read these words will keep an open mind and try to see their opinions from other points-of-view.

Former US President George W. Bush, current US President Barack Obama and other Western politicians have taken great pains to make it clear that the war in which we are engaged in a war against terrorism – not a war against Muslims, who are urged to join us in this struggle against our common enemy – the forces of Al Qa’ida and ISIS.

For them, their message is the opposite.

This IS a religious war, a war for Islam against infidels, and against the great powers in the world of the infidels.

In his pronouncements, Osama bin Laden (Remember him?) made frequent references to history.

His historical allusions seem obscure to many Westerners, especially North Americans.

But they were immediately understood by Bin Laden´s intended audience within the context of Middle Eastern perceptions of identity and against the background of Middle Eastern history.

The very concepts of “history” and “identity” require redefinition for the Westerner trying to understand the contemporary Middle East.

In North America, the phrase “that´s history” is commonly used to dismiss something as unimportant, of no relevance to current concerns.

Despite an immense investment in the teaching and writing of history, the general level of historical knowledge in North American society is embarrassingly and abysmally low.

Muslim peoples, like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but unlike us, they are keenly aware of it.

Their awareness dates back to the advent of Islam, in our calendars, the 7th century.

Islamic history, for Muslims, has an important religious and legal significance, since it reflects the working out of Allah´s purpose for His community – those that accept the teachings of Islam and obey its law.

Since the beginnings of Islam, the Muslim peoples have produced a rich and varied historical literature.

But when we talk of “history”, we need to ask “a history of what?”.

In the Western world, the basic unit of human organisation is the nation.

In the Americas and Europe, “nation” is synonymous with “country”.

But what exactly IS a nation?

It is one thing for a people by united consensus to form their own nation over time and struggle.

It is entirely a different matter when superpowers form a nation around you.

For us, we see nations subdivided in various ways, only one of which is religion.

Muslims, however, tend not to see nations subdivided into religions.

Muslims see a religion subdivided into nations.

Osama bin Laden, in his videotape of 7 October 2001, spoke of “the humiliation and disgrace that Islam has suffered for more than 80 years”.

Western journalists scrambled to their history books searching for something that had happened more than 80 years ago and came up with various answers.

Bin Laden´s Muslim listeners – the people he was addressing – understood his allusion immediately and its significance.

In 1918 the Ottoman Sultanate, the last of the great Muslim empires, was finally defeated, its capital Istanbul occupied, its sovereign held captive and much of its territory partitioned between the victorious British and French empires.

The Arabic-speaking former Ottoman provinces of the Fertile Crescent were divided into three new entities, with new names and frontiers.

Two of them, Iraq and Palestine, were under British mandate.

The third, under the name of Syria, was given to the French.

The French subdivided their mandate into Lebanon and Syria.

The British, using the Jordan River as the line between west and east, began calling the east Jordan and the west retaining the name Palestine.

The Arabian peninsula, consisting largely of barren and inaccessible deserts and mountains, was at that time thought not worth the trouble of taking over, so its rulers were allowed to retain a precarious and limited independence.

The Turks, eventually succeeded in liberating their beloved Anatolian homeland, not in the name of Islam, but through a secular nationalist movement led by an Ottoman general called Mustafa Kemal, better known as Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey.

One of Atatürk´s first acts, in November 1922, was to abolish the Sultanate.

Problem is the Ottoman sovereign was not only a Sultan, the ruler of a specific state, he was also widely recognized as the Caliph, the head of all Sunni Islam, and the last in a line of rulers that dated back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, and the appointment of a successor to take his place as religious and political head of the entire Muslim state and community.

During Islam’s 13 centuries, the Caliphate had gone through many trials, but it remained a powerful symbol of Muslim unity and identity.

Its disappearance, under the double assault of foreign empires and domestic modernists, was felt throughout the entire Muslim world.

Many Muslims are still painfully conscious of this void, which Al Qa’ida and ISIS seek to fill.

Most of the nation-states that make up the modern Middle East are relatively new creations, left over from the era of Anglo-French imperial domination that followed the defeat of the Ottoman empire.

Even their names reflect their artificiality.

Iraq was a medieval province with borders very different from those of the modern republic.

Syria, Palestine and Libya are names from classical antiquity that hadn´t been used in the region for a 1,000 years or more before they were revived and imposed, with new and different boundaries, by Europeans in the 20th century.

Algeria and Tunisia do not even exist as words in Arabic.

The same names serve as both names for the countries as well as the names for their capital cities.

There is no word in Arabic for Arabia.

Present-day Saudi Arabia is spoken of as “the Saudi kingdom” or “the Arab peninsula”.

Many Arabs simply do not think in terms of combined ethnic and territorial identity.

The Caliph Umar is quoted as saying to the Arabs:

“Learn your genealogies.

Do not be like the local peasants who, when they are asked who they are, reply: “I am from such-and-such a place.” ”

Until the 20th century, when European concepts and categories became dominant, Islamic soldiers, officials and historians almost always referred to their opponents not in territorial or national terms but simply as käfir (infidels).

They never referred to their own side as Arab or Persian or Turkish.

They identified themselves as Muslims.

The Gulf War of 1991, in the common Western perception, was launched by the United States and a coalition of allies to free Kuwait from Iraqi conquest and occupation and to protect Saudi Arabia against Iraqi aggression.

But the perspective of viewing this war as American aggression against Iraq is widely accepted in the Islamic world.

As the memory of Saddam Hussein´s attack on Kuwait fades, attention is focused on the American allied invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, American and British planes patrolling the skies from bases in Arabia, the suffering of the Afghani and Iraqi peoples and the perceived American bias in favour of Israel – a state, in Islamic eyes, imposed and maintained in the Middle East by Western empires since 1949.

The presence of non-Islamic bases in the Islamic Holy Land of Arabia, the site of its holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, is considered by many Muslims to be an abomination.

The invasions of Iraq, the centre of the Islamic world and the scene of its major achievements and its capital Baghdad, the seat of the Caliphate for half a millennium, is also considered to be abominable.

The Qur’an speaks of peace as well as of war.

Hundreds of thousands of traditions and sayings attributed, with varying reliability, to the Prophet and interpreted in very diverse ways, offer a wide range of guidance, of which the militant and violent interpretation of religion is only one among many.

Significant numbers of Muslims approve of this interpretation.

Very few apply this interpretation.

Sadly, terrorism only requires a few.

Make no mistake.

The murder of innocent civilians will never be seen by my eyes as either honourable or justifiable, regardless of the motive behind them.

That being said, I do believe that we in the West need to consider that there are other points-of-view other than our own.

There is a tendency in the West to believe that we are on the side of right and that it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world comes to this same self-evident realization.

We are hurt and confused when others do not react in a heartfelt welcoming way to our banners of good will and democracy.

Imagine if I came into YOUR house and began to impose MY way of thinking, MY values, MY rules upon YOUR household, with no regard for YOUR history, YOUR culture, YOUR needs, YOUR opinions, YOUR feelings, because they are so alien to MY perspective thus I reject them, even though MY intentions are noble and well-meant, exactly how would YOU react to MY invasion of YOUR home?

Would your reaction be one of acceptance and composure?

Or might some members of your household feel royally pissed off?

We in the West can no longer afford to be ignorant and naive.

We need to make an effort to truly become a global community by actively discovering what we can, about ourselves and others, culture and history, as soon as possible.

You can never defeat an enemy if you do not understand him.

You can never unite a world if you do not see perspectives beyond your own experience.

Perhaps the sooner this is learnt, then perhaps fewer people will die as a result of this huge chasm between us.

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