Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Irv Rikon: Terrorists: What We Don't Understand About Them

Mohammed (571-632) to his followers was a merchant, statesman, warrior, social reformer and, above all, the Prophet to whom God spoke through the angel Gabriel the words that would become The Koran, the holy book of the Islamic religion founded by Mohammed himself.

The Prophet, however, did not designate a successor. When he died, the question arose, who will lead? Who will become the caliph of Islam? Mohammed had no sons, but his daughter Fatima had married a cousin of Mohammed, a man named Ali. Some said that he, the Prophet's son-in-law, should be caliph with all successors deriving from Mohammed's bloodline. Others disagreed: The caliph should be elected. The two groups almost at once split apart, those favoring Ali becoming Shiite Muslims, the others becoming Sunnis. Theological differences have over the years deepened the divisions, with co-religionists fighting each other, killing each other in the name of God.

Estimates hold that today roughly 75%-80% of Muslims are Sunni with perhaps 12%-15% being Shiite. There exist other minority and splinter groups. With regard to The Koran, its pages are often contradictory. One can find within it words of peace and conciliation, words of war and retribution. Similar contradictions are to be found in Jewish and Christian texts.

Once established in seventh century Arabia, the new religion spread quickly, Muslims converting both by conquest and the sword but also because countless people found God and comfort in Islam.

Damascus, Syria, formerly an Imperial Roman city, became the first great Islamic capital. (Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock is the earliest still-standing Islamic monument.) Baghdad, the next important capital and first major city built entirely by Muslims, was established in what is today Iraq. Arab armies moved on: Persia (Iran), Egypt and north Africa fell to them. They crossed the Mediterranean Sea, subduing parts of Spain.

But while Islam's fortunes were ascending, The West was descending. Europe had entered into "The Dark Ages." The Roman Empire, which included much of Europe and north Africa, at its zenith stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea. The Mediterranean Sea was a "Roman lake." What Rome didn't control in Europe it influenced. Yet in 476, the Empire fell to invading "barbarians," Europe then becoming a collection of tribes, large, small and bellicose, their origins mainly eastern. (Hence the term "Caucasians.") The continent's only unifying force was Christianity.

Christendom, however, was divided. The Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century had moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, in Turkey), Western Europe consequently developed a Roman culture, eastern Europe a Greek culture. Rome grew weaker, one reason being that Constantine had taken with him "the best and the brightest" to "the new Rome," which prospered and grew into the Byzantine Empire. Within Christianity, theological differences arose and became acute, reaching a climax in 1054, when the Roman (Catholic) Pope excommunicated the Greek (Orthodox) prelate.

Meanwhile, Arabic Muslims, formerly desert-dwellers now living in sophisticated cities, were rapidly absorbing the cultures and writings of the peoples under their rule. Their scholars (and Jewish scholars) translated into Arabic works written by Persians, Indians and Greeks. (The Roman Church had banned Greek learning, fearing it would lead Christians back to the deities of ancient Greece.) Medicine and science, primarily mathematics and astronomy, advanced. The arts: literature, painting and architecture flourished. It was a "Golden Age." Yet Islam and Christianity were on a collision course.

The year 1000 was a millennium year. Christians expected their Messiah to return, sparking a religious revival which grew throughout the eleventh century. Pilgrims in increasing numbers embarked upon a journey to "The Holy Land," Jerusalem and its environs. Sometimes they were attacked by Muslims. In 1095, Catholic Pope Urban II received an appeal from Byzantium. Its essence: "Muslim armies are threatening us. Help!" Byzantium and several Arab states had been mid-east rivals for some time, but Urban II seized the moment to declare a "Holy War" against Islam, its ultimate purpose to wrest The Holy Land from the "infidel" Muslim. Urban II did not use the word, but this was in fact history's first "Jihad."

An estimated 150,000 persons heeded the Papal call to join in the crusade. They came from all classes: clergy; royalty; aristocrats and knights; townspeople; feudal lords; peasants; serfs. They came with various motivations: to serve God; to gain glory or riches; to escape, to leave the land, its drudgery and pain inflicted by a society still living in an age of feudalism. Many were told that if they killed a Muslim in Jerusalem and died, they would go straight to heaven, an idea echoed today by Islamic suicide bombers.

In some places, the Crusaders evolved into ugly, uncontrollable rabble. Even before leaving Europe, in Germany and France (not yet countries), they slaughtered thousands of Jews, the first pogroms in history. They murdered fellow-Christians whom they regarded as heretics. But the worst was yet to come.

Joined by Byzantines in Constantinople, the Crusaders worked their way down the Mediterranean seacoast. In July 1099, they entered Jerusalem and took the city. They killed all Muslims they could find, including innocent men, women and children. They burned people alive, torturing many before putting them to death, including cutting off their limbs and heads, which were displayed on spikes to terrorize and intimidate others. Christian eyewitness accounts say that in two days 40,000 victims were slaughtered. Historians today regard this as the most horrific massacre ever. While Westerners have forgotten this episode, if even they knew it, Muslims still talk about it in schoolrooms. When Osama bin-Laden created Al-Qaeda, it was for the purpose, he said, of killing "Crusaders and Jews." To him, "Crusaders" was another word for "Christians," but whereas Mohammed had spoken of Christians and Jews as "People of the Book," to be treated respectfully, bin-Laden's history begins at the dawn of the twelfth century.

The First Crusade met with little resistance. Muslims from outside Jerusalem eventually came in large numbers to drive out the Christians and recover the ancient city. There would be many Crusades. In all, they lasted over 250 years, culminating in 1453 when the Seljuk Turks conquered Byzantium and made its capital of Constantinople their own. Muslims controlled "The Holy Land" until the end of World One, the League of Nations in 1918 giving to Great Britain and France a "Mandate" over much of the Near East, which had become part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Although Christians failed in their quest to occupy Jerusalem for all time, it cannot be said that they lost The Crusades. They defeated Muslim armies in Spain ("The Western Crusade"), ended what they perceived to be Christian heresy in France ("The Albigensian Crusade"), and converted "pagans" in northeast Europe ("The Northern Crusades"). All were bloody military affairs. Yet their main victories were not won on European battlefields.

By mid-fifteenth century, much of Europe had begun to climb out of feudalism. Markets had been established outside churches and castle walls. Small market towns were growing into larger cities.

There was urban development and, even, capitalism. Some Crusader expeditions, especially those undertaken on the Mediterranean Sea, had been financed by private contributors. The Bavarian banking and coal-mining Fugger family is usually cited as example. Europe was fast becoming mercantile. Its merchants and bankers would in time compete with and often surpass churches and monarchs in wealth, prestige and power.

Much of Europe's revival was due to the Crusaders and to The Renaissance (fourteenth through seventeenth centuries) that followed. When they had been east, Crusaders were struck by what they encountered there. So many writings, including Greek learning, their rightful heritage as Westerners, had long been denied them even as these works had been translated into Arabic! They were struck by the beauty and vitality of some of the cities and, even, by things sold in the marketplace: fruits previously unknown to them, silks and, particularly, the spices which had been imported from further east, distant India and Indonesia. They brought home what they could, in their arms, in their heads. What they couldn't bring in quantity, mainly those spices, they coveted.

The Protestant Reformation, scientific development and the great European voyages of discovery were all components of the Renaissance. The ancient Greeks had prized individuality. That attitude now surfaced among religious reformers, Martin Luther among them. Denouncing certain Catholic Church abuses, Luther told his followers to read The Bible (Guttenberg's printing press appeared the same time as he) and to interpret Biblical meaning for themselves. (Protestant versus Catholic is not the issue here. Erasmus led a counter-Reformation effectively stating the case for Catholicism.) But consider Luther's actions. He challenged the Church and some who served it. Consider his words: If you can read Holy Writ for yourself and are free to interpret it, you can challenge God's servants on earth and in essence even challenge God. If you can do that, you can question any human authority, not just submit and do as you are told. Islam has historically not undergone a Reformation.

Compare contemporary American thinking with today's Taliban. Americans believe in universal education. Its colleges and universities have more female than male students taking courses in the professions. Most American men treat women respectfully and regard them as peers. The Taliban torture and kill girls who wish to learn. What they do not realize is that at some point Taliban men will cohabit with women. Their children will grow up to be half a person because the mothers who nurture and raise them are denied access to schools that would help to make them and their families whole. Educated women contribute to the enhancement and advancement of civilization.

The great voyages of discovery grew out of European desire to reach the far east, where the spices were. Travel overland was not easy: Desert Muslims could attack. What if they went by sea? What if the world wasn't flat and people didn't fall off the edge when they reached it? What if, as Columbus insisted, the world was round? The Portuguese and the Spanish decided to find out. So they built sturdy cargo ships, invented scientific instruments to help them navigate in uncharted waters and produced powerful cannon to fight potential enemies. The voyagers found out. Columbus, de Gama and others, especially Magellan, who lost four ships and his own life in the world's oceans, but whose one remaining vessel circumvented the globe and limped back to port, proved that the world was round, discovered that the east could be reached by sailing west.

Muslims had long sailed the Indian Ocean to trade with India, even, China. (Think "Sinbad the Sailor.") They tried to stop the Westerners, who soon included the Dutch, French and British. But the Westerners continued to build better ships and cannon. They were also better organized and fired with the Greek spirit of adventure and exploration: Homer's seafaring heroes of The Odyssey and The Iliad were again their heritage. Yet events went beyond mere adventure. The Europeans defeated Muslims in battles fought overseas and eventually became the colonialists and imperialists of much of the earth. Directly controlling or just trading with the east, Westerners effectively marginalized the Arabs, whose own lands came to be ruled by a Muslim Empire, that of the Ottoman Turks.

In 1683, the Turks, their Empire extending into the Balkans, made a bold effort to conquer central Europe and laid siege to the city of Vienna for 58 days. They finally retreated after facing a Polish-German counter-attack and torrential rains which mired their heavy cannons in the mud.

Arabs/Muslims have long speculated as to why Europeans came to dominate the globe and they did not. During the Crusades and after, the West wanted to do business with the East, but Muslims blocked the land routes and largely monopolized trade. Had they offered to act as middle-man between east and west, transporting goods at low prices, Europeans might possibly have accepted a deal. They feared the oceans, not only falling off the flat earth, but in their own limited sailings down the African coast, knew it got hotter the farther south they went. Surely they were headed for hell?! Insofar as is known, no offer was made. Europeans finally sailed to the southern tip of Africa and well beyond. An echo of this tale is to be seen today. Arabs sit on most of the world's oil reserves. They have kept prices high when they might have lowered them and become an integral part of the international community. Now the West is turning "green" (if belatedly) and will discover alternate sources of energy.

In 1859, the same year oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, construction was begun on the Suez Canal, bringing Europeans in large numbers back to the Near East. Americans had preceded them, having come to Syria/Lebanon some three decades earlier. These arrivals were missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, who at first competed for converts. They found a neglected society, its people poorly educated, not very fluent in their own Arabic language. Religion aside, they had compassion and took it upon themselves to teach the populace all manner of subjects. In time, the American University in Beirut would open to become for more than a century the premier institution of higher learning in the Near East. All this spurred what Arabs refer to as "The Arab Awakening," a realization of their heritage and of possibilities open to them. It marked the beginnings of Arab nationalism.

World War One (1914-1918) accelerated the process. Arabs/Muslims had no prior history of fighting for freedom, liberty, self-rule. The Israelite Exodus from ancient Egypt appears to be the first such recorded event and is repeated in the Apocrypha story of the Maccabees (celebrated as Chanukah). Rebellions against the Roman Empire had occurred among Jews, the English, the Germans and in Rome itself (Spartacus). All became a part of Western tradition. Now, encouraged by the West to throw off the Turkish yoke, Arabs fought against the Ottoman Empire. But to their dismay, they were betrayed by the British and French who, granted a "Mandate" to rule over most of The Near East by the League of Nations, maintained effective control until the end of World War Two (1939-1945), when the Empires lacked the strength and/or the will to go on. (The Soviet Empire, the last empire, would collapse several decades later.)

In 1948, the new United Nations established a Jewish State of Israel, which many Muslims viewed as an act of neo-colonialism. Since then, Israel has been used a scapegoat for many Arab ills. (Israel's population and land area are too small to pose a threat to Muslims.)

In 2008, my partner and I journeyed to the lands of the Near East (Iran, Syria, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Oman) to see for ourselves what life was like in the Muslim heartland. What we gleaned is that today's Islam is not monolithic. No two of these societies are the same nor do they practice their faith in the same way. Nor are they necessarily the same people. Most are Arabs, but Iranians are Indo-Europeans coming out of the Persian tradition; Turks are racially Turkomans, but western Turkey's origins are Greek and, before that, Hittite; Kurds (living in Iran, Turkey and Iraq) are racially Indo-Europeans.

Dubai is particularly interesting. Instead of blocking trade and visitors, Dubai's leaders realized that their little country stood roughly midway between Europe and India. They decided to make their nation a kind of grand bazaar, with huge modern malls selling goods from all over the world and, in addition, to turn the land into a tourist paradise. This is of course a complete reversal of Islamic history, but it's worked so well for Dubai that other Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia are emulating it. Abu Dhabi is striving to be a general world culture center. Its Cultural District will house a branch of Paris's Louvre Museum in 2012. The Guggenheim Museum will follow a year later. A major concert hall is likewise due. All the Emirates are liberalizing their educational systems.

As for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, both must be perceived as Islamic splinter groups whose interpretation of Islam is far removed from the mainstream. But they are violent and pose very real threats to Western and other civilizations. Their ranks will continue to swell as long as they are persuaded that Westerners kill Muslims. It just isn't so. (See my earlier article, Terrorists, Part One: What They Don't Understand About Us.)

A few final words on the Prophet Mohammed: After his beloved wife Khadija died, he married multiple times. One of his wives was Jewish. One was Christian.

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