Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Mid East compared to the West

We in the West tend to be self righteous.  I too, share the feeling that our culture is superior, but we forget we have evolved and are still evolving.  Christians didn't start out by conquering barbarians, but at different stages Christian swords threatened the heathens and political decisions were made backed by military might that helped Christians to dominate the world. 

But we were not unified or always peaceful towards one another.  Rome seized power, but really persecuted Christians in the beginning.  Before it was overwhelmed by Muslims, Constantinople was another power centre.  The Coptic church developed in Egypt.  Over time various ethnic variations built churches.  Can one forget the Crusades where millions were killed?  Most of us are conscious of Catholic Protestant conflicts that still have impact.  The Baptist movement stirred up repression.  The Spanish Inquisition is something we would like to forget  while there were other religious persecutions of particular heresies by other authoritarian factions. Today religious factions impact politics where some groups feel the rest of their country is going down the wrong road and need to have our behaviour dictated by religious guidelines. One large cult believes the Holy Land must be controlled by Jews in order for the Second Coming to occur.

When the West suffered what is recalled as the Dark Ages, the Muslims were reaching the peak of their influence.  For the most part they had little to do with the downfall of the West, but ironically were instrumental in helping us to the Renaissance.  They were the ones who copied and translated the wisdom of the Greeks, the Romans and others so we could once again discover our heritage.  They had a tremendous respect for education, science and medicine.  We use an Arabic numbering system that includes the concept of zero amongst many other scientific developments. 

They lapsed into colonies of the West and into dictatorial enclaves.  We took advantage, especially after oil was discovered.  We used them to help us win our wars and made a few promises along the way.  We ignored natural boundaries and imposed our own to suit our politics.  We even deposed an elected national leader (Iran) and imposed a dictatorial monarch that supported the setup of an oppressive secret police.  The situation in Saudi Arabia is very delicate with a very strict form of Islam called Wahhabism that has tremendous influence in that country and very far beyond.

All that many in the West know of Islam is that it is violent.  Some like to point out that there is a great deal of violence in the Qu'ran, but a similar effort could uncover a great deal of violence in the Bible as well.  Islam continues to gain converts at a rate that mystifies Westerners.  Some people find peace and equality in the faith. Many Christians feel their religion is their ultimate guide to morality just as many Muslims feel their faith is tied to their behaviour.  In the West most nations have a adopted a separation between church and state, although churches do influence our societies.  Many Muslims feel church and state should be intertwined, although they have a long history of tolerance for other faiths.

It is hard to catalogue all the decisions we imposed on the Mid East (and the rest of the world).  We were content to let friendly dictators keep their subjects ignorant and compliant.  In reality some dictators kept control by repressing some religious or ethnic groups.  When finally some of the dictators were overthrown some of the ethnic groups rebelled.  Many of them felt that we in the West were complicit in repressing them.  They felt that their dictators were manipulated by the West on one hand, but also manipulated the West to maintain power.

Most main stream media gives us an Israeli perspective on the Palestine question and we cannot understand what is wrong with the Palestinians.  They appear to be backward and are always trying to kill Jews.  We are seldom given more than a hint of the outrage Muslims feel about the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians and the occupation of their land.  A significant amount of the outrage of inhabitants of many Middle Eastern countries is due to the perceived injustices doled out by Israelis, Americans and Europeans.

What benefits everyone is open information and respect for one another.   As a global village we are amazingly ignorant about one another.  We are all born into a culture that gives us a perspective.  It is perfectly natural to think we are superior, have always been and always will be.  Others are backward, unfortunate and not to be trusted.  Underneath all that we are very similar--we fear, we love, we hate, we are jealous, we want more (of different things)  We seek pleasure and avoid pain.  We work and struggle to be better than our peers.  Very often we want to impose our viewpoints on others.

Whenever we favor one group for our political advantage we offend some other group.  Just as in our past one Christian sect wanted to kill another Christian sect it seems there are Muslim sects ready to kill other Muslim sects and apostates over different interpretations of text and history. 

In Iraq essentially we replaced a Sunni minority dictator with a Shiite authority in many ways seeking to avenge previous imbalances.  In Syria an Alawite minority has imposed its will on different factions and they are fighting back.  Turkey has its own history and a big concern with minority Kurds that also are prominent in Iraq and Syria.  Iran feels threatened by ISIL, but at the same time wants to keep Syria intact as an ally.  As in America there are very self righteous religious factions that feel they need to reform/replace the current power structure.  It is very complicated and it seems that little progress is being made.  Not fair to say there are not elements of sanity where we can encourage progress, but it seems discouraging.  

The solution to the problems of the Middle East is not to kill everyone, but to persuade them that tolerance and understanding and respect work better.  In reality we all share common problems.  An obvious one is climate change which has complicated everything else including the Middle East itself.  More than that we need to have a world economy that offers dignity to everyone.  Where everyone feels they have a role to play.

There are groups of Jews and Arabs, both in the Mid East and around the globe trying to understand one another and work for mutual betterment.  Perhaps Shiites and Sunnis are working together and if so we need to encourage them.  Governments have the power to encourage tolerance, but in reality there is political risk in doing so.  Each of us needs to understand our own tolerance level and expand it.  Here in Canada we used to be considered neutral and have helped negotiate peace, but not so much anymore. 

A really good source of information on the Middle East is Juan Cole who blogs regularly at http://www.juancole.com/   Juan speaks a few Middle Eastern languages and has hands on experience.  He also has made an intelligent effort to understand.  We would all benefit if he was paid more attention.

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