In The Crisis of Islam, Near- and Middle Eastern historian Bernard Lewis gives an historical overview of the conflicts over the last, oh, 1400 years or so between Islam and “the West.” It was written in 2003, so a lot has happened since then: the “completion” of American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the so-called Arab Spring, civil wars in Libya and Syria, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the rise of ISIS, just to name a few. But, given that most of the book is devoted to giving a historical perspective, it’s still valuable. And, most of Lewis’s themes and conclusions don’t seem to have been contradicted by anything that has happened since he wrote the book. I judge his biggest omission to be his failure to acknowledge and discuss the deep Sunni/Shia schism in Islam and the implications for the Middle East. Still — Lewis is a good writer and this is a good read.
The last few days, there have been numerous news stories about the end of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. I’m glad that it’s “over.” But, there’s a reason I put “over” in quotation marks. As a friend of mine told me on New Year’s Eve, even as the news media is focused on the end-of-the-year end of the war, her son is being deployed by the Air Force to …… Afghanistan. This Bloomberg story gives some of the reasons why it’s still not over.
“In Mosul (north of Iraq), the church bells did not ring out at Christmas for the first time in 1600 years. All remaining Christian churches—45 die-hard Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant/Pentecostal communities of faith—were closed by ISIS upon penalty of death.”
Ironically, on this day, December 28th, many churches that follow the liturgical calendar commemorate the horrible massacre that was precipitated by the birth of Jesus, the “Prince of Peace.” Matthew recorded in his Gospel how King Herod, jealous of reports that a new king had been born in tiny Bethlehem had every male child under the age of two years slaughtered.
I associate baby Jesus with God’s love, compassion, and mercy. Apparently, the human response to such a message includes violence and murder, from baby Jesus in Bethlehem, to the man Jesus crucified, to his follower Stephen stoned, all the way up to the present day.
I’m behind on my magazine reading. Last night I finally got around to the September/October issue of The American Conservative. Andrew Doran’s, “Absurd in Afghanistan,” is thought-provoking. Doran relates his conversations with “Joseph,” an Army officer who lived, negotiated, fought, and ended up incredibly frustrated in Afghanistan. How can Western soldiers and officials, coming from an institutional culture, even begin to have meaningful conversations with people still living in a tribal culture?Joseph recognizes that both cultures are violent, but negotiate and execute almost everything, even violence, in starkly different ways.
But why try to have a meaningful conversation? Just do the mission. But, Joseph and Doran insist that it’s precisely that pragmatic American approach that cripples our ability to make any long-term change in Afghanistan. They draw parallels between the American approach and the utilitarian bent of another great empire: the Roman empire. Just conquer the enemies, build the roads, construct the buildings. Who needs cultural change? Who needs philosophy? (I know – an oversimplification. But there’s truth there.)
Well, the slow development of social and cultural capital – the rule of law, a respect for reason and its application, the building of institutions – is exactly what Afghanistan needs. Yet America is reluctant – incapable? – of having that conversation.
Again, Joseph and Doran look to antiquity and argue that a better model than the Romans might be the Greeks. As they conquered much of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, including Afghanistan, the Greeks, unlike the Romans who succeeded them, proudly brought the culture of their philosophers with them.
Ironically, centuries later Islamic scholars, including the great Persian thinker Avicenna, a native of Afghanistan, preserved, illuminated, and advanced Greek philosophy during the Islamic Golden Age. But, that high civilization of Afghanistan was crushed after the Mongol conquest of Afghanistan in the 13th century.
Perhaps Doran wrote the truth in the subtitle for this article: “The Islamic world needs Avicenna, not America.”