18th July 2002
Conflict of Cultures or Tragic Misunderstandings
This paper is prompted by the events surrounding the September 11 suicide bombings. It asks the question are the motives of the bombers and their organisations as often portrayed rooted in the Islamic culture which is irreconcilable with our Western culture or are they the results of deep seated misunderstandings of Islam by us and by those who are behind the bombers. Then it follows with an attempt to find a resolution of these misunderstandings. However it does not attempt to find political or international solutions rather merely to try to disentangle the religious aspects of the conflicts posed and provoked by the 9/11 events.
In order to get a grip on this problem we have to be open, rational and honest in our approach. In simple terms we have to call a spade a spade and leave diplomatic double talk behind. We have to recognise that we belong to different faiths. Keeping them private not out of irreverence or lack of respect would make it easier for us to debate the subject freely and not be shackled by taboos. This also makes it possible to bring into the debate secular thinking that would enable us to analyse religions as social phenomena. Unless we do that we would intensify the conflicts and block the doors of understanding and tolerance.
First we have to dispose of the idea of a culture clash in the wider sense. Why don’t we have such conflict with the Chinese the Indians and certainly with the Japanese? We have far more in common with the Muslims and the Arabs than we have remotely with those peoples and their cultures. The sources of our culture were intertwined with and have in essence the same ingredients as theirs. Muslims embraced Greek philosophy and thought long before Christian Europe. Indeed it was through them that we managed to embrace Greek science and thought. And although Greek heritage was available to the West through Judaism and early Christianity it was the Muslims who took the initiative first in Baghdad then in Spain to delve into it. In those days Europe was the obscurantist and the Islamic world was the enlightened. Aristotle was translated into Latin only in the 13th century. The Arab tradition of translating and studying major works of non-Muslims started centuries before. And this trend intensified after Napoleon’ invasion of Egypt and continued to the present day. The Arab Society is not closed except for small power obsessed segments whose motivation is more political than cultural in the wider sense.
And what on the face of it should be even more uniting us together is religion. After all both Christianity and Islam sprung from the same Judaic ground. But it is this religious root which is the heart of the problem. Monotheism depicts one God. Therefore if He is with us He cannot be with you-in fact He must by definition be against you. Invoking the Divine by this simple logic is today and has been for centuries a lethal tool in the hands of various factions from time to time in their power struggles against their enemies internal and external by using it to mobilise the masses behind them. Paradoxically the spread of Democracy amongst ignorant and uneducated masses is bolstering these factions recently nourishing the struggle.
So what is the remedy? The answer in one word is "Enlightenment". There is nothing new in this. Judaism and Christianity have gone through the same process that is yet to be completed with relapses here and there. In Israel a small minority of ultra religious are still causing problems. The atrocities of the 2nd World War, the recent rise of anti-Semitism and the backlash against non whites (read non Christian) amongst the Right in Europe show that there is still a lot more for the Enlightenment to achieve. As for the Arab and Islamic world they are despite many tentative attempts almost centuries behind in this respect. This gap is the cause of the problems facing us. In order to bridge it or bridge over it we have to go back to the historical background.
The Theological Background
Amongst the three so-called monotheistic-religions Judaism found the accommodation first perhaps through the necessity and the nature of its existence in the Diaspora. It is traditionally accepted that the Jews came down from their self inflicted exile in Egypt to carve a territory to occupy and live in as they were not wanted and had nowhere else to go. (What a historical repeat!) They fought in the name of their God because He is the symbol of their cohesion and therefore belonged to them and to no other people. Remember He is termed God of active armies in the Hebrew Bible not of the hosts as politely translated. They were His chosen people and He would fight for them against other gods. And because presumably He was more powerful He and the Jews would prevail. Indeed they did. Monotheism as we came to understand it later was not clear to the Jews then and not since. (Although it is a logical concept- a Pyramid has to have an apex and the creation must have a single original mover.) If He belongs to them He can not belong to others. Every people lived happily side by side each with its own Deity. Moses wife was not Jewish and so was David partially. King Solomon revelled in marrying gentiles! Therefore when King Syrus helped the Babylonian exiles to go back to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem though no doubt politically motivated neither side found that to be wrong or unusual. The Persians had their god and the Jews theirs. So were other peoples and nations of old. The whole conflict started when one Jewish sect, the Christians under the Romans’ domination introduced the universality and asserted the concept of monotheism. (And then diluted it with the Trinity and it had to wait for Islam to restore it to its purity.) From then onwards God became the universal God. Islam followed and accepted that but claimed that only they exclusively belonged to Him. And of course so did the Christians. The Jews at a loss on the one hand not wanting and not able to claim Him exclusively any more and on the other by necessity had to coexist with both Christian and Muslim produced an intellectual compromise. Maimonides of Cordoba articulated this by saying it is not the oneness of God that is His essence. It is His uniqueness and that is beyond human understanding and comprehension. This is the compromise through which all three religions today are trying to find a consensus. It is also this that through Maimonides’ great intellectual disciple Spinoza that the doors of Enlightenment started to open.
In the meantime and for one thousand years while the Jews stood aside Muslims and Christians fought each other to assert the supremacy of their respective path to what both claim to be the one God and the only one assured path to Heaven. Their zeal to succeed against each other resulted only in almost eliminating their theological mentors. Today we have one thousand millions Christians lined up against one thousand millions Muslims smothering 12 million Jews out of existence. Jews became an endangered species. (I wish they were treated like the Bengali tigers or the Arabian leopards! How about a preservation order!) This essay however is not about Lamentations. It is that each of the three groups recently spawned a small nucleus to fight for their understanding what their faith is. To coexist they have to keep their faith private and ensure that their places of worship are not used for anything but worship. Any other activity political or nationalist should be outlawed. Jews kept to that throughout the ages. Muslim governments in their varieties banned political activities in mosques right through to the end of the Caliphate and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It is the western idea of freedom that is allowing this activity now to thrive in the West. In other words it is the West’s tolerance that is unwittingly encouraging intolerance. The ban on Salman Rushdie started in Bradford not in Tehran. Tolerant Europe has become the breeding ground for active terrorists.
To understand the root, the manifestation, and eventually the resolution of the 11th.September tragic phenomenon it is important to isolate, though not to ignore the Israeli-Arab conflict in order to focus on the primary causes. Since even if Israel were to disappear tomorrow the above problem will persist. It would probably become more accentuated and acute not least because Western Media would cease to be obsessed with viewing Israel as the root of all Middle East problems.
Israel has nevertheless become in the eyes of the Arab World a symbol of a Western implant and a propaganda tool exploited in many ways. Opposition to Israel helped to mould the Palestinians into a recognised nation. It was also instrumental in creating a second national identity - Jordan. Arab corrupt regimes and rulers use Israel to divert the wrath of their streets away from them. Recently bashing Israel is helping Europe to placate the Arabs and curry favour with their wealthy investors and export markets. More crucial however is that Israel or rather the Jewish people were used by the Muslim fundamentalists in their struggle against the West by invoking the imitation of the life of Muhammad who in his days perceived to have fought and overcome Jewish opposition to him and to his message.
Notwithstanding all that, the Arab ruling governments and classes in contrast to Europe and European media understand where the real fundamentalist danger lies. This is why recently they began to want to resolve the Israeli conflict out of sheer self-preservation and protection not from tiny Israel but from their own streets and masses. They hate the Israelis and the Palestinians equally-except that they fear the latter more than the former. But they cannot spell this out in public. It is a convention to support automatically any anti West voice or grievance in the Arab Street. The Arab leaders understand that and discount their own vocal support. The only side who takes it seriously is either the European Media out of ignorance or their governments out of self-serving interests. America recently has woken up to the real root of the problem.
It is against this background that we should analyse the Bin Laden phenomenon and the 11th of September.
Bin Laden – A Presumed New Caliph? Faced with their impotence in fighting foreign domination and following their failures first in the wars against Israel and then in the Gulf war the Arabs turned to those leaders who were using religion as weapon of last resort. Radicals were using it against their corrupt leaders for almost a century. No doubt some of these radicals must have thought out the grand design. However the majority support came and still coming from sincere believers. The climax presented itself when the American military were stationed in Saudi Arabia. To some devout Muslims it was analogous to replanting idolatry in the Kaaba. To appeal to the masses and the streets the golden epoch of the Prophet and his struggle against the infidels is invoked. They started to believe that they have to relive those wonderful days. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. Fundamentalists of all religions think of the universe, time and history in a circular way. Most of us in the west whose thinking is influenced by the Enlightenment our daily lives are pervaded by science and our religion is privatised. We tend to think of history as succession of events in the world in a linear way. To the fundamentalists history repeats itself. To us every day is an ever-new link in the succession of time. To them time can be recreated and relived.
Conditions and circumstances set the scene for re-enacting the times of the Prophet. Almost every detail fitted. And who better than Bin Laden to take the central role. He looks and acts the part. May be not a Prophet but certainly a Caliph is born. To understand the above we have to embark on a comparative account of both Muhammad and Bin Laden and their lives and times.
Life and Times of Mohammed
The story here is based on the Koran and history as taught in the Arab world. It exaggerates the central role of the message of Islam in its subsequent conquests and ignores the weakening of Persia and Byzantium prior to the advent of Islam. It also paints a hopeless picture of chaos ignorance and strife amongst the Arab tribes and belittles the deep penetration of the Jewish faith and culture both in north and south of Arabia. The historical truth is of course different. The Arabs swept their surrounding countries in a military conquest not unlike that of Alexander before them or the Mongols after them. To the Arabs and curiously enough even to most historians it was the Message of Islam that conquered the world. However in the context of our story what is important is what the average Muslim today believes what happened not what in actual fact happened historically.
While the Old Testament was shrouded in mythology and the New Testament was shaped and codified by a political conference convened by a Roman Emperor the story of the rise of Islam is based mostly on written historical material irrespective of its accuracy. That is why it can be accepted as more credible and appealing certainly to Muslims. It is not based on blind faith in mythology and rituals. That is why it is easier for enlightened Muslim leaders if they need to steer the fanatic masses towards rational interpretation of Islam than it is the case with fanatic Jews or Christians.
The rational basis of Islam enabled at least some of its scholars to deal freely and even to absorb Greek philosophy so easily in the early centuries of the last Millennium and so managed to accommodate it with Islam. This same accommodation helped Maimonides influenced by both Greek and Islamic philosophy to reform Judaism and paved the way to the creation of different Jewish religious movements existing side by side peacefully today. To understand this we have to refer to his Guide and to the writings of the great Muslim theologians from Al Farabi and Al Ashaari right to Ibn Rushd (Averroes) Ibn Bajja and others.
Mohammed’s life is a beautiful and attractive story. It is a great shame that it is caricatured by The Satanic Verses. It could be made into a best selling sensitive and dramatic film. His father died before he was born. His mother died when he was six. He had to fend for himself under the care of his grand father who died soon after and Muhammad found himself supported by his uncle, the father of Ali. (The subsequent 4th Caliph whose murder and that of his son Hussein split Islam into Shi’a and Sunna) He was lonely and lost and had to work for a wealthy Meccan widow to look after her trade with Damascus. She trusted and eventually married him. He was 25 she was 40. Thus he suddenly became wealthy with a status in his community and plenty of time and wealth on his hand. But his personal upbringing made him contemplative and introvert. He came in contact with the Christians on his travels to Syria. More importantly he was intimately in touch with the huge Jewish tribes in Mecca, Medina, Khyber and other towns in Arabia. He absorbed a lot of their teachings and culture. He admired them and felt affinity with them belonging, as he was to a movement the Hanafi, which believed in One God.
It was during one of Mohammed's contemplative retreats in a cave outside Mecca that he felt the Divine was inspiring him in the same way that Ezekiel did before him and almost in a carbon copy manner. Bewildered at first but later convinced that he was destined to be yet another Jewish Prophet. Initially the Jews themselves thought that he must be the awaited Messiah. Later on, when their Rabbis discovered his little understanding of their complicated theology and Talmud they disowned him thus repeating the same mistake that separated them five centuries back from Christianity. Muhammad fought them and defeated them. Did he connive or condone the massacres that followed is a matter for historians to continue to debate. Suffice us to say that it would have been out of character to do so. He was upright genuine and sincere and never even presumed direct personal contact with God. He never presumed to be divine or immortal and as a prophet in the best Judaic tradition he did not appoint a successor. He did not claim to be the last messenger in the sense of sealing the Prophecy. That would have contradicted his belief that God decides whatever He wants. It was not he but his second successor Caliph Omar who eventually drove God’s beloved Jews out of that part of Arabia. During Uthman Ibn Affan’s Caliphate the Koran was codified and all sorts of new traditions were initiated. However it was Omar who was the first political leader of Islam to shape the Caliphate that emerged later. This is the background for the Koran as it was handed down to future generations.
Muhammad was illiterate which was nothing unusual in those days. People learnt by heart poetry and recitations of events. The Koran came to him by way of remembering and commenting on what he knew of the Old Testament. He would go in a trance and recite these commentaries. Mystics and hypnotised individuals can behave similarly even today. After his trances professional storytellers would listen to the Prophet repeating them and they in turn would recount and recite them. The main thrust of the Koran is taking issue with the Jews who rejected him. The message is not different from those of Hebrew prophets Isaiah Jeremiah and especially Ezekiel.
Muhammad was shunned by his fellow Meccans and found refuge first with the Jews and later on with other supporters in Medina. When the Jews disowned and turned away from him and then others who embraced him first joined the Jews and the Meccans against him these two groups became the targets of his admonition. The Koran opens with a short stanza modelled on the opening lines of the Psalms. Then it goes on to castigate those who incurred the wrath of God (i.e. Jews and Christians lumped together) and those who have gone astray (i.e. the non Jews in Medina and Mecca who initially accepted Mohammed’s message and then reneged.)
The rest of the Koran is primarily one long polemic with the Jews, or the people of the Scriptures and a variety of Rules and Regulations. The second chapter named "The Cow", is referred to by scholars as mini Koran and contains the gist of the whole work. It states that God loved the Jews. He chose them as His own people and they turned away from him and although he forgave them time and time again they continued to rebel against his teachings and his message. They are argumentative and not prepared to accept without questioning God’s faith and straightforward messages. They made so much fuss about the Red Cow (hence the name of the chapter) instead of just obeying His wishes to sacrifice it without questioning. And as a last straw they were not listening to his latest messenger Mohammed. The rest of the Koran is a compilation of rules and regulations adapted with allusions to the words of God as revealed in the Old Testament. And just to complete the story the Koran accepts the Christians as believers while rejecting absolutely the concept of Trinity but curiously leave the door open for the Immaculate Conception. God after all created the world out of nothing why can’t He order the creation of a baby without the normal human contact.
It is interesting that the Koran by criticising the Jews pays them indirectly the greatest compliment. Jewish tradition is argumentative and reflective. Maimonides repeats and confirms this tradition which boldly asserts that they carry out the tenets of Judaism but they reserve afterwards the right gifted them by God to try to understand why. Briefly and succinctly: “we do first and we listen after.” It is this tradition that made the Greeks dub them the philosophising people. It may very well have contributed to their survival.
The power of the Koran is less in its contents. These are disjointed and their allusions and quotations of the Old Testament are often contradictory. Its power lies more in its poetic prose and musical quality that is most effective when read allowed. When properly recited it is mesmerising. Translation can never do it justice in fact it destroys it. Once compiled after Mohammed’s death it kept its present arrangement and form even though Muslims admit that it is haphazard in its chronology and coherence.
As important as the Koran is the life of the Prophet. It is told and repeated to every child in school and at home. Muslims are expected to follow and imitate his conduct (Sunna) and recall his deliberations (Hadith) and relate them to the appropriate passages from the Koran to provide them with authority and context. In this respect there is more similarity with the Christian attitude to the life of Christ. Jews never have such personality cults. When a child is blessed you would say " may he follow in the ways of Abraham Isaac and Jacob"-curiously not that of Moses or David or any Prophet.
Life and Times of Bin Laden (compared with Muhammad)
It is easy to discern a parallel of the two lives if you are intent on finding it. Like Mohammed, Bin Laden travelled the world and came in touch with those who lost their faith in God and questioned His existence. (Cf.Byzantium and Damascus) He made money and he could have lived a life of luxury. (Mohammed's. marriage to Khadija). He decided to fight the infidels, the Russians. (Cf. the Meccan Idolaters) helped by the Americans (Medina Jews and supporters) who then turned against the Muslims in the Gulf (the Meccans’s hostility and Medina’s renegades) then the American army is stationed in Saudi Arabia.(the enemy in Mecca) So he goes to Afghanistan (Medina) where he could lead them to repossess Arabian lands (back to Mecca). Like Mohammed bin Laden likes to think and contemplates in isolated caves. He will destroy the heathen images and symbols and idols like the Buddas and the arts and the museums. (The heathen idols in the Kaaba) He will declare one Islamic State and one Islamic society (the Ummah) by abolishing the name of Afghanistan changing even its radio to become Sharia Radio. He is helped by leading followers like Sheikh Omar, Al-Zuwahiri etc to establish the rule of Islam in Afghanistan. (Cf. Abu Baker, Ali, Omar Alkhattab etc setting a new state in Medina) He will have fighters from other Arab and Islamic countries (Al Ansar in Medina) and so on and so forth. How can any Muslim deny this messenger of God and his ambition to drive the infidels, those who "incurred God’s wrath" and those "who have gone astray" in the lands of Islam. (Dar-El-Islam.) To Bin Laden the West became the house of War to be destroyed. (Dar-El-Harb).
Once you see this comparison and follow it in details you understand what is happening today amongst large segments of Muslim communities and how easy it is to recruit naïve and innocent Muslims to this new cause. These recruits will find comfort in this cause from their anguish and frustration whether in their alienated lives in the West or living under the oppression of their corrupt leaders at home or under occupation in Israel. Bin Laden fits the image and embodies the renewed divine message. Driving Bin Ladin from and changing the regime in Afghanistan does not even begin the solution. To those who follow Bin Laden it is only a setback in their eyes the same way that Mohammed had his setbacks. The danger to the world today comes from the enormous body of converts to the new cause. They may be naïve and simple but nevertheless are sincere innocent believers. We have to find the way to their minds and hearts and not confine our efforts to eradicate the evil few who are inflicting terror on them and on the entire world.
So where do we look for a solution to this complex problem? The West has been experimenting by juggling stick and carrot with the Muslim countries but without success. The trouble of course is that the rulers and the peoples of most of these countries are caught in vicious circles. With the lack of real democracy they have become hostages of each other. The corrupt rulers are becoming hostages of their streets and the streets are hostages of these rulers. A twin track path towards democracy and complete separation of state and religion could ideally solve the problem. But these countries are marching in the opposite direction. And anyway can we say that we have really achieved such an ideal state in the West?
Some commentators on the other hand find the root in the jealousy and envy of the wealthy West. This may very well be the case. But it is an unrealistic pipe dream to think that a semblance of redress of inequality can be achieved in a foreseeable future. These and other factors are no doubt the breeding ground for the terror recruits. They may be the dynamites but the switch is in the hand of those the like of Bin Laden who is using Islam to ignite them.
How to counter this misuse of Islam as an evil tool? The simple answer is what both Judaism and Christianity have in their own ways discovered. And that is Enlightenment. But in order to be convincing and effective only Muslims can lead Muslims on the road to Enlightenment.
The question is where to find these leaders who can initiate and start to steer the Muslim world towards this goal. The answer is mainly in the West and may in some Islamic countries where Muslims enjoy free speech. And yes funny as it may sound amongst the Israeli Arabs. There would also be those Muslim academics, religious scholars and publicists of independent means. Only Muslims can influence Muslims. They should be encouraged and made aware of their responsibility to do that. Our mistake has been that we sought tolerance from those who by definition are intolerant. It is counterproductive to appeal to Muslim Mullahs and clerics. And to expect leaders of other religions to help is illogical and would only encourage hypocrisy. However to ask them all to join together to highlight their common moral values and show how similar these values are can be very positive and helpful.
Danger comes from the simplistic and adversarial methods of the Media and misinformed policies of the majority of Western Democracies. The main thrust of their argument is that all religions are either militant or intolerant and none more so than Islam. On the other side of the spectrum you have naïve religious leaders who seek to gloss over the exclusivity of religions. It is no use saying that the Testaments, Old and New, or the Koran preach messages of peace. They don’t. And where you cherry pick those phrases or interpretations to prove such good intentions you end up losing credibility. But while the majority of Christians and Jews have learnt during the last two centuries to privatise their faiths only a tiny minority of Muslims have. They can coexist with the rest of the world only if they do. Jews and Christians seem to coexist even if in some countries just. And so do the peoples and religions of the Far East. There is no reason why the Muslims should exclude themselves from this process.
Political preaching should be literally outlawed in places of worship. For centuries Islamic states did just that. Western tolerance is breeding Muslim intolerance. Loudspeakers on top of the mosques in the West must be banned. Those who find it important to remind themselves of the times of daily prayers can use “Pagers” or watch-alarms. Loudspeakers emphasise foreignness and alienate Muslims from other communities. State-sponsored or aided faith schools must be banned not encouraged. Sharia laws (or Jewish laws or Church laws) can be applied voluntarily to regulate relationships between members of certain communities if so desired by those individuals but only if always to be overridden by the democratic laws of the countries in which they exist. Unless such measures are taken and explained and accepted the future of our children, irrespective of their persuasion is bleak.
Aharon Nathan, July 2002