A fresh look at the Middle East

By Jory Squibb | Nov 21, 2009

When I pick up The Free Press, I turn at once to Mac Deford's ongoing editorials of events in the Middle East. I have great trust in the judgment of this observer who has watched and studied that situation for so many years. Yet his analysis usually leaves me with the frustration of watching a long-stalemated chess match. Last week the Camden Conference sponsored, and the library hosted, an evening with Anouar Majid, a Moroccan professor at the University of New England, which turned out to be a fresh and magical evening.

Hearing Majid was like hiring someone to clean your house, but finding that he was also stealing the furniture. They sometimes say of the Maghreb -- those northern African countries -- that the Moroccan is the scholar, the Algerian is the warrior, and the Tunisian is the wife. Majid fits this oversimplification. He has a naturally wide-ranging intellect, which is not the least bit content with any of the cobwebby notions we trade in today. Let me plunge in, with the warning that his talk was so provocative to my own thinking, that what follows is a mix of memory and editorial.

The reason we feel so confused and frustrated in examining the Middle East is that we are not looking at the real situation, but through the distorted double lens of three bankrupt monotheisms, and outdated colonial and cold-war politics. It's like trying to have a sincere conversation while two high-volume vaudeville shows are distracting you.

First of all, the religions involved have long ago closed their doors to any new thinking. Islam became rigid, backward-looking and strident many centuries ago. Christianity and Judaism are no better. What is the point of using the reported teachings of illiterate dessert wanderers -- Jesus and Mohammed -- speaking to far different societies when almost two thousand change-filled years have passed and the problems we are dealing with are so vastly different?

It's not that we shouldn't follow the example of these teachers' lives, but to use their dated social pronouncements to order our modern lives is the height of absurdity. Whew! This Majid was cleaning with a strong broom. I suddenly felt giddy. Secondly, we are looking at a tired old battlefield from colonial and cold-war days. The dynamics are not the least bit what they seem. Strident splinter-movements like the Taliban have sprung up in all ages whenever central governments are unable to order society. They flourish as long as they have an enemy, but let them rule without an enemy, and evolutionary forces slowly come into play.

Vietnam is a perfect example. This means that, as an outside nation, we must be willing to stand by during a significant period -- perhaps even a generation -- of chaos. Imagine that the United States was going through a chaotic period. Should another country invade us to set it right?

So our involvement in the Middle East needs to be blind to religion: free of agendas about the treatment of women, religious legal systems and mores. Otherwise we are right back in the Crusades. Likewise we must be politically neutral. Not pushing democracy. Not manipulating local politics. Otherwise we are standing in the shoes of colonial occupiers and dusty cold-war give and take.

So what is this sincere conversation we can have, once we tune out the irrelevant dances of religion and politics? It concerns what has always concerned human beings: the human need to have work, to be free from violence, to have a predictable social order, to educate oneself and one's children. Our job -- if not simply to get out of the way -- is to help rebuild the infrastructure of the pursuit of happiness, and do it without regard to politics or religion. We are all political and religious beings, but more basically we are simple creatures: We get up in the morning and turn on the faucet to make tea. Is there water? We send our children off to school. Is there school? We begin our daily work. Is there work? Can you host a birthday party amid rubble and the threat of bombs?

Once people can move ahead with some confidence, they naturally become less involved in political or religious extremism. This quiet rebuilding -- far beyond NGOs running around in white Jeeps offering quick fixes -- is probably as expensive as military intervention, but it results in a threatening situation becoming gradually peaceful.

Do you remember how threatening China once was? Since then, we have given China a powerful gift: a favored access to our market, despite a vast social cost to ourselves. The Middle East may need a different gift -- but a quiet, sustained, helping human relationship that sidesteps the hot buttons is the best way to welcome a different culture into the world family, and gain our own peace of mind at the same time.

I'm afraid I've strayed from Majid's talk, so I will close with another of his house-cleaning bombshells: The fundamental religion of America is capitalism, and though capitalism may be an intermediate step to something better, it is increasingly unable to bring us a just and peaceful world. It was born as an improvement on feudalism, and has brought many good changes, but as resources become terminally scarce, capitalism promotes a growing and dangerous inequality. It does not fairly distribute well-being, or even attempt that task.

During the long question and answer period, Majid was asked, "How do you know when a civilization has lost its center, its inspiration?" Answer: "Military defeat." I only faintly remember the "victory" of World War II. Since then, never have I seen a war end in anything but a messy stalemate. Thus, World War II might signal a subtle turning point. Since then, what we are sharing with the world, even peddling to the world, no longer has the inspiration to captivate others. You might notice that in talking about basic human needs, I have not included democracy. Yet isn't democracy something that evolves in a unique way for every nation, as that nation lives out its own history? And doesn't the evolution go through many setbacks and fallow years? I think of the 40 years of communism that Eastern Europe endured. Yet painful as it was, it was necessary to allow a bankrupt political system to play itself out.

Many thanks for a wonderful evening. I hope to find an inexpensive way to attend this year's Camden Conference and continue to look with fresh perspective on a cliche-ridden conflict.

Jory Squibb lives in Camden.

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