From where did al Qaeda's oppressive, expansionist and misogynistic ideology arise to terrorize us, now even invading peacefully Muslim Mali; imposing their beliefs, and raping Mali both figuratively and literally at gunpoint? How can Islam spawn two such different sorts of believer?
The answer has little to do with Islam.
In Arabia at the turn of the last century, Islam's unquestionably first family were the Hashemites -- named for and dedicated to the sacred practice of hospitality -- led by the Sharif of Mecca and his sons, the most notable of whom were Faisal; who later became King of Greater Syria, befriended Chaim Weitzman of the World Zionist League and committed himself to a Jewish homeland in Israel, and Abdullah; who founded the progressively Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire -- while far from perfect -- had a record for human rights that rivaled anything in Europe or North America. Drawing those precedents forward one could honestly see developing in the West and the East the shared world of rights and freedoms for everyone that at least a few of us enjoy today.
But at the same time the Sauds still practiced a different sort of Islam in Arabia -- combining Islam with other more ancient tribal precedents, focused on rigid monotheism, but also a very singular interpretation of God's commands -- and still made their living raiding caravans on camelback in the Nejd. I don't think anyone at the time seriously considered that one day they would be able to aggressively promote their own sort of Islam among other Muslims, especially because one of those beliefs was that other Muslims -- and non-Muslims as well -- might actually deserve to die for not believing the same as they.
However, Great Britain had a problem. Embroiled in a protracted battle for influence with the Ottoman Empire, they played to win with little regard for unintended consequences. So despite initially flirting through T.E. Lawrence with the Hashemites, they settled on supporting the Sauds -- perhaps thinking them easier to manipulate -- provided them with protection, money and the bullets they eventually used to conquer Arabia, take over Mecca, Medina, and the training of Islam's most prominent religious leaders. Then, the French deposed King Faisal, the Ottomans imploded, the Saud's struck oil, got rich, powerful and influential, and the rest is history.
A few years later in Pakistan, Mohamed Ali Jinnah dreamed of a secular Muslim state, declaring, "you may belong to any religion, or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state." That is, until President Reagan needed General Zia-ul-Haq to stand with him against Russia's rising influence in the region, and Reagan's American conservatism inspire Zia to adopt Islamic conservatism in return, which put him and those who followed after him in line for Saudi support too. And unfortunately, Iran's growing oil wealth and democratic government -- which could have served as a counterbalance to Saudi Arabia's growing influence -- had already been brought down by President Eisenhower in 1953 for the sake of international oil interests, concerned with Iran's attempts to nationalize their reserves, marking the first time the U.S. openly overthrew an elected, civilian government of another sovereign state.In retrospect, when you look at what really happened, there are actually quite a few problems with the way our world's colonial powers managed their power in the last few centuries.
- Outnumbered, they inevitable undertook a "divide and conquer" approach to dealing with the indigent population they sought to control, which has played out since then in further ethnic strife in the Far-East between Hindus and Muslims, and the Middle-East between Muslims and Jews.
- They also inevitably chose to promote those members of the indigent population least loyal to their own, and therefore most willing to sell out their fellows for the sake of their own self-interests -- finding them much more compliant, manipulable, and easier to work with -- creating the sort of kleptocracy that persists in countries like Zimbabwe.
- But worst of all, they inevitably arrested the development of the native social structures of those lands they occupied, imposing their own values and mores in a way that demanded a counter-response so that when the situation finally returned to more aboriginal control, those societies in response reset to a world-view that seems a hundred years behind where it should be today.
Certainly, the world outside North America and Europe contained atavistic elements, corrupt individuals, and racial and inter-religious frictions that could sometimes inflame to open conflict -- just as all our nations still do -- but they were not ascendant there any more than they are here today. However, more important than that admission is the realization that they would not have become ascendent there without outside interference and tragically short-sighted support. Moderate, open-minded and egalitarian perspectives don't encourage one to seek glory through conflict, to subjugate or steal from one's fellows, or to help the rich get richer while the poor stay poor.
The West got what they wanted, but not without consequence. With 20/20 hindsight, without question, al Qaeda's roots spring from tribal ignorance, greed and world politics, not from Islam.Why does it matter? Fast-forward to the mess we live in, and you can see why no one particularly wants to take responsibility for the parts their side has played to get here. But the good news is that we are all in a position to help fix it, if we go into it with open eyes. Because the fact is that we are all changing, in the West and the East together:
- Despite a brief return to igniting war in far off places for their own selfish interests -- following George Bush's ill-conceived doctrine of 'we'll fight them there, so they don't fight us here!' -- the West has backed away from that worst aspect of colonialism.
- Even Islam's most atavistic Muslims are changing too, liberalizing, learning more about Muhamad's Islam and how it differs from what some clerics have taught them, moving away from pre-Islamic racism, pedophelia, prejudice and misogyny. They have left al Qaeda behind, so now al Qaeda hates them too.
While not yet entirely on the same side, all our sides are drawing together, against oppression, war and tumult and towards freedom. And in fact, the only actors out there who are opposing those developments are the conflict-seeking radicals on every side -- al Qaeda high among them, but certainly joined by the West's self-anointed "infidel" bloggers, and men like Anders Behring Breivik -- flogging the idea that the problem belongs solely to those they oppose, while at the same time also encouraging all sides to literally flog each other, because war and tumult always promote radical perspectives, and because the idea that there's no other perspective than "us versus them" is where those radicals get their power from in the first place.
So while the explanation for what went wrong with our last hundred years is really quite simple, what we all need to do to get it right again is pretty simple too: we need to promote the good and condemn the wrong in all our faiths and philosophies, instead of promoting what's bad about the other side while ignoring what's wrong with our own.
Jesus principle of dealing with the log in your own eye before focusing on the speck in your neighbors -- in fact his entire Sermon on the Mount -- sounds like pretty good advice for us all to me.
Because carrying that image a little further, if you've got something in your eye it's pretty helpful to have a friend nearby, who's own clearer vision might help you get it out.
And we're all far more likely to let someone close enough to do us some good if we aren't afraid that they'll just take the advantage instead.
Regardless of who's more right or who's more wrong, all sides share some of the guilt for some of the harm that is being experienced to some extent by everybody.
Fact is, we're all in this together.
What do you think the world would be like, if we all paid a little less attention to teaching other people what we think is wrong with them and how to be more like us, and paid a little more attention to learning how to celebrate the best of everyone?
In the libraries of Timbuktu -- now burned to the ground -- they cherished the words of Rumi who said, "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there."
I think that is where we'll all find God's Peace/Shalom/Salam.