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Two Great Pieces to Challenge Conventional Thinking

Who to engage with in the Middle East and on what terms?  At prospectsforpeace.com we have been trying to promote the view that engagement is not endorsement and communication is not capitulation - and that without broadening the scope of dialogue we are unlikely to understand the region or how to re-stabilize.

Here are two powerful pieces that appeared in recent days - in the LA Times and Ha'aretz - to drive home the point, make the historical analogy, and get us thinking:

In the first piece from Ha'aretz, Zvi Bar'el asks, "What if they spoke to each other?":

... how will Hezbollah respond if Israel enters into negotiations with Syria? How will Syria react if the U.S. conducts direct talks with Iran and reaches a tactical compromise? How will Iran react if Syria is no longer included in the axis of evil? And what will the gangs in Gaza say if a miracle occurs and Israel invites Ismail Haniyeh to talks and lifts the boycott on the Palestinian Authority?

The possible answers are that Hezbollah might not stop making threats, but it would lose its logistical support and no longer constitute a strategic threat. Syria would not cut its ties with Iran, but Iran would no longer be able to dictate events in Lebanon. Iran would not stop collecting nuclear technology, but direct talks with Washington, and perhaps an accord the talks might ultimately produce, would also affect the motivation to use this technology for attack.

The street gangs in Gaza would also continue to smuggle weapons, and the firing of Qassams would not cease, but the PA's realm of control would expand and the economic welfare of the Palestinian people would become a real political bargaining chip. Most importantly, the Arab initiative could be realized, turning these gangs into fringe forces that should be opposed for threatening the chance to establish a Palestinian state. This should be the new discourse of Israeli and American politics in the region if someone really plans to turn the military failures into opportunities and prevent the next war.


In the second piece, from the Los Angeles Times, William Dalrymple tracks the origins of "the largest and bloodiest anti-colonial revolt to face any European empire anywhere in the world during the 19th century."  The British campaign to break down Indian resistance to Western domination, as Darlymple sees it, was a "steady crescendo of insensitivity" to Muslim feeling, and ultimately led to the Great Munity of 1857 and the terrible war that followed.  Darlymple describes how he sees "Westerners" falling into the same habits as their predescessors from 150 years ago:

So does history repeat itself. Not only are Westerners again playing their old game of installing puppet regimes, propped up by Western garrisons, for their own political ends, but more alarmingly, the intellectual attitudes that have sustained such adventures remain intact.

Old-style Orientalism is alive and kicking, its prejudices intact, with Mark Steyn, Daniel Pipes, Samuel Huntington and Charles Krauthammer in the role of the new James Mills and Thomas Macaulays. Through their pens — blissfully unencumbered by any experience of the Muslim world — the old colonial idea of the Muslim ruler as the decadent Oriental despot lives on, and, as before, it is effortlessly projected on a credulous public to justify imperial projects.

... As before, Western evangelical politicians are apt to cast their enemies in the role of "incarnate fiends" and simplistically conflate resistance to invasion and occupation with "pure evil." And Western countries, blind to the effects of their foreign policies, feel aggrieved and surprised to be attacked by — as they see it — mindless fanatics.

Yet as we have seen in our own time, nothing so easily radicalizes a people against us as aggressive Western intrusion in the East. The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. There are clear lessons here. For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke, those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.

But Darlymple does not stop at merely making an analogy between then and now.  He sees the origins of our current predicament in the history of this revolt.

In addition to the obvious historical parallels, there is a direct link between the jihadis of 1857 and those we face today. The reaction of some of the Islamic scholars after 1857 was to reject the West in favor of a return to pure Islamic roots. A Wahhabi-like madrasa was founded at Deoband in India that went back to Koranic basics. One hundred and forty years later, the movement has spread, and it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible out of which emerged Al Qaeda.


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Comments (2)


Good point, Inbar. The belief that the world's problems begin and end with the West smacks of the same racism that sought to rob the subjects of western empires of self-determination. While we in the West should recognize our ancestral atrocities, we would do well to accept that both problems and their solutions can be indigenous.

At the same time, however, Darlymple does draw some frightening parallels between then and now.


Dalrymple's article brings up some important general points about the psychological impact of occupation. However, it would be remiss to say that jihadism is solely in reaction to "Western" encroachment. The best example of Islamic activity not solely aimed at “the West” is the persistence of the Muslim Brotherhood past the expiration of British political influence in Egypt (after they were physically kicked out of Suez 1956). The group took issue with local political and economic problems, as well as the fear of secularism. They even gained strength and clarity of movement under Sayyid Qutb (who was not only against the West, but for greater social justice via Islam in society) during Nasser’s regime, despite the fact that Nasser was part of the non-aligned movement. Thus there are many elements that rally Islamists against their prevailing political milleu. Regimes all over the Arab world today, for instance, are seen as illegitimate by their people, not solely for not implementing a sharia (Islamic law) state or for forcing modernization (westernization), but for other more tangible socio-economic grievances.

I’m not saying Western imperialism isn’t a historical mistake that, unfortunately, repeats itself. But I am saying that there are other root causes to jihadist terrorism that lie in a state’s inability to supply its people with the basic necessities of life – food, education, and perhaps even religious and political freedoms. Understanding this can add to a more realistic and well-rounded approach to the situation for the western policy-makers who ultimately decide where their troops and political energies ought to go.

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Daniel Levy


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 15, 2007 2:20 PM.

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