Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Shaping of the Modern Middle East by Bernard Lewis

The Shaping of the Modern Middle East by Bernard Lewis is probably the best brief history of the most volatile region in the world today.  Mr. Lewis incorporates most if not all of the political fault lines that have erupted in the last 100 years.  His thesis is that Western imperialism crashed and imposed itself on an Islamic world forcing a position of subservience to Muslims that proved an anathema.   Creating a Muslim rage through the end of the Cold War, that Islamic civilization took back its dignity by freeing itself from Imperial domination.  Written in 1964 and reworked in 1994 this book is an accurate accounting of what has happened and what is currently happening today despite being written 20 year ago.

Mr. Lewis explains that some concepts were not only alien but also incompatible to traditional Islam. For example, democracy and nationalism are plants in the Muslim world by the West.  Autocracy or monarchy fit well into traditional Islam, but democracy is completely alien.  The only place where democracy flourishes is in a secular Muslim country like Turkey.  The Islamic Republic of Iran, for example is clearly not a democracy that would have an independent voting body.  The Supreme Leader has absolute control like a monarch.  Similarly, Nationalism is unknown because Islam binds all Muslims together, not the nation state.  When the British destroy the Ottoman Empire and instigate the ‘Arab revolt’ there is no real overwhelming feeling against the Turks because they are fellow Muslims and it’s the British that do the lion share of upheaval.  The British seem to place pliable tribal leaders at the head of new state governments.

After the fall of the British Empire, the Cold War becomes the animating force the pushes events in the Middle East.  The Soviets successfully persuade some Arab countries to join in an alliance because the Soviet Union never struck the Muslims of the Middle East as being similar to the Western countries. Socialism and Marxism make its way into some of the Arab countries. Soviet aggression is perceived by the USA as a threat.  The USA decides that the Soviet influence needs to be countered.  The USA sides with the sole democracy in the region, Israel to counteract the perceived Soviet posturing.  Allowing the two Super Powers to dominate the region testifies to the lack of independence and impotence to the many Muslim countries. 

With the Cold War’s end, Mr. Lewis observes festering Muslim rage translates into new opportunities to take back their region and re-establish a Muslim superiority and dominance.  He calls it Islam's response or the Revolt of Islam.  He observes that the Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979 is just the beginning of re-establishing traditional Islam (albeit Shi’ite formulation).  The Shah, for example, is seen not traditional but rather, as a Western influenced secularist that needed to be removed. 

One can observe now that there seems to be a war between the original countries manufactured by the West's influence and Islamist organizations that view themselves more legitimately; a war within Islam. For example, Egypt is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood; Iraq, Syria and Jordan are fighting ISIL.  The most unfortunate country in the region that seems destined to unavoidable war is the State of Israel.  Israel has always been viewed in the Muslim world in a hostile fashion because as a non Muslim state, it has always been associated with the Imperial Western powers dating back to the Balfour Declaration that committed the British Crown to enable a Jewish homeland in the ancient land of Canaan.  The luxury of the an escape (i.e. like France and England returning to their respective lands) is absent.  Israel was not set up as a colony from some other Nation-state to be able to return. She must fight and convince her opponents that there is no dislodging of her from the region. Arab rejectionism and irredentism seems to guarantee more violence against the Jewish State.

This volume is highly recommended for one looking for a brief, clear insightful observation of the Middle East.

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