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    Tuesday
    Sep022014

    The Islamic State - the original vs. ISIS

    One of the elements that drew me to the task of writing a novel about the clash between Islam and the Byzantine Empire in the early 8th century, at the apogee of the Caliphate at the end of the first century of Islam, was that the topic resonated so deeply with current events.

    I know, it's not obvious to anyone but me, but bear with me.

    The germ of my novel was planted by an encounter in Puri, on the shore of the Bay of Bengal in India, in 1998. I met a man by chance, walking down the street, just a random encounter. He was a local, spoke excellent English, and apparently was intrigued to find an American wandering around his town - one who was not Hare Krishna, anyway. We talked for some time. He was curious about my take on geopolitics, relations between India and the West (versus those between India and Russia), the stance of the US toward Islam as a whole, and, of course, Monica Lewinsky. 

    It was a fascinating conversation. He was well-read, and though his position on virtually every issue was very different from mine, I found the challenge to my world-view refreshing. The idea of growing up thinking of Soviet Russia as an idyll, rather than a tyrannical police state, was mind-bending. Seeing American foreign policy through the eyes of someone who had watched it closely from a very different vantage point - in many ways, had watched it more closely than most Americans do - was likewise enlightening. 

    I told a local friend about this encounter a few days later. He grew increasingly alarmed. He asked me a number of questions about this guy I had met. Then he said, "You need to be careful. That man is Al Queda."

    At the time, this meant little to me. This was shortly after the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, but years before 9/11. All I knew was that Al Queda was an extremist group, one of many that disliked America, but I felt no particular worry. I did resolve to be more careful, however. From that point on, I often pretended to be Canadian with anyone whose politics was doubtful. (I'm from Michigan. Playing Canadian isn't hard, especially when it isn't Canadians I'm trying to fool.)

    Then 9/11 happened. And London, and Bali, and Madrid - all of them, places I had been and knew reasonably well. Daniel Pearl was murdered. And it went on. A confrontation between the West and Islam loomed. 

    I had spent much of my time in India, and thereafter, trying to learn more about the history of the country, which led me into the history of Islam, since it's difficult to delve too deeply into India's past without encountering the Mughals, which leads inevitably into the great waves of Muslim expansion. I was largely ignorant up to that point about Central and South Asia, about the Umayyads and the Abbasids, about Sunnis and Shi'a and all the rest. I hate being ignorant. And the more I dug, the farther back I went, the more I realized that this clash between East and West goes back millenia. It's not Israel versus the Palestinians, or Iran versus the US, or even the Crusaders against Islam. This has been going on since the Persians fought the Romans - hell, since the Persians fought the Greeks. Perhaps longer. 

    You could argue, and I do, that there is a mindset that is influenced by the particular geography and social fabric of the great Asian landmass, a continental way of thinking that is very different from the Greco-Roman tradition. The Mediterranean/European worldview has clashed with the Central Asian/Persian/Islamic for centuries. 

    The clash came to a head in 717-18, when Islam threw all its might against Constantinople, the last remaining bastion standing between the Muslim armies and the weak, disorganized states in Europe beyond. Islam lost, resoundingly. It would be nearly 700 years before they came back in force. 

    The conflict continues. Nothing has been settled, because there is nothing to be settled. These are not worldviews that are mutually exclusive, but neither is one going to defeat the other, no matter how hard they try. It's human nature to take the sea of information that overwhelms our capacity to understand, and assemble meaning and "story" out of those pieces that we are predisposed to find most resonant. Depending on the cultural, social, economic, geographical, ethnic, and other factors that surround us, we will select different sets of "facts" (or cultural myths, bogeymen, biases, blind spots, what have you) with which to build our understanding of the way the world works. And the way in which those worldviews interact can either enrich the vast span of human knowledge, or start wars. 

    This was brought home to me by that encounter on the streets of Puri, 16 years ago. It's brought home to me again, tragically, when I watch the news today. Hamas and Israel, Russia and Ukraine, and most powerfully, today, when a second American journalist was beheaded by brutal thugs claiming to represent a new "caliphate" that should rule all of Islam. 

    I've been studying the caliphate. The real one, the original one, the one that goes back to the Prophet. I know its early history. I know what made it grow, and what brought it down - or at least, I know of the various theories and competing arguments. These people in Syria and Iraq have it all wrong. All. Wrong.

    The reason the early Islamic Caliphate grew so rapidly, spread so widely, became such a megalithic force in the world of the 7th and 8th centuries (1st and 2nd centuries A.H.), was not because of its unbending insistence on moral righteousness, its intolerance of dissent, or its brutality toward non-Muslims. On the contrary. Relatively small Muslim armies conquered virtually everywhere they went, for 100 years, because for the most part they rarely needed to fight. They were conquering people who wanted to be conquered, because they were ruled by regimes that were already unpopular. For the religious and ethnic minorities within, say, the Persian empire, or in Roman Egypt - to pick the most obvious examples - life under a tolerant, light-handed, broad-minded Islamic caliphate promised to be better than what they had known under the Persians, or the Romans. To the Monophysites, Copts, Nestorians, Jews, and other "heretical" sects, Islam offered protection instead of persecution. All they had to do was pay a tax and maintain order within their own communities, and they were given relative autonomy. 

    Islam spread because it was tolerant, not because it was brutal. Far from crushing dissent, the early Caliphs largely followed a live-and-let-live policy. Muslims, practicing Muslims (as opposed to those who merely recited the Shahada and otherwise went on their way), were likely a minority in many parts of the Caliphate well into the second and third centuries A.H. Indeed, conversion was often discouraged - non-Muslims paid higher taxes, after all, so mass conversions created economic crisis. 

    The only minorities that were systematically persecuted were those who threatened the Caliphate - and those were almost uniformly internal rebels within Islam, not Christians, Jews, or other non-Muslims. Most notably, the Kharijites, who engaged in a ruthless and ultimately losing war against the Caliphate because the Kharijites refused to accept interpretations of Islam that differed from their own. 

    ISIS, in my view, does not represent a renewal of the original, unified, all-embracing Caliphate of the Prophet and his immediate successors. It represents a modern-day version of the Kharijites. Brutally intolerant, socially and religiously ruthless, inflexibly dogmatic, and, ultimately, self-defeating. 

    It's important to remember, in this context, that it was not external enemies who brought down the Caliphate - not the Byzantines, or the Crusaders, or even the Mongols. What destroyed the unified Caliphate was internal dissolution. Rebellion from within, by other Muslims against their own. 

    As long as the clash can be represented as a defense of Islam against the cultural or military incursions by the West, a renewal of the Crusades against Muslim lands, a heroic stand against un-Islamic forces that would tear apart the fabric of Muslim belief, the forces of intolerance and hatred will hold sway. As evidence, just look at how the continued existence of Israel has served as a rallying force around which the most brutal of dictators could rally their people, distracting them from conditions at home by pointing them toward the perceived plight of the Palestinians and all the hyped-up injustices, real and imagined, the Palestinian people have suffered. When comparisons can be made, unquestioned, between the bulldozing of apartment buildings (traumatic to those who live in them or are hurt or killed resisting the destruction as this surely is) and the systematic, mechanized, fully conscious mass murder of millions of Jews and other minorities in the Holocaust, there are some mental synapses being shorted out. This kind of meta-hyperbole is only possible when a cultural archetype is under threat, something so powerful that it messes with people's minds. 

    Without the external threat, or perceived threat, the rallying point dissolves. That's when people like ISIS, or Hamas, can be seen for what they are - brutal, ruthless, inhuman thugs. More deadly by far to their own people than they are to the people they claim to hate. And that's when the forces of moderation and peace that are otherwise so inherent to the Islamic faith can take a stand and reassert sanity. 

    I suspect that had I confronted this alleged Al Queda affiliate in the streets of Puri that day, engaged him in heated rebuttals of his worldview in a head-on argument, the outcome might have been different. I chose, instead, to listen and learn, to engage in dialogue, and ultimately to write a book that delves into what happens when vastly different worldviews, and the cultures that embrace them, collide. 

    I'm not sure what I'm saying this might imply for geopolitics in today's world, except that I'm very glad I'm not a diplomat, a politician, or (God help them) a journalist. I ache for the people caught in the middle of the catastrophes that seem to be sprouting like fungus all over the nebulous border between Europe and Asia, from one end to the other. All I can say for sure is that I, for one, will keep trying to learn, listen, and understand. I still hate ignorance, after all these years. A hundred fifty books and counting, and I still can't say I have a good grasp on this whole East/West culture clash thing, on either the meta or the micro level, whether we're talking 1300 years or 13 days ago. But I'm still trying.

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