Four Franciscan monks shouted in al-Aqsa that “Mohammad was a libertine, murderer, glutton,” who believed in “whoring”! The qadi offered them the chance to recant. When they refused, they were tortured and beaten almost to death. A bonfire was built in the courtyard of the Church where “almost drunk with rage” the mob hacked them into pieces “so that not even a human shape remained”.
Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Jerusalem”
The assault on the American consulate in Libya consisted of two separate attacks that forced the Americans from the consulate and then besieged them in a second building in a gun battle that lasted four and half hours, according to a detailed timeline from a senior administration official.
The bloody offensive by extremists killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In addition, three more U.S. personnel were wounded.
We know that the second quote above happened just days ago. The first was in 1391 – 621 years ago.
The first was direct – but, even then, the four monks were given a chance to repent and were the instigators of the attacks themselves.
The second was the result of a second-rate short film that was made by people totally unconnected to those that died in the US Embassy in Libya.
621 years separates the two examples – 621 years of great technological and wealth advancements across the world. But, 621 years where, in some places, there has been regression, not progress, and where repression (of freedom, freedom of thought, of economic progress and education) has left in its wake a mind-system that is mired in the 14th Century or before.
The break-up of Yugoslavia (a state held together under the iron-grip of Tito) provided lessons that we ignore to today. Thousand-year-old conflicts and hatreds which had been suppressed since communism’s rule came to the surface and yielded to bloodshed and ethnic cleansing.
So, the Arab Spring has erupted in tensions coming to the surface in the one location that has, for many years, been seen as the powder keg of the world. No surprise, surely?
Repression in the Middle East has been there for thousands of years. We don’t expect democracy and freedom of thought to suddenly erupt in China (or most don’t) but a few despots are overthrown in Tunisia and Libya and rejoicing takes place. We ignore the simmering tensions that such societies have endured for centuries as we assume that democracy will fix everything. The West kept many regimes in place, drew many of the borders ourselves (often, borders which made no sense and instilled more tensions – such as in Sudan), sought oil supplies and the propping up of regimes to see to it that our energy supplies continued, tolerated the bribery and corruption and power that elites gave to themselves and enabled companies to make those bribes for the last 100 years.
Tony Blair was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier today. He said that he had travelled 87 times in the last few years to the Middle East and that it would “take a generation” for countries to settle into new institutions and systems that would prevent such tensions. While he has enormous knowledge of this area, a “generation” is no time at all – but, while a lot can be done in that time, the tensions are not just on the surface but deep.
Education and opportunity
The Middle East and North Africa have not just opened up to our version of the 21st Century. In our new global economy, we have focused our attention on to the newly developing nations of China, India, Brazil and others and have tended to ignore these deeply repressed regions. War and repression have characterized them for two thousand years. Elites have conquered their way to glory and wealth where religion has been used as an excuse. Religious extremism has been embedded for so long that we see it as the core issue. But, extremism in Christianity was common in the thirteenth Century and before – the Crusades were rooted in violence and death.
The changes that took place in Christianity (which was, in its earlier days, not wedded to the “turn the other cheek” dictum) have been profound but took centuries as first rulers broke away from theocracies, began to rule on behalf of their subjects (rather than being above the law) and allowed the dissemination of justice and then economic progress to be shared amongst the population. As this happened, the repression of one’s own subjects ceased to be the norm (although fascism, Nazi-ism and Stalinist and Maoist Communism attempted to break the deal).
Elsewhere, theocracies or dictatorships continue. Overthrowing despotism does not overthrow the belief systems underneath.
This is the core of the issue – the longer that institutions are allowed to fester, the worse the situation erupts when change takes place. Ossified institutions repress change and thought. The Middle East is worse – the institutions are in a state of rigor mortis. Beneath, the potential for unrest is striking – even with the numbers of liberal-minded, the mass of the populations are poor – in terms of education and wealth.
In the West, we talk about wanting to give our kids the best chance in life through education. In the Middle East, where we tolerate and even support regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain because of their oil, we are relatively powerless to the onslaughts of hatred.
But, in a global society, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. Can we help the Middle East and Africa, so long under the repression of dictators and theocracies, to not just overthrow those elites that bind them but to also embrace a culture that we believe works? Can Western ideals of freedom of thought, religious tolerance (or tolerance of no religion), economic freedom and wealth creation shared amongst the population be brought into the thinking of these countries? Can institutions and sclerotic minds be changed?
As we battle economically with the Chinese (and hope that the repressed emotions between the Chinese and Japanese does not get out of control over Diaoyu / Senkaku), we have to battle with the repressed institutions of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as much as Syria, Libya and Somalia or DRC. This is a never-ending battle of ideas and betterment – the belief that whatever one’s views on the afterlife, ensuring that this life should be a good one is as important and that no individual (or elite) deserves to capture all the chances. Chances have to be spread to as wide a sector of the population as possible.
This is not the culture of 1000 AD – it is the culture of the 21st Century – and a battle that is worth waging. We live in a global economy but also a close-knit world beyond economics – fuelled by communication systems that work to inform and dis-inform – fast and furious.
Old and outdated institutions will, eventually, explode under the weight of their inadequacy. But, explosions can hurt. Just as our own institutions need to be overhauled when they don’t work (and there are many instances of this in the West – where we continuously run the risk of institutional failure) so we should help where it is clear that repression exists through institutional rigor mortis.
Recent moves to support the new opportunities being created in countries like Tunisia and Libya should not be stopped because some of the repressed have not been given chances to improve their understanding of reality and have over-reacted to a film made to incite. We should now support those like Mohamed Morsi in Egypt who has said: “We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet, but it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad.”
This is an act of bridging – between the repressed and the future – which we should now be supporting. Opportunities have to be developed and out of the super-charged environment, so reminiscent of that which operated over 600 years ago, the West should react positively. Changes may take a long time and we may find that other disasters (such as to our environment) may well get in the way. But, Blair is right on this one. We have to keep engaging.