Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Funny for the Day

Two blind pilots both are wearing dark glasses, one is using a guide dog, and the other is tapping his way along the aisle with a cane.

Nervous laughter spreads through the cabin, but the men enter the cockpit, the door closes, and the engines start up. The passengers begin glancing nervously around, searching for some sign that this is just a little practical joke. None is forthcoming.

The plane moves faster and faster down the runway and the people sitting in the window seats realize they're headed straight for the water at the edge of the airport. As it begins to look as though the plane will plough in to the water, panicked screams fill the cabin. At that moment, the plane lifts smoothly into the air. The passengers relax and laugh a little sheepishly, and soon all retreat into t heir magazines, secure in the knowledge that the plane is in good hands.

In the cockpit, one of the blind pilots turns to the other and says, “u know, Bob, one of these days, they're gonna scream too late and we're all gonna die."

Book Review: Power, Faith, and Fantasy by Michael Oren

Why I chose this book
 As noted in my last book review entry, I am working my way through three distinct volumes on Middle Eastern history, each focused on a different cultural group whose interests were or are entangled in the region – native Muslims; Americans; native Byzantines. Oren’s book centers on American involvement in the region as seen from the American point of view from the time of our nation’s founding through the present age.

Book recommendation: Buy

Recommendation Justification:
This book is long (over 600 pages) and at times tedious and dry as compared to Ansary’s work which I reviewed yesterday.  While Ansary covered over a thousand years in less than four hundred pages, Oren devotes the same page count for just the first hundred years of the history he is presenting. Still, the knowledge gained from a focused reading makes it well worth the effort. To this end, I suggest reading no more than a few chapters a day to keep from feeling overwhelmed with facts and details. Delving into Power, Faith, and Fantasy provides a strong alternative viewpoint to Ansary’s tale of Middle Eastern drama that helps round out the full picture of the region and its power players.

Plot Summary: (Spoilers Ahead!)
Oren opens the book on the coattails of America’s birth and sets out straightaway to chronicle the draw of the Middle East on American hearts. Despite the ongoing troubles with the pirates of the Barbary Coast (a cat and mouse game that went on for years until the US broke the European tradition of bribing and ransoming and employed instead some old fashioned ass-kicking), wave after wave of American missionaries and adventure explorers set out for the Middle East. Their hearts were filled with exotic visions of amazing landscapes, exciting natives (who would fall easily into the call of Christ) and indulgent experiences. Instead they usually found the landscape to be barren, hot, and torturous, the natives to be wholly alien to their American sensibilities and unwilling to convert, and the experiences to be lacking the richness of their fantasies.

Plans to Christianize the region during the first hundred years of American history failed spectacularly and squabbles broke out between embittered US missionary financiers (including the federal government) who wished to wrap up unsuccessful evangelism projects and the bleeding heart missionaries who insisted that serving the poor, treating the sick, and educating the masses would eventually bear fruit (and if not it was still the Christian thing to do). While many missionaries and a few adventures fell deeply in love with the region’s people, most American visitors (and residents living back in the States) held the entire region to be an uncivilized people of ‘backward’ thought and deed. The cultural and religious differences created a gap that proved difficult to bridge for all but the most determined. In addition to our missionary and business ties to the Middle East, the United States successfully forged significant political alliances with the Egyptians and the Ottoman Empire (the Turks) ensuring good relations and trade between us and these political entities.

Eventually Britain charged into the region with guns a blazing to descend on Egypt (using the excuse of Egyptian debt) and Americans were torn. We had fought the English about a hundred years before and in our hearts we felt the whole world deserved the freedom we built America on. On the other hand…we had displaced plenty of Native Americans (‘Indians’) in our westward expansion and were in the middle of acquiring Hawaiian and Caribbean territories and shutting out the cries of those natives in the process…so we really weren’t in a position to take the higher moral ground. In addition, many Americans secretly (or sometimes not-so-secretly) pontificated that perhaps our distaste for imperialism needed to be balanced against the ‘good’ of having civilized British Christians in charge of the Egypt in lieu of continued Muslim control. In the end, some notable Americans served (and even lead) the Egyptian military, American businessmen continued to do business in the country and of course our missionaries forged on with their work despite the British invasion.  Meanwhile, the rest of the region remained under the control of the Ottoman Empire – at least for the time being.

A similar storyline repeated when the Greeks geared up for battle to assert independence from Turkish rule. In the abstract Americans supported a free and independent Greece, but the unpleasant reality was that public support would endanger America’s economic and political interests as we had worked hard to secure friendly relations with the Turks. The Greeks eventually won their independence absent our assistance.

While the Muslims of the Middle East were quibbling (at times fiercely) within their faith over theological matters and engaged in territorial disputes and the powers of Europe hungrily looked toward the region to follow after Britain’s lead in imperialism, Jews from all over the world began (with the encouragement of the United States) to keenly fix their eyes on Palestine and a return to their ancestral homeland in the face of mounting anti-Semitism cropping up around the globe. American missionaries had long viewed the restoration of Israel as a key goal in their Christianization of the Middle East. Well versed in scripture they viewed the return of the Jews to their homeland as the beginning of the glorious end foretold in Revelations.  Still, there was not enough support for a worldwide coordinated movement of Jews to Palestine, especially given opposition by Arabs and Persians currently residing in the region and the reluctance of the Orthodox Jewish community to embrace a secular Israel engineered by man. For now, the Zionist movement would continue to grow quietly with only a slow momentum.

Despite America’s utter failure to ever impart our religious faith onto Middle Eastern Muslims (the conversion rate continued to be low and those that did convert typically left the region, setting out for the USA), we did manage to inculcate some of our civic ideals (independence, nation-state concept, etc) into the population through our education systems. American Christian missionaries were the leading providers of education throughout the region and in this regard were much more influential (and seen in a better light) than any European powers. These American civic ideals would have a profound impact on independence movements arising within Arab and Persian communities in the region over the course of the coming century.

Enter World War I stage left. The Ottoman Empire- with which America had forged innumerable state and economic ties - began to crumble as they sided with Germany in the great battle. Before they were beaten down into submission by Britain and France, the Turks managed to inflict torture and brutality on millions of Christian Armenians in the region in an attempted genocide. Americans were again torn between our ideals and our practical interests- we were aghast at the horrors the Armenians were suffering but we had deliberately stayed out of the war in the region up until that point. We were also concerned that if we intervened the Turks would interrupt our missionary work including our educational institutions, our medical services and our other acts of charity that were providing so much good to the Middle East. Many thousands of lives would be at risk, including the Americans administering these charities. Meanwhile, France and Britain were enlisting the native Muslim Arabs and Persians against their Muslim Turk overlords with promises of independence once the fighting was over. Of course it came out later in historical accounts that the European powers all along had planned to divvy up the war spoils amongst themselves and step in as the new overlords of the Arabs and Persians! There would be no independence. When the Arabs and Persians discovered this they were appropriately enraged. The US had great plans to support the independence movements of Arabs and Persians but we were shut out of the discussions held by the war winners (mainly France and Britain) as they did, indeed, divvy up the Middle East for themselves. Imperialism for the win.

Notwithstanding their interest in much of the Middle East, European powers mostly ignored the Arabian Peninsula, viewing it as worthless desert. Here in this area the Saudis had grouped themselves into a nation-state with a Muslim dictator at the helm. America began to cozy up to Saudia Arabia. We did this reluctantly at first as our distaste for dictators is strong, but once our appetite for oil was wetted (all our Fords coming off the assembly line needed fuel and our reserves were running low) and we discovered it within the borders of SA during joint prospecting efforts we fully embraced the Saudi government on a political and economic level.

Enter World War II stage right. As France and Britain had previously partitioned up the Middle East into his and hers, Germany moved in to take the area from them. The Turks (now limited to just Turkey) again went in with the Germans, the Saudis remained loyal to the America and the Allies, Palestine stood behind British defenses and most of the rest of the region was quite apathetic over the war. British and French overlords or German overlords, really what was the difference? Either way the vast majority of Arabs and Persians would not be free; hence, their lack of rooting for either side.

What did concern the Arabs and Persians however was the massive influx of Jews into Palestine from Europe as the holocaust progressed. There were numerous Arab revolts, riots, and general violence directed toward the Jews and in response to placate these ethnic group the British (who controlled Palestine) severely limited the immigration of Jews into Palestine. Jews in America pressed our political leadership to assert the right of Jews to settle in Palestine amongst the Arabs but again America was reluctant to get involved. American leadership knew that by siding with the Jews we would aggravate the Arabs and Persians and risk damage to our international alliances and economic interests. So many difficult foreign policy decisions to make; so many people to be hurt no matter which way America would decide. And of course there was a vocal anti-Semitism crowd within the US as well also poo-pooing the idea of helping the Jews in any visible format.

As WWII drew to a close and the body count of European Jews increased, America finally got on board with Jewish resettlement in the Middle East and began to gently (very gently) approach the Arab and Persian leaders on the topic while also pressuring Britain to drop the immigration restrictions (they did). The Arab/Persian response: The Germans mistreated the Jews so give Germany to the Jews, not Palestine. As America attempted to hammer out some sort of compromise for Jewish immigration in the Middle East, France, Britain and the USSR once again sat at the table and made plans to divvy up the Middle East (now freshly won back from Germany with America’s assistance) amongst themselves. Only this time, reluctantly heeding the cries for freedom and independence from the Persians (now Iran), the Moroccans and other would be nation-states, the Allies included withdrawal timetables for some of the region in their planning. To their credit, for the most part they abided by these withdrawal forecasts. Except for the USSR – they took an awfully long time to pull out and then almost immediately began to circle the wagons around the region again as the Cold War loomed.

The Jewish settlement question still loomed and even within America’s administration there was disagreement. To support a Jewish state would mean alienating Arab and Persians with whom we had economic and humanitarian ties. While we hemmed and hawed over the decision Palestinian Jews took matters into their own hands, forming a unified political structure and rising to fight with force for statehood, carving out formal borders and declaring themselves to be the nation of Israel. In turn, the United States formally recognized the country, drawing the ire of the Arabs and Persians as predicted by the US State department.

Meanwhile we continued our support of Middle Eastern nationalist movements. Sometimes the support was overt and vocal and other times we played puppet behind the scenes as we attempted to assist many of the region’s nations or territories in freeing themselves from European imperialist control. We championed freedom! We looked enthusiastically toward a free and democratic Middle East!  Little Americas all over the region were envisioned, bursting with democracy and hope and economic abundance. Of course this angered our European allies who were reluctant to completely give up control of the region but eventually most of the Middle East managed to wrestle free of European domination. Things looked good for about ten seconds and then immediately started to unravel. These Middle Eastern nations were having trouble understanding our concept of freedom that we had assisted them in procuring. Freedom wasn’t supposed to mean installing a dictator or monarchy and oppressing your own people. Nor was it supposed to mean setting up alliances and weapons trading with American enemies such as the Soviet Union, giving them an edge in the cold war. It didn’t mean attempting to annex Arab nation neighbors to create a new empire for oneself. And it definitely didn’t mean forming a coalition with Arab and Persian neighbors to push Israel into the sea. Seems the concept of freedom was quite tricky.

Every time a newly “free” Middle Eastern nation attempted to do any of these things that flew in the face of our vision of freedom, America responded with a counter movement to undermine the action. If a nation was forming ties with the Soviets we would ingratiate ourselves to them by supplying arms and resources, but that required turning a blind eye to the oppression of their own people. If they attempted to annex neighboring countries, we’d step in militarily (or ask Israel to do it for us) and put a stop to it. If they attempted to attack Israel we offered Israel aid (but Israel was pretty good at holding their own, usually capturing enemy territory and keeping it after the fighting died down, increasing their country’s total land mass). If any country got too far out of line where we had trouble maintaining influence we would round up the CIA and maneuver a covert operation to take out the country’s leader and support a new one that was more conducive to our interests. Some American presidents took a heavy handed military approach to managing the constant drama of the region (a more Imperialist approach for sure) while others (I’m looking at you Carter) instead waxed poetically about harmony and love and mutual respect but were ineffectual in actually protecting American lives (or Middle Eastern lives even) and national interests.

The constant eruptions of violence in the region and the current of political instability interrupted the education, economic growth and general well being of its people. Multiple generations of Middle Easterners had grown up in this nightmare, embittered by the experience of constant suffering and hungry for resolution. Here comes Muslim extremism riding in on a horse promising to save the day. These “spiritual” leaders, crawling out of the woodwork from every quiet corner of the region channeled the anger and frustration of the people and directed it at non-Muslims, most notably Israel and America. The people forgot that America had stood by them less than a half century  ago to cheer them on in throwing off the shackles of European domination; forgot that America had long provided comfort, care, education and aid through its missionaries dating back two hundred years. Instead they remembered the numerous times that America had giving aid to Israel and supported her statehood; remembered the frequency with which we had ignored their cries for justice when the leaders of their “free” country oppressed and brutalized them; remembered how we conspired to assassinate their leaders they backed when we disapproved of their actions. And in their remembrance, many of the people pledged support for the Muslim extremist movements. As most of these movements arose from the corners and were not orchestrated by the nations directly (although there is thought that they were secretly aided by the nations or worse by non Middle Eastern nations hostile to our interests such as Russia or China) their methods of warfare were crude and unconventional- suicide bombings, hostage torture, etc. America continues to battle these extremists today while still attempting to orchestrate our vision of freedom on the region as a whole.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary

Why I chose this book
 With the escalations in terrorism and violence directed at Americans over the past decade that have originated in the Middle East, it has been an item on my to-do list for some time to dive into the history of the region. Toward this end, I picked up three distinct volumes concerning the Middle East- the first focused on its comprehensive history from the perspective of the Persian, Turkish, and Arab Muslims starting from the time of Mohammad; the second centered on American involvement in the region as seen from the American point of view from the time of our nation’s founding; the third revealing Middle Eastern history through the eyes of the Eastern Christians (Byzantines) who resided there after the fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps in time I will also pick up a volume that channels the thoughts of the European powers who were heavily involved in shaping Middle East history. That will just about round out the story from every perspective. 

Book recommendation: Buy

Recommendation Justification:
This book is a must read for any American who is seeking a solid understanding of the region and its people. In a welcome departure from typical dry historical accounts, Ansary’s book reads like a novel with suspense, high drama, and fast paced action in every chapter. I learned so much about the history of Islam, the ethnic/anthropological background on the Arabs, Persians, and Turks (and even a bit about the Far Eastern groups such as the Mongolians) and the history of the region as a whole, while being thoroughly entertained along the way. I cross checked Ansary’s ‘facts’ against other historical accounts and they hold up as reliable. Among the many Amazon reviews, the only criticism with regards to accuracy is that Ansary glosses over the depth of the slavery the populations he covers were engaged in. So noted and so agreed. Still, this oversight did not serve to fundamentally change my understanding of the region’s history or present a rosier glow on Islam. Ansary fairly documented enough additional atrocities that my opinions on the practical application of Islam were thoroughly cemented even before the horror of enslaving Christians and Hindus were called to my attention by other historical accounts.

Plot Summary: (Spoilers Ahead!)
What we gleam from Ansary’s story is that lofty ideals and visions of peace and unity are quickly dragged into the mud when mankind, holding a corruptive and sinful nature,  attempts to put such ideals and visions into practice through sheer will alone. The history of Islam is a history of people who embrace, for the most part, the edicts and commandments of God and his call to service and love, but deny the deity of Christ and reject the Holy Spirit’s presence within them- without which no man can hope to honor God’s edicts and calls. The Muslim story begins with Mohammad who reported that God had directly spoken to him and given him guidance on how to live a more holy life of community. I do not doubt this to be true. It continues over his lifetime as he attempted to witness to others and assemble a group who would voluntarily strive toward God. He strived and strived and while he never dropped into the depths of corruption that later leaders of Islam would, he nevertheless failed to achieve his vision of community holiness in practice. Over the course of time, and throughout the succession of Muslim leaders there has been relentless quibbling within the faith, most notably:

1.        Who is the authentic leader of the faith? When Mohammad died a council of elders elected one of his close associates as his successor to lead the community, but his son-in-law felt the role was owed to him. In later generations an entire faction of the faith would take up arms to defend the idea that the line of succession should have passed through Ali (the son-in-law). These are the Shiite Muslims. As the generations passed, more squabbles over who was most qualified to lead ensued, leading to additional separations among subgroups. Today there are several ‘denominations’ of the faith based on the question of leadership. Ansary provides a detailed account of the lives and actions of  the Islamic leaders of the most notable Islamic ‘denominations’ over the history of the faith and readers will recoil with disgust in the level of corruption, murder, thievery of public funds and generalized rot exhibited by the succession of these leaders. This is true of even the honorable Muslim men who begin with the most promising character elected to lead the faith and is a solid reminder that no matter how pure the intentions, without God living in our hearts and without us turning over our lives to him and letting our own will die, sin will prevail. We cannot have two masters over our hearts. It is either God, or it is sin. 

2.       How do we live out our faith in practice and handle sin? Originally Mohammad called for Islam to be purely a voluntary community. Those that wished to take part were welcomed and those that didn’t were tolerated as outsiders. Those that chose to be in the community of faith would be held accountable to living a holy life. What it means to demonstrate a holy life has been redefined repeatedly as new edicts have been added and enforcement levels (along the scale from gentle correction to death penalties) have varied. Over generations the main branch of Islam (Sunni) and the various offshoots have waffled on their position with regard to freedom of faith. At times they’ve held to tolerance (with the exception of apostasy- to be a Muslim and then leave the faith has always been a grave sin and punishable by the community) and at other times they’ve taken up arms and attempted conversion by threat of life and limb (and made good on their threats). The concept of Jihad (holy war) for God has also evolved over the course of Islamic history- changing from a war waged within ourselves against sin to an external war waged against the enemies of God on earth (included other faiths and their adherents). 

3.       Is Islam just about rules and edicts and the self-will to be holy or is there something more to the community? Something mystic and a way of personal experience/interaction with God? It probably comes as no surprise to Christians that throughout the history of Islam, many adherents have longed for something more than simply a prescription for holy living that they can never attain despite their futile attempts to will themselves toward perfection. They long for an intimate and personal connection to God and an experience of unconditional love and grace. They want to get off the hamster wheel of attempted perfection that is getting them nowhere. Since Islam has no theological basis to facilitate such a connection and experience within its canon (Mohammad claimed to be merely a prophet and not a savior or bridge to God), some adherents and leaders have attempted to inject a mystical and personal element to the faith, promising euphoric connection with a loving God by following certain techniques and praying specific prayers. The mainline faith rejects such lines of thought and action as heretical yet many in the faith get pulled into these fringe groups by the draw of the promise for a personal connection. 

In the midst of trying to sort out the questions of their faith, there has always been the additional question of Arab, Persian and Turkish ethnic culture differences and how to manage the impact of those competing outlooks and loyalties. 

To further complicate things, eventually waves of successive interlopers from Asia and then Europe (and America as well) got into the thick of things, holding secret (and sometimes not so secret) meetings amongst themselves about how they were going to march in and divide up the region and about how they were going to manage the native residents and resources. In many ways and many times, the European powers behaved atrociously and only managed to exponentially increase the instability and turmoil in the region while doing great harm to entire groups of native Middle Easterners in the name of expanding Western power and ideology. 

And how should the Muslim community interact with any overarching political structures within the region? This especially became relevant once the concept of independent nation states took hold and nations such as Iran found shape as European powers withdrew direct control. Religions that are much more focused on the individual (such as Christianity) can thrive in a political environment that makes no official religious endorsement but Ansary argues the entire point of Islam is a focus on the community which is hijacked if no central community can be established and formally backed by the state.
Clearly my perspective on the Middle East is shaped by my faith as a Christian and my identification with American political ideology. As I came to the end of Ansary’s book through my lens of bias, I reasoned that his report of history only further confirms the truth of Christian theology (we are all fallen and a faith lacking a personal connection to God and surrender of our will to Jesus and the Holy Spirit is destined to fall short and leave us bitter and advance the cause of evil in the world). It also confirms the rightness of our American commitment to democracy, free will, and the value of individuals (all of which provide a check and balance on sin and abuse of power).   

As many of my blog readers approach life from faith perspectives and national identities that differ from mine, you will no doubt come to different conclusions than I have as you move through Ansary’s historical account.  And that’s fine. Whatever the context of your particular bias, the facts of who, what, where and when presented by Ansary will add to your understand of the Middle East and give you the background needed to put today’s news headlines coming out of the region in context.