Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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.
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