Bridging cultural divisions
Call to prayer: Mutual acceptance -- most importantly where Jews are concerned -- had, until the birth of
Israel, been far more in evidence in the lands of Islam than in Christendom ( © Reuters)
Francis Ghilès examines relations between the Arab world and the West and considers how NATO might improve its image among Arabs.
In 1603, the Sultan of Morocco, Ahmad al-Mansur proposed to his English ally Queen Elizabeth I, that England help the Moors colonise America. The Sultan proposed that Moroccan and English troops, using English ships, should together attack the Spanish colonies in America, expel their hated Spanish enemies and then “possesse” the land and keep it “under our (joint) dominion for ever.” There was a catch, however. Might it not be more sensible, suggested the Sultan, that most of the future colonists should be Moroccan rather than English? “Those of your country doe not fynde themselves fitt to endure the extremeties of heat there, where our men endure it very well by reason that heat hurtes them not.”

After due consideration, the Moroccan offer was not taken up. Such a proposal might seem extraordinary today, but at the time it raised few eyebrows. After all, the English were close allies of both the Moroccans and the Ottomans – indeed the Pope regarded Elizabeth as “a confederate of the Turks”. The English might have their reservations about Islam, but these were nothing compared to their fear of “Popery”.

When Charles II sent one Captain Hamilton to ransom some Englishmen enslaved on the Barbary Coast, his mission was unsuccessful because they refused to return: the men had all converted to Islam and were living in a style they could not possibly have aspired to back home. “They are tempted to forsake their God for the love of Turkish women,” he wrote in his report. “Such ladies are,” he added, “generally very beautiful.”

There is a serious point underlying such anecdotes, for they show that throughout history, Muslims and Christians have traded, studied, negotiated and loved across the religious divide. Probe relations between the two civilizations, at any period of history and you will find that the neat civilizational blocks imagined by such writers as Samuel Huntington soon dissolve. It is true that just as there have been some strands of Christian thinking that have always been deeply hostile to Islam, so within Islam there have been schools of thought that have always harboured a deep hostility towards Christians, Jews and other non-Islamic religions and civilizations, notably the Wahabi and Salafi schools dominant in modern Saudi Arabia.

Until a generation or so ago, the Wahabis were a theological movement of only localised significance and were widely regarded by most Muslims as an alien sect bordering on infidelity – kufr. It is the oil wealth of modern Saudi Arabia that has allowed the Wahabis, since the mid-1970s, to spread their narrow-minded and intolerant brand of Islam, notably by the funding of extremist madrasahs (religious schools), printed books and cassettes with the disastrous effects we see today.

The wider Islamic world, not least in southern-rim Mediterranean countries, has never shared such beliefs, nor do the overwhelming majority of those Muslims who have become citizens of European countries. If Europe – and more broadly the West are to understand these people, they must show greater empathy than has been the case of late. Empathy in no way suggests accepting everything Muslims believe in or every act they carry out. It does, however, require a consistent effort to understand why this religious community feels wounded, why so many of its members feel humiliated and, above all, why so many Arabs and Berbers are desperate to join in the freedom and affluence that characterise America and Europe.

Nevertheless, we should not forget that the ideology of all “progressive” movements of medieval and early modern Europe, including that which created English-speaking America, was expressed in religious terms. From this, it does not follow that the Muslim fundamentalist revival will have similar consequences. What is not in doubt today is that Islam remains closer to a universal system affecting all forms of humanity than Christianity and Judaism have been for many centuries. Enlightened Western man, or, for that matter, Western woman, can decide to hold a faith or not, whether to accept or reject his or her religious heritage. Islam does not understand or grant this possibility more than Christendom did in the days when it too put to death heretics, atheists and blasphemers. The Western tradition of scepticism has its own central value, which is to examine and, if necessary, question all existing values. These broad generalisations fail, however, to convey the complexity of the West and the Middle East. In Israel, conservative Jews lead a life similar to that of many devout Muslims. In the Middle East and Europe many Muslims – whether they marry Muslims or not – lead lives in no way different from their non-Muslim peers.

Mutual acceptance

That mutual acceptance – most importantly where Jews are concerned – had, until the birth of Israel, been far more in evidence in the lands of Islam than in Christendom. Whatever restrictions Jews might have laboured under in the lands of Islam, never were they treated as cruelly as when they were thrown out of England and France in the 13th century; as abominably as when they were expelled from Spain after the taking of Grenada in 1492 by the Catholic Kings; as harshly as during the anti-Semitism and pogroms that were such a common feature of Imperial Russia and its successor the Soviet Union; with such inhumanity as during the Holocaust. In Islam, they may have been, as their Christian brothers were, second-class citizens, dhimmis, but Jesus – Aïssa – is a prophet in Islam and there is no parallel in that religion to past anti-Semitic teachings of the Catholic Church. Too many observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not least among Jews, fail to acknowledge this essential historical fact.

Islam was and is far from always tolerant, but faced with the Israeli refusal, until very recently, even to recognise the existence of the Palestinian people, many Arabs vented their rage at Western countries even more than Israel. Young Arabs today have no experience of living with Jewish neighbours, as their parents did. They thus fall prey to state propaganda and to rulers who hide behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to deny their people essential freedoms. The conviction Arabs share that Washington is firmly on the side of Israel explains much of the intense hostility to the United States, which is felt by even the most educated and modern-minded. Europeans are viewed in a different light because, over the past quarter of a century, a growing number has come to appreciate that the existence of the Palestinian people cannot just be denied. Rather, it must be acknowledged and accommodated if there is to be any hope of a lasting peace.

Another point is worth bearing in mind. One of the main causes of the increasingly radical attitude of a fraction of Palestinian society lies in day-to-day living conditions. The state of Israel dominates it in economic, political, military and symbolic terms. Everything reminds Palestinian society of its inferiority. The subaltern societies of the age of European imperialism recognised the superiority of their colonisers but symbolically neutralised it by strengthening their communitarian ties and keeping a physical distance between themselves and their colonisers. European social cohesion on the one hand, and the strong cultural identity of the colonised meant that the resentment could to some extent be absorbed by communitarian structures.

Those elements that once guaranteed the stability of colonial life no longer exist. Community bonds have lost their strength and the process of individuation has further weakened the collective armature. Spatial segregation has broken down and television enables imagery to roam freely across cultures and geographic boundaries. Modern individualism means that submission to Israeli superiority is no longer possible, as it was when a colonial mentality convinced the colonised that their rulers were their superiors and became the psychological prop that legitimised colonialism.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are fully caught up in modernity and, at that level, their mentality is that of modern egalitarianism, even though racists on both sides claim to be able to prove the superiority of their own group. They live, in short, in a world that is imbued with modern egalitarianism, whereas social relations between the two sides are governed by a neo-colonial model. What is true here is, to a lesser extent, true of many facets of relations between the Arab world and the West.

Colonial legacy

We must, however, come back to the past two centuries to understand why, for many people in southern-rim Mediterranean countries, fear of military domination by American and Europe remains paramount. The fact that ruling and often corrupt elites in Arab countries often play on such fears for their own selfish purposes in no way detracts from the genuine fears that exist among ordinary people. Colonial rule was often a brutal affair. Between the two world wars, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy launched chemical offensives against their enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa and Abyssinia. France followed suit in Algeria in the late 1950s. Details of most of these wars have been kept secret for decades and often official documents relating to them have still not been released.

Investing in dialogue will bear fruit, but not if we limit such contacts to elites which, all too often, are unrepresentative of the complex societies they run
Politicians and military leaders in Europe were well aware of the effects of the deadliest of these chemicals, mustard gas. It had caused deaths and horrific injuries among soldiers in the battlefields of the First World War before they began to wear protective clothing. Yet mustard gas is precisely what European armies used in these areas and their victims were often old men, women and children because they were easier to target and had no means of protection. The new standards that Europeans wished to apply to war were not extended to military action against their colonial enemies. Those natives who rejected the advantages of a superior civilization needed to be taught a harsh lesson, for their own good. As Colonial Secretary in 1919, Winston Churchill expressed impatience with the Royal Air Force’s reluctance to drop mustard-gas bombs. “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas,” he wrote. “I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes.”

To be sure, European armies were not the only militaries to use chemical weapons in this part of the world. When still Crown Prince Hassan, the late King Hassan II of Morocco was no more squeamish than Winston Churchill. He bombed the northern Moroccan tribes into submission with napalm after independence in 1957 as well as Saharawis fleeing the Moroccan Army’s advance into the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in the winter of 1974-5. The Algerian Army also used napalm to flush out radical Islamic groups from their hideouts in the wilderness in the mid-1990s. Saddam Hussein’s use of napalm against Iranian soldiers and the Kurds is better documented. Of course, none of these atrocities proves anything much about Christianity or Islam, since neither religion would condone such acts.

At the same time, who cares to remember the role played by native Algerian and Moroccan troops in support of the Allies during the two world wars? For the 60th anniversary of the taking of Monte Casino south of Rome, earlier this year, the contribution of the Polish troops was remembered. Algeria and Morocco, by contrast, were not invited to participate in the remembrance ceremonies. Arab autocrats are far from being the only leaders who practise selective memory. Western democratic leaders play the game well. This is also the case where chemical weapons are concerned. Arab leaders may not have protested when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons first against the Iranians and then against the Kurds, but who among Western leaders did? Any hope of convincing the Arab street that the West is in earnest in its desire to dialogue with it, any hope of persuading ordinary Arabs that NATO will not be turned against them in the future is predicated on our coming clean about past deeds. Deceit may be the daily fare of many Arab rulers. But European leaders do not always score much better. Events surrounding the Iraq campaign have convinced many Europeans – let alone Arabs – that deceit has become intrinsic to government in their own, long-established democracies.

Arab despair

Over the past half century, ever more Arabs have begun to despair for the future in the wake of a lengthy list of perceived setbacks. These include the creation of Israel; successive military defeats suffered at the hands of the new state; the failure of Arab nationalism and more recent economic reforms to deliver high rates of growth and jobs; civil wars in Algerian and Lebanon; and the current situation in Iraq. Many better educated and younger Arabs – those who dare – escape to America and Europe. Those who are left behind feel trapped, all the more as stringent visa requirements make travelling to Europe exceedingly difficult. They live schizophrenic lives, watching Arab and Western satellite channels at night, confronting the sad reality of their cities every morning. They live in cities where sexual freedom, the right to speak out, the chances of a decent job or housing are, at best, relative; cities where state television channels offer the local version of Soviet-style news, where wealth and power too often rest in the hands of a few, where elections are usually alibis to please Western leaders and those Western journalists who wish to be fooled.

Nobody in the South is fooled. When Arab governments argue they are locked in an existential struggle with the religiously inspired radical movements within their borders, few people are convinced. What they see is governments using the radicalism of the religious few to de-legitimise religious political opposition as part of a radical fringe. The West all too often underestimates the sophistication, the wit of ordinary people who may be illiterate and poor, but who are not stupid. Freedom – whether economic, sexual or political – is unavailable to most people. Yet all Arabs, particularly younger ones who account for more than half the population, yearn for it. Many Arabs understand that the fight against terrorism has become a mantra, that we are ensnared by a word. This suits some Western leaders. This may also suit Arab leaders. But the pretence of all-out war against terrorism is meaningless – and not just to Arabs.

Contrary to what many in the West may have been led to believe, the overwhelming majority of Muslims who live on the southern shores of the Mediterranean aspire to the same things Americans and Europeans do. They resent being, as they see it, branded as “terrorists”; they reject the manner in which Islam is presented all too often by Western media as inherently backward and violent; they despise the hypocrisy of those Western leaders who compliment their often autocratic masters for holding fair elections whose outcome is usually a foregone conclusion; they look on in amazement as US diplomats in Baghdad lecture Iraqis about the need to separate mosque from state while the US President invokes Christian values to underpin policies. These factors help to explain why many people, in poll after poll, say Osama Bin Laden is their hero. That does not mean to say they will follow him. They are simply pleased at the humbling of what they see as an arrogant United States, the leader of the Western world, which presumes to be the fount of all civilization and which cannot avoid lecturing the natives.

Explaining NATO

Given that many in Western Europe today still equate NATO with the United States, particularly in France which has a long-standing tradition of anti-Americanism, the magnitude of countering negative views is enormous. It is also worth bearing in mind that even in North America and Western Europe few people outside the elites have any real understanding of what NATO stands for, what it does and what it has achieved during its 50-odd years of existence. As a result, NATO’s outreach effort to the Middle East that was launched at the 2004 Istanbul Summit is considered to be US-inspired. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a US proxy. Whatever NATO might do in Iraq only serves to reinforce this perception. The one exception is in the Balkans: many Arabs recognise that NATO has protected Muslims. More fundamentally, anything military smacks, in the Arab mind, of despotic and corrupt.

Arabs love conspiracy theories, the result of the lack of information or the systemic distortion of facts practised by the official media in most southern-rim countries. Words frighten Arab leaders almost as much as ideas. To listen to the news bulletins on state television is to enter a world of paranoia and distortion which explains how some countries look like incubators of blind rage against the West, even if the West is only in part at fault. Luckily, these same people can also watch Arab and Western satellite channels. But few will have any idea of what a military alliance of democratic nations is about. Some fear that NATO might turn its attention to them now that communism is no longer a threat. The fallout of Iraq is here to stay. If a former foreign minister in the United Kingdom believes that the campaign was the worst mistake since Suez, why should the Arabs argue against such an analysis? If a former deputy permanent secretary of the Defence Ministry calls the campaign a “criminal folly”, why should Arabs dissent?

In this context, assuming, as many do, that NATO and the United States are one and the same thing presents a challenge to those who wish to explain what NATO really does. The challenge here is one of complexity. Passions are running so high, they are so entangled that goals must perforce remain modest. In such a context, vast propaganda exercises would be counter-productive. The bottom line remains, this is hardly an original thought, that in the absence of any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is little that can be done.

For the longer term, we in the West will communicate better if we learn more about Arab history, do not forget the wounds we inflicted upon many people in the region and, crucially, if we appreciate that the sine qua non of improved relations dictates that we empathise and dialogue with the citizens of these countries. Investing in dialogue will bear fruit, but not if we limit such contacts to elites which, all too often, are unrepresentative of the complex societies they run. Dialogue must also be conducted with Muslims who live in America and Europe. Few here wish to become martyrs. The martyrdom sought by a few is not the infant malady of Islam, but something that allows Muslims to recover the dignity they feel has been denied them by Western countries whose policies are biased against the Islamic world. Such developments present a challenge to the understanding many Westerners have of the world of Islam. Yet we must rise to the challenge.

Getting the economics right, which is most unlikely in the short term, is a form of crude determinism that will not work. Let us not forget that the Institute of International Economics in Washington published a study a few years ago which found no evidence that countries with large or predominantly Muslim populations grew more slowly, or had lower productivity growth than others. That such a study was ordered in the first place underlines how far the West has to travel to shed its ignorance of Islam. Getting the politics right is well nigh impossible in present circumstances. At least, NATO might try and convince Arabs – including those who have become citizens of France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and other Allies – that the Alliance will not, at some point in the future, inevitably be turned against them. That will be hard enough as it is.