Thursday, May 24, 2018

Modernity and The Middle East

One may gain a deeper understanding of developments in the Middle East by seeing the present period as a revival of the Oriental modernity from roughly 750 to 1070. The modernity of a civilization is a period of about 300 years occurring after the classical period. In the Greco-Roman civilization it was around 330 to 30 BC, in the first Chinese, it was around 530-220, in the Oriental as said 750-1070 and in our case the Western civilization 1776 or 1789 - roughly 2080 to 2100. These periods are characterized by rationalism, reason, atheism, revolutions, political ideas, pluralism, wars. In their later parts modernities become less characterized by pluralism, ideas and more by struggle for power and mob-rule, see my post The Decline of Modernity. After modernities typically comes Caesarian one-man rule, and most countries in the civilization are under rule of one (or two) powers like Rome, Qin (old China) and the Seljuks (the Orient). In our case the United States or/and present Westernized China. After modernities, the mental situation of civilizations typically gradually reverts to apolitical religioucity, superstition and passivity.

Often we have seen the dominance of a younger civilization over older ones. This typically gives rise to opposition. This is not least the case if the dominating civilization is in its expanding modernity. We see this in phenomena like the Sepoy rising in India against the British in 1857-8 and the Boxer rebellion in China 1899-1901. And we certainly see it the the anti-western sentiments in the Middle East today like in the anti-Roman feelings 2000 years ago. I have earlier also written that the present Middle Eastern situation is aggravated by barbarians outside every civilization like the so-called Islamic State. If given enough time the dominated civilization is almost completely assimilated into the dominating one like today China and India into the West. Thus in my posts "the West" refers to most of the world, the parts dominated by the present civilization.

These analyses though, only give an overall picture. As said, a more nuanced understanding could be gained if we view the Middle Eastern situation today as a partial revival of the Oriental modernity. This civilization had its own modernity 1000 years earlier than ours.  As described by others, in the Oriental culture, religion is impossible to separate  from religion. The two spheres are interwoven. Modernities are normally characterized by the retreat of religion and instead the politicization of the public. Political ideologies gather adherents. Examples could be Marxism and Mohism (in old China). In the Oriental world this development took the form of a rising amount of political elements entering into movements of a type which had earlier been dominated by religious elements.

Interestingly, before our modernity, we in the Western civilization often had the same mixture of politics and religion. In the Middle Ages and not least around the Reformation and indeed in  Puritan England and the Netherlands political and religious interests were indistinguishable. Around the Reformations in the 16th century Christian groups in central Europe combined religious reformative ideas with almost Communist political demands. In the Oriental Persian Sassanid Empire in the 6th century the Zoroastrian Mazdakite movement had a comparable combination of religious and political ideas.

Thus before modernity the Western and the Oriental civilizations had a similar confluence of religion and politics. As modernities approached, the roads were divided. In the West like in many other cases like China, politics was separated from the religion. In the Orient they continued being united. Here we see the development as the mentioned greater weight of politics in the movements. The Neo-Mazdakites, now under Islamic overrule were now revolutionary movements fighting to overthrow the upper class and the rulers and to get more egalitarian societies. But they never lost their also religious nature. Such Zoroastrian groups were followed by Islamic groups, not least the Kharijite and Shiite movements with comparable agendas. The Oriental modernity was full with politico-religious thought and parties, conflicts and insurrections and revolutions in an almost unbelievable extent.  In fact the modernity of this civilization was one of the most revolutionary we have seen, at least before ours. Insurrections, crack-downs, revolutions and reactionary policies followed each other. The rebel-groups often had their insurrections used by political leaders, who after a revolution let them down. Revolutionaries split into numerous isms like Marxists in modern time.

These developments are very comparable to those in the Greco-Roman and in the Present Western modernities. But with the important differences that:
1) Religion was always a part. And
2) The fact that politico-ethnico-religious groups tended to live in the classical Oriental patchwork manner, where people with the same conviction lived together between each other in small areas, which can also be called ghettos. This phenomenon is still natural for many people from this part of the world. Hence the tendency for such people to form so-called  ghettos or parallel societies in Western cities today.

When the Oriental civilization reached its modernity, the groups became politicized and should now be called politico-ethnico-religious. In the latter part of Oriental modernity 1000 years ago in Bagdad the groups occupied different small enclaves of the city. From these enclaves they fought each other with words and weapons.

In the end of a modernity the populations are de-politisized. We see this clearly in the West these decades, just like in Rome in the last century before Christ and in old China in the third century BC. Political parties degenerate or become tools for leaders to gain power. The importance of ideas disappear in the so-called postmodern periods which are in fact rather late modern. In the Orient 1000 years ago the politico-ethnico-religious parties lost much of their political aspects and became orthodox religious organizations, both Sunnnis and Shias. Now we must talk of apolitical ethnico-religious groups.

The influence of western modernity has destabilized the for centuries passive peoples of the Orient. It has awoken resistance and energized and thus revitalized the long dead modernity. During the last 100 years we have seen numerous major and minor upheavals beginning with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Insurrections, revolutions, reactionary movements etc. strongly resembling what we saw 1000 years ago.  A Such awakening of a modernity is most likely if the disturbing force itself is in the modernity phase. Here the new intruding modern ideas fertilizes the older local ones.

The influence of the dominating West lead to both 1) the revitalization of the old modernity with its repoliticization, again making the groups politico-ethnico-religious, and ultimately to 2) Westernization. But the two processes are not simultaneous.

Normally the still very Orientally flavored politicization is the first step, and it dominates. Even the nominally socialist Baathist leaders in Syria and Iraq were still very Oriental.

In parallel with the politicization, but with a displacement in time, Westernization goes on. That this process will reach complete assimilation is unlikely except for some places and groups. But clearly the antagonism between Westernization and traditionalism adds one more conflict to the re-awoken old ones.

Another effect of the influence of the West is a greater importance of ethnicity. Since the beginning of our modernity, ethnicity has been an important aspect of nations in the Western civilization. In the Middle East it has played a role, but a minor one. With Westernization also our idea of nation as ethnically defined enters the Orient. Thus we see for example the Kurds fight for the right to their own country.

Thus the idea is that parts of what is going on in the Middle East today can be viewed as a replay of what happened 1000 years ago. Examples:

Lebanese and Syrian civil wars
Beiruth today and especially in the Lebanese civil war looks very much like Bagdad around1000. The same compartmentalization of different politico-ethnico-religious groups in different city-quarters. Several Syrian cities have looked in comparable ways under the present civil war.

Iran and Saudi Arabia
The regime of the Shah of Iran was an attempt at an extreme degree of Westernization. This clearly went too far and had to lead to a reversal in the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Since then Shiite Iran can be seen as a competitor to the orthodox Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia, the official guardian of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. In this way the two regimes may be compared to the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate and the competing Fatimid alternative Shiite competitor in North Africa, Egypt and Syria 1000 years ago. In those days the two empires were religious, but the competition was also highly political. The Fatimids started revolutionary cells in the Abbasid areas and tried to subvert the Abbasids, often with great success. Today also The Iranians and the Saudis compete in a highly political manner. Like the Fatimids Iran operates to undermine the Saudis. Both have also been affected by the Westernization. Iran is already a quite modern state with a well-educated Western-style middle and upper class. The Saudi crown Prince is likewise working to reduce the religious aspects. Both states are becoming the sole dominant powers the their spheres of interest in the Islamic world between Pakistan and Libya and partly beyond, and they use proxies to fight each other. Clearly the Saudis have not been very successful in the competition. In the eyes of the West this together with the alliance of Riyadh with the "right side", Washington, make he Iranians look as the sole evil-doers, but this is one-sided. Just look at Yemen and the Saudi support of Wahhabism as far away as to Morocco and Afghanistan, and the sponsorship of Jihadis over many years. And imagine the reaction if Iran had abducted the prime minister of Lebanon.The fight between the two countries is about power, but it is also about ideas and winning the heart of Muslims. It will probably not help the Saudi rate of success if the defender of two holy places seems to abandon the third to the Israelies.

The de facto alliance between Riyadh with its allies and Israel also point to the politicization of the Saudis and the Middle East. The conflict with Iran is becoming more important than the religious obligations.

Syria and Iraq and Iran
Under the Baathist parties or rather dictators, Saddam Hussein and the older Assad, Iraq and Syria may be seen as revived Muʿtazilite or rationalist states. Politics and religion were intertwined, but the will of God concerning correct government could be deduced through reason. Until the US invasion and the Arab Spring.

In the Oriental modernity the areas from Lebanon to Afghanistan  were some of the most violent in the world, torn by civil wars, insurrections and revolutions. Myriads of rulers and politico-ethnico-religious groups and parties fought each other. With the revitalization of the old modernity, the areas have tended to revert to a comparable condition.  The old groups become repoliticized, and new conflicting groups emerge in a similar pattern. The Baathist rules in Iraq and Syria prevented open conflicts. So did the Shah and the Ayatollahs in Iran. But with the removal and weakening of the dictatorships, chaos returned in both Iraq and Syria in the form of fights between the many groups.

Pompeo has announced extreme sanctions against Iran unless the country surrenders completely. Knowing that a such surrender is ruled out, the plan can only be to add to the economic crisis of Iran and thereby provoke a revolution, maybe with the aid of bombings of nuclear and other facilities by Israel and the United States.

But even if possible, why should a regime change in Iran be more smooth than the ones in Iraq, Syria and Libya? The removal of a strong government in Teheran could like in Syria and Iraq set free conflicts between politico-ethnico-religious groups. And there can be many. The country is today again like in the very chaotic modernity 1000 years ago filled with groups of different ethnicity, religion and political adherence and viewpoints. To these comes the dimension of degree of Westernization. Iran has one of the most heavily Westernized upper/middle classes in the Middle East and at the same time very strong anti-western feelings in other parts of the population. This adds to the many other antagonisms. Also, Iran is an extremely  ethnically diverse country, more than most others in the Middle East. Thus there are many antagonisms. Open conflicts may break out if the central power weakens or disappears.The conflicts could be on a scale which in the worst case would make those in Syria look like a picnic and create huge streams of refugees (Iran has a common border with Turkey). This would certainly not bring stability to the Middle East and less terror to the World. Two thousand years ago Pompeius subdued Pontos by using brute force. It is unlikely that Pompeo wants to and can do the same with a country of over 80 million inhabitants and over1.6 million square kilometers.

If we only see the revived Oriental modernity as a static condition, the main thing which can be learned, is that they are in a continuos state of religious and political revolutions and reactions. But as the disturbing West is itself in a declining modernity, we may see the Oriental modernity as sooner or later beginning to follow the western counterpart.

In places and phases where Westernization moves forward, the politicization of the politico-ethnico-religious parties and movements will progress. But gradually the depoliticization of the West will affect the Middle East too. In the West this process leads to the transformation of the political parties into the mentioned tools for power-hungry people or mere groups of mobs. In the Middle East the development will often lead to the strengthening of the religious aspects of political life. This even more if Western leaders provoke with ignorant mob-like attitudes and decisions.

Thus it is not improbable that the political decline in the West will end and revert the politicization in the Middle East AND at the same time end and revert Westernization. There will not have been enough time for a complete assimilation of all of the Orient into the West, before the latter reverts to power struggles without ideas.

If the framework is correct, we should be able to see comparable revivals of modernities in other cases. Carthage and the Phoenicians in general under influence from the Greeks in the fifth and fourth century BC may be seen as a revival of the second Mesopotamian modernity (around 850-540). The self-ruling merchants of the city-states competing with the Greeks look more like signs of a vibrant modernity than like the dull peoples of the despotic Caesarian Persian Empire after Cyrus the Great.

 Japan's rapid development in the 19th century may be seen as a revival of the second Chinese modernity (around 950-1279). We see a society which with respect to good organization resembled the Song Dynasty. Later Carthage and later Japan were completely Greco-Romanized and Westernized respectively.

Syria's new law allowing the taking over of property and houses of people having fled the country is easily interpreted as ethnic cleansing. These people are potentially political opponents of the government. As religion, ethnicity, politics and nations are confluent in the Oriental civilization, these people are other  nations than the one represented by the government. As described in earlier posts, the Oriental patchwork nations are under transformation to Western style territorial nations. This means that the Assad nation wants to get rid of other nations.

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