The Middle East’s Reservoir Of Despair


While it is impossible to be precise, it was probably around 1015 AD that a man named Abu Rayhan al-Biruni mounted a hill, bringing along an astrolabe and some writing implements.  He commenced his calculations using advanced trigonometry and finished the work:  The Earth, he reckoned, was 24,000 miles in circumference.  He was only off by 1%.

This was not “ordinary” genius.  This was a spectacular accomplishment of the intellect.  Think Newton, Einstein or Da Vinci.  And al-Biruni was a Muslim, one of many thousands of Muslim scholars making advances in astronomy, medicine, historiography, linguistics and mathematics (the word “algebra” after all comes from the Arabic “al Jabr” – the reckoning).  The Muslim world was awash with scholars and scientists whose body of knowledge was five centuries ahead of their Western counterparts, or what passed for academia in, say Paris, in the 11th century.

Enter the Mongols.

In the 13th century no one had experienced anything as horrible as the Mongols as they swept out of Central Asia.  Disciplined and highly organized, the Mongols practiced a doctrine of either immediate surrender or total annihilation.  Cities with populations exceeding a half million inhabitants were obliterated when they resisted.  Mongol warriors were given a quota of people to kill each day.  It was not merely millions who perished.  This was the organized slaughter of tens of millions.

In January 1258 the Mongols arrived in Baghdad led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu.

What happened next was well described by the 17th century Ottoman poet, Nejati, when he penned the following quatrain.

Tahammul mulkuni yiktin Hulagu
Khan misin? Kafir?
Aman! Dunyayi yiktin Hulagu
Atesh-I sozen misin? Kafir?

In the unlikely event that some readers of this magazine do not know Ottoman Turkish, here is a translation.

Thou hast destroyed the abode of endurance, Hulagu.
Art thou king or infidel?
Also, thou have set fire to the world.
Art thou the master of learning? Or an infidel?

Destroy he did.  The last Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, al-Mustasim, refused the call to surrender, and the city was soon captured.  Hundreds of thousands of citizens were put to the sword, and the city razed to the ground.  Every scholar was killed, and all of their manuscripts either burned or thrown into the river, ‘that ran black with ink.”  In one stroke, the heart and brain of the Muslim world was obliterated.  The Dark Age of Islam now commenced.

Not much has changed in the last seven hundred plus years. The only constant is stagnation.

In 1999, a former US military attaché, Norvell De Atkine, wrote an essay entitled “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”  It had nothing to do, he argued, with intelligence or courage.  It had everything to do with a culture and social structure which preferred delusion to reality and an extreme unwillingness to admit failure or mistakes.

While the Middle East is hardly alone with regard to ignoring reality (remember Vietnam and the light at the end of the tunnel?), it has set an astonishingly high standard in preferring dreams to fact.

Take, for example, the existence of a monument in Baghdad honoring the Iraqi victory over the Americans during the war to liberate Kuwait in 1991. Equally notable are the press briefings provided by Muhammad al- Sahhaf, the Minister of Information, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  In his daily press briefings for foreign correspondents, “Baghdad Bob” routinely described how American forces had been attacked from “north, south, east and west” and were so demoralized that they were committing suicide by the hundreds each day.  Even when skeptical correspondents pointed out that American tanks had been seen entering Baghdad’s international airport, he dismissed these comments as lies (sound familiar?) and explained that the Americans had been ousted and annihilated – again.

My personal best in commenting on delusional thinking, however, goes back to a 1972 interview with Yasir Arafat orchestrated by the brilliant Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci.  At one point Fallaci pressed Arafat by noting that he had to admit that the Israelis were good fighters.  Furious over that remark, Arafat denounced the Israelis as cowards.  By way of example, he pointed to the PLO victory at the 1968 battle of Karama in which, per Arafat, 392 fedayeen defeated 15,000 Israeli soldiers.  What Arafat failed to note was that the PLO had the support of an entire Jordanian infantry division and a battalion of Jordanian tanks.  He also forgot to mention that the PLO lost.  Details, details…

How does one measure the health of a given society?  One possible approach is to examine its economy.  It is certainly not the only means nor arguably the best method, but it does allow for a glance at the overall health of a country.  Look then at the exports of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Lebanon.  With populations totaling over 130 million people, the combined exports of these five states come to around $36 Billion.  Ireland with a population of 4 million has exports of $219 Billion.

We return to the question posed implicitly at the beginning of this essay. How can a region that once led the world in science and made Europe look like the province of Neanderthals retreat into a seemingly endless dysfunctional melancholy devoid of hope or promise?

Here is my simple answer: Inshallah.  “Whatever God wants shall be.”

I lived for over ten years in Turkey (a truly delightful country – or it was), and I cannot even begin to count the number of times I entered a taxi only to be confronted with a small plaque proclaiming “Allahin dedigi olur.”  Whatever God says shall be.  It explained to me why, for example, taxi drivers would routinely fail to turn on their headlights after dark.  Time and again I was told that our fate rested in the will of God and while turning on the lights might make a small difference, God had really already decided our fate.  I was not amused.

The “inshallah mentality” strikes me as a road to indifference – a belief that our control over our destiny is, at best, limited if not impossible.  Better to accept the current reality, however unpleasant, then to seek a way to improve and/or alter it.  Any effort along those lines was, after all, doomed to fail so why bother?  Yes, the Arab Spring erupted and I, foolishly, hoped that this could be the sign, at last, of a better future for the Middle East.

Were there some changes?  Yes.  For the better?  I doubt it.  Just changes in the names of warlords and dictators.  Names changed.  Circumstances did not.

Illiteracy, unemployment and authoritarian rule remain widespread. Despair is the common currency of the peoples of the Middle East.  Is it any wonder that radical Islamic groups find it so easy to recruit new fighters?

I remain mildly optimistic about the future.  After all it took the West a thousand years to recover from the fall of Rome before the Renaissance to take root and change everything.  Perhaps the Middle East just needs another hundred years or so to heal itself.

Be patient.  Good times will come.