Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Middle East

The Israel-Hezbollah war is raging in Lebanon, and the Middle East once again dominates our news. Here are some thoughts on this subject.

Displacement of Arabs and Formation Israel in 1948

Arabs simply call it the Nakba – the disaster or the cataclysm. In fact it is often made out – sometimes even by non-Arab non-Muslims – that the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948 and their continuing suffering is one of the world’s worst cases of human-inflicted suffering in modern history, the Arabs were/are innocent victims, the blame falls entirely on the Jews and on Western powers, and that it is reasonable for Arabs to seek some sort of revenge/redressal. But this is simply not justified. It is generally not known (or at least not well publicized) that while some 800,000 Arabs were driven out of the new State of Israel in 1948, there was a similar-sized exodus of of Jews from Arab lands (link). So it was truly an exchange of population – not just a one way forced migration of Arabs. Though Jewish refugees had something to look forward to – new opportunities and freedom from persecution in the new state of Israel, and many emigrated by choice, they suffered immensely in the early years (link), just as the Palestinian refugees did. The fact that Israel succeeded through ingenuity and hard work in creating a prosperous society that absorbed all Jewish refugees, while the Arabs failed to do so, surely cannot be held against Israel. Today the Jewish population in Arab lands has been reduced by more than 99% since 1948, while the Arab population of Israel has grown larger than its 1948 base, and currently makes up approximately 15% of Israel's population.

Any large scale exchange of population is a horrific event, and does involve much suffering, but the Arab-Jewish population exchange was not a unique event in history. A number of such population exchanges have happened in the last hundred years, such as the Turkish-Greek population exchange when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the expulsion of Germans from Central and Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, etc. The largest population exchange in recent history occurred when, as demanded by the majority of its Muslim inhabitants, India was partitioned in 1947 to create Pakistan. More than 5 million people moved in either direction (link), and more than a million died in the accompanying violence – a much greater humanitarian catastrophe than the Arab-Jewish population exchange. My own family is from an area that became (East) Pakistan and Partition forced many of my relatives to abandon their ancestral homes and possessions and seek refuge in India. Much like the Arabs who were forced to leave their ancestral lands to make way for the Jewish State of Israel, Hindus and Sikhs were forced at the time of Partition to leave their ancestral lands to make way for the Islamic State of Pakistan. However, unlike Arabs in the Middle East, Hindus and Sikhs in India have, on the whole, reconciled themselves to Partition. They have moved on beyond 1947, and have been able to get on with their lives, without the history of Partition continually intruding into the present. While a certain amount of nostalgia still remains, Hindus and Sikhs do not harbor any hatred for Muslims even remotely resembling the visceral hatred that Arabs have for Jews. There are no calls among Hindus and Sikhs for suicide bombings, nor any for “wiping out Pakistan” – very different indeed from the Arab/Islamic reaction to Israel.

Continuing Israeli Human Rights Violations

It cannot be denied that Israel often deals harshly with Arab civilians. But this harshness is often in response to acts of terrorism. Had there not been the threat of terrorism, Israel would likely have treated the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip much better. In fact, it seems to me that Arab citizens of Israel – though unfortunately not treated on par with Jewish citizens – actually enjoy more individual rights and liberties than citizens of most Arab countries. It should also be noted that while Israel is heavily criticized for what it is doing in Lebanon, in Gaza, and in the West Bank, much more serious human rights violations by others are often completely neglected. While the suffering of Palestinians certainly deserves attention, other more serious human rights violations – such as the ongoing genocide in Darfur in which marauding Arab militias have already killed hundreds of thousands of black Africans – deserve more – or at least equal – attention at the United Nations, in the world’s media, etc. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof says, “I sympathize with their [Muslims’] horror at what is happening in Lebanon, but I wish they were just as outraged when Muslims slaughter Muslims in Darfur”.

Hatred for Israel among Muslims Worldwide

One aspect of the Middle East conflict that has always puzzled me somewhat is the widespread hatred towards Israel, and sometimes even non-Israeli Jews, that is demonstrated by Muslims throughout the world. Not only in the immediate neighborhood of the conflict, but a significant number of Muslims (though by no means all, or even a majority) in far-away India, Europe, U.S., Indonesia, etc. seem to harbor a visceral hatred for Israel. After all, Indian/Indonesian/Malaysian Muslims have no direct links to the Middle East. Why should an Indian or Malaysian Muslim, whose great great grandfather converted to Islam, and who is unlikely to ever encounter a Jew in his entire lifetime, passionately hate Jews and Israel? Is it simply a general concern for Muslim victims? Partially, perhaps. But that does not explain the widespread indifference towards other, much worse, atrocities involving Muslim victims, for example the current Darfur genocide where the victims are black African Muslims, or the Hama massacre where upto 25,000 Muslim Syrians were killed by their own govt. in Feb 1982, or the East Pakistan (Bangladesh) genocide in 1971 in which the Pakistan army slaughtered well over a million mostly Muslim (but also many Hindu) civilians in a period of 8 - 9 months. Even conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims outside the Middle East, such as say the one in the Philippines, do not appear to generate any intense passion among fundamentalist Muslims. The extreme hatred towards Israel must have some other explanation. I suspect it has got something to do with a core belief of modern Islamic fundamentalism, the belief in Arabism – the glorification of everything Arabic – Arabic culture, Arabic dress, Arabic Architecture, Arab conquests, etc. As Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul says, the Islamic fundamentalism of today is the cruelest and “most uncompromising kind of imperialism,” because it strips converted peoples of their past, their sacred places, and their attachments to their native land. In the minds of fundamentalist Muslims – even those who are not Arab by ethnicity or nationality – Arabia is at the center of the universe, far more important than their own native lands. This kind of thinking is so widespread that Arabs and non-Arabs alike, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, often implicitly equate “Islamic” with “Arabic” even though something like two-thirds (or maybe even more) of the world’s Muslims are non-Arabic. Fundamentalist Muslims are unable to accept that a tiny Jewish state in the middle of the Arab world can easily defeat the combined might of its much larger neighbors with their supposedly superior Arab Islamic martial qualities. There is a widespread feeling of shame/impotence and consequent rage at the fact that Israel is far ahead of its Arab neighbors in almost all fields of modern human endeavor such as science and technology, agriculture, economic development, and most importanty, in the military arena. To a certain extent such feelings in Arab society may be explainable (by those who understand Arabs) in terms of ethnic/tribal pride and/or honor. But why should non-Arab Muslims – the vast majority – feel the same way? No similar sentiment was ever expressed by Buddhists in Thailand or Sri Lanka when Japan was defeated in WWII. After all, had religious affinity been the only criterion, then instead of dwelling on Arab failure in the modern world, non-Arab Muslims could just have easily have identified with – and tried to emulate – the economic success of Muslim-majority Malaysia, or the personal success of individual Muslims in India such as Dr. Abdul Kalam or Azim Premji, emphasizing modernity, education and rational thinking. But no, hatred for Israel seems take up a disproportionately large portion of the Muslim mindshare. Why? it seems to me that this is not because of any genuine concern over human rights violations, but because of the fact that the ascendancy of Israel smack in the middle of the Arab world against the wishes of its much larger Arab Islamic neighbors challenges a core belief of modern Muslim fundamentalism, a belief held not only by Arabs but many non-Arab Muslims as well – the belief in the superiority of Arabism.

The Current Israel-Lebanon Conflict

I couldn’t agree more with Tom Friedman’s latest column in the New York Times, so here’s a long quote. “Nobody [in Israel] wanted this war, and nobody was prepared for it. Look closely at pictures of Israeli soldiers from Lebanon. There is no enthusiasm in their faces, and certainly no triumphalism. Their expressions tell the whole story: I just don’t want to be doing this – another war with the Arabs. …They have so much more to do with their lives, and they live in a society that empowers and enables them to do it. Young Israelis dream of being inventors, and their role models are the Israeli innovators who made it to the Nasdaq. Hezbollah youth dream of being martyrs, and their role models are Islamic militants who made it to the Next World.”