Why America can't figure out the Middle East

What America fails to see 

Salman Masalha || 
Why America can't figure out the Middle East

When you lack history how can you understand societies steeped in the past?

American policy in the Middle East provides much fodder for the lovers of conspiracy theories. The actions of the United States over the past few decades — irrespective what party the president is from — appear rather odd in the eyes of the people in the region, to the point of suspicion. But there is no room for such theories: The explanation lies elsewhere.

True, the United States is a superpower, and its leaders are directed first and foremost by American interests; but it is also a sort of huge and distant island surrounded by an ocean. An island that is not just geographically distant, but also historically and culturally remote. Compared to the Old World across the ocean, the Unites States lacks history. The achievement of relative success, known as the “American Dream,” is based on this very foundation of a lack of history — that is, in chopping off the roots of the past and facilitating growth in new soil. Looking towards the future.

In comparison, in a region such as the Middle East, laden with the past, bursting with history, it is difficult for residents to break free of this burden. The people of this region progress in measured steps, always casting a glance behind, and always falling into the trap of their past.

Since the face of the United States is forever facing the future, there is an inherent tension between the American view and that of the rest of the world. As long as there was a bi-polar world, divided into an evil Eastern bloc and a good Western one, things were easy to understand, both for the average American and for the nation's president. But after the collapse of Soviet communism and the shattering of he Eastern bloc, it seemed as if the Cold War had disappeared from the stage. Only then could a descendant of Americans of Japanese origin, Francis Fukuyama, think that now, very soon in our days, we would witness the end of history as all would adopt liberal democracy, which he argued was destined to rule forever.

But empires cannot exist without an external enemy. The new enemy is found in the form of the Islamic imperialist ideology, which has begun to reawaken. The Sunni Islamic golem that the United States nurtured as part of its its war against communism has rebelled against its creator and entered into a warlike contest against America, along with the Shi’ite imperialist movement of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The United States finds itself facing a two-headed enemy: Shi’ites, who see it as the Great Satan; and Sunnis, who view it as the leader of the heretics. And this is how the theory of the “End of History” quickly collapsed, to be replaced by the more up to date theory of the “Clash of Civilizations,” the fruit of Samuel P. Huntington.

Huntington’s theory was an attempt to put the American train, the one lacking history, back on the historical track and back to the Old World, which operates by other rules. The Americans felt the blow of the power of history through the destruction of the Twin Towers by Sunni fundamentalists, whom they had nurtured in Afghanistan.

We must remember that Islam grew out of the Judeo-Christian ideological and spiritual foundations. That is why Islamic fundamentalism will also fight its battles against the Judeo-Christian culture. It is hard to find Islamic writings that relate to cultures other than this Western one.

So how can you explain to an American who lacks history legends from thousands of years ago about Pharaoh and Haman, about the Persian kingdom and the Kingdom of Israel, about the Messiah who will come, about the Islamic Caliphate and the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam. In contrast to the United States, in the Middle East all these are parts of the mechanism that operates the machines of society. It is an ancient mechanism that has never divorced from its past, not from Pharaoh and not from Haman.
Published: Haaretz, April 16, 2015

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