Solving the Middle East

By Howell, Llewellyn D. | USA TODAY, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Solving the Middle East


Howell, Llewellyn D., USA TODAY


THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION has not spent a single moment trying to fix what is wrong in the Middle East. The problem there is not the lack of gun-barrel democracy. The problem is that Arabs and Israelis are locked in a thousands-of-years continuum of dispute over land. That dispute poisons relations between Muslims and non-Muslims around the globe. Through religion and its manifestation in culture, the symbiotic relationship between peoples and their land defines basic identities that are more powerful than the desire for life itself. The Bush Administration has absolutely no sense of origin of this dispute nor its strength of motivation or endurance. It has no counterpart in the U.S. and the West.

The concept of the sovereign state, with permanent borders, that was imposed on the rest of the world during the European colonial era is of relatively recent origin, even for Europeans. In ancient history, a nation was a people with a common identity, a visual one. In a nation, everyone looked alike; they could identify each other and knew who was an outsider. The idea that there was a "nation-state" with permanent borders only was introduced outside the Christian world as colonial powers sought to expand their own borders in the 15th century. Efforts by Germany and Japan to remake the colonial borders during World War II were rebuffed and the United Nations was formed by the winning side in the war, in part to establish firmly the Western concept of the state.

The concept of the state as we hear it being professed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in recent months is a function not only of modern Judeo-Christian thinking, but specifically of Protestant thinking in the post-Reformation era. The concept of governance as defined by the Roman Catholic Church a millennium ago bears significant resemblance to that of Islam today, especially Shia Islam--unitary, hierarchical, patriarchal, authoritarian. Moreover, it is not manifestly different from the Chinese notion of the state, which positions the King as the only intermediary between heaven and the people on Earth.

Indeed, even in Western Europe, we see the pre-Reformation nation-state still reflected in the merger of roles of King or Queen as heads of both church and state. England and the Anglican Church are but one example. As a state founded as a function of escape from religious hierarchy, the U.S. particularly is vulnerable in seeing others through the prisms of its own eyes. In the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, culture still defines a nation, not politics, geographical surveys, nor military conquest. Religious belief dictates the spiritual relationship between land and people, not international law nor an army's reach. What works for Texas does not necessarily work for Muslims in Palestine or Jews in Israel.

Secretary of State Rice makes frequent references to Hezbollah as a "nonstate actor." That is a correct characterization. However, the international relations literature of the last 40 years is lull of studies on nonstate actors and their pervasive role in international politics.

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