The author is a dear friend of mine for whom I have the highest respect and admiration. Harold has a gift for explaining the extraordinarily complex world of the Middle East in a way that even I can understand...no small feat! Among his many exploits, Harold was the driving force behind the rescue of Iraqi Jewish artifacts, stolen by the Hussein regime, following the collapse of Saddam's tyrannical government in 2003. (As an aside, I managed to get him stuck in the sands of Kuwait while spending time together back then but that's a tale for another time!) A protege of Bernard Lewis, Harold received his Ph.D. in Islamic history from Columbia University, has studied and traveled widely throughout the Middle East, and has been an indefatigable champion of freedom his entire career. If you want to gain a better understanding of why things are the way they are in the troubled Middle East, this essay is a very good place to start.
by Harold Rhode
Westerners strive to solve problems. When people appear obstinate, we often indignantly say, "Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?" This is alien to Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. Middle Easterners cope with problems for which they know there are no solutions—akin to living with a chronic illness.
Islam, for example, does not recognize the equality of all people. Muslims are the rightful rulers of the Muslim world. Non-Muslims who believe in God and who have a revelation from God before Islam do have the right to live in Muslim societies. They are called "dhimmis" which means, "protected people," who can live in the Muslim world, albeit in positions of political and social inferiority. To be sure, they might become important. There have been Christian Foreign Ministers in Egypt (Butros Ghali) and Jordan (Marwan Mu'ashar), but Christians know they cannot hope to rule their countries. This is most clear in Egypt, where the Copts, native Christians descended from the ancient Egyptians, cannot aspire to become Egypt's president because that position is reserved for a Muslim.
Lebanon is in constant upheaval in part because its French-inspired Constitution, written when Maronite Christians were the largest confessional group, decrees that the Lebanese President must be a Christian. The anomaly of the Head of State being a non-Muslim is a driving force in Lebanese civil strife. Muslims rationalize it by comparing their prophet Muhammad's temporary peace agreement with his enemies, until he could regroup and defeat them.
This is also why Israel can never be accepted as a Jewish state. From the Muslim point of view, the land of Israel is Muslim territory because it was conquered by Muslims in 637 C.E., and will remain Muslim forever.
The only way this might change is if Muslim scholars themselves re-examine their sources and try to find ways within their tradition to come to grips with realities on the ground. Jews and Christians were forced to do this long ago as a result of political realities they had to face. But for now, it is hard to imagine that Muslims would do the same.
In the West, religious and national/ethnic identities are usually separate and do not necessarily