Islam after the Arab Spring – Shelly Culbertson reports in “The Fires of Spring”

#islam  #arab   #muslims  #middleeast

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Islam is a mystery to most of Americans.  We walk about with the muddled impression that it’s a religion; or no, it’s a political system; or no, it’s a nation somewhere out in the middle of a dessert. The depth of our ignorance and fear has been plumbed by Donald Trump who won wide approval for promising to keep Muslims out of the country. Ours is a democratic republic, however. If we are to save it, it behooves us to become better informed. An excellent place to start is The Fires of Spring by Shelly Culbertson released in April, 2016 by St. Martin’s Press.

Ms. Culbertson, a policy analyst for the Rand Corporation, has focused her career on studying  the Middle East. She has advised the U. S. Statement Department and other governments. The Fires of Spring is at once a travelogue and a commentary of her findings in the post-Arab Spring, a period of protest and violence that resulted in the deaths of thousands, toppled governments, vicious civil wars and possibly the largest mass immigration in modern times. Culbertson’s writing style is unpretentious and straightforward – a joy to read. Her reporting is objective, all the more laudable given the complexity of the issues and the political cross-currents of the region.

Objective and Insightful . . .

Most of the information Americans receive about the Middle East and Muslims is provided by our mass media, primarily television. Perhaps it is a misuse of the term, but the approach most networks take is phenomenological. Nothing in depth or by way of explanation. Viewers are treated to a splash of violence as protestors are gunned down in the greets or panorama of horror at the plights of the refuges and starving souls caught up in the turbulence of revolt and civil war. This is one reason why Culbertson’s work is so very important. Her objective, insightful narrative provides a counterbalance to predictable offerings from popular media.

Shelly Culbertson, author and  analyst

Shelly Culbertson, author and analyst

Culbertson builds her presentation one country at a time, beginning with Tunisia and moving through Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar and Egypt in that order. Each country, all with Muslim majority, emerges with challenges in common and with problems that are unique to each. The struggle everywhere is characterized by movement, however gradual, toward more democratic forms of government. Equality and tolerance are issues in all the countries, especially  with regard to women, economic classes and distinct ethnic or religious groups like the Kurds or Christian Copts. Progress can be made without violence. Tunisia, for example, is proud that it moved through the turbulence of the Arab Spring without bloodshed. Syria and Iraq, by contrast, have been racked by wholesale slaughter of innocent people.

Culbertson’s narrative builds on the interviews with leaders and intellectuals of the countries she visits. The extensively quoted texts create immediate credibility. Commentators reflect on their own experience as witnesses to the upheaval. Their accounts are often moving and poignant. To her credit, Culbertson, does not attempt in-depth explanations of the political and religious differences that drive protest and resistance alike. She seeks, instead, the common ground in what many still see as an East-meets-West confrontation.

Different Banners . . .

History is key to understanding. For generations, the peoples of the region lived peaceably and tolerant of their diversity as Arabs of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule was autocratic. It set the model of the dictatorships that came to power after World War I. This critical event – the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – brought with it a profound loss in the wake of Turkey’s defeat. No longer Ottoman Arabs, the people of the region lost their identity, a loss deeply spiritual and psychological in scope. Inhabitants fell back on what was left to them; namely, tribal, religious, and ethnic identities to set themselves apart from the masses. (See Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth which argues the sense of belonging and identity is DNA deep in humans.) As one expert suggests, “Identity under the Ottomans was cultural and religious, but never political.” With the political structure crushed, a vacuum was created and cultural identity was all that remained.

The Fires of Spring - Book cover.

The Fires of Spring – Book cover.

To put this in perspective, the American reader needs only to imagine what would happen if our Federal government was  peeled away. Without the over-reaching, transcendent identity we all enjoy,  our nation would reshape itself into multiple communities organized by the very things that make us different. States and cities would polarize. Boundaries would be created. Transgressors would be driven off, jailed or lynched. Stronger states would bully weaker. There would be no appeal to The American Way of life. We would group around different banners. Protestants. Catholics, Agnostics, Jews. Blacks. Whites, Hispanics. Asians. The list is endless. Tolerance would be completely dependent upon the good will of the people. Maintenance of communal identity, however, would override altruism. Those differing with us would be regarded as lesser humans, just as minorities in our communities experience racism and antisemitism today. Identity is reinforced as much by rejection of those who are different as it is by inclusion of those who are similar. Members inculcate the values of their community as a critical developmental step in coming to know who they and maturing into fulfilled human beings. This is essentially what happened in the Middle East. When the Ottoman Empire failed, inhabitants turned to their ethnic, tribal and religious bonds to form communities.

Emergence of ethnic, tribal and religious differences caused conflict as communities formed around values held in common. Western leaders arbitrarily redrew the map for the people whose roots extended back for centuries. Colonial rule replaced the Ottoman governance. Colonial powers saw the Arab population as inferior and finally ceded to pressures to grant independence. The new countries, boundaries drawn without regard for social, economic, cultural, or ethnic differences, were held together by dictatorships, the only form of government known to the citizens. Under dictatorship countries stagnated economically and culturally. Arab youth are the driving force for change. They want a better life.

Strong-man tradition .  .  .

Surging interest in oil from the West served usually to make matters worse. Exporters of oil wanted political stability to lessen the threat to their supply and the infrastructure required to transport it. They backed leaders who maintained order. If that was a strong dictator, so be it. Wealth introduced by international trade was not often distributed equitably nor did it help move the masses toward democratic reforms.

The Muslim world today is divided between those who insist that nothing new can be introduced into the faith of Islam and those who insist that answers lie not in the past. There is no separation of church and state in Arab countries. God governs though the those enthroned or in office. To believe in law is to believe in God. To obey the law is to obey God.

The Ancient City of Istanbul

The Ancient City of Istanbul

Government and religion as one is very difficult for many in the West to grasp. The only thing that comes close in this reviewer’s experience might be living as Catholic in the middle of last century. No major family decision was made without consulting a priest. Catholic moral code was puritanical and primary. Martyrdom was revered. Children were indoctrinated before they reached the age of reason. Free-thinking was discouraged. Faith was exulted as superior to reason. Doubt was sinful. Ritualized self-mortification was part of worship. The self was unworthy. Catholicism, in short, was a way of life. A minority in the U. S, and never been as strongly entrenched as Islam, Catholicism has yielded to the democratic and secular influences of a pluralistic society. Islam in the Middle East, however, is dominant as a way of life for the majority. Pressure for change is weaker.

Extremes of the Crisis .  .  .

Liberal and secular thinking is slowly breaking down some of the traditional practices in Islam society. The extremes of the crisis show up in the barbarism of ISIS and others. Violence is how these groups present their challenge to contemporary liberal thinkers. Middle ground is hard to fine. The most recent constitution adopted by Egypt, for example, recognizes only Islam in creating a state that excludes non-Arabs. Missing almost entirely is the humanist base of most Western constitutions.

The Fires of Spring is a huge first step toward creating better understanding. Culbertson’s reporting on the status of women in Arab countries is also a plus and adds depth to her book. Customs vary from country to country and Culbertson, as a female reporter, was very successful in interviewing women of the region. Westerners, who often regard the dress and social regimentation of woman as demeaning, will be surprised to find the women of the region are not universally opposed to all their culture imposes on them. Pride in their own traditions, especially in the face of secular pressures from the West, has many embracing many aspects of their customary roles. Doing so does not necessarily mean they must forsake the goal of equality.

Not to be overlooked are the author’s moving impressions as she strolls the streets of the ancient cities, seeks out the poor in the slums, and describes the timeless beauty of the vistas of these legendary lands. Her descriptive passages are poetic. The First of Spring is contemporary non-fiction at its best. Mission accomplished, Shelly Culbertson.

This review was originally published in somewhat condensed for on the bookpleasures.come web site.

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