History Shows What’s Wrong With the Idea That War Is ‘Normal’ in the Middle East21 Gennaio 2020
Amid tensions in Iran, former Deputy National Security adviser K.T. McFarland repeated the old trope
n the days of tension that have followed the U.S. airstrike that took out Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani, an old trope about the Middle East has reared its ugly head. On Wednesday on Fox News, former Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland repeated it when she claimed that in “…the Middle East, they’ve been fighting for 4,000 years. It’s been an ethno-sectarian battle and psychodrama, and they’ve been killing each other for millennia. Their normal state of condition is war.”
This trope is frequently turned to by those who would have the world believe that war in the Middle East is somehow innate and inevitable. But a look at the history of the region reveals that it’s simply not true. People in the Middle East haven’t “been killing each other” at any rate that exceeds average human levels of conflict. Indeed, the region that lays claim to being the “cradle of civilization” had developed quite, well, civilized and complex systems of compromise and coexistence that allowed its diverse peoples, faiths and ethnic groups to live together over very long periods of time.
In fact, imperial systems like those that ruled the Middle East for most of its history — spanning vast swathes of the globe and encompassing an immense diversity of ethnicities, faith traditions and customs — have of pragmatic necessity had to develop systems of accommodation, ways to avoid war. As recent scholarship has shown, such strategies characterized every imperial system in world history. For empires, while diversity could certainly be the cause of conflict, it was also a source of economic and political strength. That’s not to say these empires would have passed as modern democracies; premodern empires were often repressive. But their survival, longevity and military expansion depended on internal stability.
Accordingly, when in the mid-7th century Islamic rulers suddenly found themselves presiding over an empire stretching from Spain to the borders of India, with a majority Christian population, they, too, developed such a system, derived from the Qur’anic injunction to give the “People of the Book” — Jews, Christians and others who had received a holy book by divine revelation — a special, protected status. Later, even during periods of sectarian tension, the Shi‘i Fatimid caliphs had Sunnis, Christians and Jews serving as their viziers. Indeed, the Jews of Islam enjoyed freedoms and privileges unimaginable in Christian Europe, where they faced centuries of persecution.
Even the Mongols, famed for their brutality in conquest, realized the necessity for coexistence. In the 13th century, after creating the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever known, they established the “Pax Mongolica” — the Mongol Peace — that guaranteed religious freedom to all Mongol subjects. One branch of the Mongols, the Ilkhanids, ruled over modern-day Iran and — after converting to Islam — sparked a renaissance of art and culture that directly parallels the more famous one in Italy. And indeed, up through the Ottoman era and until the rise of political modernity, such systems thrived. The real history of the Middle East is a far cry from a “default” of war. In fact, the default was pragmatic coexistence.