This article is based on Alberto Fernandez’s address at the Philos Nexus Conference in September 2019.
A worldview today in elite foreign policy circles, especially during the past two administrations, says the Middle East no longer matters. After all, the United States is now the world’s largest oil producer.
The Obama administration explicitly said the United States spent too much time and effort on the Middle East, and it talked of the “pivot to Asia.” One very senior official said the US should not fix “fundamentally broken societies” in the Middle East. Some have a Republican version of that in the Trump administration, particularly with the December 2018 decision—since walked back—to withdraw from northeast Syria.
Others see the same tendency when America declares victory and goes home from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and when some foreign policy experts suggest a negotiated deal can solve every problem with every adversary, no matter how horrible. Some, I think rightly, say there is a Western “Middle East fatigue” that sees the region as a black hole where nothing is solved and nothing stays fixed.
But the Middle East does matter, and the West should engage it. So, considering society’s skepticism, we must explain why.
From a purely materialistic perspective, the region seems rather insignificant. The Middle East includes 600 million people—which is much less than Sub-Saharan Africa and even less than Latin America—but only if you include Iran (81 million) and Turkey (80 million). It has about 5 percent of the world’s population, 6 percent of its landmass, and 1 percent of global GDP. So that cannot be the reason it matters.
In terms of foreign policy, we could say the Middle East matters geopolitically. It has valuable real estate next to Europe and Russia, and al-Qaida and the Islamic State rose and still survive here. The region also sees ongoing efforts—often successful—by the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, the Islamic Republic of Iran, to exercise a regional hegemonic role as a precursor to Israel’s destruction, the West’s subjugation, and their brand of Islam’s global victory as part an eschatological vision.
But looking at the region dismissively, or merely through the eyes of a government trying to avert disaster at the hands of extremists, sells the region short.
As American Christians specifically, what is our relationship with the Middle East, and why does it matter to us? How does our relationship contrast to the way—I would say the often superficial, clichéd, and shortsighted way—governments engage the region? If we are sincere, respectful, and serious, our engagement must be about understanding the “other” on its own terms. We should be thoughtful and winsome enough for the other to understand us on our own terms. When a government supposedly engages the Middle East, it often starts a monologue or diatribe, an insufficient one-way relationship. Western governments and Christians need to better understand the region, and the region desperately needs to understand us.
The Middle East is significant for several reasons that demand American Christians’ engagement. Three essential ones come to mind.
First, Islam makes the region significant. Obviously, Islam is a global religion, and the majority of Muslims in the world live outside the Middle East. But the mostly Arab Middle East is at the heart of a massive swathe of Islamic territory stretching almost uninterrupted from Morocco to Pakistan. And because of the region’s religious history and geography, it has a unique prestige and weight everywhere in the so-called Muslim world.
Westerners, including Christians and Jews, have an ancient, bloody, and complicated relationship with Islam. It is fraught with all sorts of weighty baggage that many in the West are unaware of. For almost a thousand years, Islam—first in one empire and then in several empires and states—was the politically dominant, technologically advanced, and predatory rival of Christianity, particularly for Christian states adjacent to this great power.
Some, like the Spain once ruled by the Visigoths, would be overwhelmed by Islam and rise again. Others, like the various Christian kingdoms of Nubia in what is now northern Sudan, resisted for centuries but were eventually overwhelmed and largely forgotten. Some Muslims long for lost Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain); who mourns today for the lost Christian kingdoms of Nubia, or Merowe and Kush?
The great Eastern Roman Empire, based in fabled Constantinople, resisted repeated Muslim invasions for close to a millennium, protecting an often weak and primitive Europe. Exhausted by assaults from the west as much as the east, the empire succumbed.
Used to hearing Islamist calls of victimization and blaming the West today, we forget that it was not that long ago—in the sixteenth century—the Islamic empires began to see the tables turn. Most spectacularly, the Ottomans were defeated by Catholic knights at the gates of Vienna and by Spanish and Italian ships near Lepanto. That century also saw the Portuguese defeat Muslim armadas off the coast of India, while Portuguese musketeers helped an African Christian king in Ethiopia emerge victorious over a Turkish-Somali invasion.
War and competition were always there, as was trade and cultural borrowing of every sort, in both directions. “Islam” seemed to be constantly advancing for nine centuries, followed by almost five centuries of seeming defeat and decay. This is one factor—one of several—for the superiority and inferiority complex in Islamist discourse.
But today the second-largest and fastest-growing religion in the world is a fact of life everywhere, not just in the Middle East. And it is from Arab countries that all sorts of larger trends—from the jihadism of al-Qaida and ISIS, to political Islam and the “evangelism” of Islamic dawa—have received much of their impetus, cash, and foot soldiers.
In my view, our intimate and thorny relationship, engagement, and dialogue with our rivals in Islam will be a growing reality. Christians need to be ready. While religious diversity in the world will continue, soon there will be three great religious and ideological blocs: Islam, Christianity, and unbelief, which encompasses both the post-Christian, neo-pagan West and coercive, atheistic regimes elsewhere. Islam will continue to grow in the West, and the center of gravity for Christianity will likely continue to move south and east, away from traditional strongholds in Europe and North America.
Among other many things, Islam is a sweeping theological critique of the basic tenets of Christianity, accepting much that is secondary in the Christian faith while rejecting the heart of Christianity. It can be captivating to the lazy and shallow Christian, just as it can be compelling for Westerners who are empty and drifting in a hurting and aimless world. It should be no surprise, then, that St. John of Damascus, an eighth-century Syrian Arab deeply knowledgeable about the Umayyad dynasty, classified Islam as a new Christian heresy. How we engage with Islam, how we understand it, and how we answer its unique calls on life and its views on our faith is one of the key emerging intellectual issues of our time.
I am not a Muslim, obviously, but I have been deeply marked by the religion my entire adult life, often as a contradistinction, even before I began learning Arabic at the age of 18 in the US Army. Many years of living and working in the Middle East only deepened Islam’s impact.
Some of my initial attraction to Islam as a very young person was the romance of the East that influenced people like Richard Francis Burton, Charles Montagu Doughty, and Freya Stark. But theoretical attraction gave way to real-life experiences.
And I can recall moments of great beauty or splendor:
- in strange music at twilight in the courtyard by the Mulberry Mosque near the Antioch Gate in Aleppo,
- in being welcomed by hundreds of horsemen carrying flags, rifles, and swords in west Darfur,
- in the exhilaration of long, late-night, intense conversations about religion, life, and politics over bitter cardamom-scented coffee or arak in smoke-filled rooms, and
- in the voices of many individual Muslims, including artists, poets, musicians, journalists, politicians, clerics, scholars, criminals, and fanatics.
All too often today, people who seem to care about our relations with Islam fall into two extremes. They either simplistically and shallowly demonize Islam as a whole, or they are intellectually dishonest and idealize its essence while excusing its rough edges.
In contrast to these two approaches, we need a sincere, continuous, and nuanced engagement with Islam today more than ever, one that seeks critical understanding and that begins with an understanding of ourselves and our own beliefs. This is going to become even more important in the years to come.
Engagement also means widening our scope and discovering and appreciating one of the historical wellsprings of Christianity all too often ignored by an arrogant West: the battered, dwindling, persecuted, but still standing Eastern Church and its stunning spiritual and human heritage. This is such an important part of the work of the Philos Project. For me, my journey in studying the Eastern Church, a study that began almost 40 years ago, was one factor that brought me back into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.
A Dangerous Model for the World
Second, the Middle East matters and we must engage it because the region may be a potential model for the future, and not in a good way. In Providence last year, I spoke of the growing reality of a “hot, thirsty, and angry” Middle East as incompetent governments face angry populations and essential problems they cannot or will not solve. But what if that is not the future of the region but the world?
Anyone who has—and I have—worked in the Middle East in the media knows the phenomenon of fake news and identity politics have long existed in the region. They were, in a sense, pioneers in this toxicity and dysfunction. Desperate people looked for a connection and refuge in a tribe, ethnic group, or religion when incompetent, collapsing, and predatory states couldn’t take care of their essential needs but were skilled in manipulation and deception.
The Middle East leads the world in both water scarcity and corruption. The dry spell today may be the worst in nine hundred years according to NASA. It is an area where in some countries more than 40 percent of the population wants to emigrate, as they despair things will never improve. It is a place where anti-Semitism has been mainstreamed, as it is now becoming in much of the West, where tyranny is clothed in the language of reform, and where witch-hunts are used regularly to distract the masses from the fact that they are dressed in rags and sit in darkness. And, of course, this grim reality will not remain in the Middle East but will move, to the West most likely.
If you want to understand what went wrong and what may go wrong with the West, you can do no better than to look to the Middle East. We in the West are not so immune from toxicity and dysfunction as we like to think. But our engagement needs to not just understand grim reality, but also the surprising places where there is still hope—with countries like Tunisia and Sudan—and with brave individuals in a sometimes-lonely fight for human dignity in Beirut, Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran.
Lessons from Israel, a Success Story
If we should engage the Middle East because it is important for Islam and because it can provide insight toward a possible dystopian future, there is a third compelling reason. Just as the region could be a cautionary tale, it also provides us with another possible lesson, one that is more heartening and hopeful.
I refer here to the State of Israel. Now, Israel is no paradise, as many Israelis I know would admit. But it is a positive, real flesh-and-blood success story in a region filled with bloody failures. This is something to be cherished and recognized, not as some comforting myth but as a reality that many in the West seek to distort or denigrate.
I recall a State Department trip, one of my last ones before I retired as a diplomat, to Israel in about 2013. The US embassy organized my trip, and it included half a day of meeting with Israeli Arabs in some of their towns and villages. We spoke in Arabic, and they were filled with complaints about the government, about the “Jews,” about their situation. But what struck me was that none of them wanted to be part of some Arab-ruled collectivity; none of them wanted the government they saw in any of Israel’s neighbors, especially, God forbid, the Palestinian Authority. Yes, they wanted—as minorities and citizens everywhere often do—better treatment, more rights, and more equality as citizens of the State of Israel. This kind of struggle and complaint in the region is rather rare, it seemed to me.
This anecdote also underscores one key part of the virtue of engagement: you discover for yourself that the world is sometimes quite different from what the media or self-styled cultural or political gatekeepers present.
It seems to be very easy and fashionable for outsiders, and I am not referring to Arabs or Muslims, to dump on this small country and to treat it with a skewed and biased measuring stick.
And yet, to maintain a real democracy with whatever flaws it may have, develop a real market economy with all its flaws, provide governance and the rule of law and transparency to a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that is also the Jewish national home—is something to be appreciated for its rarity, especially in the Middle East. It is also something to be defended fiercely and vocally.
That a democratic, free, and open Israel has happened and endured within an environment of multiple wars over the past 70 years during unrelenting hostility and terrorism is even more remarkable.
We need to be able to explain, with understanding and eloquence, this reality of a state that is Jewish and democratic and pluralistic, which took in hundreds of thousands of destitute Jews from Muslim lands who today constitute at least 61 percent of Israel’s population.
When you see forces arrayed against Israel today, for me the choice is clear about where we should stand. It is a clear, easy, and unambiguous choice that can and should be defended on logical, humanistic, and historical grounds, whether our audiences include Arabs, Americans, or Europeans.
The ground is moving on this in the region. While Iranian, Hezbollah, and Hamas rockets threaten Israel, appreciation for the country has increased in the so-called “Arab world.” I have heard this myself in the Persian Gulf, Iraqi Kurdistan, and North Africa.
As we push back against the twin intolerant ideologies of Islamism and Arabism, there is a real but fragile possibility of an emerging regional order. A “camp of stability,” as Eran Lerman calls it, can bring together Israel with other eastern Mediterranean states, such as Cyprus and Greece, and willing Arab neighbors in the Levant and Persian Gulf. This may create a more hopeful regional constellation than the possible dystopian future I outlined earlier.
How to Promote Engagement
I’ve spoken about why we should engage and some about whom we should engage with, but I wanted to say something about where this can happen. Of course, the Philos Project is a perfect place to promote engagement. But I would also challenge young people to seriously consider a longer and deeper commitment, whether through government service, academic study, or working in the region. While every organization, whether the State Department or a university, has its own corporate culture and dominant ideology, I encourage them to do the difficult thing: flourish and succeed in whatever environment they are in while holding dear to the truth.
To engage well, they need to go deep. They should learn the language and culture well by being a lifelong student who knows the topic better than the other guy. I did this in my professional career, and it turned out well for me, without regrets. I pray that in any case the Lord will richly reward them in their quest for deeper knowledge and understanding.