Come and learn who ‘they’ really are

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Well, “they” are still at it. Those unruly Middle Easterners, that is.

Nuclear armed Pakistan teeters on the edge of chaos. Along its border with Afghanistan, a revitalized Taliban and, most likely, Osama bin Laden still lurk. Just to the west, the Islamic Republic of Iran gravely troubles Dick ‘n Dubya just by existing. Next door, Turks are attacking Iraqi Kurds.

In the rest of Iraq, violence is down a bit, without a real solution to the mess. A political settlement among the various factions is, to be generous, slow in coming. Nearby, Lebanon may lapse into another civil war. To the south, the Israelis and Palestinians talk compromise (again), while shelling one another (again).

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You say you don’t care? You say concerns over our own economy trump world affairs? But the two are related. Turmoil around the Persian Gulf recently helped to drive oil prices over $100 a barrel, gas prices over $3 a gallon, and the overall inflation rate to a 17-year high. Ongoing, open-ended occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are part of the reason for our ballooning deficits, which in turn will make it far harder to deal with a recession, should one come our way.

So what to do? Retreat into isolationism? Invade somebody else? Perversely slap yet another “Support Our Troops” magnet on the rear end of our 10 mile a gallon SUV? Fret over the coming End of Time?

Maybe before doing anything else we should get better informed. We need to get beyond the sound bite “analysis” of telenews and above the sheer geopolitical looniness spouted by some televangelists.

Above all, we need to learn that there is no monolithic “they” in the Middle East.

Remarkably enough, “they” are actually not just stock characters in our ever-popular but cartoonish apocalyptic dramas. Instead, “they” are a diverse collection of peoples. As people, “they” are no more or less inclined toward democracy than peoples of other regions and faiths.

However, to know something of the 20th century origins of Pakistan or Iraq or Lebanon is to see how and why the people of these countries have struggled and will continue to struggle to establish stable representative governments. Knowing this could have warned us away from criminally nave notions of easily creating democracy there.

But also, it should now warn us against the opposite delusion that Muslims or Arabs are inherently incapable of such achievements.

Also it would be useful to understand that “they” have not “always” been fighting each other. Whether Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, or Sunni and Shia, “they” have fought at times, lived in peace at times, and lived in uneasy coexistence at times. The fact that there is so much violent turmoil in the region at the moment is a function of historical influences (often originating with outsiders’), not some strain of evil staining the DNA of Islam.

To shed light on these matters, Copiah-Lincoln Community College will again be offering two non-credit, special interest classes during our spring semester.

First, “A Historical Overview of Islam” (Thursdays, 6-7:30 p.m., Jan. 24-Feb. 21) will briefly cover the origins and development of the Muslim faith through its first 13 centuries. The second class, “The History of the Modern Middle East” (Thursdays, 6-7:30 p.m., March 6-May 8), building on the first, will chronicle and analyze the last century of events in greater detail.

Will all, then, be made clear? Absolutely not. The region, its culture, and its history are complex. As is so often true, the more you learn, the more you will discover you need to learn. But even that sobering realization is armor against simplistic explanations and the demagogues who peddle them.

Since the fall term, the classes have been somewhat reorganized — trimmed here, expanded there. But still, with no tests, no grades, no roll calls. Just good information, and even more time for good discussion.

For additional information on signing up, check the Co-Lin Special Interest Class schedule in The Natchez Democrat on Sunday, or contact Beth Richard, 601-446-1103,

Jim Wiggins teaches at Copiah-Lincoln Community College.