It is 10 years from the United States’ revenge invasion of Iraq. Iraq and its surrounds are in turmoil. The region that gave us two big lasting religions is a cauldron of hate and hope.
The United States cast its Iraq invasion not just to search and destroy (non-existent) nuclear weapons but also as a mission to bring democracy to an oppressed people and light the way to democracy for neighbouring states: shades of the medieval crusades to recover Jerusalem from the barbarians; Shades of the nineteenth-century British imperial mission to lead people out of savagery into the promised land of Christian civilisation.
Jerusalem is back in the hands of Jews, outcast and persecuted by Christians and tyrants for killing Jesus Christ. Now the Jews of Israel are backed by the United States, the most avowedly Christian of the “advanced” nations. Israel is smart, industrious and well-off and the most democratic state in the region but also a state that oppresses a minority, the Palestinian Arabs.
That microcosm of hate might one day conceivably trigger a conflagration. Iran has been building nuclear weapons with the avowed purpose of wiping Israel out. That reflects a hate strand of Islam, brought home to Australians recently when Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, iman of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, was to speak: he had been denied entry to the United States and Canada after describing Jews as “the scum of humanity” and “pigs and monkeys”.
This hate strand of Islam drove planes into the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon. That in turn triggered the invasion of Iraq. The revenge goes on in President Barack Obama’s use of “drones” to kill Islamic extremists abroad, some of whom are citizens of the United States. Hate begets hate.
Nine years after George W Bush’s Iraq revenge, lights flickered through much of the Arab world when tyrants in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were overthrown. Some excitable commentators labelled this a “spring”, presaging a democratic summer to follow.
Actually, from the start it looked more like Europe’s brief “spring” in 1848 when expanding middle and working classes pushed for liberalisation and democracy and a number of autocracies were overthrown or shaken. Amid the excitement Karl Marx issued the Communist Manifesto. But autocracy returned.
Much the same is happening in the Arab world. New autocrats are emerging in some countries and old autocrats are still in power in Saudia Arabia and the Gulf states. Iraq is a shambles largely run by “tribes”. Syria is a failed state, destined to disintegrate. Egypt is headed either for conservative (though not extremist) Muslim rule or a recall of the army. Merchants of hate have pushed south across the Sahara.
As a recent New York Review of Books article put it, this is not revolution, at least as democrats would perceive it. It doesn’t help that many of the states are not natural nations but were constructed by oil-thirsty “western” imperialists (the United States was just the most recent).
The good news, if 1848 is a parallel, is that over time Europe did adopt representative democracy. The middle and working classes did prevail. It took up to a century for northern Europe and Italy, a century and a quarter for Greece, Spain and Portugal and a century and a-half for the Communist states of central and eastern Europe.
Democracy takes time. Though things do seem to happen faster this century than in the nineteenth, it will likely be uneven and lumpy in the Arab-Turk-Persian cauldron as it was in post-1848 Europe. Turkey is much farther down the track than most of the rest. Solutions to the Israel-Palestine deadlock are possible which might take a couple of generations but need not end in another diaspora. (New Zealand’s biculturalism is a model.)
So amid hate there is hope.
Hate and hope are the ingredients of that time in the Arab world now called Easter when the hateful execution of a challenger to an ossified autocratic order bequeathed a hopeful legacy of a better way of thinking and living, symbolised mystically in the fable of the resurrection.
That mystical symbol promises believers a different exit from physical life from nature’s dispiriting disappearance, disintegration and decay.
But the real point about Easter is not a so-called afterlife. Christ preached a here-and-now hope of neighbourly cooperation. The return on that investment is a better life, an escape not from death but from our destructive, animal, dimension.
Just before this Easter Catholics chose a pope who might possibly refashion their version of Christianity to one that eschews dessicated dogma and aims to promote the human best in its believers.
Francis of Assisi, whose name the new Pope has taken, challenged dogma and lived out the first-Easter hope message of neighbourly peace and care. If Pope Francis emulates the man whose name he has taken, he could be a force for good, a better guide to those in the Arab cauldron of hate and hope than Bush’s invaders 10 years ago.