Fundamental change in the Middle East might take a few more minutes


King John and the barons at Runnymede in AD 1215


In response to my recent blog posts on Islam and violence, some anti-Islamic readers (writing here, on Facebook, and in personal emails) have pointed out to me that the Middle East and the Islamic world generally are places prone to violence, the oppression of women, undemocratic regimes, and disrespect for human rights.  This, they suggest — when they aren’t absolutely screaming it — demonstrates Islam to be evil, intrinsically backward, and so on and so forth.


The trouble is that it hasn’t been all that long since the West — sometimes, rather quaintly, still called “Christendom” — could accurately have been described in pretty much the same way.  And, frankly, not everybody is convinced that we’ve achieved total perfection even now.


Less than a hundred and fifty years ago, many Americans owned slaves.  Roughly fifty years ago, blacks were still segregated from whites in the American South, barred from many restaurants, restricted to the back of the bus, forced to drink from separate water fountains.


During World War II, Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps.


In the nineteenth century, most European countries had state churches, and religious liberty was severely limited.


American women were given the right to vote in national elections only in 1920.


Within living memory, fascist dictatorships ruled Spain, Italy, and Germany, and expanded their control over much of the rest of continental Europe.


And violence?  We’ve got a bit of that, too.  Been to Detroit or Washington DC or Chicago lately?  Moreover, from 1973 through 2008, roughly fifty million babies were (legally) aborted in the United States — and abortions have continued over the past half decade, and are performed every day, still.


It would seem to me rather arrogant, immediately upon completing a strenuous climb to the peak of a mountain, if one were to turn around and mock those below who were still attempting the ascent, suggesting that, unlike oneself, they can never make it — and that this proves that they’re inherently inferior.


The English-speaking world has had a remarkably good record of democracy and respect for human rights — at least, as compared with the rest of the world.  But it took us a long time to get here.  The barons compelled King John to sign the Magna Carta way back in AD 1215.  That’s almost precisely seven centuries ago.  And Magna Carta was merely the barest baby step toward representative government and individual rights.  A lot of battles, metaphorical and bloody, had to be fought between then and now, before we achieved the perfect utopia that we enjoy today.  These things don’t happen overnight.



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  • Seth James Nielson

    Dan, thank you for these excellent points. I’ll add one more, but before I do, let me also state that I’m about as conservative as they come, but I get some of the same “closet-liberal” flack for what I’m about to say.

    At least one contributing factor the Middle East is prone to violence is the political machinations of the west. It’s awfully hard for societies to have the kind of internal progress you described here when they are purposefully destabilized by outside forces. The political layout of Iraq, for example, was created by western powers specifically to be unstable. Western powers thought that if they created an unstable country, it would allow them to have more influence and power in the region. Of course, this was before oil turned the situation into… well, what we have now.

    • danpeterson

      You’re exactly right.

      Thanks for adding that.

      Like you, I’m a conservative — very much so — but it’s silly and historically illiterate not to acknowledge the role of Western colonialism, etc., in creating the current Middle Eastern mess over the past several centuries. The West isn’t simply “to blame.” But it bears some responsibility.

  • Cassandra

    Dan, do you think it’s fair to say that, due to historical accident, Islamist violence is both amplified and more easily fomented by technology? A hundred years ago, or even fifty, Muslims in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia might not have heard much about atrocities perpetrated against Chechens, Bosnians, or Uyghurs. But today, Youtube and air travel ensure that all corners of the Islamic world (a) know about it, (b) have access to a few Islamist nutjobs making an existential crisis for all Islam out of it, and (c) a few more nutjobs can learn how to make bombs and detonate them in Boston. Am I on the right track here?

    In other words, I cringe to think what some Mormon nutjobs might have done with Youtube in 1840.

  • Laralee Nelson

    I like to remind people that Islam is about 1500 years old, and Christianity when it was 1500 years old was pretty oppressive and brutal and apparently much more generally approved of by the ‘members’. If we were to judge both religions as they were at the same age Christianity wouldn’t end up on the moral high ground.

    • danpeterson

      LOL. Good point.

      • Ryan

        This equating of Islam and Christianity has reached silly new heights. Every time a bomb goes off, every time more innocent people are killed, it’s like right on cue we have people coming out of the woodwork to recount the brutal doings of medieval Christians.

        I understand the compulsion to express a refined cultural awareness of the non-hostile nature of many Muslims after attacks like the one in Boston, and to reach out to them in friendship, but it’s as if the immediate compulsion of some of you after a terrorist attack is to wear a turban to work.

        • danpeterson

          If you think you’ve seen such equating in my posts, you’ve misread them.

          I don’t think that the Islamic world and “Christendom” are equivalent right now. However, I also don’t think that there was much to distinguish them, in terms of moral superiority or inferiority, in pre-modern times. The Crusades weren’t preferable to jihad. Treatment of religious minorities was no better, and very possibly worse, in the West than in the Islamic world. Women weren’t particularly well treated in the West. Both societies owned slaves. And so forth.

  • Collin

    The lesson we need to learn is that we must always actively confront the evil within us. It is painful to do because we have to admit that we have evil intent.

    • Phil

      In regards to “confronting the evil within us”, I might add that a recent bipartisan report, from the Constitution Project taskforce, detailed the systematic use of torture by the United States and its allies after 9/11. Yet, there has been little mention of, and no accountability regarding, this moral failing. Where is the outrage?

  • Lucy Mcgee

    What is Al Qaeda? It’s America’s family secret. It’s America’s foreign policy Doppelganger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilized. It has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America’s foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its military bases, its cluster bombs, its enriched uranium tipped weaponry, its stated policy of “full-spectrum” dominance, its drone strikes, its “collateral damage”, its use of torture. It is found in the support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda, its misstated foreign policy and its sanctions. It has munched through the economies of poor nations like a cloud of locusts. Now that the family secret has been told, the twins are blurring into one and gradually becoming interchangeable. – paraphrased form a paragraph written by Arundhati Roy- Sept. 2001.

  • The Only True and Living Nathan

    That’s not seven centuries, it’s eight. That’s clear evidence that Dan Peterson is a shill, a poor scholar, a [paste boilerplate ad hominem rant here].

    • danpeterson

      Guilty on all counts.