What happened to the so-called Arab Spring that began with such promise in early 2011 in Tunisia and quickly spread to many other countries in the Middle East?
And what role did Islam, Christianity, Judaism and other religious traditions in that region play in what began in great hope and has largely ended in frustration?
The New York Times Magazine -- proving again the need for newspapers to report and analyze the news in depth -- has published this long, detailed piece raising just such questions and attempting to find answers to them. It is a remarkable work of reporting by veteran journalist Scott Anderson.
Let me share a few of his observations and perhaps some of my own as well. His reaction to the opening of the Arab Spring was similar to that of many people:
I was heartened, in the Arab Spring’s early days, by the focus of the people’s wrath. One of the Arab world’s most prominent and debilitating features, I had long felt, was a culture of grievance that was defined less by what people aspired to than by what they opposed. They were anti-Zionist, anti-West, anti-imperialist. For generations, the region’s dictators had been adroit at channeling public frustration toward these external “enemies” and away from their own misrule. But with the Arab Spring, that old playbook suddenly didn’t work anymore. Instead, and for the first time on such a mass scale, the people of the Middle East were directing their rage squarely at the regimes themselves.
But, in the end, it didn't hold together. Why? Anderson says there are many reasons:
Yet one pattern does emerge, and it is striking. While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century.
Is there anything good that imperialism brought to the world? Well, yes. But British, French, Italian, Dutch and other imperial powers who colonized large portions of the Middle East and Africa -- bringing with them religious missionaries and bulldozing the indigenous cultures into which they went -- have a lot to answer for. And, of course, the United States now is often included among those imperial powers, though our influence was not so directly through political takeovers of countries as it was through cultural and economic domination.
What I found especially striking about Anderson's account was how pivotal the 2003 invasion of Iraq was in creating the conditions that led to the current upheaval and even to the empowerment of ISIS and other terrorists. That invasion -- though as Anderson notes, it laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring revolts -- may go down as one of the worst military decisions an American president (George W. Bush) ever made. It fed into the false narrative used by Islamist radicals that the U.S. is at war against Islam.
I will get out of the way here and let you get into the Anderson's account, but not before quoting his key point in his introduction:
But what follows, ultimately, is a dark warning. Today the tragedy and violence of the Middle East have spilled from its banks, with nearly a million Syrians and Iraqis flooding into Europe to escape the wars in their homelands, and terrorist attacks in Dhaka, Paris and beyond. With the ISIS cause being invoked by mass murderers in San Bernardino and Orlando, the issues of immigration and terrorism have now become conjoined in many Americans’ minds, forming a key political flash point in the coming presidential election. In some sense, it is fitting that the crisis of the Arab world has its roots in the First World War, for like that war, it is a regional crisis that has come quickly and widely — with little seeming reason or logic — to influence events at every corner of the globe.
Voters should ask both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump if they've read this account and what they learned from it.
(The map here today is from the Encyclopedia Britannica.)
* * *
WHERE IS THE POPE'S 'OFF' SWITCH?
The pastor of my congregation, Paul Rock, returned to the pulpit Sunday after a three-month sabbatical with a plea that the rest of us build Sabbath time into our busy lives. It might be good advice for Pope Francis, too, writes John L. Allen Jr. of Crux. Allen calls Francis "an Argentinian completely missing an 'off' switch." When Paul's terrific sermon gets posted on our church website (it should be there some time today), the pope (and you) can find it here.