Modernity Destroys the Middle East Mosaic

It’s the same with the penny-farthing bicycle symbol thing. Progress. I don’t think we’ve [truly] progressed much. – Patrick McGoohan

There has been a swift shift in identity around the world as this Nationalism vs. Globalism battle rolls on. It is not just a dawning realization for Westerners; it is reality for people across the globe. Some argue that this is how it has always been, and that is partially true. Even within the Arab world, this is a return to an old and a newer realization. We have evidence of it around us today; our leaders just choose to deny that reality has shifted. One could argue that we are outright rejecting the modern conception of the material world around us. Some cultures are just having a more difficult time.

The Middle East is a barren, harsh place.

Very few areas were habitable, the deserts made settlements more like islands, and the land or sun could kill you on its own. This environment set up rather intricate societal frameworks and also helped some communities isolate themselves to preserve their tribes. Carlton S. Coon, a Middle East specialist, anthropologist and OSS officer in World War II, discussed the idea of a mosaic. The Middle East was a mosaic because every piece fit in, every piece had a special role, and they all came together to make sure society at large in the region continued.

In Coon’s view, the few cities needed the nomads, who needed the villages, who in turn needed the cities. Every single ethnic minority or religious group had a specialized trade, role, or economic or societal function that forced the others, especially the Sunni Arab majority, to tolerate them and allow them to exist. His book “Caravan,” printed in 1958, is explicit about this mosaic, and the dangers of forcing “One World” solutions on the Middle East. The mosaic has a place for all per Coon:

…the divisions between peoples, between communities, specializing in regional products, between the inhabitants of villages, camps, and cities, and between the members of crafts and professions.

The Egyptian Copts always had a role in Egypt, even as the nation turned Muslim, since their specialized labor was needed. That specialized labor existed only in Coptic circles and was handed down from generation to generation. The mosaic was a machine shaped by the harsh land and the tribal arrangement, which modern convenience and outside influence has destroyed.

The mosaic itself fit a much simpler society, where surviving the desert was the primary objective. As Coon writes,

Muhammad and his immediate sucessors failed to provide for this need because they did not live in that kind of society… The Arab social system in which they had been born and reared consisted of an aggregation of closely integrated kinship units… A man’s loyalty was to his kin, and within his kinship unit the head of the extended family ruled. All members were more or less equal, and differences in wealth were made up by mutual aid.

The harsh conditions of their land was an evolutionary factor, not just in the physical genes selected for, but in the personality traits selected to exist in such a climate, as well as the social that sprung from them.

Even the simple concepts of honor have come under attack, due to the complexities of modern life. The Arab concept of face is one Coon wrote on. It’s still important to this day for Arabs to not lose face. As Coon described it,

A man’s face is his honor. If his honor is clear and unquestioned his face is white. If someone dishonors him, his face has been blackened and he must take steps to restore color. The more important a free, fighting man, the greater his face. Weaker individuals or strangers who, though strong elsewhere, find themselves outside their home territory, have a privilege of demanding protection under the face of a great man, and were he to refuse it, no matter what the circumstances, his face would darken several shades… The penalty for violation of protection, once granted, is death.

This is absolutely critical because in a desert society that has trade and transport based on caravans across easily-raided routes, this is the highway system of the society. Face is the concept that enforces safe passage in a society where all play a part and the villages need the cities, who need the nomads. Throw this into a new society where not everything revolves around life or death and instead simple admission of a mistake or error is needed, there are massive communication and organizational problems.

This is where Western interference and silly notions of property rights and integration hurts everyone. First, it is amazing that the British and Americans allowed the Saudis, Kuwaitis, etc., to share in the oil flow, since they did not extend the faintest of generosity to the Scots-Irish and Welsh who sat on top of enormous coal deposits. After they swindled poor whites, it must have been some odd pang of property rights and honesty that allowed the Anglos to enrich camel traders and pearl merchants.

Throwing billions into those locations allowed those nations to perform massive urbanization projects. Over 85% of Saudi Arabia’s population lives in urban settings. In his classic book “Arabian Sands,” Wilfred Thesiger laments what will happen to the nomads once they are rounded up and turned into poor urbanites. We now know: jihad exports.

Second, the insane wealth showered on a few lucky Sheiks and Emirs made them also compete with Western elites. The entire creation of Dubai is a joke–Arabs trying to replicate London and thinking that if they build it, it will happen. This also flushed the entire region with cash to amplify their insane tribal hatreds and feuds but with F-16s and missiles.

Would they really be any worse off if Western geologists just pumped crude and never said a word to them? They could have continued breeding camels and performing small scale raids on each other. No one would know the difference.

Third, the West was so quick to spread the wonderful technology and wares that we created. Capitalism needs a market. Coon was quick to note this in the 1950s.

the introduction of European-manufactured goods, weakening home industry and increasing the demand for trade. The mountaineer has to sell more of his crop to obtain these articles… His financial security was weakened, and he was brought into closer relations with the outside world.

When we shared our technology and our mass-produced goods, we destroyed the local markets and producers. If you think automation hurts the small towns with manufacturing in America, imagine mass-produced goods for societies that were built on thousands of actual artisans and specialized craft workers from the 13th century. The double punch is that we did not just destroy the worker, but we destroyed the specific ethnicity’s excuse for the Sunni Muslims tolerating and protecting them. Who needs the Syrian Christian class or Jewish community for bookkeeping when you have Quickbooks?

Now multiply that out by the thousands for different jobs.

These factors have all created this situation where the Middle East mosaic is smashed. The Pan-Arab era was a phony era where the Middle East even attempted to replicate the European nation state system. Prior authority in the Middle East was, per Coon,

divided into zones of degrees of authority. In the cities and lowland or flatland villages, the government ruled. Out on the deserts, or up in the mountains, authority law in the hands of the tribes themselves.

What remains now is all against all, with very few groups coming together against the big Sunni Arab bloc. Even there, the Sunni bloc has splits between groups. They all now have the technology to replace what the “other” was tolerated for. We can decentralize, and they can perform the same functions if not better now.

Proof is right in front of us in Iraq. Post-Saddam Iraq was a sectarian bloodbath and civil war for years. Why was it Shia vs. Sunni vs. Kurds? Why then? Well, it makes sense. Sure, but note: when Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Arab strongman leader of Iraq, attacked Shia Iran, the Shia in the south did not start an uprising. They did not engage in guerrilla tactics against him, nor did they aid the Iranians. They were Iraqis. At that point, they still felt that way. By the time we cleaned out Saddam, that was gone.

It was gone because the Pan-Arab idea and support for building nation states had melted away. It peaked with Nasser, but held on until we removed Saddam in weeks. When the West was dominant and projecting a winner’s attitude with pride in itself, even the Muslims copied us. Egypt, Iran, even Afghanistan had their urban elite living secular lives and dressing in Western clothes. That is long gone. The West’s self-confidence is gone, its academics snipe at it, and its elites have swallowed cultural relativism entirely. The fringes have figured it out. It is only a matter of time before the domestic “rubes” do, too.

Before Westerners point and laugh at the Muslim difficulty handling the modern world, it is best to remember McGoohan’s quote. His line about the bicycle was to point out that it seemed the British have had a hard time adjusting to what the bicycle and modern world had done to their old sensibilities. We Westerners have had a more difficult time with that than we want to admit, yet the changes keep coming faster and faster. One could argue that the Japanese inability to have children is a self-annihilating reaction to the stress of modernity. Monkey brain mechanisms will kick in, and old urges will assert themselves.

In the Middle East, people will retrench back into their religious sects and ethnic tribes, as they are the building blocks of their old cultures, all cultures.

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  1. The reactionary attitude towards people is: “A place for everyone, and everyone in their place”. Leaving people rootless and without any sense of belonging to something greater than themselves is not just destabilizing, it is downright cruel.

    And destabilizing it is. As someone (I forget who) noted, in every city in America there is a dangerous, crumbling ghetto that was once a thriving black business district. Equality put the businesses there into direct competition with the likes of Costco and Wal-Mart, against which they could not possibly hope to stand. The “Talented Tenth”, instead of staying in their own neighborhoods, founding businesses, and becoming pillars of their communities, took jobs at AT&T or ExxonMobil and moved out to a white suburb. The other 90% are stuck “Waiting for Superman”, who will never show up because, of course, he doesn’t really exist.

    Similarly, sexual liberation was supposed to get everybody laid. Instead, subjecting sexual relations to the ruthless, unregulated forces of the marketplace has ended up with a relatively few alphas getting all the pussy they can handle, and large numbers of men who in previous years would have been considered good catches merely for having steady employment and being disinclined towards alcoholism or wifebeating ending up stuck at home alone with their Xboxes.

    And again, that’s just right here at home in the USA. The unintended consequences of Modernity on other cultures – from Arabia to Japan – is enough to truly make one shudder.

    1. Antidem, are you being coy?

      [F]or the last 50 years, one of the central purposes of American political life has been advancing the African-American community. And over the last four decades, what has happened to the African-American community? I’ll tell you one thing – in every major city in America, there’s a burnt-out feral ghetto which, 50-years ago, was a thriving black business district. On the other hand, there’s a street in that ghetto named for Dr. King. So, there’s that. And since we mentioned Mrs. Jellyby, what exactly has a century of telescopic philanthropy done for Africa?

  2. Good analysis here, however it seems to me like you left out a huge piece of the puzzle. You will occasionally hear a mention of the Ottoman Empire bandied about in your run of the mill hack Middle East analysis piece written for The Atlantic or The Economist, but rarely are the implications of this actually delved into. The Ottoman empire lorded over the majority of Sunni Muslim world, as caliphate, for about 1000 years. And was an essential part of what allowed this “mosaic” you spoke of to form in the first place. The Millet system allowed these various ethno-religious groups to coexist relatively peacefully, not just economic interdependence. The Sunni Muslim world’s brief flirtation with Secularist Nationalism (Ataturk, Nasser, Saddam etc) is an obvious failure as you noted. The Question now is what comes after this failure. The West’s brain dead expectations for the Arab spring (the funeral of 20th century Pan-Arabism) were delusional end of history wish thinking, this is obvious. The future of the Sunni Muslim world is an Islamist one, the only question is what kind of Islamists. The Islamic State, Oil Sheik Salafism or something more like the Muslim Brotherhood? My money is on the latter, the Sunni world longs for the liberty the chains a Neo-Ottoman Caliphate will bring them.

  3. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria. The blood of the Christians in Syria, whose lineage stretches back to the time of Christ himself, is absolutely on the hands of USG and its backers. In Assad’s Syria, business as usual continued with a hierarchy and everyone in their place. It was a very religious country, but the ruling Alawites were, and still are, one of the most benevolent religious groups in the Middle East, alongside the Sufis.

    In Assad’s Syria, Christians held very high status, leading fields like law and medicine. And now what of the tapestry of Syria? Forget that it was a poorly drawn country, the state is not so important as the society which it ruled over, a society that for all intents and purposes functioned very well. It has been blown to bits with the scattered body parts of all sides strung across the deserts and sandswept cities. Bravo, John McCain.

    All of the presidential candidates in the United States race as it stands (with the exception of Trump) are favoring a full bore dismantling of the Middle East “because the world is safer when America is strongest” or something to that effect. Is it safer for the Sryian Christians, the Druze, the Yazidis, the Alawites? Listen to any one of their asinine speeches and you will quickly find that they know absolutely nothing of the societal dynamics at play in the Middle East. It’s like their warped ‘good vs. evil’ historiography of WWII. Democracy empowers madmen like nothing else.

  4. I’ve read a considerable amount about Islam, the Middle East, Sufism, and Islamism, plus I’ve spent a fair amount of time in two Muslim countries. But I’ve never run across a piece of analysis that shed so much light on the present situation there in such a compact space. I don’t always agree 100% with Mr. Landry, but this piece strikes me as among the very best he has written for this site. Thank you, sir.

  5. Laguna Beach Fogey February 22, 2016 at 2:31 am

    Excellent essay. Nice to see Thesiger getting a mention. The changes are not coming as fast as they once were, nor are they as critical. Innovation is slowing down. The sects and tribes are again rising; this is happening all over the world, and will happen with the indigenous white tribes of the West, too.

  6. Al Jazeera viewers and commentator pontificate on whether all Alawites should be exterminated, including their children, with very predictable results.

    What nice people USG have empowered. And this isn’t ISIS, this is representative of the sensible, suited Arabs who want to rule Syria as a Saudi client state.

  7. That was a fantastic article, thanks Ryan for putting things in perspective. I wasn’t even aware that modern geopolitical western games and interventions that resulted in fragmentation and sectarian warfare is the climax of a process that started a long time time ago, and the outcome of the West’s inability not only to provide real solutions for the region but for itself too.

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