Posted By POSCA
Part the First
Seeing thousands of Muslims engaged in synchronous prayer or performing the rituals of the Hajj, one might be inclined to believe that Islam is a unified, internally consistent belief system wholly embraced by about a billion people living on planet earth. But you would be wrong. The term “hashashin” (“assassin”) betrays a certain discordance within the Arab world that Posca finds intriguing, but which belies any unanimity of thought one might hope to find there.
In this and the next two posts, Posca will describe the ten lines of stress or fracture he sees at work in Islam today. What these lines of fracture mean for the future can be known only to the Supreme Being, but they are real and they should be of great interest to those interested in the significance of Islam today.
Stress Fracture #1: The Authenticity Problem. Islam is beset by the Arab/non-Arab schism. An Arab is someone whose origins are to be found on the Arabian Peninsula—back seven generations, with Adam being the first generation. Generally speaking, this means tracing one’s origins back to the Garden of Eden, which, as we all know, was in Yemen at the southern end of the peninsula. (Good friend of Posca’s was a Kuwaiti simply because his grandfather had escaped there after committing a murder in Yemen.)
Muhammad (pbuh) was an Arab and Islam is originally a creature of Arab-ia. Sure, you can be a Muslim from Indonesia or Chicago, and this is a very good thing, but your language is not the language of Islam—Arabic, the language of Allah himself—and your origins are not the origins of the Prophet. You come from somewhere over the horizon, a place to which Allah pays less attention to than the Arabian Peninsula, the place where the Two Great Mosques are located—Allah’s preferred place. In other words, there is a clear but usually subtle distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” Muslims—Arabs, to borrow an embarrassing phrase from the Jews, are Allah’s “Chosen People.”
This subtle distinction between the “authentic” and “inauthentic” Muslim carries over into international politics. True Arabs tend to hold themselves apart from non-Arab Muslims; this is why, for example, Afghanis refer to Arabs not as “Muslim brothers”, but as “foreigners.” And this is why “foreign aid” from the Arabian Peninsula is cashed out as the hiring of day-laborers and servants from non-Arab Muslim countries. If a Kuwaiti has domestic help, that help is almost certainly Indonesian or from some other country in Southeast Asia, and if a business requires energetic, English-speaking employees, then they are frequently from the Philippines. (Posca’s landlord had an Indonesian maid who clearly burned to murder Posca in his sleep; fortunately, Posca had a safe room.)
Similarly, all of the animals slaughtered during the Hajj are processed in special plants and distributed to the poor by the Saudis. Even though these fortunate beasts have been used to fulfill what may be termed a major Islamic sacrament, and would therefore be presumed to have an enhanced religious aura about them, they do not end up on Arab tables. Kuwaiti lamb comes from New Zealand, after all.
There also is a racial component to the “authentic” vs. “inauthentic” schism—something Americans of color experience in the Arab world, much to their chagrin. Simply put, the darker you are, the less authentic you are, and this is true even though Islam is centuries old on the African continent. In fact, there is an obsession with light skin on the Arabian Peninsula, to include bleaching one’s skin with chemicals so harsh that the end-result can be quite hideous.
One final note about the “authentic” vs. “inauthentic” stress-fracture, and it pertains to the Palestinians. Whatever you may see in the press, Palestinians are definitely NOT treated as top-tier Arab Muslims; in fact, if they are construed as Arab Muslims (something Posca doubts), then they are the poor relations you never introduce to your friends (and probably try to hide if your friends should drop by unannounced). Arab Muslims are happy to have the Palestinians fighting the Israelis, but they would never let a Palestinian marry into the family. For this reason, Palestinians will introduce themselves as “Jordanian,” but this gambit fools no one.
Stress Fracture #2: Who stole my cheese? Another huge source of schism is the war between Sunnah and Schi’ah Islam, which is not so much a theological dispute as it is a dispute over who was the rightful heir to the Prophet—over the real identity of the Caliph, the ultimate powerbroker in the Muslim world.
Make no mistake, the Sunnis and Schi’ites are at war with each other. Posca knows—he had to supervise both—and Posca is convinced there will one day be a long and bloody conflict between these sects. Part of the problem, of course, is that the Persians are Shi’ites, and the Persians and Arabs have a long-standing hatred for each other. (Arabs never call them “Iranians”—they are “Persians”—and as I was regularly reminded, “they smell bad.”) Schi’ite mosques are easy to spot at night because they are thoroughly illuminated with green light (quite beautiful, actually). This intra-Muslim dispute is so virulent that many Sunnis are fully convinced that Schi’ah Islam was specifically created by the Jews to destroy Islam. Over the centuries, these sects have evolved different practices and traditions—but it would be a mistake to believe they are not both Islamic at bottom, and when the final conflict comes (as it will), it will be a war over “the one true faith” (as one of Posca’s subordinates put it.)
Stress Fracture #3: Show me the money. Money—huge piles of money—constitute the third major stress fracture for Islam.
Gulf Arabs do make an effort to help those in need, and they donate lots of dinars to various relief and infrastructure projects throughout the Muslim world, as well as providing many non-Arab Muslims with employment in the Gulf. But Gulf Arabs are nouveau riche, and they act like it. But Posca, although he can be a snob (very rarely), is not here advancing the typical “hold your nose, here comes the new money” criticism. On the contrary, the nouveau riche Gulf Arabs have used their money to expand their horizons in new and telling ways.
In addition to PCs, Internet, and hundreds of CDs and DVDs, most Kuwaitis also have four or five TV dishes up on the roof, each from a different provider. They watch everything they can from all around the world. They catch Shep Smith on Fox and the naked weather chick on Moscow TV. They know far more about the latest American and British shows than Posca ever will. They watch MTV in all of its forms, and there is even an Arabic version of South Park that they watch (Kenny is a Hindu kid, I think).
Although they still like to take “picnics” that can last up to a week in the desert, it is not uncommon to see a portable TV dishes sticking out of their wool tents. Their “world” is a much bigger place than the world of the average Afghani or Indonesian; and their realities—including their relationship to Islam—are by no means the same. In one world, Pamela Anderson is bouncing in slow motion along the beach; in the other world, there is hard subsistence living.
Likewise, Gulf Arabs are jet-setters. Because Posca was required to fly foreign airlines, he was able to hop Kuwait Air (a very fine airline, by the way) to Frankfurt or Amsterdam. When the flight left Kuwait International, the plane was full of Arabs in traditional garb; but by the time the plane landed, everyone was in tasteful Western garb (of course, very expensive Western garb). The truth is, Arabs like Western culture. They seek out the Western experience whenever possible, further widening the chasm between “with it” Muslims and all of the others. The Arab Muslims have the cash; non-Arab Muslims take out the trash. In so doing, one group’s development remains essentially static and stagnant, while the other group rushes headlong into its integration with the world community.