The Long View 2002-01-21 Crusaders

One of the reasons I wanted to look back over John's writings 12 years later, is I'm curious how well his predictions turned out. One of John's intellectual interests was what he called macrohistory or metahistory, the study of models of history. In the twentieth century, the most famous writers on this subject were Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, and in the nineteenth [and maybe the twentieth too] the most famous was Karl Marx.

A writer with this interest could hardly complain about such an endeavour, so here we are. To read the rest of John's original post, click the link below.


I'm reading an interesting but tendentious book by James Reston, Jr.: Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. The author has embraced the Palestinian position in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His description of the downfall of the Crusader states in the Levant in the 12th and 13th centuries is couched more or less as an allegory of what is going to happen to Israel, which is still younger than the Kingdom of Jerusalem was when Saladin overcame it.

This implicit prophecy came to mind when a friend brought to my attention an article by Daniel Pipes that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 18, entitled "Arabs Still Want to Destroy Israel." Quoting the rhetoric of a Palestinian sheikh, the Pipes notes that militant Islam in general has never considered Israel to be anything other than a temporary phenomenon. He argues that concessions made by Israel in the 1990s were regarded by the jihadists as signs of a loss of nerve. Rather, he argues, the 1990s were a time "when Israel should have pushed its advantage, to get, once and for all, recognition of its right to exist."

Various objections are possible to this thesis, but consider this one. As David Pryce-Jones observes in his book, The Closed Circle, all Arab states have a legitimacy problem, as do all Islamic states to a greater or lesser degree. In his view, the only basis for government that can really be entirely satisfactory from an Islamic perspective is the Caliphate, the rule over the whole of the community of the faithful by the Follower of the Prophet. The Caliphate ended when the Ottoman Empire did after the end of the First World War, and the Middle East has yet to find a new basis for legitimate government.

At least on this first post, I feel like John nailed it. While the Arab Spring was initially hailed as a great force for democracy in the Middle East, by which most Westerners mean "becoming more like us", it has actually been an opportunity for the most reactionary elements of Libya, Egypt, and now Syria to seize power.

The increasing importance in Islamic societies of purely reactionary movements like Wahhabism does suggest that Israel is not facing a living culture, one capable of the innovation and resilience that Islamic societies displayed in Saladin's day. Rather, post-Ottoman Islamic culture is increasingly fossilized. It can reassert what it became in the past, but it cannot become something new.

Fossils have a certain strength, but they also tend to be brittle. The problem for Israel may not be gaining recognition of its right to exist from its neighbors, but avoiding the debris when they shatter.