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Ancient Jews and Modern Muslims

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January 6, 2014
by Steve Sklar MODERN CONFLICTS SOMETIMES MIRROR ancient struggles. The United States and Muslims of the Middle East seem to be living out a tragedy that Romans and Jews suffered some 2,000 years ago. judah-maccabeeTaliban+TAL05+Set+ELHIEMThe United States helped Muslims drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. A group of Muslim theological students, aided by Pakistan, set up an Islamic regime based upon their interpretation of Muslim scripture. They called themselves simply ”Taliban,” an Arabic word meaning “students.” Convinced that their success was due to God’s favor rather than help from other nations, they supported Osama bin Ladin and his Al-Qaeda network in his attempt to establish an Islamic caliphate to stretch from Morocco to Indonesia. Al-Qaeda attacked the United States, bin Ladin’s former ally, on 9/11, which led to the end of the Taliban regime and to his own death He was acting upon a dream of imperial conquest, which turned into a nightmare of war and destruction. This modern tragedy strongly parallels the ancient history of the Jews under the Roman Empire who witnessed the destruction of their temple and their expulsion from the Holy Land. IN THE 2nd CENTURY BCE, Palestine was ruled by Antiochus IV, king of Damascus and descendant of one of the generals of Alexander the Great. Antiochus tried to impose Hellenistic culture upon his realm and severely persecuted Jews for following their own faith and customs. The Jews rebelled, under the leadership of the Maccabees. Aided by an alliance with the growing power of Rome, the Jews established their freedom. Less than one hundred years later, the Hasmonean family, descendants of the Maccabees who ruled the Jewish nation, fell into internal disputes, and in 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey was called in to settle the conflict — which he did by subjecting the nation to Rome. There followed a series of rebellions. Judah the Galilean led the Zealots to defeat in 7 CE, and another rebellion in 66 achieved some independence for about four years, until the Roman legions, which had been distracted by political problems in other parts of the Empire, recaptured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, which for centuries had been the center of Jewish worship. More Jewish rebellions broke out between 115 to 117, especially in Alexandria, Egypt, and finally, in 132, the Jews of Jerusalem rebelled again, led by Simon Bar Kokhba, who claimed to be the Messiah. Destroying the rebellion in 135, the Roman emperor Hadrian drove all Jews out of their sacred city and forbade any of them even to visit it except for one day a year, on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. In less than 300 years, the ally that had aided the Jews in achieving freedom from oppression had been goaded into ending the Jewish national presence in Palestine. Like modern Afghani Muslims, ancient Jews had formed an alliance with a major contemporary power to attain their freedom. Both groups then established states that proved to be politically unstable. Both turned around and attacked the states that had supported their independence. Both fought a losing battle but kept on fighting, convinced that, despite their defeats, God was on their side. The result was a disaster for the Jews. It may well prove a disaster for Muslims as well. ElephantTHE PARALLELS are more than superficial. It was obvious to any outside observer at the time of the Roman Empire that the Jewish community could not defeat the most powerful military that the world had ever seen, as it is obvious today that no Muslim state or terrorist group can defeat America’s military, which is by far the most powerful ever seen. Rome had granted the Jewish ruling class special privileges, such as paying taxes to the Jerusalem Temple rather than to Rome, and freedom from participating in the Roman legions; many modern Muslim states also have ruling classes that have been privileged by, in turn, the British Empire and the United States to become immensely wealthy based upon mineral wealth of their countries — wealth developed by and originally exploited by the dominating powers. Both have believed that their perceived superiority consists in having God on their side. Whatever benefits they received were taken to be God's blessing, not to be credited to the worldly powers. Independence was not only their right, but their sacred duty, without which they could not live entirely by their faith, and any defeat could only be temporary setbacks until God’s plan finally triumphed. Mi-abrams-006Zealots of both faiths have been willing to use clearly immoral tactics to achieve what they consider to be a righteous goal. The violent jihadists of today were foreshadowed by the sicarii, Jewish terrorists of the 1st century. They killed Romans and Jews alike, including a Jewish high priest. Like modern jihadists, their goal was to strike terror into the hearts of the community, and they did not mind killing innocents in order to terrorize. Nor were the sicarii the only Jews to violate decency. Roman soldiers were promised amnesty during the rebellion of 66, but when they laid down their weapons, they were massacred. Muslim radicals today set up charities as secret fronts for obtaining funds for terrorism, and use innocent women and children as shields to protect themselves against enemy gunfire. Human morality and decency are suspended in the name of a divine purpose. Not many ancient Jews and not many modern Muslims feel driven to put aside basic human values, but those who do pose serious problems for the rest of the world. THERE ARE ALSO PARALLELS between Rome and the United States. Just as America achieved its independence from King George of England, Rome achieved its freedom by rebelling against the Etruscan King Tarquin the Proud. Both nations were founded in rebellion against despotism, and both established a system of checks and balances to make sure that no one power became supreme. Indeed, the American form of government was based in part upon the governance structure of the Roman Republic, which was well known to the men who wrote the Constitution. Both nations entered into alliances with peoples they had defeated in war. Just as America did not take possession of any parts of Europe after World War I, Rome left the city-states of Greece after subduing them, pulling out its troops and promising Greeks their independence. When the Greeks continued to fight among themselves, however, Rome was drawn back into the conflict, just as the U.S. was drawn back into Europe after World War I in order to defeat the Nazis. Both powers declared that they would not fight wars of aggression, and neither was honest about this: The U.S. was never under attack either from Vietnam or Iraq, and the demands Rome made when threatening war were not always reasonable — yet most citizens of both the powers viewed their foreign policy as genuinely fair and benign. Both established far-reaching treaty agreements, and each thought of itself not as an empire but as the leading state in a network of alliances. Both improved transportation and communication in the lands they dominated; under the Roman Empire there were more miles of paved roads in Europe than there would be until the 18th century. Both established peace and international trade, leading to a period of international prosperity more widespread than had ever been seen before. Both cultures excelled in art, architecture and especially in the practical techniques of administration and engineering. Rome and America judged themselves, at least in their rhetoric, based upon their abilities to improve the lives of those under their control. Ancient Jews and present-day Muslims had little to be proud of in their contemporary lives; the advanced civilizations that dominated their worlds were seen as challenges, not models for them. Neither religious community recognized that the glories of their past had departed centuries before; Jews of the Roman period hearkened back to the golden age of the united monarchies under David and Solomon, but that union had been broken when the northern kingdom of Israel broke off from the southern kingdom of Judah after Solomon’s death, and the two kingdoms fought against each other only to be eventually conquered by other powers. Muslims today look back to the time of Mohammad and to the days of the caliphate, but Sunnis fail to take into account the severe divisions between Mohammad’s immediate disciples, who killed each other in the Battle of the Camel during the caliphate of Ali, while Shi’ites prefer to ignore the fact that the peace treaty that Ali made with Mu’awiya led predictably to the death of Ali’s two sons. Neither Sunni nor Shi’ite like to mention that throughout much of the Middle Ages there was no unified caliphate, and that the Ottoman caliphate that had been defeated in World War I had already been in decline for well over a century. Both ancient Jews and modern Muslims blame foreign influence for the failures of their formerly triumphant religious cultures, though according to the Old Testament it was the policies of Solomon and his son Rehoboam that encouraged the northern kingdom to separate from the empire, while it was a Turkish Muslim, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, who ended the Ottoman caliphate. Outcome-based cultures like Rome and the U.S. must constantly prove their effectiveness and their ability to improve the present and to generate a more positive future. Belief-based cultures almost inevitably regard themselves as in decline because they hold a vision of a previous golden age which no actual community, past or present, could truly fulfill. Outcome-based cultures, in short, look to the future, while belief-based cultures idealize their own past. COMMUNICATION ACROSS CULTURAL DIVIDES was very poor in ancient times, and remains very poor today. To the Roman authorities, Jews seemed very odd. Rome was religiously tolerant, and it was not unusual for someone moving from one part of the empire to another area within the empire to worship the gods of his new home as well as the gods of the land he left. Refusal to worship any god but the one national god appeared to be narrow-minded, perhaps xenophobic. Circumcision was frowned upon as unnatural and at times injurious. Dietary regulations were arbitrary, perhaps rather silly. Refusal to portray the human form, especially strong in the case of the female form, was an unnecessary and unfortunate limitation of art. But it was not until Jews in Palestine continually challenged the authority of Rome, frequently employing deadly force, that Jews came to be suspect. Jews saw Romans as foreigners and pagans, people ignorant of the true God and of His book, who would always threaten the true faith if they continued to dominate the Holy Land. Westerners today see Muslims as a backward people whose culture and science fell behind the West centuries ago. Their religion seems as intolerant today as Jews seemed to the Romans. Their refusal to portray the human form, and specifically the female form, seems unnecessarily restrictive and not a little misogynistic. For most Americans until 9/11 the Islamic world was simply part of the backward developing world. After 9/11 Islam became the enemy. All four cultures in these two conflicts have experimented with degrees of self-assertion and assimilation. The conflict between Romans and Jews ended badly for both. Jews lost their homeland, and Romans lost not only many lives but also the broad-based religious and cultural tolerance that had been hallmarks of the policy of their empire. The struggles today between America and Islam may well end as poorly. THE PROSPECTS of traditional Muslim societies thriving in the 21st century are bleak. Modern economies advance through scientific research, but Islamic communities have not made major scientific contributions in centuries. The Quran contains verses that clearly contradict science, such as that the universe was created in six days, that Adam and Eve were the first humans, and that meteors are sent by God to prevent demons from listening to holy scripture; allowing such texts to dominate Muslim societies would be like allowing Christian fundamentalist views on evolution, geology, and climate science to dominate in the U.S. Muslims are not allowed to give or take interest on loans, but interest is essential to present-day economies. Muslim concepts of business contracts do not provide the protection Western laws provide when dealing with corporations. Refusal to allow women to work seriously limits the potential workforce of conservative Muslim nations. Even the most economically successful Muslim countries rely upon oil, a finite resource that must eventually be replaced by other forms of energy. Already unemployment in many oil-producing countries is in the double-digits, and if the price of oil were to collapse, so would many Muslim governments. So far, radical Muslims have blamed America for Muslim failures, but China has been persecuting its Muslim population while the violence of the U.S. against Muslims is limited to foreign policy. If Chinese influence in the world continues to expand, jihadists may find themselves fighting a war against two enemies, both of which are more powerful than any Muslim state. One reason radical Muslims have turned to violence is that the difficulties of assimilation into the world’s culture and economy are immense. Reliance upon faith and violence can seem more hopeful than dealing with very real and very perplexing problems, but the consequences of this violence are frequently disastrous. The conflict between Jews and Rome ultimately yielded a merger between the Jewish belief in one God and a coming messiah and the Roman belief in a dying and resurrecting god who brought salvation to faithful followers. The new faith of Christianity that resulted subjugated both cultures and has dominated the history of the West. This transformation through a new faith is not likely to be a foretaste of the future of the confrontation between Islam and the modern West, however. Hybrid religions such as Sikhism and Bahaism have already originated in Muslim environments, just as variants of Christianity have sprung up, such as Mormonism; while these may persist for centuries, however, none of them seem likely to dominate the world the way Christianity dominated the Mediterranean. It is always possible that a still newer faith will arise, but the present age seems to focus more upon the survival of old faiths in the face of challenges presented by science rather than in finding new prophets or new incarnations of the divine. Now that science is dealing with the issues once reserved to religion, such as the origin of the universe and the origin of life on earth, any would-be founder of a new religion would have to deal with scientific problems. The truth of any new faith would thus be challenged by scientific development, beyond the control of any individual or institution. Pure untested faith is unlikely to generate a new and dominant religion. While America’s struggles with Islam has a two thousand year-old precedent, that precedent, unfortunately, shows neither side how to manage the conflict, nor does it predict how the conflict will end. The precedent does show that cultural misunderstanding can lead to massive violence. Let us hope we can find a more successful resolution. Steve Sklar graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia College in New York and spent twelve years traveling in Europe, Africa, and Asia studying comparative religion, especially Islam and Buddhism.