Most people in Union County, indeed most Americans, had given scant thought to Islam before September 11, 2001.
Until then, for most people, Islam and its conflicts had been, as in the title of George M. Cohan’s World War I song, “Over There.” That all changed the morning Islamists hijacked four commercial airliners and used them to kill over 3,000 people in the United States.
The local connection to radical Islam
Federal investigations of radical Islamist’s activity in our area actually came several years before 2001. An active FBI investigation of Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a native of Palestine then living in Oxford, MS started as early as 1993. Ashqar, a graduate student in business administration, was admitted to the Ole Miss graduate school after having been rejected by 17 other American universities.
From the Ole Miss campus and his home on Harris Drive in Oxford, Ashqar ran a highly successful operation raising money for Hamas, a designated terrorist organization. He was receiving, depositing in Oxford banks and re-distributing tens of thousands of dollars every week on behalf of Hamas. After leaving Oxford in 1997, he was subsequently arrested and offered immunity, but refused to testify against his Hamas connections. Ashqar was eventually sentenced to 11 1/2 years in federal prison.
In 2007 the FBI raided and closed two New Albany convenience stores operated by Middle Easterners. They were part of a group of Yemini-owned convenience stores that came under suspicion as “sleeper cells,” and had been under investigation for several months before circumstances dictated their immediate closure. Simultaneous raids on 11 stores in several locations in north Mississippi resulted in 33 arrests. Although no connection to terrorism could be proven, charges were filed related to drug and tax law violations, and prison sentences were meted out, the longest of which was 11.5 years.
Although no acts of violence by radical Muslims have thus far affected our immediate area, it is now rare that a week passes without many people around the world being murdered by radical Muslims.
Agents and ulterior motives
Americans had very little awareness of religious and political Islam until the early part of the 20th century. Except for limited military action in the early 1800s by U.S. Marines and the Navy against “Barbary” pirates operating from what is now Libya, American contact with that part of the world was very limited.
The earliest planned American involvement in the Middle East was not by the United States government, but by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Rockefeller’s organization operated its own “foreign service school” in New York City.
A young American aristocrat named William Henry Yale, having recently earned his doctorate, completed his foreign service training with Standard Oil and was shipped off to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in 1913. His instructions were to pose as a “wealthy tourist” but he was, in fact, a geologist looking for more oil for the Rockefellers.
In 1917, while remaining on the Standard Oil payroll, Yale also became a “special agent” for the U.S. State Department and was commissioned a captain in the U.S. Army. Assigned as a “military observer” with the forces of British General Edmund Allenby in Palestine during World War I, Yale became, in effect, the only American espionage agent in the Middle East during the Great War.
Early in his wanderings in the deserts of Araby, and before becoming an agent of the American government, Yale met a slight and slender young Englishman named Thomas Edward Lawrence. Lawrence told Yale he was an archaeologist conducting a survey of Biblical-era ruins, which was, broadly at least, the truth.
Yale and Lawrence were to meet again several times.
The young Englishman was the enigmatic young British Army lieutenant, who later made his fame as a leader of a ragtag army of Bedouin tribesmen, creating a guerilla campaign rivaled by few in history. Lawrence’s story, too long and complex to tell here, was one of incredible bravery, ruthlessness, and brilliance, and was told with considerable literacy license in the powerful and successful motion picture, “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Demise of the Ottoman Empire
Turkey, the center of the Ottoman Empire and of Islamic power, sided with Germany during World War I. The 600-year-old Ottoman Empire was already teetering on collapse when the Great War began. Originally established as a Muslim caliphate in 1299 AD, the influence of the mullahs had grown weaker and the power of Turkish bankers, politicians and army officers had increased as Turkey grew more secular.
During the Tanzimat (reorganization and reformation) period, 1839 to 1876, constitutional reforms lead to the development of a relatively modern army and banking system. Homosexuality was decriminalized. Medieval guilds were replaced by more modern manufacturing methods. Sharia law was replaced with secular law. To the dismay of fundamentalist Muslims, Turkey was moving away from the rigid and intolerant commands of The Prophet.
In the later part of the 19th century the Christian population of Turkey grew in power and influence, due in substantial part to far better education. The education of Muslim children was hindered by the fact that they spent so much time learning Arabic and Islamic theology. Christians grew more numerous and more wealthy, which produced resentments. The fundamentalist Muslim preachers, ever alert to opportunities to increase their power, worked hard at increasing hatred of Christians and other infidels among their ignorant and less prosperous followers.
About 1.5 million Armenian Christians were exterminated by the Muslim Turks in the early 20th century. (See part one of this series)
The Ottoman Empire grew smaller during the 19th century, losing both population and land area through outward migration and deaths and concessions to victors in regional wars. Resentment of Ottoman rule (and liberalization) lead to growing resistance to Ottoman control in the more fundamentalist, less urban populations in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
The Arab Revolt against Turkey
T. E. Lawrence, because of his extensive knowledge of the geography and culture of the region recognized the potential of an Arab revolt to help defeat the Turks. Lawrence, who was fluent in French, German, Latin, Greek, Arabic and Turkish, was able to communicate closely with the tribal leaders, and he sold the British military hierarchy on supporting a revolt of the Arabs.
Lawrence allied himself in the fight against Turkey with Prince Faisal and Prince Abdullah, two sons of the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi.
The Sharif was essentially an appointee of the Ottoman Sultanate, but had become discontented with the liberalized policies of the latter Ottoman governments. Sharif Hussein seized the opportunity of allying himself with the British in WWI in the hope of establishing, with their help, an independent Arab nation — when and if the Ottoman Empire could be collapsed. Sharif Hussein and his family, while conservative Sunni Muslims, were more tolerant than most of non-Muslims. Hussein believed Muslims should toe the line but generally did not try to impose Sharia law on the Christians, Jews and non-believers within his realms.
Lawrence became closely acquainted with the Hussein royals and came to passionately believe in the idea of an Arab nation. His own writings in his classic book Seven Pillars of Wisdom make it clear that creating an Arabic nation or kingdom was a powerful motivation for him in the fight against the Turks during World War I.
One could say that Lawrence’s role in leading his Bedouins to fight the Turks was a pivotal factor in the Allied victory over Turkey, but Lawrence’s little army of perhaps 3,500 Bedouins was small compared to the million men the British Army had fighting Turkey. Lawrence’s notable success in fighting against the Arabs with the Hussein clan, however, raised expectations in him and them that an independent Arab nation would be established at the end of the war.
“The Great Loot” gets underway
Lawrence, who advanced in rank to lieutenant-colonel, was a national hero in the United Kingdom by war’s end, and was made a part of the British Delegation that met in Paris to write the treaties to formally end the war. William Yale, the American representative of the Rockefellers and, secondarily, of the United States government was also invited. Though Yale knew far less about the history and people of the Middle East than T. E. Lawrence, he had a far better appreciation of the wealth floating beneath the desert.
The parts of north Africa and the Middle East not dominated by the shriveling Ottoman Empire before World War I, were dominated by the British (Egypt) and the French (Lebanon and Syria). They, like the American William Yale and his bosses in New York and Washington, also had an idea of the petroleum riches of the Middle East. The European Allied leaders actually referred to the Middle East as “the Great Loot.”
World War I officially ended with the armistice at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918. Negotiations about how the losers would be penalized and how the winners would divide up the spoils got underway on Saturday, January 18, 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference and continued for about six months.
The British delegation was headed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and included the brilliant, but erratic, Secretary of State for War, Winston S. Churchill. The delegation for Italy, the smallest of the “Big Four” was headed by Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, then 77 years old, headed the French delegation.
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, the chief American delegate, was the least experienced in international diplomacy of the Big Four. He was feted by parades and lavish dinners in France, which he enjoyed. The Big Four quickly became the Big Three as Italian Prime Minister Orlando was not invited to most of the private meetings during which George, Clemenceau and Wilson and a few close aides hammered out the details of what became known as the Treaty of Versailles.
Wilson, an idealist, an intellectual, and a former president of Princeton University, had been President for six years and had enjoyed a successful administration so far as domestic matters were concerned. His experience in elective office before assuming the presidency had been two years and two months as governor of New Jersey. Like our current president, Barak Obama, Wilson was brilliant, eloquent, a little aloof, a bit arrogant, and seemed not to possess first rate political skills.
Wilson, the first American president to leave the country while in office, spent six months in Paris, the longest a sitting American president has ever been away from the country. Wilson’s main interest in Paris was his admirable plan for a League of Nations to keep the peace. He was against saddling Germany with heavy war reparations, which also put him on the side of the angels.
In the end, however, Wilson was neither able to sell the League of Nations to his own people nor prevail against the insistence of Clemenceau when it came to German reparations. Germany was so heavily punished that most historians agree that the Treaty of Versailles made the Second World War pretty much inevitable.
There’s little evidence Wilson played much of a role when it came to dividing up the loot in the Middle East. Lloyd George, Churchill and Clemenceau pretty much divvyed up the Middle East to suit themselves. In fact they had already done so in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916. The Europeans treated Wilson with deference and respect, but he never had much of an idea under which shell they had hidden the pea.
A framework for conflict
Just as the Treaty of Versailles planted the seeds of World War II, it also helped create the framework for the conflicts in the Middle East that continue to this day. The Big Three missed a golden opportunity to create a more rational, less religiously repressive power structure in the Middle East.
T. E. Lawrence, an official adviser to the British government but an unofficial adviser to Prince Faisal, asked Faisal to come to the peace conference in Paris to help him lobby for the idea of an Arab nation. He hoped to overturn Sykes-Picot and create an independent Arab nation with the Hussein family as its leaders.
Lawrence wrote a speech in Arabic for Prince Faisal urging the establishment of an Arab nation. Faisal delivered the speech, with Lawrence giving a simultaneous English translation, to the full conference of more than a hundred delegates meeting in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, about 12 miles southwest of Paris. When Faisal and Lawrence finished, Woodrow Wilson observed that many in the hall understood neither Arabic or English. Lawrence then gave an impromptu version of Faisal’s speech in French.
However, Lawrence’s own British delegation, the French, and the apparently clueless United States never seriously considered a more enlightened approach to the Middle East. The only American in Paris with real experience in the Middle East, Rockefeller’s own William Yale, found the status quo in the region quite satisfactory to the interests of his employers at 26 Broadway in New York City.
At the end of the festivities, the Germans were marched into the Hall of Mirrors, practically at gunpoint, and forced to sign the treaty. The British and the French, et al proudly signed their masterpiece. The ink dried and everybody left the City of Light.
The Brits and the French remained in control in the Middle East, and the Arabs controlled nothing. They were, in fact, still colonial subjects.
Too little, too late
Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence met and developed a mutual admiration while in Paris. Churchill, who was appointed British Colonial Secretary after the Versailles Treaty was signed, was always long on what George H. W. Bush called “the vision thing” and became convinced that giving the Arabs some control (or the appearance thereof) would serve the long-term best interests of the United Kingdom.
Faisal declared himself King of Syria after the Paris negotiations but was quickly thrown off his “throne” by the French Army.
In 1921, Churchill, as colonial secretary, invited all the British and Palestinian and Mesopotamian officials, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” one might say, to what became known as the Cairo Conference. In meetings at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo, the scheme was developed to create two “kingdoms,” both under the control of the government in London.
Churchill’s Cairo Conference placed Prince Faisal, recently bounced from his Syrian throne by France, on a newly established throne as King of Iraq. Ever the royalist, Churchill relished the business of creating two new hereditary monarchies. Faisal’s Iraqi reign continued until his death in 1933 at age 48, possibly by poisoning during a visit to Bern, Switzerland. A military coup replaced the monarchy not long after Faisal’s demise.
Beyond the Jordan River, east across the river from Palestine, was a relatively well-watered chunk of the northern Arab desert known only as Transjordan (simply “across-the-Jordan,” called “Gilead” in the Holy Bible). Transjordan was not actually a country. Churchill’s Cairo Conference created the Emirate of Transjordan and placed Prince Abdullah, Faisal’s brother, on the newly-made throne as King Abdullah the First. Now known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, it continues in existence to the present day and is now ruled by King Abdullah II, a great-grandson of the first King Abdullah.
There is no pretense of being a true democracy, and, although called a “constitutional monarch,” King Abdullah II is essentially a “benevolent despot” who delegates — but does not give away — power to various “constitutional” officers. They serve at Abdullah’s pleasure and hold their offices with the understanding that they may not hold them long.
Abdullah II and his father King Hussein before him have created a relatively stable, secular Muslim nation. Abdullah II was educated in the United States at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, Georgetown University (Jesuit) in Washington, D. C. and at Oxford University in the U.K. He is a trained military officer with the earned rank of general. He is a veteran combat aviator, and is not infrequently a charming and witty guest on late night American television shows such as the Tonight Show on NBC or the Daily Show on Comedy Central.
Religious minorities are protected in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. King Abdullah II and his father before him celebrate Christmas every year in a festive meeting with the various Christian bishops and ministers of his kingdom. Abdullah hosted Pope Francis, who had a successful and well publicized visit to the kingdom last year. Jordan has been able to maintain apparent civility between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Jordan is considered the safest country in the region and is a popular destination for tourists from the U.S., Europe and other countries of the Middle East. Jordan is a relatively prosperous and tolerant country with close ties to the United States, and one of the few bright spots in the Middle East today.
Tolerant and secular King Abdullah II has been able to maintain his kingdom in spite of the considerable unhappiness of some radical Muslim clerics. He is a very talented man and enjoys military and other support from the United States, but the long term existence of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is by no means a sure thing.
Christians, Jews, unaffiliated believers in liberty and a Higher Power — anyone who believes in prayer or even wishful thinking– should pray or think positive thoughts daily for the continued success of Abdullah II and Jordan.
Next week: Sunni vs. Shia. Fundamentalist Islam vs. Secular Islam. The impact of establishing the State of Israel in 1948. The increasing violence of Muslims against Muslims and Muslims against Christians and Jews in recent decades in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.