Saturday, September 15, 2012

How is it I am writing about the Middle East?

A good part of my life has been first hand  interface with the  conflicts of the West and the Muslim World in  Bosnia. It has also been a focus of my academic studies since 1959. (see my biographical background)Much of what happened in the 1990's in Bosnia and the aftermath of that conflict has some translation to current events in the Middle East since the Arab Spring.  Shortly after the end of fighting in Bosnia and the demise  of any governing  regime and law and order, jihadist elements tried to move into that region. NATO and the western European civil arm, the OSCE, moved in to hunt down the extremist inflow into the region and to try to establish democracy with education and gentle nudging.
The motivation was that Bosnia was in danger of becoming a portal for extremist Muslim terrorists to enter Europe.  Another factor that also kept the lid on the terrorist infiltration was that the Bosnian Muslims were  an extension of the Turkish traditions and experience and that the modernizing, secular movement led by Turkish reformer Kemal Ataturk, had also taken root there.  While the terrorists may have found a portal in the post conflict chaos, they could not put down roots among the general Muslim population of Bosnia because Bosnian Muslims were more oriented to the West and the Ataturk reformation.

How Bosnia does parallel the recent events in North Africa is that there is and will be an attempt of the radical elements of Islam to try to thwart democracy and moderate Islamists there. That drama is being played out  without a NATO or OSCE to put a brake on the influence of anti democratic Islamists.
In Cairo the more radical forces battling more moderate Muslims for power are centering around the radical Salafist movements and these appear to be the ones fostering violence against the US Embassy.  It is an internal battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists for control of Egypt  that characterizes much of the events there erupting  after the Muslim world became aware of the insulting and hateful film paid for and sponsored by very anti Muslims in the US.

For the events in North Africa and some solid analysis, I rely heavily on hard  news reports and analysis  in the New York Times and the Washington Post.  I especially respect  David Ignatius of the Washington Post.  His background and experience give him special insight to  the Arab and Iranian world.   I also listen keenly to CNN reports and their reporters who seem to be
closely connected with the grassroots in the counties finding their way  in the  post Arab Spring .

In a blog, posted  March 29, 2011, Felicia laid out her special background in a topic  about which she often writes: the conflict between western civilizations and the Muslim world. 
"Since my university studies in Europe in the late 1950's, I have been fascinated by the interface between the Western  and the Muslim cultures.  Having met a medical student from the Balkans, whom I contemplated marrying (and we have been married now for over 50 years), I travelled extensively there to understand his family and his roots. I  returned to Northwestern University and devoted my classroom  and independent studies to try to get a handle on the history and ethnic conflicts that made the Balkans such a laboratory of religious and ethnic strife . In fact, the conclusion of our seminars and professor in 1960 was that there would be a revolt against the modern world resulting in a counter revival of  a more conservative and militant Islam.
   These experiences  inspired my life long quest   to gain  a better understanding of Islam and the Muslim world outside the Balkans.  However, much of the current interpretation of Islam held by both some  in the Muslim world and  the criticism of the  religion itself by some  Americans  in no way resembles the practice of the religion by traditional  Muslims I have known in the Balkans. My 30 years of activities in the Institute of International Education  providing hospitality to many many Muslim women from all over the world visiting the US under State Department  sponsorship confirms my impression that the practice of  Islam
varies greatly from country to country.

My view of this cultural and religious conflict has not been fossilized in the 1950's.   I  have had the unique opportunity to visit the Balkan  region nearly every couple of years since then , before and after the ethnic  cleansing wars of the 1990's. My interaction has not been at the official level...just with family, relatives and many ordinary people. I have  admittedly been influenced by some writings: Karen Armstrong's "The Battle for God" comparing the roots of radicalization and politicization of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and CNN producer Peter Bergen's book of an often first hand accounting of  the history of Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, "The Longest War".

I am not a partisan of  the religions in conflict...Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, or
Muslim. I am a practicing  Protestant with an ecumenical and tolerant outlook. I find these conflicts based on ethnic and religious identification to be self defeating and a disaster for those caught up in it, not only resulting in the death of innocents, but relegating them to economic and cultural isolation and having to play catch up with the rest of the technologically advanced world. "

UPDATED:  November, 2015

I first encountered Muslims when I visited Bosnia when I was on a spring break tour of Europe in 1959.  I was fascinated with the interaction of western society with the remnants of the Ottoman empire. On return to Northwestern, I did an independent study on the Balkans and took a course called Muslim Middle East, where I had to read the Koran and understand the history and basic teachings. Since husband Mike was from neighboring Croatia and at that time Bosnia and Croatia were part of one country, Yugoslavia, it was easy to visit again and again. The civil war, 1991-1995, was a tragedy and Bosnia was in danger of becoming radicalized by Al Qaeda, which is one reason NATO and the US got involved on the side of the Muslims in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. In spite of that, many Bosnian  Muslim refugees were resettled in the US, particularly in the Boulder, CO and St Louis areas.  The parallel between Syria and Bosnia is striking.  We welcomed the Bosnians refugees and they have become successful and loyal Americans thanks to our attitude in the US of acceptance.  This muslimphobia/Syrianphobia is contrary to what the country stands for and  is rampant in Europe, especially France, and  has accounted for  a ratio of 30 European Muslims to one in the US who travelled to Syria.  There is a reason France was the ISIS target.  Hate and fear are the worst strategies we could embrace,if not for  supporting our traditions, but for our own national security since we need their help in stopping this radicalization of their own youth. We obviously have been more successful than Europe.  I have returned to Bosnia nearly every year since 1998 and now am working with Bosnians..both Catholic and Muslims...on a Rotary grant to promote education of girls as a way to combat human trafficking.  Bosnia has never recovered from the conflict; it is now the poorest country in Europe and a center for human trafficking due to the failure of the ethnic hatred to cure itself, resulting in a paralyzed central government.  The head of the organization with which I have worked on the grant, Novi Put,  just attended a conference in New York City and spoke at the conference of Women Global Leaders for Peace.  She is Muslim..

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