Over the past month, experts on religion, politics, history, economics and military affairs have attempted to understand and explain Islam and terrorism. My purpose now is not to focus on these topics specifically but to give a human perspective to the discussion by briefly talking about the ties that bind the people that I have known over some 30 years of working and living in the Near East.
My research as an archaeologist/anthropologist has been carried out in rural villages and camps of migratory herders, locales that few Americans have experienced. For the most part these people were illiterate until the recent generation, and education remains elementary for most.
Few people will ever read a newspaper or even see one in their village or camp. Where even radios were absent a few years before, now CNN and al-Jazeera satellite TV give access for the first time not only to World Cup soccer that is passionately followed, but also to state-run programming and most compellingly now, images of unfolding world events and spokesmen for causes.
Most villagers in the Near East live simply in what we would call abject poverty. In small, one- or two-room houses of mud brick, or in tents, they sleep on rugs laid on the ground, endure seasonal changes in the weather with minimal changes of clothing, work at subsistence agriculture and herding, and have large families.
It is normal for two or three generations to live in close proximity, often in the same house compound. It is normal and desired to have many children: 6-10 is not uncommon. Pleasures are simple: a large family; bread and tea for daily consumption; a decent harvest.
Luxuries are few but consumerism is growing: TVs, refrigerators, electric churns, propane stoves. Toys, other than what children can make for themselves out of mud, sticks or cloth, scarcely exist. Children learn at an early age to help with chores that are clearly differentiated by sex. They learn by watching and can sit quietly for hours listening to adults talk.
One learns that the most important things in life are family solidarity and hospitality. Individuals are seldom physically alone and individualism is discouraged. To not be in continuous social interaction with family and friends is uncomfortable and may be regarded as pathological. The intimacy and solidarity of the extended family thus contrasts strongly with the impersonal world beyond, whether of strangers or foreign lands.
The societies of the Near East have undergone drastic changes in the last century. Nations have been imposed. Tribes have been emasculated and forcibly settled. Villagers have been impressed into military service, taught the national language and how to use modern weapons. A mass exodus from rural villages to cities has taken place. Fragile landscapes have been pressed into agricultural service.
The human populations have grown beyond the carrying capacity of the land to feed them and of the job market to employ them. Secret police dominate civil life. Political debate and opposition are often ruthlessly suppressed. Wars have consumed the people, physically and spiritually.
A sense of powerlessness hangs over much of the region. Many men work abroad; others perform seasonal labor away from home; some volunteer to fight in Afghanistan or in organized resistance groups elsewhere. On such trips many are exposed for the first time to daily observance of religious practice with its affirmation of global solidarity and sometimes to the rhetoric of oppression and the hope of relief through violent acts.
The rural people, and I should add most people, in the Near East are good, responding to the same human instincts and holding the same values as we. But many feel powerless and are in desperate economic straits. Some have been in this condition, buffeted for generations by nations that cannot accept them. The Kurds, the Palestinians, the Shia in Iraq and many other similar unfortunate groups have little to lose and, to paraphrase Nathan Hale, may regret that they have only one life to give to the cause of self-determination and emancipation from oppression.
As our war on terrorism expands, a unity of spirit in the region, based on the age-old principle of family solidarity, may extend as it has not for centuries, to a broader Moslem family. It will be a great irony if Islam, traditionally one of the world’s most tolerant religions, is goaded into an implacable solidarity of exclusion.
Frank Hole is C.J. MacCurdy Professor of Anthropology.