When it comes to the quirks of other cultures, Americans can be myopic. We have to understand that in the Middle East, as in the South, the past isn't dead. It isn't even past. 

One World

Standing at the crossroads of Appomattox Court House can be a near-spiritual experience for any American — especially one from the South.

For Southern folks, the surrender at Appomattox and the events that led up to it are so much a part of our cultural landscape that they are invisible. It's not for nothing that it was once quipped that in the South, the "past's not dead, it's not even past." Not every country would allow a state to dedicate a street in its capital to the monuments of defeated traitors.

But when it comes to the quirks of other cultures, Americans can be myopic. A recent series of conversations with a Pakistani-American — for the sake of argument let's call him "Fred" — was as illuminating as it was unsettling.

We're both Civil War buffs, so we talked a great deal about battles and causes of the war that pit brother against brother in a very uncivil conflict. In hindsight, I see our historical chats as being ironic — in Fred's native land, after all, folks still think of the atrocities of the Crusades of a thousand years ago as though they happened just yesterday.

But eventually, the conversation turned to Islam and its relation to the rest of the world.

For Fred, who sat there in blue jeans and a button-down shirt, there was no question that an Islamic Republic with its fusion of the secular and the religious is the best form of modern government ever conceived. To my Western ears this was absurd, of course, just as it would have been had he started saying that the United States would be governed best if we were run by the Communist Party.

The difference, of course, is that Islam is a religion built upon hundreds of years of tradition, while communism is a failed economic philosophy that was often forced upon millions of "unbelievers." Even in a place like Russia where communism was a homegrown phenomena with something akin to popular support, it wasn't able to maintain power for more than a lifetime — this despite the best efforts of seminary flunky Iosif Dzhugashvili (Stalin) to impose an air of religion to the whole endeavor.

The defeat of communism lulled Americans — who by nature can act collectively rather fat and sassy towards other nations of the world — into believing we were loved the world over because of our strong economy and never-ending need for more gizmos with which to clutter our huge homes.

But as the attacks on the World Trade Center show, this is not the case. In fact, the sheer size of our economy and unparallelled power make us target No. 1

The West didn't so much win the Cold War as the Eastern Bloc lost it — they lost faith in the religion that Stalin founded on the cold, embalmed body of Lenin that lies perpetually in state at the Kremlin. The failure of the communist "religion" to survive past its infancy led to proclamations that we had come to the "end of history," meaning the battle between the West and East was over and the West's view of the world had finally won.

Yet as the events of the 1990s showed, the implosion of communism led older forms of history to jut out from the rubble that previously surrounded them. It was no longer simply economic and political systems that divided people. The more core identities of religion, race and ethnicity begot wars.

The intractable nature of these new conflicts became apparent in the latter 1990s with the changes in Iran. Iran was and is both an Islamic republic and a developing nation seeking the secular prosperity promised by the West. Soviet Russia collapsed because the system, while powerful, wasn't flexible enough to handle the changing expectations foisted upon it by citizens in the late 20th century.

History shows that in the Middle East, the probability of an Islamic revolution increases just as the Muslem population begins to grow more affluent. Fred is a prime example of this tendency at work and why the fight before us will be much longer and much more complex than the Cold War against communism. Rather than seeing the material benefits of the capitalistic world as something to be destroyed, Fred can be both a devote Muslem who would prefer the United States be an Islamic republic and a productive citizen like any other American.

America and its allies will win the war against terrorism not with bombs, but with butter and better understanding of other civilizations much older than ours. Collectively, we have to be prepared to step outside our comfort zone and not only be willing to spend money on facilitating the development of Third-World nations like Afghanistan, but to understand there is an entirely different historical tradition at work.

We have to understand that in the Middle East, as in the South, the past isn't dead, it isn't even past. Only then can we hope not only to have better relations with our Muslem neighbors, but also prevent any further bloodshed caused by misunderstandings on either side.

Shelton Bumgarner is a Richmond-based writer.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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