QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/8 March)– As geopolitics shifted, at least for a while, to Europe particularly in Ukraine and Crimea, impression has it that the Middle East is not alone after all in facing intractable problems and challenges. There are equally critical vociferations in Bosnia, Venezuela, Thailand, and others. It gives an impression, too, that the Arab world does not monopolize propensity to protracted conflict and violence. Yet, there is a big difference between the Arab world and the countries mentioned.
In the case of Ukraine, it was only quite a number of days of revolution when former Ukraine president was deposed. There were close to a hundred Ukrainians who died. Ukraine and Crimea entered a new phase of challenges reminiscent of the Cold War.
Whereas corruption and unemployment posed pressure on Bosnia, Bosnians were agitated to take the mode of street parliament. How the present Bosnian crisis is resolved remains a question.
For its part, legitimacy question feeds the political impasse in Thailand. Whatever social, economic, and electoral package offered by the current government, it will always be viewed inadequate by the Opposition given the dominant impression that the sitting Prime Minister is a mere protégé of her brother, former PM Thaksin Sinawatra who was removed from power few years ago. Meanwhile, polarization of Thailand society continues.
The case of Venezuela is essentially a problem posed with big shoes left by a national hero – Hugo Chavez – whose successor has difficulty in filling them.
On the contrary, chronic problems in the Middle East persist. Reform and call for social and political change hardly proceed. There are just countries there difficult to crack as a condition to effect full social and political transformation. Besides, while cracking them up is one thing, fixing up things and forming a whole new system is quite another.
This brings to mind an experience three or four years ago. We were travelling from Gaziantep to Sanliurfa, two vibrant cities in southern Anatolia in Turkey. These are just few kilometers away to Syria. That was our closest distance to that country. Syria, then, was not yet plagued with civil war.
Midway to Sanliurfa, we passed along verdant field of pistachio trees. Our driver felt that we appreciated what we saw; he stopped the van and talked with the farmers and requested if we could do some pistachio picking. The two farmers (father and son) welcomed us and ushered us to their farm. We came to know that it is not only pistachios they grow; they also have grapes. Vine of grapes surrounds their farmhouse. We picked grapes like kids hanging above their patios and windows. They educated us on the technique of pistachio nut picking and cracking. We learned the difference of nuts already ripe for picking and easy to crack compared to those that are hard to open. At any rate, that was a rare experience. Reminded with it, I thought the parable of pistachio nuts tells something about the Middle East today.
By the way, parables or amthal are ways where Islamic principles are worded or explained in layman’s term to facilitate understanding. In the Qur’an, parables are related to stories about nature, fire, clouds, hamlet, garden, and so on. They facilitate understanding about principles of utmost importance. For instance, the Holy Qur’an says:
“We have put forth for men in this Qur’an every kind of parables in order that they may receive admonition.
It is a Qur’an in Arabic, without any crookedness (therein) in order that they may guard against evil.
God puts forth a parable – a man belonging to many partners at variance with each other, and a man belonging entirely to one master: are those two equal in comparison? Praise be to God! But most of them have no knowledge (Ar-rad, 27-29).”
Said Nursi, an Anatolian thinker, is known in using parables as his way to relay important principles or message into his readers. While he was in prison, he said, he saw in his vision group of young girls transformed into their old age. Said Nursi was convinced what he saw. He wrote in the “Staff of Moses,” a reprint from the “Risale i-Nur (Treatise of Light):”
“Yes, what I saw was reality, not imagination. Just as the summer and autumn are followed by winter, so the summer of youth and autumn of old age are followed by the winter of the grave and Intermediate Realm. If there was a cinema which showed the events of fifty years in the future, the same as those of fifty years ago are shown in the present, and the people of misguidance and vice were to be shown their circumstances of fifty or sixty years hence, they would weep in horror and disgust at their unlawful pleasures and those things at which they now laugh (20).”
This is an example of parable aimed to simplify conception of time: in just a wink of an eye a person may be viewed to have aged so that when one compares his young and old days, s/he must be able to learn morals or virtue in them. What is prominent in Said Nursi’s approach is the use of time-related period like summer, autumn, and so on.
Our parable of pistachio cracking tries to reflect that of Said Nursi’s. We are not saying it is right; we simply try to proximate one, at least.
In our experience of pistachio nut cracking, we learned that pistachio reveals certain nuance in such a way that even if its shell is hard to crack, by sheer observation, one can identify nut that is already ripe; it usually sticks to pistachio tree quite differently; it is partly opened; it has protruding kernel making it easy to crack; others simply fall on the ground by default. Whereas, a pistachio nut that sticks in certain way to the tree is hard to crack; it is usually too green, with no sign of opening – even a small one. For sure, one has an option to crack it with a tool or stone. But, for what end – when it destroys the kernel and messes up pistachio shells around?
We raise this parable to simplify or amplify understanding about the challenge in the Arab world after three or four years of Arab Spring. As observed, Arab countries with some semblance of openness and democracy are easy to crack. Yet, it is faced with difficult task to fully open them and fix them up later. Varying groups and personalities simply could not finish easily what they started. It can be said, for lack of better term, “Arab nuts” are easy to crack but hard to fix. Those politically closed countries are even harder to crack; opposition groups could hardly emerge.
It was not long ago when the Arab world experienced national upheaval including resort to coup d’ ètat easily changing old guards like King Idris of Libya, King Faruok of Egypt, and King Faisal of Iraq, and others. The irony of it all, reform minded leaders that changed old guards while envisioning transformation of Arab society simply replicated the old order as they became dictators of new molds; they stifled the social and political transformation in the Middle East. On the contrary, countries that are harder to crack hardly experience coup d etat. But they maintain hawkish eyes against any possibility of ripening “nuts.” Any ominous signs are literally nipped in the bud. Because they are not allowed to ripe and are thus not picked up at the right time, promising “nuts” remained close leaving them to rot and to waste. The pistachio tree has long been stifled.
Tauhid and geopolitics
The challenge of Arab society is diverse and multifaceted. She is not only faced with internal problem but also by pressures from outside. The Arab nuts parable could be stretched depending on our imagination. But that is not our concern. For lack of time, we cannot fully dissect the geopolitics in the Arab world.
Our concern is the Qur’anic imperative to learn history and to take lesson or ibra. Incidentally, the parable we mentioned earlier regarding two men – one with many masters; and another one with only one master – explains in simple manner the dynamics in the Middle East. In his commentary of said parable, Yusuf Ali took the metaphysical stance by interpreting it along the contrast of polytheism and tauhid or unity. Yusuf Ali wrote:
“The difference between the creed of Polytheism and the Gospel of Unity is explained by the analogy of the two men. One belongs to many masters: the masters disagree among themselves, and the poor man of many masters has to suffer from the quarrels of his many masters: it is an impossible and unnatural position. The other serves only one master; his master is good, and does all he can for his servant; the servant can concentrate his attention on his service: he is happy himself and his service is efficiently performed. Can there be any doubt as to (1) which of them is the happier, and (2) which of them is in a more natural position? No man can serve two, still less numerous, masters (p. 1246).”
The beauty of Yusuf Ali’s tafsir or commentary of this parable is that, it applies to practically everyone – individuals, nations, and even civilizations. In individual level, Yusuf Ali implies that a person should forge singular relationship along the principle of tauhid. This may also be extended to relationship in families, in friends, in society, in community, in nation, states, and so on.
The difficulty is that, when a relationship is forged outside of a person, there would inevitably be politics that get involved. By conception, politics as art of possibilities can effect manifold intersection of interest, power, influence, and so on. These intersections are what define, in the larger frame, geopolitics like those in the Middle East. Moreover, those intersections can become very much complex, making it even difficult to identify “nuts” already ripe for picking, and in different level, those ready for cracking. Fixing them up later while ascertaining old order never returns poses an even greater challenge.
Unlike Ukraine, Bosnia, and other countries, the Middle East remains to suffer with old and new “nuts.” Yusuf Ali’s allusion to tauhid speaks volume how to break the cycle of master-servant relationship in that region. The horrible experience of Arabs under succeeding colonial masters smack on the face given Islam’s abhorrence to servitude attached to multiple strings pulled by different powers.
Our parable explains vividly something that cannot be expressed in plain language. Silence has to inevitably envelope a great part of our narrative. For whatever inadequacy, we take the consolation with the fact that there is more learning and wisdom on simple things including our story. Well, hopefully. [A slightly revised khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines on 07 March 2014. MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines]