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The Religious Psychology of the Middle East Conflict

(a 50 page statement of the main theory in The Ishmael Factor)

 

Chapter 7  "The Attackers"  as a Web Page  or in PDF format

An adaptation of chapter 13       Abraham's Plan B  (PDF)  or html

A paper based on chapter 14         Hagar's New Religion   (PDF)



The Ishmael Factor (ISBN 978-0-9903821-0-2)

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The Ishmael Factor:

 

Seeing the Heart of the Middle East Conflict

 

by

 

Jerry L. Sherman. Ph.D.

 

 

 

Introduction

 

         Americans were jolted into a new kind of awareness by the 9-11 attack.  We knew that someone out there hated us.  We did not know why, but neither did we try hard to fully understand this new “War against the West.”  It was easier and more natural to fall quickly into positions that made us feel comfortable about ourselves. 

         The most popular position was that we are innocent, and those who are attacking us are evil.  Our President said, “There will always be evil in the world.”  But others said that we must be doing something wrong, that we somehow had this coming.  Without actually supporting terrorism, these people said that our powerful policies in the world were creating this backlash. 

         We knew that Israel had something to do with the problem.  Those who felt we are innocent saw also that innocent Israel, trying to make a tiny home for herself in the land of her origin—after 2000 years without a homeland and the deadliest genocide of world history—was also being wrongly blamed and hated by the same people who flew the planes into the buildings, that is, extremist Arab Muslims, known as Islamists.  But those who believed that our own power-mongering in the world lies at the root of the hatred saw that Israel had started a nation in the homeland of the Palestinians, so that resistance to the existence of the Jewish state, even violent resistance, is to be expected. 

         Twelve years later, little has changed.  Global terrorism continues, while the Arab-Israeli conflict is as tense and intractable as ever.  The “two-state solution” for the Jews and the Arabs, obviously fair solution that it is, seems less likely with each passing year.  And our ways of understanding the conflict have not changed.  We remain in our comfortable positions, except for those who expected to have things fixed by now, who are scratching their heads, sure they are right, but wondering why no one on the other side can see it. 

         Twelve years later, though, I feel I have been on an amazing intellectual and spiritual adventure.  I could not rest in any of the possible positions by which we try to understand this conflict, but was drawn into a struggle to learn if there is any clear understanding, any genuine wisdom, about the Middle East conflict.  As soon as I thought I saw a good diagnostic appraisal of the problem with the Islamists, I was forced to examine the biases, the starting points, the agendas in those of us who diagnosis the problem this way.  You can say I was “forced” by something intellectual or spiritual, the searching power of truth or the voice of God; or you can call it a postmodern deconstruction of a kind of thinking that has been for me and many others an unacknowledged refuge.  But the sudden challenge really did blow me out of the water and require that I look much more deeply at the problem.  Let me share a little of what appeared for me in the next few years.

 

         Once I began to examine the motives of those who had taken their comfortable positions about the Middle East crisis, they blew up into seven positions, not two, though they lump themselves together as two.  Those who are being attacked feel they are innocent and justify defending themselves, while some of them also apply the principles of Western thought to correct the Islamists.  Partly sharing these thoughts but with their own unique angle are the Jews and Israelis  (many of them), and some of the Christians, together making up the point of view known as Zionism, which holds that Israel has a destined and justified future in her promised land.  Thus we have the Defenders, the Correctors, and the Zionists. 

         On the other side, the Islamists are attacking Israel and the West, and those in the West who feel we are wrong in our power are excusing them.  So we have the Attackers and the Excusers.  [see Chapter 7, “The Attackers”] Supporting them are two philosophical positions, Postmodernism and Religious Pluralism, which help to tear down the principles by which the traditional Defenders, Correctors, and Zionists orient themselves.

         Given these many points of view, all motivated by the need to see oneself as one of the good guys and fix the blame elsewhere, one wonders if there can be real wisdom here, or if the whole mess reduces to nothing but points of view and power struggles.  I am a fairly traditional person, a Christian, a Zionist, and a conservative, but I am also a philosophy professor working at the outset of the 21st century, and I cannot easily dismiss the postmodern relativism and amoralism that is raising its head here.  I have to wrestle with it, seeing its true strength as critical thinking, and then see what remains, where traditional views still stand.  That has been the adventure of this book. 

        

         The most surprising thing I learned was about right and wrong, in our world today.  The question of whether there is objective moral truth is itself at issue in this conflict.  I mean, we are arguing not about what is right according to agreed standards, but about what those standards are, that is, whose standards should apply, or even whether there can be standards at all.  Those who oppose the power of the West also oppose the idea structure of the West, including its moral tradition, so what the West says about justice will be taken as nothing but the assertion of Western power.  Those who oppose the existence of Israel also oppose the Law that the Jews have carried through world history.  This is a battle against what I will be calling “Transcendence,” perhaps best described for now as “Truth with a capital T.”

         This battle against transcendence clearly puts the Zionists in a special position, because they are not only one of the parties to the conflict, but they are the holders of the keys, so to speak, the ones most connected with the principles of justice and beneficence by which the conflict might be adjudicated.  But they and their principles are being powerfully resisted.

         These turn out to be complex facts, needing several qualifications.  First, the Jews and Israelis are the people group most connected to Zionism, but in the real world they represent both Western ideas and the objection to those ideas, Zionism and anti-Zionism.  Theirs is not a united witness.  The Correctors and Defenders are a more homogenous group, basically the Western world standing up for its beliefs, but they are not single-minded about it.  They call upon the transcendent principles of the Western and biblical tradition, but they actually employ those traditions for purposes of their own, rather than being fully submitted to them.  Under pressure, they will turn out to be more interested in human autonomy than in submission to transcendence.

         A third proviso is about the Attackers—the Islamists and Islam itself.  As fundamentalists they would seem to be fully committed to transcendent truth and morality.  Yet they are bitterly opposed to the Jewish and Christian views of God and God’s will.  In my treatment of the problem, the Muslims also are opposed to transcendence, but they have set up an “alternative transcendence,” as I will be calling it.  Their religion supports them in thinking that they are totally committed to the will of God, and from the world’s point of view there is simply an argument between Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition about what they think God said.  But I believe biblically informed analysis can get beneath the surface and tell a much more interesting story.

         Looking closely at the conflict, we can see the basis of the surprising partnership between Islamist fundamentalism and Western Liberalism.  The Attackers and Excusers are in bed together, and anyone can see this, but it seems impossible.  How can Liberals and Leftists be sympathetic with the religious fundamentalism that drives the Islamist attack on the West?  To understand this requires seeing the actual forces at work and the true lines of the battle.  It is not between secularism and religion, but it is between humanism, which has both secular and religious forms, and the transcendence within biblical theism.  The Liberal-Left and Islamism stand against Jews and Christians because of the anti-humanistic messages that are in the Bible.  Also, there is a dark side to the humanism in the Left, so it toys with anarchy and self-negation in a way that aligns it with the global terrorism’s frontal attack on civilization itself.  A traditional theist would say that Satan is trying to destroy humanity.

         Seeing the true lines of battle in global terrorism and the Middle East conflict shows also that all of positions in the conflict, including the friendly western faces of the Defender-Corrector, are opposed to genuine transcendence.  The Zionists as a people group mix in many of these other views with their Zionism, so it is really that idea itself, in its pure form, that stands on its own as the target of a massive human resistance.  Jews and Christians die because of this resistance, and there are theories about why that is so, but humanity as a whole has little idea of how all of us are implicated in the problem.  Thus we have the thesis of my study, much more radical than I expected when I began: that the Middle East conflict, unsolvable as it is, is forcing upon the world an awareness of how humanity as a whole stands in relation to transcendent truth and goodness. 

         I have a few hundred pages to make this audacious claim plausible, and not just for theists, who easily believe that humans are fighting God, but for anyone willing to explore the Middle East problem through philosophy and political theory.  Clearly, anyone can “understand” the conflict from any of the positions described here, or in other ways; but if we probe these positions, mainly through the Nietzschean method of discerning the motives behind them, we find that most are nothing but ways to feel good about oneself.  Possibly that is the whole story, and there is no wisdom anywhere.  But if there is a point of view that is not defending anyone—a voice with no selfish agenda—and if it pulls all the other voices into a coherent picture, then we have found what I will be calling the Master Narrative.  It supplies a theory of Middle East conflict that gives us vital insight into the human condition.  But, as such, it will be resisted, since we humans are pitted against any transcendent message that threatens our sense of autonomy.

 

         My starting point a decade ago was the story in Genesis about Isaac and Ishmael.  If we understand what Ishmael represents, then we will understand the “Ishmael Factor,” which is my diagnostic label for the dysfunction we are witnessing.  I was surprised how fruitful this hypothesis became.  Isaac and Ishmael exist today in the cultural-religious identities of the Jews and the Arabs, and in the biblical view Isaac inherits the blessings that God has promised to his people, the Jews.  Ishmael has a blessing, too—the great civilization that is Islam—but the focus is on what he does not receive, on his being rejected and disinherited.  So the Ishmaelites in Palestine have a cultural memory of having been put out of the household of Abraham, and they have a living experience of being displaced by the descendents of Isaac.  In the Old City of Jerusalem, where the Dome of the Rock sits atop the Temple Mount and looms over the Jews’ precious Western Wall—even though the Israelis now control all of this—the drama of who owns this crucial territory, Isaac or Ishmael, is being held up for the world to see.

         The political drama is made intense by the religious drama lying within it.  In the Christian reading of the Ishmael story we have a teaching about Law and Grace, about the power of the flesh (human effort) and the power of divine promise.  Ishmael represents Abraham’s attempt to do in a human way what God intended to do miraculously.  He represents what I will be calling “human religion,” which relies on religious and moral effort to solve the human problem.  Religious pluralists today assure us that there are no serious differences between any two religions, but I will be arguing that beliefs about law and grace, about human effort and divine provision, are the heart of the crisis.  Human religion protects pride but fails to allay guilt, and guilt is the driving force in anti-Semitism, persecutions, suicide bombings, and global terror as a whole.

         Remarkable details about this appear in the stories of scripture.  Ishmael’s story is told mainly through his mother, Hagar, who ran away from her mistress, Sarah, due to mistreatment brought on by Hagar’s contempt for barren Sarah.  The angel of God asked Hagar where she was coming from and where she was going, and he commanded her to return to her mistress.  Then he named the baby in her womb, Ishmael, “God hears.”  The two questions suggest that human religion is a reaction to something, a running away, and that those who react this way do not know where their response is leading them.  There is a promise here, too, but it is imbedded in a divine critique of what Hagar and Ishmael represent.

         Theists in general, including Muslims, will tell the world that the guidance of God is not to be feared, for it is liberating, not enslaving. They will ask, “What are you running from, and what result does this give you?”  On a closer look, a Jew or Christian could tell a Muslim that God’s will as shown in the Bible and Torah—including the Zionist return— is not to be feared, but embraced.  It is easy to argue that Palestinians suffer from their own resistance far more than from the presence of the Jews, that they are “kicking against the goad.”

         This human rebellion is experienced from within as rejection.  In the second part of Hagar’s story, she and her son are expelled from the household of Abraham—this time because of Ishmael’s contempt toward Isaac.  So they feel rejected by that against which they are rebelling.  Muslims are being radicalized today through teaching that the Americans and Jews intend to eliminate Islam, which is not true in any practical way.  Yet it is true that what they represent religiously, the efforts of humans to please God through religious observances, has been rejected in the biblical teaching.

         Most crucial about Hagar is that she found within her experience of rebellion-rejection a new basis for her faith, a new arrangement with God: the “alternative transcendence” I mentioned above.  Thus Islam stands tall as a major world religion, but the world’s perplexing difficulties in the Middle East are manifestations of its unresolved religious problem.  And this difficulty is a visible sign of something broader that affects the whole human race.

 

         The plan of my presentation is this: we look first at the difficulty of finding a single point of view that really explains the Middle East, and then we go through the seven “Players,” the self-justifying explanations that people have chosen as their comfortable positions regarding the problem.  We see the weaknesses of these positions, but we also see a bigger pattern emerging, a way of understanding world history that begins to show the true shape of the conflict in the Middle East. 

         In Part Two, “Scrimmages and Skirmishes,” we examine some of the serious intellectual attempts to get a handle on the problem, but we find they cannot nail down any decisive facts.  Instead, these treatments show the stories brewing within their facades of intellectual objectivity.  Each of these has its agenda and preferred narrative, but the broad agenda of resisting God’s transcendent guidance for humanity begins to show.  We find in this resistance a destructive inner core that materialistic theory cannot account for, while theism understands it well. 

         All of what I am previewing here can be easily dismissed by someone thinking in a secular and materialistic way, but my aim is to make it accessible to those outside the biblical tradition.  In Part Three, “The Best of all Possible Narratives,” I challenge the assumption that religious claims are only subjective, having no real truth value.  It has little basis, while its motive is easy to see: to protect us all from any truth that hurts.  This defensiveness has its roots in human consciousness, which produces guilt and all the religious and humanistic efforts to set it aside.  The Judeo-Christian solution, the idea of grace, arises also from the nature of consciousness.  So I give a naturalistic account of how human consciousness develops out of the animal state and leads us into subjectivity, wherein lie all the truths and errors with which the human race is struggling.  By looking at Cain, Abraham, Ishmael and Hagar, we find a detailed account of the problem that is becoming visible through the intractable conflict in Palestine and the unstoppable outbreak of world terror.

 

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Chapter 7  "The Attackers"  as a Web Page  or  in PDF format