Someday historians will look back on the dawn of the 21st century and attempt to make sense of the chaos that now reigns across the Middle East and North Africa. They will undoubtedly try to tease out the many tangled threads that have combined to form this patchwork quilt of violence and ideology, looking for clean lines of cause and effect, seeking to elevate certain figures and movements as foundational and influential.
All one has to do is open a browser and go to any major news outlet to see this bloody tableau. Right now, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has the top spot in practically every form of media, while the civil war in Syria, the latest upheaval in Egypt and the Iranian nuclear program seem less prominent. For the moment I’ll leave the obsession with Israel aside (although I highly recommend reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s analysis of this phenomenon on The Atlantic website) and turn my attention to what is happening in Iraq, where the so-called Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) now appears to be making significant inroads not only when it comes to destabilizing an already shaky country, but in their zeal to murder, drive out and obliterate any sign of non-Muslim residents. Their total disregard for human life is bad enough – what worries me even more is the monolithic ideology behind their actions. It is an ideology which has no place for anyone different, and they are willing to employ merciless violence on a massive scale to spread their message.
The city of Mosul is a good example of how religious intolerance is impacting the Middle East today, and how it has grown over time. At one point, this city (and many other cities and towns in Middle Eastern and North African countries) was home to a significant Jewish community withancient roots. But just as Jews were driven from Mosul in the middle of the last century, it appears that today Christians are also facing persecution, this time at the hands of the Islamic State terror group. As NPR recently reported, many Christians in Mosul have been given the option to flee, pay a special tax, convert to Islam or die. For this Christian community, which has existed in Iraq for more than a thousand years, these are stark choices which no person should ever have to choose between.
We are a long way off from the final analysis of any of the current Middle East conflicts. That being said, I can’t help but think as I look at the news out of Iraq today, that the gains made by the Islamic State are not only an immediate threat to ordinary citizens in Iraq and Syria, but that their bloodthirsty proselytizing and total disregard for the beliefs and cultural norms of others is the latest step in a long tradition of violent intolerance in the region. It is the same intolerance which forced hundreds of thousands of Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa to flee their homes for the safety of the State of Israel, the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The ideology which drove Jews to flee 60 years ago may be different than that which is behind the current assault on Christians, but the demonization, intolerance and violence are the same. It may well be many years before someone writes a thorough book about what is happening now in Mosul, but one day they will, and it will represent a very sad chapter in the history of the Middle East that will fit all too well into the broader narrative.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.