#geopolitical fridays: Food for thought for the festive season

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There is a lot to be said for occasionally feeling puzzled. As you
are winding down for the holidays, I am inviting you to discover two
books on Islam that have the potential if not to challenge your views,
then at least to give you pause.

One, “Islam et Violence”
(Seuil, 2015) is a conversation (in French) between Adonis, a Syrian
poet living in France and Houria Abdelouahed, psychoanalyst, translator
of Adonis’ work and professor at Paris 7 University, who discuss the
failure of the Arab Spring, its root causes, and of the chaos that
ensued.

The other book, “Throne of Adulis. Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam”
(Oxford University Press, 2013) is by G.W. Bowersock, Professor
Emeritus of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study, eminent
scholar of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern history, as well as the
classical tradition in western literature. Bowersock places the birth of
Islam in very specific historic and geopolitical context –  a holy war
between Christian Ethiopians and Jewish Arabs in the sixth century AD,
no less, with foreign interventions as a bonus.

These days,
poets are generally not held in high regard, one wonders what they have
to offer in terms of value-added. Yet, as Jorge Semprun put it, only
poets have the capacity to announce catastrophes brought about by our
own barbarity. Adonis bears that heavy poetic burden. Born 1930
in Qassabine, Syria under the name of Ali Ahmad Saïd Esber, he started
writing at an early age. His work has been rewarded with literary prizes
in France, Italy, Turkey and Lebanon. In Houria Abdelouahed, he finds a
wonderful conversation partner: Psychoanalysts act as messengers from
the submerged continents of our soul – Much like poets, they occasionally confront us with things we would rather not think about.

Together,
Adonis and Abdelouahed take an unflinching look at Islam as religion, underpinning culture in the Arab world – its potential for violence,
its incapacity to accept “the other” (be it in female, or in any other
guise) and its inbuilt inability to embrace change. They plead for a
secular revolution in Arab countries, to create a space for the
individual and for democracy to exist.

If you think foreign
entanglements and religious conflict in the Middle East are a recent
phenomenon, think again. Would you have known that in the sixth century
AD, the Byzantine Empire faced off with the Persians in a proxy war in
Southern Arabia? And that a Jewish Kingdom composed of recently
converted ethnic Arabs (Team Persia) unleashed a bloody pogrom on
Christians living in the region, acts which rallied the Ethiopians (Team
Byzantium), themselves bent on restoring their control over the Arabian
peninsula? And you thought Syria was confusing.

Thanks to historian G. W. Bowersock, we can discover this little known episode of pre-Islamic Arabian history, which makes for fascinating reading. Knowledge about these religious conflicts also provides important background information to understand the rise of Islam, and the subsequent fall of the Persian and Byzantine Empires.

Johanna M

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