The Great Arab Conquests by Hugh Kennedy

[11 December 2007]

By Carlin Romano

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

The Islamic group Hamas issued a statement recently rejecting any compromise of Palestinian interests that might emerge from the Annapolis summit.

Hamas reiterated its hard-line opposition to the existence of Israel and promised future Islamic control of Palestine. It pledged to continue its jihad against what it likes to call the “Zionist entity” and declared that its people “own the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”

One sardonic commentator, in a post to a story on Hamas’ reaction in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, observed that you have to give Hamas credit—at least it has vision.

But vision, when it comes to the real-estate and religious disputes of the Mideast, rarely peers backward further than might be useful to the self-interest of the peerer. The issue of how far back one should go in Jewish and Arab history to develop principles of fairness, like the issue of which real-estate principles ought to apply in the Mideast imbroglio (Who got there first? Who lived there last? Who sold what to whom? Should victors of war keep territory won in war? What’s a “reasonable” division of all land in dispute?), gets little airtime.

Religious Jews who think their people own the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean prefer to look back millennia, to long before the Roman emperor Hadrian renamed Israel “Syria Palestina,” precisely to eliminate any reference to Jewish sovereignty over the land. Palestinian nationalists prefer to look to more recent times, when Jews, scattered around the world, constituted a much smaller presence in the Mideast than they had historically.

Solution? The Bush administration might have given all the Annapolis participants a swag bag—the mix of goodies Hollywood presenters get at the Oscars—packed with a copy each of The Great Arab Conquests and Jews and Power.

That would guarantee heated but honest future negotiations. Because both books—the first by the magisterial University of St. Andrews medieval historian Hugh Kennedy, the second by the great Yiddish literary scholar Ruth Wisse at Harvard—state historical truths most non-experts, general readers and politicians ignore.

The key truth laid out in fine narrative style by Kennedy, even as he acknowledges our shaky sources about the era under scrutiny from A.D. 632 to 750, is that the Islamic and Arabic character of every Mideast nation outside of present-day Saudi Arabia is the blunt result of military conquest—the greatest imperialistic taking of other people’s lands by force in history, a “tale of cruelty and destruction.”

As Kennedy puts it, “there is nothing inevitable about the Arab/Islamic identity of the Middle East. ... Most of the population of Syria spoke Greek or Aramaic; most of those in Iraq, Persian or Aramaic; in Egypt they spoke Greek or Coptic; in Iran they spoke Pahlavi; in North Africa they spoke Latin, Greek or Berber. None of them were Muslims.”

Accomplished in less than a century after the death in A.D. 632 of Muhammad, the founder, chief warrior and prophet of Islam, the Great Arab Conquests of Kennedy’s title refers to the subjugation of Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Africa, Pakistan and other territories by tough Bedouin armies, never larger than 20,000 tribal warriors, attacking outward from Arabia.

In some cases, such as Istakhr in Fars and Paykand in Transoxiana, the Bedouins accomplished their task by murder and massacre. With the Turks and Berbers, they faced stiff resistance before prevailing. In areas such as Yemen and Oman, they operated like a protection racket: Pay us tribute and protection money (always in cash), accept Islam, and we’ll let you live more or less as before. Sometimes, as in parts of present-day Spain, North Africa and Iran, all it took was a “letter” asking inhabitants to accept Islam, though there was always an implied “or else.” By the end, the exhausted Sassanians (Persians), Byzantines and Visigoths (in Spain) lost their territory.

In time, the Muslim empire stretched from the fringes of China to Spain and Portugal, with the latter two places the only ones that rolled back Islam. The great Arab conquests encompassed far more territory than the United States’ seizure of Mexican lands in the early 19th century, the Soviet Union’s takeover of Eastern Europe and the formerly German Konigsberg after World War Two, or any number of other international land grabs.

Why Iranians, Pakistanis and others today do not see themselves as victims of an imposed foreign culture is a mystery scholarship has not entirely solved. One explanation is the relative tolerance of Islamic rulers in permitting subjugated people not to convert to Islam, so long as they paid their protection money and deferred to the superior rights of Muslim rulers. That led to the intermixing, assimilation and long-term acceptance of Islam (it took centuries) that we see in the conquered countries today.

Kennedy’s history also makes clear that the very justification for control over land for which the Arab world regularly castigates Israel—military conquest—constitutes the whole explanation of why the Mideast is more than 99 percent Muslim.

Counterposed with Kennedy’s history, Wisse’s study of the relation of Jews to political power becomes even more ironic and illuminating. Jews lost effective sovereignty over the province of Judea in A.D. 70, when the Romans crushed their uprising for even greater freedom. Wisse, a prominent defender of Zionism (in regular articles for the Wall Street Journal and Commentary), and a refugee from Nazism, writes that the “loss of Jewish sovereignty was the defining political event in the life of the Jewish people.”

In tracing the survival of the Jews in their long Diaspora before Israel’s founding in 1948, Wisse is both complimentary and critical. Realism, she believes, dictates that the “obligation to be decent is complicated for Jews by the knowledge that other societies feel driven to eliminate them from the world.” She argues that, over the centuries, and primarily in the European Diaspora, Jewish “pride in sheer survival” created a “harmful pattern” of accommodation to host political states. That demonstrated how “political weakness could cross the moral line into veneration of political weakness,” into Jewish self-hatred and a tendency “to seek fault in themselves.”

Jews, Wisse argues, failed to care enough about political power and control over territory, opening themselves to pogroms and eventually the Holocaust. Zionism and the creation of Israel thus become, for Wisse, a long overdue turn away from powerlessness for the Jewish people. It’s no wonder that Wisse has elsewhere applauded the commitment of American Jews to speak up for Israel’s rights, a commitment criticized in John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s recent controversial book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Even pre-Annapolis, she fears Israel may again be turning accommodationist, blaming itself for what others have done to it.

Kennedy’s history, read in tandem with Wisse’s, ought to brake that accommodationist bent, because it reflects favorably on the Jewish rather than Arabic and Muslim stance in present Mideast politics. Whereas the Bedouins of Arabia used military force and power to attack, Islamicize and Arabicize cultures that had not attacked them, Israeli Jews, after centuries of powerlessness and suffering, used military force to protect themselves and regain their ancient land—further deeded to them by the United Nations—when four Arab nations attacked them in 1948. In its continuing defense, over the decades including the 1967 war, Israel ended up with further land by the same means Arabs acquired theirs—military force.

A fair conclusion from both books—Kennedy’s sympathetic to Arab culture despite detailing its militaristic expansion, Wisse’s powerfully aligned with Zionism—is that if you believe might makes right in regard to territory, the Arab world has no argument against Israel that can’t be turned against itself. If you don’t believe might makes right, the world’s map requires massive redrafting.

No wonder they don’t invite historians to meetings like Annapolis.

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