In regard to my understanding of the world — what is going on and why — the best I can do is maintain a “working hypothesis.” The “what” is easier. The “why” to explain the “what” is more daunting because as new information emerges, I have to modify.
My biggest challenge is understanding developments in what we broadly call the Middle East. When I taught 20th century US History and current events, I’d start the school year with the essential question: “Why do radical Muslims want to kill us?” Teachers back then were required to formulate “essential questions,” then plan lessons around them. We were at war and some former students were fighting it. Others would be. I wanted them to know what they were fighting.
That involved lessons going back almost four millennia to Abraham’s time, then relating those lessons to current events. I had to teach about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There was so much information to take in that, without some kind of mental framework within which to arrange that information, it wouldn’t stick. So, I drilled them on regional geography as today’s national borders are drawn. I wanted them to be able to call up a Middle East map in their mind’s eye and know where Iraq was, Iran was, Syria was, Israel was, and so on. As they absorbed both historical and current events, they could mentally pin each onto their mental maps in its appropriate place. Babylon was in today’s Iraq and Persia is today’s Iran, and so on. Borders between land and sea were static, but national borders changed constantly.
Religion is only one dynamic. In my early teaching years, most students came with a basic understanding of Christianity. At the end, only a minority did and I’d have to start from scratch. I’d compare and contrast beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, then historical conflicts between them going back to 600 AD with the establishment of Islam. I’d explain that radical Muslims take Muhammed’s writings literally, especially those in the Medina Koran, which advocated converting Jews, Christians, and others at the point of a sword. Muhammed’s earlier writings in what is often called the Mecca Koran offered a reasoned approach. When some call Islam a “religion of peace,” they’re referring to the Mecca Koran.
ISIS, al Qaida, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood follow teachings from the Medina Koran. Judging from his actions, so, also, did Muhammed himself. Radical Muslims today more closely follow what Muhammed actually did when he conquered the Arabian Peninsula and imposed Islam. It’s also what his followers did for the next thirteen centuries. Only after the last caliphate — the Ottoman Empire — was defeated in World War I did forced conversion end, and then only temporarily. What remained of the Empire became modern Turkey and nation-states created by the winners: France and Great Britain. Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate, separating church and state. Violent Islamic expansionism went into remission, one could say, from about 1920 to about the 1970s or so — a half century. Now ISIS calls itself the new caliphate — which carries the mantle of Islamic leadership — and Muslims from around the world are flocking to it.
Then there’s conflict between the two main branches of Islam: Sunni and Shia which have been fighting each other for centuries, not unlike the way Christian Catholics and Protestants in Europe did. Four out of five Muslims are Sunni while Islam edges Christianity as the world’s largest religion. Both sides support radical groups. Iran is the largest Shiite country with its Revolutionary Guard, its proxy armies Hezbollah and the Houthis, and sometimes Hamas. Sunni radicals include ISIS, al Qaida, Boko Haram, Al Shebaab, sometimes Hamas, and others.
Then come the economics of the region — especially oil. Whatever was going on before oil was discovered in vast quantities, that all changed as petrodollars flooded the region and powered an Islamic resurgence.
Another dynamic is the reestablishment of Israel as a Jewish nation-state in 1948. It’s right in the middle of what had been almost exclusively the Muslim World for centuries. Many Muslims, Iran especially, pledge to wipe it off the map.
And there are ethnic conflicts within Islam. Sunni Kurds, for example, are a minority in the border areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey — all of which, along with Russia now, are fighting ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Kurds want to be a nation-state too, but none of the aforementioned countries will cede them their ancestral territory which overlaps all. The US is arming Kurds. Last week, President Trump put US Marines on the ground in Syria. US soldiers must now fight alongside all these groups — some of which are still fighting each other — against ISIS. What could possibly go wrong? Last week I also learned that erstwhile National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was being paid by Turkey while he advised President Trump.Looks like I'll have to modify that hypothesis again pretty soon.