Manchester, England and the Ariana Grande concert. May 22, 2017. It’s another day and another terrorist bombing—an observation not only Westerners could make, but also the peoples whose countries (Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.) are de facto occupied by the West. For them, practically every day brings another bombing. That the West’s terrorist bombings are delivered via aircraft, sometimes remotely piloted, sometimes not, and the Middle Easterner’s are delivered in person, by one willing to die for the privilege, would, to a disinterested observer—to someone with a God’s eye perspective—be a distinction without a difference. The only remarkable difference would be how much more effective at killing the West’s methods seem relative to the Middle Easterner’s. The West kills thousands without suffering a casualty. The Middle Easterners kill dozens and generally die for the privilege. There is little doubt, of course, that ultimately the West will lose this clash of civilizations. If only because its massive firepower acts more as an inspiration than a deterrent. For every so-called “terrorist” it kills, it inspires legions more to the fight. Else the West would have won long ago. As was again demonstrated in Manchester, the West hasn’t yet won.
This culture clash—East to West; Occidental to Oriental; Christianity to Islam, etc.—has a long history: The sweep of Islam across North Africa, Mesopotamia and the Levant shortly after its founding in the seventh century after Christ’s birth and two hundred years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Crusades during the Middle Ages. The Islamic Ottoman Empire that ended the Christian Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. the Ottoman Empire’s subsequent collapse in the modern age leading to short spans of European hegemony (chiefly British and French) during the twentieth century. But the most recent iteration of the conflict began at a readily recognizable point—the first Gulf War, when the US used the holiest of Islam’s land, Saudi Arabia, as a staging ground to attack Iraq. The American infidels launched a massive blood-letting, killing perhaps a hundred thousand Iraqis to its loss of less than two hundred (and fifty of those by accident). And Iraq had never attacked the US or posed any sort of threat to the US whatsoever. Iraq was in fact a sworn ally of the US in its power struggle with Iran.
Might the West avert its defeat? Perhaps, if it better understands that this iteration of the conflict is just a relentless cycle of vengeance. And the West started it, with the Iraq War. But thankfully, all three Abrahamic religions confessed of the combatants have quite a bit to say about vengeance.
Islam incorporates much of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bible) into the Qur’an, much of it verbatim, including parts of the admonition in Exodus, “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Chapter 21:23-25). The corollary verse in the Qur’an reads, “And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth…” Qur’an 5:45.
In Matthew, Christ answered the retributive justice of Exodus saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (5:38-39).
Hardliners—people who believe steadfastly in retributive justice—are said to be Old Testament types, the kind who ignore Christ’s “turn the other cheek” teaching to exact their revenge. But when politicians proclaim, like Trump has, that they believe in ‘an eye for an eye’ justice, they misunderstand the point of the passage in Exodus, which was not intended to justify vengeance, but to limit it.
It is only an eye for an eye. Vengeance for an eye is limited to an eye. Vengeance for one murder is one life, not a whole village or country.
Christ takes the idea of limiting the impulse to vengeance a step further, admonishing people to simply turn the other cheek. But so, too, does the Qur’an. The previously-quoted eye for an eye verse in the Qur’an continues: “But whoever gives [up his right as] charity, it is an expiation for him.”
And Christ wasn’t so radical a departure from the Old Testament as many believe. Leviticus Chapter 19, verse 18 states, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (which verse also constitutes the first formulation of what Christ would proclaim as the Second Great Commandment, commonly called the Golden Rule). In Proverbs Chapter 24, verses 28 and 29, “Do not testify against your neighbor without cause, or use your lips to deceive. Do not say, “I’ll do to him as he’s done to me. I’ll pay that man back for what he did.”” And in Lamentations Chapter 3, verses 27-31, “It is good for a man to…offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. For men are not cast off by the Lord forever.”
The bottom line? All three Abrahamic religions teach mercy with justice, Islam perhaps more than the others, offering expiation of sins as the reward for charitably dropping the impulse to vengeance.
What is only implied by the stance of each great theological heritage is the reality that there is great power in forgiveness. Holding a grudge is to serve a cruel master, allowing one’s enemies to control one’s thoughts and actions.
The takeaway for the clash of civilizations? The West could win, or at least keep from losing, if only it would quit fighting. If only it ended the cycle of vengeance by packing up its drones and its special ops forces and its regular military forces and going home, it would deprive the nefarious death cults, al Qaeda and ISIS, of their only means of garnering support.
When Ronald Reagan was President, he allowed the US to get tangentially, almost accidentally, involved in a civil war in Lebanon, as part of a multi-national peacekeeping force (which as always, was mostly uni-national, i.e., American). When our presence was met with a truck bomb at a Marine Corps barracks that killed more Americans than would later die in the First Gulf War, he did the only noble and proper thing for a military commander to do when troops are in harm’s way yet lack an identifiable, militarily-achievable, objective. He ordered the troops to stand down. To come home. To let Lebanon solve its own problems. We didn’t have a dog in the hunt, and he knew it. Our actions and presence only served to exacerbate the internal strife in the region, and we paid dearly for it.
This cycle of vengeance started with the First Gulf War. Which led directly to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, followed by the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on the anniversary of the day US troops first arrived in Saudi Arabia, which was followed by the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, ultimately leading to the second attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. So long as the US and its Western allies had troops present in the Middle East, particularly in the country hosting Islam’s holiest sites, the impetus for revenge continued. After 9-11, the West did exactly the opposite of what it should have done. Rather than evacuating the area, the West, led by the US, expanded its presence, prosecuting two wars against countries that had heretofore been allies (Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban’s Afghanistan). So the cycle of vengeance intensified, and continues to intensify every day. We make new enemies with every bomb we drop. The porousness of Western borders and openness of its societies makes it nigh well impossible to prevent Middle Easterners from returning the favor.
Barack Obama almost got rein of the American military adventurists who have promoted Middle Eastern interventionism since the end of the Cold War. He drastically reduced troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, for a time. But reductions aren’t the same as abandonment. Any level of American/Western troop presence is now a provocation in the cycle of violence. Reducing, but not removing, the forces probably exacerbated the problem rather than helped in solving it. So long as we have troops over there, we’ll be less safe over here. The only way to win this war is to quit fighting it.