imperial hiccups

“Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

-Henry Adams

Municipal buses have always had an uncanny knack for attracting civil unrest.

Be it in Birmingham, London, Baghdad, or downtown Beirut – public buses often act as giant motorized canaries for the fumes of civil disorder and discontent. Why buses serve this function is a complex issue, it is likely a combination of the physical role they play packing a large number of people into one uncomfortably close environment, and their role as a vital means of the mass transportation that every modern society relies on.

Whatever the reason, throughout modern history harbingers of civil unrest have been among the city bus’s most important passengers. And on April 13th 1975 in East Beirut, a city bus would serve – not for the first time and not for the last either – as the point of nucleation for a savage civil conflict.

In retaliation for the deaths of four Christians who were shot leaving a Maronite church earlier that day, Christian militiamen turned their guns on a bus full of Palestinian refugees on the way back to their ramshackle refugee camp located in East Beirut within the Christian neighborhood they were traveling through. The attack killed everyone onboard except one passenger and the driver, leaving 29 dead, and is widely referred to as the massacre that officially marks the start of the Lebanese Civil War.

And so the 1970s weren’t a tumultuous time just for the hemp-weaving free-loving acid-dropping flower-children of America. While our society was slowly rending itself apart along generational cleavages, over in the Middle East an entire culture – a piece of what can arguably be viewed as the remnants of an entire civilization – was consuming itself with much less subtlety.

This societal decay gave way to the broad social forces which tilled and softened the region for the growth of Islamic fundamentalist terror. During the 1970s, every single Arab nation in the Middle East was ruled by one autocratic form of government or another, and it was nearly impossible to find a group of citizens who felt empowered to better their situation through means offered by the state.

So they turned to terrorism.

The unrest of the 1970s set the stage for everything from Saddam’s rise to power, the targeting of Israel by generations of suicide bombers, the emergence of an alphabet soup of terrorist groups ranging from AMAL to Zeal, the Iranian revolution and the US Embassy hostage crisis, and even the events of 9/11. To understand our current state of affairs, you must first understand Middle Eastern society as it was in the 1970s, and what made it unique. With that, you can then understand the implications of the social decay that was redoubling with every passing year.

There isn’t one instance of Islamic fundamentalist terror that has occurred since that can’t be tied back to that decade. From founding new techniques and approaches in terror to inspiring the ideology that would drive future groups, the 1970s lay at the crossroads of everything that we’ve come to call terrorism.

It was during this time that, in the words of Fawaz Gerges, who was raised in the midst of the most dramatic and deadly civil war the region has ever hosted: “religious fervor in the Arab world fed into rage over economic social, and political impotence,” and “more and more Muslims turned to religion for spiritual sustenance and as a refuge from and a response to the seemingly unstoppable Westernization of their societies and oppressive political authoritarianism.”1

One of these Muslims was Osama bin Ladin, who came of age during these angry years, and developed his own ideas about Islam because of them. The story of the Middle East is very much the story of Islam. A religion today that is more tightly bound to a distinct people than any other, Islam is the only religion ever to become the sole uncontested basis of an entire civilization. So before you can understand the story of the Middle East in the 1970s, a brief foray must be made into the story of Islam.

Unlike any other major world religion, the holy book of Islam, the Quran, managed to codify not only laws, precepts, mores, and traditions – but an entire language. And in the process it would establish the basis for Arab identity, the exact definition of which is open to debate, but is most often defined as being fluent in some form of the Arabic language.

It’s this sense of Arab cum Muslim identity that’s at the crux of the emergence of modern Islamic terror. To have any chance of understanding today’s terrorism, you must first have some idea of when and where the terrorists themselves get their sense of identity. A few hundred years after he explained Mary of Nazareth’s predicament to her, Muslims believe the angel Gabriel appeared to the prophet Muhammad, grabbed him in a holy bear-hug, and related in the most divine language words which would be recorded by Muhammad’s own hand and, over time, be compiled as the Holy Quran.

The divinity of the angel Gabriel’s speech is an important aspect of the early days of Islam and influences its status today. Muslims are certain that the lyrically perfect nature of the language in which the Quran was recorded is proof of its divinity – no fool mortal could’ve concocted words of such eloquence and internal harmony.

And Mohammad isn’t viewed as just another mortal receptacle of Gabriel’s word.

The miraculous nature of the Quran, encoded entirely by Mohammad’s hand, is enforced by the fact Mohammad is believed by some sects of Islam to have been an illiterate before penning Islam’s holiest book. A work with the lyrical symmetry of Shakespeare was penned, Muslims believe, by the hand of an illiterate dune-dwelling desert merchant (peace be upon him) – and therefore can only be the divinely inspired word of Allah.

Today this means that the Quran can only be truly comprehended in its original Arabic, and so part of becoming a devout Muslim is learning the Arabic language. This presents a predicament for the millions of immigrants in the West and others outside the Middle East not fluent in Arabic, a problem which will later be explored. At the time of Islam’s origins, the divinity of Gabriel’s message meant that the language of those who fell under Islam’s sword was grafted with Arabic because you couldn’t be a proper Muslim without knowing some Arabic

Becoming Muslim wasn’t exactly physically forced on a population, but conversions happened at a high rate in societies conquered by Islam due to the economic and social benefits it would bring – benefits which would remain out of reach without linguistic and religious assimilation. The results of this grafting have persisted, witnessed by the fact that defining Arabic, as a language, presents something of a quandary.

Al-Jazeera is the closest most Americans have come to spoken Arabic, although calling it “spoken” Arabic is a bit of a misnomer. The language spoken by Al-Jazeera anchors is referred to by Americans as either written or Modern Standard Arabic, and called by Arabs themselves fusah, or classical, written Arabic because of its origins in the Arabic of the Quran.

It is the language written and spoken in academia, in governmental settings, and in the media – but oddly to us in the West, spoken conversationally pretty much nowhere else.

As Islam spread across the deserts, peninsulas, coasts and plains of the Middle East the Quran and its language spread with it. When a foreign people had been conquered by early Muslims most of the population became obliged to convert to Islam, and part of that deal was learning the language needed to read and resuscitate the Holy Book of Islam.

And so the Arabic of the Quran became the primary written language of all the lands won by Islam, an influence that bled into the local spoken dialects. The written language of the Quran mixed with every native spoken dialect that it touched – whether Hebraic, Phoenician, Aramaic, or Turkish in origin – as an intrinsic and vital element of Islam is the communal reading of the holy texts aloud. Over the centuries, this mixing resulted in the mutation of a native spoken language into an informal codification of what eventually became each distinct local dialect of spoken “Arabic” that is recorded only on the minds and tongues of those who speak it, from Lebanese to Egyptian to Iraqi.

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