Putting History First – Written February 24, 2005

When Deborah Amos and Rick Davis spent the week of Feb. 13 in High Point, North Carolina, to guest lecture at High Point University, they wanted to expose students and locals alike to realities that are not normally covered on the evening news. Their gripping depiction of the Middle East captivated many different audiences throughout the week.

The couple, together over 20 years, sparred with scholars about the depiction of the Middle East in mainstream media, discussing problems in both the media and international conflicts individually as well as how they relate. “We’re playing a game of chicken in the Middle East right now,” said Amos to a group of journalist students during a guest lecture, talking about how much of the conflict Americans are unaware of, specifically the religious, political, and ethnic conflicts in the region.

They said the most frustrating thing about being a journalist was that they felt they were doing no good, coming back to a country that didn’t know where they had been or care what went on there. The people of the United States have gained a shorter attention span over the years, and regardless of the reason, Americans must reevaluate themselves and the world and relearn much of a history forgotten. Rick said that as long as he could have the illusion that his words were having an impact on someone and informing them of something, it was enough to keep him going though all the carnage he has seen.

Amos explained how originally the Middle East was made up of tribal governments, either Semitic or Indo-European. The Semitics break into two groups, Jews and Arabs; the Indo-Europeans, however, have many different tribes that are still scattered throughout the Middle east to this day. Davis added that one tribe called Persians established one of the first empires in history, falling as all empires do, remaining now in what was the original capital of the Persian Empire, Iran. Other Indo-European tribes such as Kurds and Armenians settled north of Iran after the fall while Arab tribes, including the Berbers, Fellahin, Druze, Bedouin, and Nubians, came north from Africa and fought over what was left of the Middle East.

After Islam’s inception in the beginning of the sixth century, the Arab world joined together under one religion and took over the region. While there was some internal religious conflict, most of the religious conflict that is prevalent today started around 1800 between the two main groups of Islam, Shi’a and Sunni. Up until around 1800, when the Sa’ud family made Sunni the official religion of the Arab world, most Islamic people followed the Shi’a doctrine, Sunni being scattered to the southern outskirts of the Middle East. The Shi’a believe that after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, his hereditary lineage continued through Caliphs, though the hereditary link has faded from Islam. Davis explained that as this heredity faded; new leaders stepped up, eventually becoming the Mullahs and Ayatollahs of Iran, and the leaders of the Shi’a Islamic world. Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled in the 1960s and bounced around a few countries until he gained enough Shi’a support in Iraq to start a revolution in neighboring Iran. As soon as the revolution was coming to a close, Iraq, under the newly-acquired rule of Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran in hopes that the Iranians would not unite under Khomeini; the Shi’a Persians did unite and a decade-long war ensued between the two nations. Davis had a gruesome experience with Ayatollah Khomeini during the beginning of the 1979-81 U.S. Embassy crisis when the Iranian leader paraded through the streets of Tehran swinging a rotten leg found severed from one of eight American rescuers killed in a helicopter crash near Tabas.

The couple explained how political systems in the Middle East operate. While Iran is dealing with “failed religious revolution,” as Davis calls it, “Saddam is still very popular in Jordan,” says Amos. Saddam’s Ba’th party is actually secular; this party had previously controlled Iraq and still controls Syria, officially calling themselves the “Arab Socialist Renaissance (Ba’th) Party.” Davis said most nations practice almost exclusively Islam, almost all people being Sunni; there are so many political parties that in most counties parties don’t even make up percentages, so when a party gains only a small amount of support they can gain power in a region or even a country. Governments have come and gone, but the original tribalism still exists, placing a nation of Kurds in what is now southern Syria and northern Iran and Iraq; all tribes have remained as scattered as they originally were, some members splitting off to create new groups or deciding to join another society, be it a government or a revolution.

Once the history is properly covered, one can begin discussing how to fix the problems that exist, from the countries of the region damming up rivers to secure resources for themselves and deny their neighbors to the jihad spanning from mosques in Tehran to skyscrapers in New York City. “You [Americans] no longer have the luxury of ignoring the rest of the world,” said Amos, adding that she believed many in the United States desperately cling to that luxury. This article barely scratches the surface of the issues surrounding the Middle East – the situation that is occurring there is much older and much more complex than almost anyone can realize; Deborah Amos and Rick Davis showed the people of High Point that one must first understand the whole context of a situation before offering opinion on it.

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