Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict
[ Religion and culture ] [ States and civilization ]


Both no development and rapid development promote interest, desperate and proud respectively, in the indigenous culture. In the first case, old cultures become merely symbolic, a kind of Oktoberfest held by immigrants. In the second, it soon proves futile, unable to deliver economic progress. The Iranians got fed up with the mullahs in just three decades, and were more secular after they overthrew the ayatollahs than before. Religious observance induced by failure is superficial, just enough to experience attachment without real concern. Conservatism poses as religious resurgence: merchants protect their economic interests against foreigners, paupers claim communal welfare, and middle aged males demand patriarchal prerogatives. Conservatism is a desperate and eventually inefficient attempt to stop the wave of modernization, and religious resurgence is similarly unsustainable.

Very poor people are traditionalist rather than religious; rural Muslims require their women to wear scarves, but few pray five times daily. A bit of modern prosperity sent them searching for values, which they see in religion. Increased social mobility and social changes made them cling to tradition identified with religion—only to see that religion does not help. Economic and social transformation need not end before people return to moderate religiosity, but people take time to get used to the changes—a matter of decades.

Culture is a means of enjoyment, and enjoyment depends largely on economic situation. Culture, thus, is related to economy. Traditional cultures are not congruent with a global technological economy.

Central planning prescribes economic behavior, and cannot work in complex societies. Tradition prescribes a still wider range of behavior and is all the more unworkable. Societies shed, reinterpret, hypocritically revere, or (most commonly) ignore tradition. Practical culture is an ad hoc phenomenon, ever changing and adapting to economic realities. Even such basic ethical rules, like prohibitions of murder and theft, are commonly ignored in times of distress. Prosperity changes culture no less than does hardship.

A resurgence of suppressed interests is often taken for the rebound of indigenous culture. Indian politics is being “Hinduized,” not because the locals became concerned with religious intricacies but because the government, unable to satisfy the people with economic development, seeks support in old hatreds. Hindis and Muslims are not more intolerant to each other now than before. Rather, the conflict previously suppressed by totalitarian rule and backbreaking work for sustenance, erupted when the political and economic situation were right and was popularized by the media out of all proportion. Undeveloped countries still have not passed the stage of a booming economy bringing people of different faiths and ethnicities in close contact, forcing them to cooperate to satisfy their self-interest, thus blending identities. When income calls, hatreds are put aside.

Underdeveloped nations which encounter the onslaught of Western culture through media, goods and emigrants’ tales are uncomfortable with it. Unable to suppress that culture, they adapt to it and bandwagon the West. They further have to adopt Western habits because many of them plead with the West for aid. Japan succeeded in modernizing while remaining distinctive because of its unique combination of cultural homogeneity, xenophobia, communalism, work ethics, and education. The country developed with relatively little foreign assistance. By creating a sophisticated internal market, Japan prevented imports of less advanced goods and curtailed foreign influence. Even so, the habits and passion of Japanese and American teenagers do not differ significantly. The Japanese traditionally tilt toward visual arts, now represented by comics and appliance design, but otherwise both groups are fond of movies, videogames, modern music, discos, alcohol, sex, and future income. Traditions are by definition outdated; modernizing nations shed them and, unable to develop new traditions quickly, fill the void with mass culture.

While people may refuse foreign goods, as do the Japanese, in an open, (especially) globalized society, they cannot refuse a dominant foreign language, whether it be Akkadian or English. Elites (scribes or businessmen) are fluent in the lingua franca, causing people to expand their knowledge of the language from sporadic to basic to full. The language becomes a prestigious good, a necessary means of advancement. The language of the nation withthe most foreign contacts has the best chance of becoming the lingua franca. The contacts could be any: diplomatic for Akkadian, trade for Greek, military for Latin, scholarly for German. American English combines those areas of prominence and stands a good chance of surviving for a long time in simplified forms as the common language of global society. Its pidgin variants will converge as speakers across the globe communicate daily. Mandarin is too complicated for universal acceptance as a second language. Hindi exists in so many dialects that Indians prefer English for communication with speakers of other dialects. Arabic is widespread, but the economic and military value of its speakers is negligible. Except for the unlikely case of military power, the lingua franca is always the core language of an open society, even in the case of Rome. Cultural attraction is indispensable for preserving conquests and pacifying the conquered. Society must be open not just politically but also economically.

People judge teachings by their fruits: the promise of an afterlife for religions and worldly well-being for ideologies. The world might hate and envy economic leaders, yet adopt their competitive behavioral patterns; hatred often masks admiration. Envy might result in sporadic clashes and sabotage which appear in any culture. Muslims produced Al Zawahiri, and Christians, McVeigh. Wars generally erupt to solve problems, not to vent feelings. Attacking Japan would not help American steelmakers who also face competition from South Korea, Russia, and other places too numerous to subdue.

Consumerist societies, especially those that rose to affluence through work, are averse to fighting, just as there is less crime in rich societies. They are not pacifist and employ force where retaliation is unlikely. Economically advanced countries can retaliate or arouse enough concern among others to count as retaliation, and affluent countries do not usually fight among themselves. Total wars destroy economies and cannot solve trade disputes.

Countries might be prone to fighting for cultural reasons, but culture hardly prevails over economic interests. Countries of similar culture fight over real interests, and countries of mutually exclusive religions cooperate on common interests.

Poor countries need ideology to make the citizenry consent to be ruled, but affluent countries also fall for ideology or idealism, especially when doing so poses no threat to their economic status. Abundance pushes people to seek higher values which, once found, help others to recognize those ideals, eventually with the sword. Mid-size developed economies, conscious of their vulnerability to military means and economic sanctions, are pacifist to the extent of seeking international consensus.