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God and Oil
By Nawal El Saadawi
Durham, North Carolina, Sat. 3 Nov. 2001
I opened my eyes this morning to find myself in a warm ochre room with sun pouring down on to my bed. It is almost as though I were at home, in Egypt, in Kafr Tahla, my village in the Nile Delta. Memories pour back up from my childhood, which was yesterday, seventy years ago. I see a seven-year-old Nawal with her schoolmates shouting in the street in a demonstration against King Faruq and the British army in Suez.
But no, this is not Egypt, this is Durham, a place to which I went nine years ago. Nine hours ago I returned to Duke University to give a lecture about September 11. The sky is as it was then blue, Carolina blue, welcoming me like my village sky as I escaped the threat of death at the hands of some religious fundamentalist groups. These were the men whom Anwar al-Sadat supported to fight against his opponents, and who then assassinated him on 6 October 1981.
I will never forget that day. I was lying on the bare earth of my prison cell, surrounded by eleven other women whom Sadat had incarcerated. We were a motley group, hard-line Marxists and fanatical religious fundamentalists and I in the middle. Many were in despair, sure that they would die in jail. Sadat’s death was unimaginable. As unimaginable as the event I witnessed a mere seven weeks ago, the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Who could have imagined that these two terrible events could be engineered by almost the same kind of people!
I had landed in JFK airport exactly a week earlier on my way to Montclair University where I was to spend the academic year as a visiting professor. I was horrified, yet I chose not to watch television, and the obsessive repetition of the imploding towers. These were not unfamiliar images to me. Living in the so-called Middle East (Middle of what?) I have seen many explosions, many bombings, many buildings collapse, many civilians killed. Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iran. These are only some of the places in my region that have witnessed devastation in the past two decades.
Each time there was an explosion, an attack on civilians I was horrified. I am absolutely opposed to murder. Yet, this is the first time that I have been bombarded with the same question: "Tell me, Dr. El Saadawi, what did you feel when you heard about the terrorist attacks that killed innocent American civilians at the World Trade Center?" Why, I wondered in amazement, was I never before asked this question. Could it be that the value of American lives is greater than that of Palestinians, Iraqis, Somalis, Libyans, Algerians, Afghans and Iranians?
In the following days, the phone kept ringing. Another insistent question had surfaced. Journalists wanted to know: "Is Islam more prone to violence and terrorism than any other religion? Does it encourage suicide attacks in the name of God?" During the past quarter of a century I have devoted myself to the study of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. What I have learned is that these three faiths resemble each other in numerous aspects. I was particularly struck by the similarity of values attached to the relationship between men and their God, between men and women, the idea of death for the sake of God and fighting in the holy wars against infidels, those who believe in another religion.
History is full of the blood of Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is full of wars fought in the name of god and the country. Rulers do not distinguish between God and the country. In the eyes of George Bush and the U.S. government, the American soldiers who die in Afghanistan today or tomorrow are martyrs and heroes who will have died for God and the United States of America. Religious and national anthems are one and the same: God Bless America, In God We Trust, One Nation under God and Christ.
So why, I wonder, is there this belief that it is only Islam that encourages death for the sake of God, or mobilizes its nation to fight a holy war?
Islam, Christianity and Judaism viewed from the outside seem to be patriarchal religions. But those who immerse themselves in their histories will discover that in fact they should be considered matriarchal. In Judaism the mother is the foundation. It is she who gives her offspring her religion. When he was a baby, Moses’ mother gave him to the River Nile to protect him from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. And it was she also who rescued him from the same river to suckle him, to train him, to make the prophet Moses who led the Children of Israel into the Promised Land. The same is true for Christianity in which it was the mother of Christ, Mary, who suckled him, trained him and made him into a prophet. And the Prophet Muhammad also. His mother, Amna, knew even he was in her womb that she was carrying the prophet of the Quraysh people. After she died when he was a baby, he found a second mother in his wife.
Khadiga, a wealthy and powerful women who was twenty years his senior, taught him everything he knew, she believed in Christ and Mary and she was highly literate and knowledgeable about the Torah and the Gospel. It was she who first introduced Muhammad to these sources and she liberated him of his economic responsibilities as a husband so that he could spend his time studying, contemplating in the cave of Mount Hira. She prepared him to become the prophet and leader of the Quraysh people.
When Muhammad received his first revelation, he was terrified. He rushed to Khadiga, trembling. He asked her to hold him, to cover him. She took him into her embrace, calmed him down and reassured him that what he had seen was not the devil but an angel, an envoy from God. She said: "Stand up and tell the world that you are the messenger of God who will spread Islam in the world." She appointed him as god’s messenger, she was the first to call him Prophet Muhammad.
After Khadiga’s death her role in the evolution of Islam and the making of the Prophet was systematically ignored. During the twenty years that they lived together, Muhammad did not marry another women. However, during the following twenty years until his death he married several women. One might have expected that Khadiga’s name would be mentioned in the Qur’an as one of the most important influences in the life of Muhammad. But there is not even one single citation. Mary, on the other hand, the mother of Christ, was granted a whole, long chapter in the Qur’an. Mary is the only women whose name is mentioned in the Qur’an probably because Khadiga was a Christian and she believed in Christ and Mary. When the Prophet Muhammad conquered Mecca and ordered his men to break the idols and destroy the images of all previous religions he spread his arms to protect the icon of Mary and her son. He said: "Destroy all the images except for this one."
Why, then, is there such furious enmity between Christians and Muslims? Why the Crusades yesterday and today? Why do people not pay attention to the fact that Islam was born out of the womb of Christianity, and Christianity out of the womb of Judaism, and Judaism out of the womb of the great goddesses of Ancient Egypt? Why do they not acknowledge that the Torah and the Gospel are mentioned in the Qur’an as divine books?
Religions are political, economic, social, cultural and moral ideologies, inseparable from their spiritual dimension. The soul is not separable from the body or the mind and politics is never separable from religion in any county. How blatantly obvious this has been in the past seven weeks. The language of Bush, Blair, Bin Laden and the Pope are so alike. They speak in the same name of God while their mind is on oil.
When he declared war on Afghanistan, the military language of George W. Bush was steeped in religion. He was going to fight Evil, the Devil Osama Bin Laden, with enduring, eternal justice. How like his father eleven years ago when he launched the good Gulf War against the Devil Saddam Hussein. And let us not forget the trip to Uzbekistan and other countries in the Caspian region by the Pope to pave the spiritual path for the military invasion of Afghanistan. And to control the huge supplies of oil in the region.
God is used today to camouflage the real reason for war in our region, which is oil. This is true also for war in Africa where the reason is diamonds. Bush the father called his war for oil in the gulf: "Liberating Kuwait from the devil." Bush the son is calling his war for oil in Afghanistan: "Liberating the world of terrorism and Afghan women from the Devil." But the U.S. oil policy cannot be hidden. Remember what the energy expert Sheila Heslin said at the White House National Security Council Senate Testimony in 1997: "U.S. policy is to promote the rapid development of the Caspian energy" we did so specifically to promote the independence of the oil-rich countries in order to break Russia’s monopoly control over the transportation of oil from the region, and, frankly, to promote Western energy security through diversification of supply."
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union countries, countries from Turkey to China are prizes to be snatched up. Control of energy-rich countries in the Arab world and the Caspian region is necessary for the continued dominance of the world’s single super power. Whoever controls the Caspian will have a counterweight to Arab oil and vice versa. From 1918 until today almost all the wars in our region were fought for oil and they were fought in the name of God, great camouflage. Postmodernists replaced God with culture or civilization, and they came up with "Clash of Civilizations between the West and Islam." Since 1920 the U.S. pressured Britain, the dominant power in our region, into signing a "Red Line Agreement" which ensured that Middle Eastern oil would not be developed by any single power without the participation of the others. Since 1932 and the discovery of oil in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait the fight for oil has never stopped. The conflict between the U.S. and the USSR was over oil. This was no clash of civilizations. In 1948 the state of Israel was established with the help of Britain and the U.S. to control the oil. The CIA played a role in Egypt, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia to stop any form of resistance to U.S. control, cf., the coups in Syria in the 1949, in Iran in 1953. Egypt was the battlefield during the 1950s. Then the 1967 and 1973 wars. How many young men from my village Kafr Tahla were killed in those wars? Yet in all those years I never heard the word oil as a casus belli but only God.
Political and religious dichotomies recall the postmodern dichotomies that split the world into universals and cultural relativism. Both can be false but also both can be true, it depends how you use them. The current concern with Clash of Civilizations is the most vivid example of the distortion of universalist language: the West against Islam. This civilizational divide which pairs geography and religion as universals applying to specific cultural groups allows Bush and Bin Laden to kill the other in highly uncivilized ways despite the rhetoric. Bush warns before he kills, therefore he is civilized. Bin Laden kills without warning, therefore he is uncivilized. So it is just a matter of warning before killing which differentiates the civilized from uncivilized. Bush bombs the Red Cross and civilians in Afghanistan and millions of Muslims in the region consider him a terrorist. Bin Laden bombs the WTC and the Pentagon and he is considered a freedom fighter.
Some civilized American senators like Jesse Helms support the creation of the proposed international court, so long as the United States would not be subject to its jurisdiction. Some civilized women like Madeleine Albright consider the killing of five thousand Iraqi children every month an acceptable price to protect the oil and American Christian values.
Hope is power (and I am optimistic in spite of everything) I am sure that the future will be better and we must struggle against the WTO and other global economic powers which globalize from above to exploit all of us regardless of religion, gender or color. The WTO does not believe in all these cultural differences. Two years ago in Seattle, demonstrations by thousands of enraged civilians from all over the world tried to undermine the power of capitalism and they succeeded in shaking the powers that be. Seven weeks ago, a few enraged civilians from all over the world attacked the headquarters of the WTO and they succeeded in terrifying the world. Though the wealthy transnational corporations can easily reconstruct these buildings, they cannot resist these millions if they are organized and united.
Some writers think that to defeat terrorism Islam has to be reconciled with modernity (Cf., Salman Rushdie’s article NYT 2 Nov. ). But who said that Islam is more resistant to modernity than other religions? What do we mean by modernity and Post-modernity? I think we have to eradicate the original roots of terrorism whether religious or economic or political or military, whether individual terrorism or State terrorism. The US government and the Israeli government are considered terrorist states by the majority of the people in the world. Of course, we need to separate religion from politics and restore religion to the sphere of the personal. We need secularists humanist societies not only in Islamic countries but in all countries, above all, in Christian America and Jewish Israel. We need also to abolish the colonial and neo-colonial principles that dominate modernity and post modernity.
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