Saturday, February 05, 2011

Glenn Beck Knows As Much About The Middle East As He Knows About Everything Else: Nothing

In a recent episode of his children's program, Glenn Beck ominously warned his audience that events in Egypt would lead to the rise of a massive Muslim Empire. Beck pulled out an ominous-sounding term from the Middle Ages designed to frighten his uniformed audience - "Caliphate" - to describe rising a Muslim realm that he depicted on a map as incorporating all of North Africa, Turkey, the entire Middle East, Iran, India, Indonesia and even Western and Central Europe.

His map is largely coterminous with lands controlled by the Muslim world from the seventh until the 15th century. The map also reveals that Beck is deeply influenced by a particularly dark strain of American religion.

Anyone who has studied pre-millennial dispensationalism - the belief system of Christian fundamentalists who see the Bible as essentially a collection of unfulfilled End Times prophecies expected to come true in the near future - would recognize the map. It's very similar to the picture of the future world described by pop End Times popularizer Hal Lindsey in his improbable 1970s bestseller "The Late Great Planet Earth." Lindsey, a product of the Armageddon-obsessed Dallas Theological Seminary, predicted an Arab coalition would rise and attempt to destroy Israel in the final days. According to dispensationalists, God will intervene to protect Jews against Muslim, Russian and other infidels.

Lindsey and other dispensationalist writers who have influenced Beck even quote with glee from verses in the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible that describe God as causing the flesh of these anti-Israeli soldiers melting and their bodies becoming bird feed for time stretching into eternity. Lindsey even suggested they might achieve a political and religious unity that part of the world has not seen since the collapse of the Persian Empire. The coalition Lindsey describes overlaps the map of the Caliphate Beck showed his audience his week.

Lindsey's book, by the way, initially suggested that the seven-year "Tribulation" marking the countdown to Jesus' Second Coming, would begin in 1988. The end of the world as we know it has failed to arrive for Lindsey and his fans like Beck repeatedly in the years since, but an endless string of failed prophecies has not prevented the two salesmen of doom from continuing to pitch their Armageddon snake oil to the endlessly credulous.

This perspective of the Mideast reveals a profound ignorance of that area's religious, political, cultural and ethnic diversity. Glenn Beck's map of the Muslim Caliphate included India, where Hindus comprise more than 80 percent of the county's population of 1.2 billion. He ignores that, while Muslims make up less than 14 percent of the population, that Christians, Jains, Sikhs and other sects, make up another 6 percent of the country. In other words, almost 9 out of every 10 persons in India is not a Muslim.

Beck says that Muslims dream of a Caliphate headquarted in Babylon, forgetting apparently that Babylon was a pagan city and empire with no connection to Islam. He also says that Muslims as a group believe the 12th Imam will rise there, apparently not knowing that only Shiites - a minority in the Muslm world - believe in an End Times ppearance of the "hidden Imam,"

Beck throws throws Shiite Muslims, who make up the majority of the population in Iran and Iraq and a sizable part of Afghanistan's population but nowhere else -- into the same Caliphate with the Sunnis who dominate Islam in most of the rest of the world. Beck, whose program appears on an alleged news channel, apparently didn't notice that Shiites and Sunnis both see each other's version of Islam as blasphemous. He also overlooked that Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have spent much of the past decade expressing their desire to live side by side in a Caliphate by slaughtering each other. Shiites and Sunnis have as much a chance of agreeing on how to govern the religious life of a theoretical Muslim super state as Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have of holding a peaceful pot luck supper.

Beck even includes Spain, Portugal, France, Germany Italy and England in the Caliphate because, he vaguely notes, "there are many Muslims there." (Muslims make up 1 percent of the population in Spain, 0.1 percent in Portugal, 6 percent in France, 4 percent in Germany, less than 0.1 percent and 2.7 in England.) Beck apparently believes that Islam is like cooties. It spreads on contact.

Central to his message is that Muslims worldwide desire political and religious unity, an idea to be realized in the future Caliphate. However, events in Muslim history suggest otherwise. Rather than emerging unity, Muslim history since the founding of Israel has been marked by division. The attempts to merge Egypt, Syria and Yemen as a "United Arab Republic" failed miserably in the 1950s and 1960s. Christians, Muslims, and secular Palestinians fought a bloody civil war for more than a decade in Lebanon because of their deep religious and political differences.

Kuwaiti elites begged for military support from the United States because they did not want incorporation into Saddam Hussein's Caliphate. Since the America invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds in the north have essentially become a separate republic and in any case Kurds are feared as separatists and have battled for independence in Iran and Turkey. Instead of moving towards political integration, Sudan just split in two.

Beck assumes that there is religious unanimity in his fictitious Caliphate, ignoring the fact that Armenian Catholics, Maranite Christians in Lebanon, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Eastern rite Christians in the Near East, and Zoroastrians in Iran have no interest in living under a Muslim Caliphate? He also mistakenly believes that there in ethnic homogeneity there when in fact deep ethnic tensions simmer between Turks, Arabs, Persians, Assyrians, Bedouins, Chechens, Tajiks, Turkmen and Ossetians across the region.

I gather that Beck never asked himself how this ever-splintering Middle Eastern world, also divided by local history and custom and dialect – and where the people speak not just Arabic but Farsi, Berber, Maltese, Syriac, and Ladino to mention just a few tongues - could possibly be moving towards some massive, uniform transnational identity.

To Beck and his fans, all Middle Easterners- Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Wahabiists, Christians, secular socialists, feminists, Westernizers, Iranians, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, etc., etc, disappear in one big simpleminded, stereotypical mash-up Beck’s fans let him get away with these endless fact errors and historical omissions because they know even less than he does.

Beck and his audience might try using a book for something other than a doorstop.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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