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by Elliott A. Green


The often alleged "Third World" status of the Arabs provides them with a public opinion advantage facing Israel. This status has often been used to excuse the Arabs of guilt for atrocities against Israel. There is often a tacit presumption that Arab anti-Israel activities are somehow progressive and helpful to the Third World as a whole. Sometimes the use of the characterization of the Arabs as part of the Third World verges on traditional Judeophobic themes. Insofar as this view favors (within part of the Western public) unreasonable Arab demands on Israel and strengthens Arab intransigence, it constitutes an obstacle to peace.

The term Third World or Tiers-Monde first arose in the 1950s in France. It referred to countries colonized or exploited by European imperial powers, their peoples kept in humiliating inferiority, poverty, and economic underdevelopment, and -- it was implied -- innocent of any previous offense against the Europeans.

Indeed many African and Asian countries fit this paradigm. Yet the Arabs did not. They had carried on warfare with the Europeans for more than 1,000 years. They conquered Spain, Sicily, and southern Italy, and penetrated to Poitiers in middle France (732). Indeed the Arabs were long a factor in European history before the XIXth and XXth Century colonial conquests. Likewise the Arabs have long been a factor in Jewish history, sometimes benign and sometimes harmful, both before and after the rise of Islam. A brief survey of Arab relations with Europe and with the Jews would be helpful in putting contemporary claims into perspective.

The historian Tacitus describing the Roman forces besieging Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, wrote: "Then there were strong levies of Arabs who felt for the Jews the hatred common between neighbors" (The Histories, V:1; tr. Wellesley). This is not quoted to stir up rancor based on ancient wrongs but to show how far back the Arab relationship goes with both Jews and the West, often taking quite constructive forms to be sure.

Of course the rise of Islam in the seventh century is rightly considered a great turning point in Arab history, and that of the whole Mediterranean. For the Jews it meant an improvement in some ways over the previous Roman and Byzantine oppression. For instance, Jews were again allowed to live in Jerusalem. But in other ways, their status worsened. Muslim oppression worsened as time went on. Jews had to pay severe taxes as dhimmis, members of the inferior class of non-Muslims whose toleration in a state of humiliation was decreed by the Quran. Christians shared the dhimmi status with the Jews, while slaves were imported to the Muslim Arab domain from distant climes, from Africa, Europe, and central Asia. Indeed, the Arabs may be called "equal opportunity enslavers," since their slaves could be of any color. Yet, typically slaves were unbelievers, kaffirs in Arabic. The European colonizers in Africa borrowed the name kaffir from the Arabs, applying it to the native black Africans, unbelievers in the eyes of both Christians and Muslims.

While European slavers took slaves from the west coast of Africa after Portugal opened it as a sea route to the Orient, Arab slave traders took slaves from the east coast and across the Sahara. And the Arabs were involved in the Black slave trade earlier and later. Indeed Arabs continued to ship slaves through Zanzibar, an island off the coast, now part of Tanzania, until the British suppressed the trade there in 1873.

Nor were the Arabs innocent in relation to the Europeans even long after the Battle of Poitiers (732), nor after the Muslim armies had driven out the Crusaders and after Christian Spain had driven the Arabs out of Granada in 1492. Pirate raids from one side of the Mediterranean to the other were a frequent feature of life. They were conducted with ferocity and cruelty by both camps. The Arab raids kept broad coastal regions of Spain and Italy depopulated, underdeveloped and in decay for centuries.

Erik Amfiteatrof has summarized the effect of the Arab pirates on Italy (using the archaic name of Saracens, perhaps so as not to offend Third-Worldist sentiments; Saracens came to mean Arabs and other Muslims; these diverse peoples were the ancestors of today's mixed-descent Arab populations).

The Saracen pirate fleets sometimes ran to three or four hundred ships... The most terrifying aspect of a Saracen attack was that the inhabitants of coastal cities, towns, and villages were seized and dragged aboard ship to be sold into slavery. When a Saracen fleet occupied Reggio Calabria, seventeen thousand people were kidnapped into slavery... The curse of piracy on the coasts of southern Italy lasted an incredibly long time... from AD 800 to 1800. It was a basic cause of the deterioration of life... like a receding wave, life deserted the once-fertile and flourishing coast. Even major cities were abandoned. (Children of Columbus, Boston, 1973)

This piracy lasted well into the nineteenth century. Americans may recall the second line of the famous Marine Hymn: "... To the shores of Tripoli." This may serve to remind them that among the first US overseas military expeditions were the raids on the Barbary pirates of Tripoli (now Libya's capital) in 1805 and 1815, preceded by the cry in Congress, "Millions for defense; but not a cent for tribute."

When France conquered Algeria in 1830, this followed a long history of piracy and enslaving. The conquest was not without provocation. French rule ended in Algeria in 1962 after 132 years. However, French colonial rule in Syria lasted only 25 years (1920-45), hardly more than a moment in the long history of Western conflict with the Arab-Muslim world. British rule in Iraq lasted for a shorter time, only about 15 years.

Of course, most Arabs lived under the Ottoman Empire from 1525 until the European invasions of the XIXth and XXth Centuries. This suggests that the Arabs were colonized before the arrival of the Westerners. Yet most Arabs identified with this empire and accepted it as legitimate. They were Sunni Muslims and the empire was a Sunni Muslim empire. The Ottoman sultan also bore the title Caliph of Islam. Within the empire, Muslim Arabs occupied a status superior by Muslim law to that of Christians and Jews.

When Ottoman armies advanced through the Balkans into central Europe, threatening Vienna both in 1529 and 1683, this was seen as a Muslim conquest. When the Greek subjects of the Empire rose up in the XIXth Century, Arab troops brought from Egypt helped to thwart the rebels. "The Arabs as Muslims were proud of Turkish power and prestige. The Ottoman Empire was their Empire as much as it was the Turks'," the Arab nationalist Zeine N. Zeine tells us. Significantly, "the Arabs did not consider the Turkish rule as a 'foreign' rule...'" (quoted in H. Tütsch, Facets of Arab Nationalism, Detroit, 1965; p57).

Indeed, the Arab upper crust was well-integrated into the Ottoman governing class. For example, one of the Jerusalem Khalidis served as Ottoman consul in Vienna in the 1880s, perhaps rubbing shoulders with Theodore Herzl. Ruhi Bey Abdul-Hadi, of the Nablus-based family, also served Ottoman diplomacy. Faisal Husseini's great-grandfather, Selim, was appointed mayor of Jerusalem in 1878, presiding over a Jewish majority population in the city. Selim's son, Musa Kazem, Faisal Husseini's grandfather, attended the Ottoman School of Administration in Constantinople (to use the Greek name of the city then current in the West) and ruled various Ottoman districts and provinces as imperial governor. King Hussein's grandfather Abdullah was raised in Istanbul, enjoying the prestige of a descendant of Muhammud within the Ottoman upper class. The Ottoman capital at the time had a mostly non-Muslim population ruled by a Muslim minority.

It was only after the Ottoman defeat at the hands of France, Britain, and Russia that most of the Arab Muslim upper class became Arab nationalist. The most blatant example, perhaps, of modern Arab identification with oppressors came not long afterwards in the Hitler era when traditional Arab leaders and most of the nationalist movement were pro-Nazi. This was true in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. The chief leader of the Palestinian Arabs was the most notorious Arab Nazi collaborator. Haj Amin el-Husseini, British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, negotiated with Hitler and Mussolini in the name of the Arab nation and urged Hitler to "solve the Jewish Question" in the Arab countries as he was "solving" it in the Nazi zone of Europe. (See Green, "Arabs And Nazis - Can It Be True?,, January-February, 2005.)

Ironically, the Arabic-speaking Christians who shared the inferior dhimmi status with the Jews, joined in or initiated persecutions of Jews at various times and in various places. Karl Marx observed, "Nothing equals the misery and the sufferings of the Jews at Jerusalem... the constant objects of Mussulman [Muslim] oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins..." (New York Daily Tribune, April 15, 1854). Marx used "Greeks" and "Latins" here in a religious sense (for Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic).

Poverty is another feature of Third World countries. There are indeed many poor Arabs. Yet some Arabs are among the richest men in the world. Nor did the West endeavor to keep the Arab nation as a whole poor. Arab oil exporting states have benefitted enormously from what James Ridgeway has called a disguised form of "foreign aid" (in his book New Energy, Boston, 1975). Special rulings of the US Treasury have allowed US oil companies to pay these countries much more for oil than they would agree to pay on a strictly commercial basis, by allowing the companies (such as ARAMCO) to write off huge payments as "foreign tax credits." Britain and France follow similar practices. This arrangement partly explains the high per capita income of Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states, which in some cases exceeds that of the United States itself. Further, much of this money has spread around to other Arabs.

It would be tedious to multiply examples. Suffice it to say that the Third World myth ill befits the Arabs, nor does the pose of wounded innocence befit them, including the Palestinian Arabs whose leadership rallied to the Nazi camp, thereby endorsing the most racist theory to be espoused by a modern state.

Both Jews and Arabs are peoples with long histories, and a long history of mutual relations. True peace between them cannot be based on historical falsehoods, especially not on those which demonize one party to the conflict or portray one side as totally innocent.

Perhaps the question to ask is why the West is so eager to forget those parts of its long history of relations with the Arabs that cast the latter in an unfavorable light.

Elliott A Green is a translator, writer, and researcher. His blog showcases significant passages from ancient sources relating to ancient Jewish history and from Jewish poets writing about the glory of Zion and their hatred of Arab oppression, etc.

A version of this article was published in Midstream (New York), January, 1995.


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