Consider at Caravanserai


Caravanserai a Metaphor

Platform for international exchange and communication

between Muslim world and Western world

The caravanserais are part of the ancient overland trade routes, connecting the Middle East and Central Asia, Europe, North-Africa, Indian Continent and China.

These caravanserais were traveler inns in the Muslim world. Some of these caravanserais are as old as 900 years or more. They provided accommodation, supplies and protection in the Muslim world for travelers, traders, missionaries, messengers and envoys along these trade routes, such as the Silk Road, the famous trade route network between China and the Mediterranean Coast. Caravanserais were established over a wide area along routes and in cities as far as from Morocco, Turkey, and Cairo at its western end to Western China at its eastern end. It is mentioned that in Cairo (Egypt) till the end of the 18th century there were as many as 300 caravanserais in use. Based on documents there were more than 100 caravanserais in the city of Isfahan (Iran) at the beginning of the 18th century. In Herat (Afghanistan), there were more than 100 caravanserais. All over Anatolia (Turkey), there were some 250 caravanserais built in the Seljuk period.

Somehow people throughout a wide variety of populations, nations, distances and religions were able to communicate and exchange goods at mutual benefit and consent and established relations over and over again, that resulted in the Silk Road network lasting for more than 2000 years. In these times, cities in the Middle East, Central Asia and China already contained communities of different populations and religions. Trade routes tied all this into a network. The caravanserais were the connection nods in the network, well established platforms for international communication and exchange, thriving for centuries in cities and along routes in the Muslim world.

As for another reflection on international communication, exchange and co-habitation, at the eastern end of the Silk Road, in China in the 8th century, almost 1300 years ago, the population in Chang’an (Xi’an), the capital of the Tang dynasty had reached almost 2 million people. The 754 A.D. census there showed that five thousand foreigners lived in the capital, Chang’an: Turks, Iranians, Indians and others from along the Silk Road, as well as Japanese, Koreans and Malays from the east. There, numerous religions had temples and mosques built: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Muslims, Zoroastrianism of Persia, and Nestorian Christianity from Syria. By the 9th century A.D. the city of Guangzhou along the South China Seas coast was said to have a foreign population of 100,000.

Were there higher tolerance levels in these days ? How were these different communities able to establish and thrive alongside each other, while now there are such tremendous forces for conflict and segregation at work ? How it comes certain cities and communities today are melting pots of cultures, and other cities and communities are poised by mutual distrust, disdain, hate, racism ?

These caravanserais are like a symbol for a successful multicultural exchange platform, for bridging cultures, that we can still use, and probably more than ever, need today. I am just wondering if there are any other historical buildings remaining today that can claim that heritage of symbolizing the crossing of international boundaries, of multicultural exchange and mutual benefit. How about we look at the caravanserai as a metaphorical place to find common ground ?

I am curious to explore what we can learn from these caravanserais today. We have all the means today, knowledge, people, capital, speed and ease of communication, and yet we still have such major misunderstandings between different cultures, and especially between Muslim world and Western world. How to seek a mid level playing field for finding such common ground, for delivering options and alternative solutions in what increasingly seems to become a schism between the Western and Muslim world ?

As for its current appearances, the conflicts of the Middle East, and broader, of the Muslim world against the Western world have put both societies and communities on a collision course. Muslim and Christian-Jewish religions are being opposed to each other. Within each, the Muslim world and Western world, people are been polarized from within and each been rallied behind a common image of their enemy. In the words of Samuel Huntington it seems we are evolving into a “Clash of Civilizations”.

Maybe not so much these are different societies who then by definition have to clash. But we make them clash harder all together. With the current conflicts in Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, Somalia, a hard-headed Iran, the clashes in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and the commotions in Muslim communities in Western countries, the relations between the Muslim and Western world are disturbed to say the least, if not rather to say messy, a quagmire, a chaos. The Chinese would say “hen zao gao”, litt. “very messy cake” as if indeed, the different components of the dough are of bad quality, in wrong quantities and/or not well mixed, a bad recipe, or not well baked.

When in a deep mess, neither backtracking nor more of the same are usually the successful recipes. But to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict can help to come to long term solutions. Though these solutions are reachable often only through a painful process and usually not in the short term. To start it helps to take one or more steps back in terms of defining the conflict, identifying the root causes of the conflict, and analyze what drives the conflict process, what “fuels” the conflict. It is the fuel that keeps the conflict propelling forward. Once you know what fuels the process of clashing, you will probably have to redefine your goals and you will want to use other criteria and drivers for a constructive process.

For the conflict between the Muslim and Western world, to gather a deep understanding of the conflict, one will dig through fourteen centuries of history of the Muslim world; its victories and defeats; its political, economic, cultural and scientific achievements; through histories of  its factions, tribes and alliances that even predate Islam era; through its post-Ottoman and pre-independence periods with far reaching repercussions still today, such as Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), the Balfour declaration (1917), or the Durand Line (1893) to name a few; and finally dig through its by times tumultuous era of post-independent nations. That would lead us too far here.

As a conclusion of that history, it is probably fair to define 5 major components as the basic fundamentals for the conflict between the Muslim and Western world today,:

  1. 1.Social and economical struggle.

  2. 2.Nationalist resistance struggle.

  3. 3.Conflict between societies.

  4. 4.Conflict between religions: between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

  5. 5.Struggle for scarce resources: oil and related wealth, water, fertile land.

The countries in Middle East/North Africa (ME/NA) and other Muslim countries are faced with enormous challenges. They are coping with fragile economic development, high unemployment rates, very young populations and very high unemployment within young population.

ME/NA countries realized growth in real GDP between some 4 and 7% for 2006, with some exceptions (Lebanon: 10%). Unemployment amounted to 13% in ME/NA countries for the last decade, with up to 20% for Arab countries. In ME/NA countries on average 58% of the population is younger than 25 years. Moreover there is a high rate of youth unemployment, estimated at 25% in 2003. There are sprawling metropolitan agglomerations. The population in Cairo is estimated at 16 million; in Teheran at 7 million; in Baghdad at 7 million. Most often public services are dilapidated and rural areas are often still very populated but impoverished. In the wealthy, oil rich Muslim countries there are huge discrepancies between those who can tap into the wealth of their oil producing economies and those who can not. These are all ideal breeding grounds for disillusioned youth, seeking refuge in radicalism, be it political, social or religious radicalism, or a combination of all. So there are definitely components of social and economical struggle, and a struggle for scarce resources and wealth distribution in the conflict between the Muslim world and Western world.

Moreover the Middle East and Arab countries went through a tumultuous history throughout colonial and post-colonial times, were jockeyed into positions during Cold War maneuvers by the superpowers and cajoled into flipping sides. Both recent and century old history are still very sensible for many in Muslim societies. Thus there is also an element of nationalist and liberation struggle that further invigorates the spiral of aggression and conflict between Muslim world and Western world.

But there is more at work than the economic and social situation, than a nationalist and liberation struggle. Each people, community, or nation has the desire to organize its society according to its own principles. Middle East and Muslim society have their own culture, history, religion and social codes. Muslim community blames the West for encroaching onto their world, and they are in a very assertive state of mind to reclaim.

It is probably a broad but risqué statement to say that the Muslim world and Western world are in a different stage of evolution. With all respect for its civilization, its wide diversity, its rich history and its religiosity, it can be viewed that Muslim world is going through a very delicate evolution as a community, in the organization of its society, in the role of religion versus state, in man-woman relations, in the position of the individual and his relation to his community, in nationhood and its position vis-à-vis other nations, other religions and, yes, other civilizations.

Regarding the different stage in evolution in both societies, for instance many will argue there is a strict separation in the Western world between religion and state. Secular government is one of the major principles for Western governments. (Though even in the Western world that line can be thin). The Western world will claim that in Muslim countries there are much more interferences between government and religion. In a number of countries the Qur'an is the constitution of the country and government is conducted on the basis of Islamic law (Shari'a). Other countries even with large Muslim populations are more secular like Turkey, India, and Indonesia. If and how a process of secularization in government and society is to evolve further in the coming years is a huge challenge in the Muslim world. At the same time, in the Muslim world it will be argued that the morals in the Western world have degenerated because of secularization and that Muslim society wants to avoid Western decadence.

In the Western world it will be argued that the Muslim world is much more struggling with realities in today’s world, that Muslim world and society should adapt more to mainstream political, economical, social and other developments in the world today. In the Muslim world it will be argued that the Western world is dominating the world, imposing its policies and interfering in their societies and politics. How the many religious and sectarian factions, how reformists, moderates, conservatives and fundamentalists in the Muslim world will respond to global developments and pressures in the coming years, is a huge unknown. It is a huge question if a mainstream public opinion will evolve and how it will look like.

It is clear neither one can claim absolute rightness about how to organize society, nation and individual life. Nevertheless if and when and how Muslim society will go through a process of reconciliation to evolve further as a community, as a society, in nationhood as members of the international community and at the level of the individual, that is a process that the Western world should carefully watch and nurture, instead of squelching it by aggression. Equally so, for the Western world there may be time for reflection about its society, community, nationhood and its international, multicultural and multilateral relations.

Further, the conflict of religions is a major component of the conflict and at the same time driving the conflict, fueling the conflict further. Religion is one of the deep (and old) causes of divide and differences between societies. Religion has been the root cause for numerous conflicts. At the same time religion is a strong driving force for mobilizing individuals, groups, whole nations, communities and societies. Skillfully managed and exploited religion is the single conduit that can deeply polarize the Muslim and Western world and that propels the conflict further. Religion is like a billboard for the Muslim and for the Western world, drawing its audiences and viewers every time again into the conflict.

Against that basic, that structural setting of these components in the conflict between Muslim world and Western world, there are a number of other drivers in the conflict process, elements that fuel the conflict, that keep the conflict alive and inflame it further. Working on conflict resolution while at the same time acting along these drivers is hugely counterproductive:

  1. Polarization of the conflict: between the good guys and the bad guys.

  2. “Digging deeper in the trenches” of one’s own arguments and alienation form the other’s position.

  3. Mediatization and hyping.

  4. Marginal and/or radical positions being proclaimed as main stream.

  5. Prejudices and ignorance.

  6. Lack of common ground.

  7. Stigmatization and alienation of the moderate factions.

Polarization and alienation risk rather to be feeding grounds for more aggression and for more fueling of the conflict process. The focus is on differences between the two groups and the damage inflicted onto each other. People tend to entrench deeper into their own positions for defense. Media and propaganda at both sides are inciting aggression and provoking alienation from the other. And that process works at both sides. The boot stumping party is the aggressor and the subdued are at the receiving end. Warring factions and volunteers for suicide bombing missions are the aggressors and their victims are the respective clans, local populations, local and foreign troops and foreign audiences. All parties are pulled further into this spiral of aggression and violence. With that we have gotten into a typical two-sided conflict driven by polarization and alienation at both sides.

The vast majority in the Muslim and Western world will agree that Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism are a serious problem and that it has spread in its current form in the last 10-15 years. Now religious terrorism in the “Name of Islam”, in the “Name of Jihad” is the villain. It is clear there is polarization, alienation and radicalization in the Muslim world against the Western world. Having said that, any religious fundamentalism and puritanism, combined with non-tolerance poses serious problems for societies, be it in Christianity, in Islam, in Judaism, in Hinduism, or in non religiosity. Any radicalism is an ideal breeding ground for prejudices and easily results in ignorance or bias about the other party. The increasing lack of  common knowledge, of openness for any commonalities at all, further prevents finding any common ground. It reduces the chances only further to find and start building upon sparks of goodwill for reconciliation and conflict resolution.

In the Western world, and specifically through the current US government policies of military and political intervention, there is also a polarizing and alienating approach towards the Muslim world. This alienation is further provoked by the prejudices and generalizations being groomed and fed in the Western media. In view of the delicate evolutions within the Muslim world this approach is at the benefit of extremist factions in Muslim society. It increases the appeal for radicalization in the Muslim world. At the same time, extremist factions in Muslim society have like hijacked the majority of the population, assaulting the public stage and voice of the Muslim world, causing serious doubts about what the mainstream in Muslim society really is today.  As a result the entire Muslim world has become targeted by and risks further alienating the Western world. The Western world will continue to take distance from a Muslim world that it perceives as aggressive in its entirety.

It leaves the moderate factions in Muslim societies with even lesser options and at higher risk of being hailed as collaborators by the extremist factions. Polarization and alienation are reducing windows of opportunity for evolutions in Muslim society and closing possible communication channels with the US and the Western world. Such windows of opportunities exist by moderate factions, communities and groups within Muslim society that raise their voice, formulate healthy critics and offer the chance to build a mid level playing field. Two nice examples for such windows of opportunities showed up very recently within moderate factions of Muslim society.

In the NYT 02/26/07, Karen W. Arenson reported on bitter campus debates between Muslim students in the US about the Middle East. It is interesting and at the same time disturbing to note that the focus is again about polarization instead of discussion about common grounds, leading to solutions. Should we not look at universities, colleges and research institutes as one of the nurturing grounds for creative, innovative research for new models, solutions and initiatives in society and international, multicultural relations ?  But instead there is polarization and alienation, that only risk to further influence and incite student communities of different religions and nationalities. In the US, as elsewhere, on campuses opportunities are missed to build platforms for reconciliation.

Another interesting debate was mentioned in the NYT 02/27/07, about “Iranian Scholars Denounce Conference that Denied Holocaust”, in which Iranian emigrated academics rejected the initiative of Iran’s President who had organized this conference “calling it a move that endangered peace and hurt the reputation of Iranian academics”. Besides these academics also reformist politicians in Teheran formulated harsh critics referring to the consequences of holding such an event. These reformist politicians accused the Iranian President of conducting a reckless foreign policy, that have increased tensions with the West and led to a UN resolution against Iran. Influential politicians in Iran dare to ask “How by questioning the Holocaust has harmed us and what price we had to pay for this”. Again with a more conciliatory approach those factions should have chances to gain more strength. US and by extension Western world policies should be directed much more in finding and nurturing those factions. The US media and public, and by extension the Western world could be much more open and lenient towards these factions.

That process of reconciliation may also connect with times long passed by. For the sake of giving a glimpse to a Western observer and for the sake of respectful modesty at the same time, the article by Carla Power (NYT Magazine of 02/25/07) titled “A secret history, In the middle ages many Islamic scholars were women. Will their rediscovery have an effect on Muslim women today ?”. Apparently this occurred between the 7th and 15th century. Amongst others there was “a 10th century Baghdad-born jurist who traveled through Syria and Egypt, teaching other women”; and “one 7th century Medina woman who reached the academic rank of jurist, issued key fatwas on hajj rituals and commerce”. How about a woman jurist in that same era in the Western world ? Respectful consideration by the Western world where Muslim world has come from and careful nurturing for its delicate evolution should bring windows of opportunities for reconciliation in Muslim world.

How then to seek a mid level playing field for delivering options and alternatives looking for solutions in what increasingly seems to become a schism between the Western and Muslim world ? From that conflict deepened, and still deepening, by polarization and alienation, how can the Western world reconcile with Muslim society, that is highjacked by fundamentalist religious factions and sectarian violence, that has huge economic and social challenges and is still battling with historical nationalist and liberation struggle. How can the West seek a mid level playing field and nurture this delicate process of reconciliation and evolution in Muslim society, instead of fueling the conflict and violence ?

In that clash of civilizations instead of clashing only harder, the Western world should look for extending and broadening its outreaches to the Muslim world. The Western world should look for more opportunities of communications and exchange, and create openings to find common grounds. The Muslim world is faced with enormous challenges and the Western world should do better than letting itself being dragged into a religious conflict and could do better than fueling the process of conflict.

The Western world, or any party involved, should take back a step, get into conflict resolution mode and start defusing the mechanisms that drive the conflict :

  1. 1.Avoid religion at the forefront: Religion is the prime polarizing force in the conflict. The differences between the religions are a reality. As the case now stands, as religion is now being used, it rather maintains the divide instead of offering the guidance for religious, ethical and social conduct to reconcile, (rather contradictory indeed to the inherent messages in these religions). The Western world could do much better in undoing the conflict from its religious content and implications, which is not admitting to denounce religion.

  2. 2.Reestablish on the basis of universal values: Universal values should prevail over religious values. Secular morality can and should provide humanity with the necessary ethos for conflict resolution and the necessary actions thereto. The highest moral standards should be kept up. It will allow to create a much larger platform for seeking consent and conflict resolution, then when based on religious values. It will also allow to establish and keep the moral high ground. Failure in doing so became painstakingly clear with the failures at Abu Graib prison and Guantanamo detention center.  As a result, there was a broad fall out in the public opinion in the Muslim world for the support of any of the causes of the US and the Western world.

  3. 3.Redefine goals: Although religion is the mobilizing force in the conflict, it should be doubted that it is the main root cause for the conflict. The enormous challenges of social and economical struggle, of struggle for scarce resources and wealth distribution, of nationalist resistance struggle, and many developments in Muslim society are drawing the lines for the extent and depth of the conflict both for Western and Muslim society. There must be ways to redefine goals and redraw the lines in order to face and address those challenges. This will allow to mitigate and redirect the conflicts, its mechanisms and its actors, and hopefully to evolve into conflict resolution both substantial and for the long term.

  4. 4.Act upon drivers of conflict mitigation and resolution, instead of acting upon drivers that fuel the conflict:

  5. Avoid polarization of the conflict, avoid radicalization, avoid inflaming the conflict

  6. Avoid issues of religion.

  7. Promote and intensify communication and exchange.

  8. Use positive communications focused on mitigation, conflict resolution, mutual respect.

  9. Reinforce the widest variety of moderate factions and communities within Muslim society.

  10. Support rebuilding a strong, forceful and moderate mainstream in Muslim society.

  11. Look for common grounds, look for mutual benefits, instead of focusing on the differences.

With a deeper understanding of the conflict between Muslim and Western world, and of the conflict mechanisms at work, people willing to involve are in the position to look for reconciliation and conflict resolution. Looking for a mid level playing field for finding common ground, one would like to identify with another symbol of a successful platform for multicultural exchange, for crossing international boundaries, for bridging cultures. A symbol with a strong bonding in both Muslim and Western world, with a long history and a strong message of mutual benefit, could appeal to the imagination. The caravanserai is such a metaphorical place, that we can still use, and probably more than ever, need today.

The caravanserais are solemn relics of ancient hubs where communication and trade converged for centuries, bridging large distances and boundaries. In the caravanserais different cultures and religions crossed and were accommodated, offering mutual benefits for all parties. Caravanserais are also by enlarge civil, secular structures. Its main purposes are neither religious, nor military. They are not a display of political power or any other type of nationalistic purpose. By times they benefited from economic and political power balances, or were at the mercy of those same power balances. The caravanserais were such platforms that served the purposes of facilitating, accommodating and protecting an international, multicultural exchange of goods, people, services and information. And they thrived and survived for many centuries on this.

If throughout many centuries there are examples of international communication, exchange and co-habitation, we should try and create now again, as much as possible, open channels of communication. We should create chances for a constructive process and explore and expand on common grounds. Maybe working with more metaphors such as the caravanserai, can help to cross barriers and to create common grounds in conflict ridden areas like in the Middle East. Instead of sliding further into aggression, chaos and destruction, working and identifying with successful models and metaphors can inspire, incite and reinforce for the Muslim and the Western world to rebuild, develop and evolve.

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