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By Micah Halpern

Tuesday August 7, 2006


In the West, especially in the United States, we do not pay enough attention to symbols and to the cultural importance of symbols. We pay attention to status symbols, but we totally ignore cultural symbols.

We live in the world of the bottom line. We have little time and even less patience for nuance. The value of terms and the symbolic value of actions are almost totally lost on our culture. Maybe symbolism is a lost art. Maybe it is a study relegated to university seminars. Maybe, just maybe, it is a major oversight on our parts, a major gap in our knowledge bank, another example of the way in which we think of ourselves - as the most powerful and important people in the world.

Not so in the Middle East.

In Arabic a metaphor is more than a collection of words. It can be a prophecy or a blessing. It can be a curse. In Arab cultures a symbol speaks volumes, only wordlessly. Symbols are ideas, they dictate behaviors, they tell stories. They are lore. They carry religious resonance.

I am a student of history. Imagine my shock when I learned the name of the new and improved Iranian missile that Hezbollah is shooting at Israel, a missile that goes further and causes more damage than any missile that has come before it, a super missile. The Khaibar.

Why has the Hezbollah chosen to name a missile Khaibar? Because Khaibar is not merely a name, Khaibar delivers a message. When the Arab and Muslim worlds hear the word Khaibar a story of mythical proportions is conjured up before them. Israel is familiar with the story.

Khaibar was the name of an ancient town. As the story unfolds in the Koran, it was a town predominantly inhabited by Jews. Mohammed the prophet targeted Jews. He tried to convert them in order to show off the success of his new theophany, his new revelation - that there is but one God and he, Mohammed, is his prophet.

Mohammed gave the Jews of Khaibar the option to leave the town taking with them all their belongings. The Jews declined to leave. Mohammed gave the Jews of Khaibar the option to just leave. Again, the Jews declined. Mohammed massacred the Jews of Khaibar. All of them. The story of Khaibar is the story of Sodom and Gemmorah, only Mohammed style.

The name Khaibar resonates with hatred and the mass murder of Jews.

Every Arab and every Muslim who has read the Koran realizes the true meaning behind this choice of name. Naming a missile Khaibar is a metaphor for the struggle between the Arab world and Israel. It is a metaphor suggesting the ultimate end to this struggle. The Arab world is telling us, the West, that this battle is not about Southern Lebanon, it is about the very destruction of Israel.

We must not miss the symbolic value of this message. The dream of seeing Israel destroyed resonates up and down the streets and alleys and hallways of the Arab and Muslim worlds today.

When does the Arab world band together? Never to offer praise and rejoice because of the good that has happened to them, only to rejoice because bad has happened to someone else. The Arab world gathers together in hatred. They gather because of the United States and because of Israel. The Muslim world is galvanized because of the story line in a movie, the lyrics of a song, because of caricatures in a newspaper. They are moved to action because of perceived insult and evil, principally insults and evils interpreted to be hurled at them by the West.

It is this destructive side of a once great tradition that will be the cause and the downfall of the Muslim world. Rather than rejoicing at the wondrous advances of the modern world, rather than incorporating the scientific and technical wonders available to us today, the Muslim world opts to deprive itself by shutting out all glimpses of modernity. That is not true ancient Muslim tradition. During the Golden Age when Islam was a significant world cultural force Muslims lent and even borrowed ideas in order to enhance their own society.

Today the majority of the Arab world suffers from abject poverty and illiteracy. The energy spent on propagandizing about how evil the West is, how devilish the United States is and how dangerous Israel is would be well spent instead teaching children how to read and write giving the future of the Arab world the chance to one day become scientists and researchers and economists. Today, the greatest brain-drain in the world is out of the Arab world.

Historically, the desire to destroy has been a simple tool used in order to galvanize a society against a common enemy. But history marches on. Societies can make transitions, they can be resuscitated, societies and even religions can make the move forward. Russia did it and while the Russians are still puzzling out their future, it is clear that the new Russia will not be a society of destruction.

Signs and symbols pointing to a future for the Muslim and Arab worlds are negative. I, for one, am not hopeful.

4 June 2017 12:14 PM in Columns

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