Despite Saddam Hussein's efforts to separate Iraq and other Arab countries from the West, the two cultures share many important roots and values, according to a Brigham Young University professor of Arabic.
"The origins of modern mathematics, chemistry, medicine, astronomy and the arts were all heavily influenced by Arab tradition," said Daniel Peterson, who specialized in Islamic philosophy and theology while completing a doctoral program at UCLA."Our words alone give some sense of how heavily we borrowed from the Arabs, particularly in the sciences," he said. Arabic tradition lent us such terms as algebra, algorithm, cipher, elixir, almanac, alchemy, alcohol, magazine, caliber, tariff, assassin and ghoul, he notes.
"During the Middle Ages, the Arabs were clearly the dominant society of the world in all fields and were very sophisticated," said Peterson.
Indeed, it would surprise most Americans to learn of the depth of their links with Arab culture and civilization, he said. "Moslems venerate the same people we do. Moses, David and Abraham all played important roles in Islamic religion," he explains.
Although Saddam has repeatedly appealed to Islam throughout the crisis to justify his invasion of Kuwait, Peterson believes it is political ambition, not religious fervor, that is fueling the Middle East crisis.
"Saddam doesn't really have much to do with the real values of the Middle East. For example, holding hostages is a . . . violation of both Islamic law and Arab custom," said Peterson, who spent four and a half years living in and studying the Middle East.
"What may be playing in Saddam's mind is the memory of the ancient greatness of the Assyrian Empire, which originally included Iraq as well as Kuwait, Israel and Syria - all the nations he's now threatening," he said.
Such a grandiose vision is similar to Mussolini's dream of restoring the Roman Empire or Hitler's effort to create the Third Reich in the 1930s, said Peterson.
Linking Saddam's rise to power exclusively to Islamic fundamentalism is only one of several misconceptions Westerners hold about the modern Middle East, Peterson said.
Christian tradition over the past 500 years has largely discounted Arabic contributions. "But in the Middle Ages, it was clear which civilization was more advanced, and it was largely a one-way flow of knowledge from the Middle East to the West," Peterson said.
But, after enjoying several centuries of world domination, the Arabic empire began to falter in the 16th and 17th centuries and gradually fell under Western domination. Such a drastic fall from prominence by a civilization that considered itself the final dispensation of truth has created a crisis that many Western analysts have either ignored or underestimated, Peterson said.
"That's what makes Israel so offensive to the Arabs. Israel was Moslem territory for more than a thousand years, and to lose it to another religion is a serious setback for them religiously," he explained.
"As a result, many Arabs have had to ask themselves, `Why is Islam not working now?"' said Peterson. "And the answer for many of them is, `We haven't been living Islam properly."'
Such a belief likely prompted the rise in Islamic fundamentalism that has so baffled Westerners, Peterson maintained. "We still do not understand the full force of Islamic religious feeling."