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From Marib to Al-Qaeda

The Dynamics of Islam

I. Marib

AD 570 was the Year of the Elephant.

An Ethiopian army marched from Yemen — also known as Saba (Sheba) — through the mountains of Asir up north to conquer Mecca with the help of an elephant, an animal never before seen in Arabia. The Christians intended to destroy the Kaaba, in those days a pagan sanctuary. The campaign failed but another event took place in Mecca at the same time: Muhammad bin Abdullah of the local Hashem clan was born, the future prophet.

Shortly afterwards, in 572, the greatest ecological disaster happened that the Arab peninsula ever experienced: Sadd Marib broke for the last and final time, the Great Dam of Marib in Yemen, often called the eighth wonder of the ancient world. For over 1,300 years the huge dam had irrigated central Yemen and permitted in its floodplain a perennially sustainable high yielding agriculture which, after the waters receded, turned into a dustbowl.

Countless thousands of farmers became homeless. “Scattered like the people of Saba” is an Arab proverb describing the plight of those evicted from a land turned inhospitable almost overnight. After the disaster, a large Yemeni Christian tribe, the Banu Ghassan, migrated to the North, toward Mecca. Some remained there, others continued their migration toward Medina and Damascus.

A group of influential Yemenis appealed to the Sassanid king of Persia to come and rescue them from the Ethiopian rule. The Shahanshah sent a fleet to Aden which helped the Yemenis to rout the Axumites (Ethiopians). Yemen, in 597, nominally became a Persian satrapy. But most of southwestern Arabia continued to be racked by anarchy and more people left the overpopulated central Yemen for the lush mountains of Asir, Mecca and Medina.

Around 595 Muhammad had married a rich lady, became prosperous and influential. He gathered first followers for his idea of reviving monotheism, fighting the pagans, and cleansing the Kaaba. The people of Mecca called his followers the Sabaeans which means the Yemenis. Later, Muhammad received his inspirations which caused him to write the holy Q'uran. He was forced to move to Medina where he gathered more followers and completed the Q'uran. His army attacked hostile Mecca and, after a setback, succeeded in taking it.

In his time Muhammad was not the only prophet in Arabia. There were others but none was as successful as his son and later successor, Abu Bakr, in gathering the largest army Arabia had ever seen. The ecological refugees from Yemen formed the core of his army, and Yemen was the first Arab region to adopt Islam as its new religion. The relatively educated and technologically superior Yemenis prevailed over Arabia's bedouin tribes, proselytized them and collected tribute.

Meeting with little organized resistance, Muhammad's followers became accustomed to making war their main business. Muhammad spiritually upgraded this bellic activity to jihad or holy war and made fighting the "infidels" a religious obligation. Muslim armies subsequently occupied most of Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and challenged the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. In a stunningly short time the Arabs established their own commonwealth of Islamic nations reaching from Andalusia to Central Asia and India.

Without the influx from Yemen this would not have been possible. Western Arabia was, for ecological reasons, always a thinly populated region that could not have provided the armies needed to conquer most of the known world. Islam owes its success to the breach of Sadd Marib which put thousands of young ecological refugees at the disposal of Muhammad and his successors. A modern and attractive religion, a few talented military leaders, and good luck helped to make the Arabs pretty much the lords of the world. II. Al-Qaeda

In 2006, Islam is again stirring. For several years, young Muslims — mostly Arabs — have perpetrated atrocious crimes ranging from flying passenger aircraft into skyscrapers to exploding themselves in populous places to burning schools, bombing trains, and destroying embassies. They succeeded in creating a public perception in the outside world that a young Arab man is someone to look at with suspicion if not apprehension.

Again it is demography which is behind the new dynamics of Islam. The Muslim countries are notorious for showing some of the world's fastest population growth rates. Yemen has the world's highest fertility rate at 7,6 percent, and a population growth rate of 3.7 percent. In the Gulf countries, population grew at an annual rate of 6.2 percent between 1975 and 1985, and of 4.5 percent between 1985 and 1995. The world leader in population growth in the century between 1950 and 2050 is likely to be the United Arab Emirates with an annual rate of 4 percent. Syria's growth rate for 2000 was calculated at 3.5 percent, corresponding to a doubling of population in 21 years.

Islam is now with 20 percent of global population the world's second most important religion after Christianity. With 2.9 percent a year, Islam is growing faster than the world population with 2.3 percent. By 2025, Islam will be the largest religious community and comprise 30 percent of humanity. The reasons for this rapid growth are partly socio-economic, partly sexual. Muslims are less promiscuous than other populations and therefore less likely to get infected with AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases which reduce fertility and increase mortality.

As a result of past rapid population growth, some 160 million young people will flood the labor markets in the Arab countries and Iran between 2000 and 2020. Stagnant societies, dictatorial regimes, and limping economies combine to make young men desperate and angry.

Yet, half of all Arabs remain illiterate. The Arab world is the big loser in terms of scientific and technical development, ranging behind sub-Saharan Africa in scientific publications and prizes.

Arab income growth during the past two decades was, with 0.5 percent, the world's second lowest after sub-Saharan Africa. Total Arab exports without oil match those of Portugal.

Fifteen percent of the Arab labor force or 12 million are currently jobless, and the rate is expected to double by 2010.

Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank Vice President and currently head of the Library of Alexandria, said that decades of socialism, oil-based subsidization and industrial protectionism had created a "culture of dependency" in the Arab world.

Small wonder that fully half of all young Arabs are contemplating migration to a Western developed country. Observers therefore expect the clash of cultures — the "war" that some predict soon to happen between Islam and the West — mainly to take place in Europe.

Self-appointed "reformers" and "renewers" of Islam — technologically sophisticated and internet-savvy — can again build up armies of followers ready to swamp the world with violence. All they need to do is direct the demographic pressure into a funnel at the end of which a valve spreads violence in the directions chosen by the "reformers," the mahdis.

They are careful not to call themselves prophets, because according to Islam Muhammad was the last of the prophets. But like him they dream of conquering the world and eradicating or converting all "infidels". Due to its early military successes — and probably against Muhammad's original ideas — Islam had become a profoundly militant religion no matter how the Q'uran is interpreted. In a way, Islam became a victim of its own initial success.

The breach of the Great Dam of Marib sent tremors through the world. Some are still felt today.

Factoid: Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers of September 11th were Saudis, and twelve of them hailed from the mountain region between Medina and the Yemen border.

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—— Ihsan al-Tawil