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Muslim insurgency akin to Boxer Rebellion

By Larry Nathenson, Guest columnist

L.A. Daily News

L.A. Daily News – Their Opinion

The capital city was in turmoil. Once the center of a powerful empire, thousands of its citizens were abandoning traditional culture and values and adopting the ways of the West. Western products flooded the market, disrupting age-old patterns of business and family life. Women and young people no longer seemed to know their places. The centuries-old monarchy that still governed the country appeared powerless to prevent its decline.

Groups of young men, eager to sacrifice themselves and to reinvigorate their society, joined a militant organization that sought to arrest the country’s downward spiral. They attacked both Westerners and their fellow citizens whom they perceived to be complicitous in the spreading decadence. Ultimately they took hostage a group of Western diplomats and other officials, and successfully repelled the first Western forces sent in to lift the siege.

The stage was set for a clash of civilizations that would last for decades to come.

Teheran in 1979?

Riyadh in the near future?

No, the capital was Beijing , and the year was 1900.

The militants were not Iranian students or Saudi fundamentalists, but Chinese peasants, known as “Boxers,” who for two months held the Western diplomatic and commercial quarter under siege. Though lacking the religious orthodoxy of today’s Muslim fundamentalists, the Boxers shared their hatred of foreigners and their fanatic zeal to drive them from the country and restore its traditional way of life.

Although they did not have the capacity to carry their battle to Europe or America as al-Qaida does today, the Boxers nevertheless managed to terrify the West and to raise fears of the “yellow peril” rising up and exacting revenge. The story of their uprising and its aftermath contains lessons for America ‘s interactions with the Islamic world today.

According to Diana Preston’s “The Boxer Rebellion,” on June 20, 1900, the Boxers took captive nearly 900 men, women and children from the United States , Japan and 16 European nations. The initially plentiful supplies of food were nearly exhausted by the end of the siege. The hostages slaughtered most of their own horses for food. Medical supplies were scarce. Several thousand Chinese Christian converts crowded into a nearby palace with meager rations and no medical assistance, afraid the Boxers would shoot them if they attempted escape.

As the siege wore on, the Boxers took control of adjacent buildings and forced the hostages into an increasingly smaller area. Though the Boxers claimed to be fighting for the Chinese emperor, the imperial court was unable to control the city and fled into the countryside.

Two months later, on Aug. 14, a multinational force of nearly 20,000 men from the United States , Britain , France , Russia and Japan finally liberated the hostages. The Boxers had killed 66 foreigners and wounded 150. The number of Chinese deaths is unknown but was probably in the hundreds.

On the other side of the city, the situation in the Peitang Cathedral was even worse. Over 400 people, including 166 children, died from starvation or disease before the cathedral was free.

The Boxer Rebellion ultimately failed, and the country soon lapsed into near anarchy, with warlords assuming charge of many of its provinces. With the communist takeover in 1949, China expelled most foreigners and began three decades of self-imposed isolation and social upheaval. Only in the post-Mao era, after the horrors of the Cultural Revolution had exhausted China’s desire to purge foreign influences, did the country begin to join the modern world at its own pace and on its own terms.

The traditional cultures of China and the Middle East are different, but the impact of Western ideas and money in the two regions has followed similar patterns. In Iran , the ayatollahs took power by harnessing Iranians’ desire to defend their Islamic tradition against the Western influences the shah had allowed to infiltrate the country. After the 1979-81 siege of the U.S. embassy in Teheran, the country went into a self-imposed isolation from which it has not yet fully emerged.

While the U.S. government trumpets the recent overthrow of Saddam Hussein as liberation, the continuing insurgency in Iraq demonstrates that some see it as yet another attempt to inject Western ideas and values into the heart of the Islamic world. The Iraqi insurgents already have taken hostages from a number of countries supporting the U.S. invasion and occupation, and they continue to bomb police stations, restaurants and U.S. troops on the roads. If the insurgents were to seize a U.S. military or diplomatic facility, yet another rescue of hostages like those in Beijing and Teheran might be necessary.

Even in Saudi Arabia , where the conservative Wahhabi sect dominates, al-Qaida and other militant groups condemn the government for allowing U.S. military bases in the Islamic heartland. Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were recruited from disaffected Saudi youths who object to the corrosive influence of Western military and commercial power. If the bases remain, the U.S. may someday have to rescue hostages on Saudi territory.

Contrary to contemporary rhetoric, the American problem with Arab militants today is not their hatred of our way of life and desire to destroy it, as the Soviets may have felt during the Cold War. Rather, Arab militants perceive the U.S. as trying to destroy their way of life. The U.S. is caught in a battle for the soul of Islam between those who want to embrace the modern world within an Islamic context and those who reject modernity as foreign to Islam. The latter portray themselves as the defenders of traditional Islam even while their version of it is harsher and more insular than it was in the Middle Ages, when the Arabs were at the height of their power.

Like the Boxers a century ago, today’s Arab militants perceive that they are at the mercy of the West and have no control over their own destiny. They are as terrified of us as we are of them.