Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I think its safe to say that most North Americans without family ties to the Middle East, really don't understand its politics and history beyond "after World War Two, the Western world felt bad about the Holocaust and created Israel for Jewish people and ever since then, Muslims have been mad".

I have been actively taking in the news on a regular basis for some time now and I *still* don't feel that I really have a strong grasp on what's going on and why. I know the words Shite, Sunni, Arab, Palestinian, Zionist but they are empty words to me. I don't *know* these generalizations like others I know, like American, Canadian, Quebecois, Texan, or Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Baptist. I know next to nothing about Syria and I haven't gotten around to figuring out how the the British colony of Palestine ever came about. I can't tell the propaganda from the facts.

So why is it, while Middle East politics have dominated our news coverage for as long as I can remember, that even the most basic history of the region is not taught in high school? When more and more people get their news from The Daily Show, why haven't news organizations responded by making a more concerted effort to educate their viewers and provide some context to their reporting?

The most obvious answer to the question is that the matter is *too* political to be taught in school or "explained" on television. And yet, by the amount of news coverage given to the region, you can't help but think basic understanding of the issues related to the Middle East would be necessary to be a citizen in full in this day and age. If Americans are killing and dying in Iraq (and if Canadians are killing and dying in Afganistan) shouldn't we give more than just passing attention? And if we can now satririze race and religious on (cable) television (so much so that the satire of racism on South Park, The Chapelle Show, and the Family Guy is just a knife's edge away from appearing straight-up racist) why can't we simply talk about these issues?

Another answer that comes to mind is that the matter is too complicated for young minds. At the university where I am employed, "The Politics of the Middle East" course is for third year students who have taken a first year prerequisite course in World History. But its because this issue is so complicated, is why I think the issue should be tackled early and repeated in school.

By the way, I should state that I have no religious affiliation and I belong to the plague o both your houses camp when it comes to Middle East politics. If you have a recommendation where I should start my self-education - perhaps a book, article or website, I would love to hear it. Otherwise, I'm going to read Middle East for Dummies.


Anonymous said...

I went through my own phase of trying to understand the Middle East. One particular book I enjoyed was "One Palestine, Complete," which is controversial among Israelis for reasons I don't understand. I would also suggest reading books that are about particular events or people, and not about "The Middle East." This is a good way to avoid indoctrination. Janet Wallach's "The Desert Queen," about the role Gertrude Bell played in creating Iraq, is good in this way. Finally, I would add that there is no way to have an unbiased view of the Middle East unless you read everything of Edward Said to Daniel Pipes. The problem is is that, similar to the dispute over Kashmir, the parties can't even agree on historical facts. Who invaded what country first? Who lived on what piece of property? Was there a massacre on some date, or not? Your predisposition will lead you to adopt a certain set of facts, which will inevitably lead you to supporting the side you were predisposed to supporting anyway. My feeling is that, at this stage, history is irrelevant.


Mita said...

I agree that it is impossible to unbiased about the situation and I think that your point of one's predisposition will lead you to your own set of facts was well put.

I'm not looking into history to see who's fault it is because beyond mattering at this point. (Daniel Gilbert in the NTY tells us that, again, one's predisposition weighs heavily when we determine who hit first)

I think what I'm looking for is this:

1) The story is that Muslims came from the descendents of Ishmael and the Jew s from the descendents of Issac. Similarly, the split between Shiites and Sunnis also fall between lines of succession from Mohammed. Did these religious splits really happen or did these stories emerge afterward to explain why the splits occurred?

2) Three religions call the Middle East, the Holy Land. But Christianity doesn't seem dependent on having a physical link to the land for it to thrive. Some religions / ethnic groups are dependent on a region for meaning (for example, the people of the First Nations). How important is it to be linked to a particular land? Can a culture survive without a common ground?

3) Endgame. How can the mess in the Middle East be "fixed". What needs to be given up and lost by each side in order for a peace to occur?. Or, is peace simply impossible?

I liked your reading suggestions. Don't think I'm up to tackling them now, but will let you know when I am able to.

Art said...

I read as much as I could on the Middle East for a trip to Beirut, Byblo, and the Bekaa Valley in March for the Lebanese Library Association and eIFL. The resentment of the West in the Arab world goes back much further than 1948, and I think a somewhat modern starting point would be the First World War when the Arabs were promised an independent state in return for revolting against their Ottoman Turkish overlords. What they got was a secret agreement from the British and French to divide the territory between themselves (which is why T. E. Lawrence was filled with guilt at the end of his life). This created Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. The British Gov't pledged to create a Jewish homeland in 1917 and the French separated Lebanon from Syria in 1920. The western powers generally prefered to push Jewish immigration to Palestine rather than accept refugees, and militias and terrorist groups, such as the Stern Gang and Irgun, used the same techniques as would be adopted by Hezbollah to drive London to hand the issue over to the newly formed United Nations after WW II. Still, the recent Palestinian Prisoners' Document implicitly recognized Israel, one has to wonder if that prospect so terrified factions on both sides of the conflict that the original kidnapping by hamas, and then the copy cat action by Hezbollah was an opportunity for both sides to drive a stake in the heart of the momentum coming out of the prisoners' initiative.

The Lebanese gov't is not strong enough to take on hezbollah, and hezbollah supplies social services that otherwise do not exist for many of Lebanon's citizens. I have never met people that were more war weary yet had more hard won optimism than when I was in Lebanon, but recent events will undermine the progress that has been made. The sad thing for me is that the west takes little responsibility for a situation it helped create, and Israel is also a huge victim of being put into a circumstance that gives it little maneuvering room.

I found Karen Armstrong's book on Islam really useful when I was getting ready to go to the Middle East. All religions have a context, and Armstrong puts a lot in perspective. As a librarian, I was really struck by her insight that virulently anti-semitic texts such as the _Protocols of the Elders of Zion_ were imported from Europe because the Arabs had no such traditions of their own. It is unfortunate that passages from the Quran that were directed towards three particular rebellious Jewish tribes in an incredibly violent era have been used to justify actions that should horrify anyone that claims to be on higher moral ground.

For what's it worth, these are the facts that struck me (most of these come from Gwynne Dyer's research, any of his writings, but especially _Future Tense_, are good starting points for understanding the Middle East - I just wish more of his books had indexes!):

Most Arab lands are completely eroded and worn out by thousands of years of irrigation agriculture and free-range groups, barely able to support the 300+ million people who live there, and half of whom are under 21 (the region's population has doubled since the 1970s)

It is estimated that half of Arab women are illiterate

Despite the oil, 22 Arab states have a combined GDP smaller than Spain's

Despite being the oldest civilized region in the world, Arab states come in second to only sub-Saharan Africia for literacy, political freedom, and economic growth

Most tellingly, the whole Arab world translates approximately 300 books annually from foreign languages, this number is, at the least, in the thousands for most countries

Mita said...

Hey Art,

Thanks for your insights. I'm intrigued by your recommendation of Future:Tense especially as his statistical snapshot of the Arab worlds reminds me of a particular chapter in The World is Flat that describes what Friedman calls Islamo-Lennist thinking.

I haven't read Karen Armstrong's book on Islam but I did read her work on the Buddha and I was really impressed.

I think learning about the Middle East is a good first step for the West to take towards taking some responsibility.