Edition 21 Volume 2 - June 03, 2024

Outside looking in: why the Middle East is hard to understand

Predictable responses - by  Sajjad Ashraf

Historic grievances in an area with overwhelming Islamic contours are expressed through religion.

Shock and awe - by  Peter Bartu

If there is a convergence in the Israeli and Palestinian camps it lies in that secret sect of Ford transit drivers that ply both roads.

Strangers under the same sun - by  Francisco Burgos

As Latin America becomes every moment more “gringo”, its view of the Middle East adopts a “gringo” point of view.

The price of ignorance - by  Mark Perry

He described the everyday life of Palestinians. "You mean they can't go to the theatre?" the American asked.

Predictable responses
by Sajjad Ashraf

In considering "the biggest blunder of US foreign policy," a question increasingly asked in the United States and the western world is how American calculations could prove so wrong when the US decided to attack Iraq.

Human beings generally act quite predictably. Societal behavior is a collection of individual behaviors. These responses and reactions based on laws of nature extend even into the animal world. In societies, there are always certain sections of people who compete for political and social space, just as in the world there are countries or groups of countries competing for political, economic, military and ideological space.

The West gained ascendancy over the rest of the world after the industrial revolution. The western powers jostled for control of the Middle East during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in order to be in command of trade routes to India and the Far East. The past century’s oil discoveries made the Middle East even more attractive to the West. Now, with increasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, the Anglo-Saxon powers have apparently embarked on a mission to mold the Middle East according to their own thinking, without attempting to understand the circumstances and societal underpinnings of the region. In the process, old problems have reemerged with more complex dimensions. The result is an adversarial relationship between the man in the street in the Middle East and in America. The average resident of the Middle East rejects pontification by the West, and refuses to acquiesce to western attempts to shape societies differently.

The US in particular is known for supporting regimes in countries where individual freedoms, according to American standards, have been non-existent. Since much of the support for Arab nationalism came from the former Soviet Union, the West led by the US naturally lost touch with the common Middle Easterner. The US is in fact perceived as the country blocking reforms in pursuit of its own interests. Any US-led attempt to reform or change Middle Eastern society from the outside will definitely draw a skeptical reaction.

Three key grievances drive the Middle East. First, there is the history of western imperialism in the region, which denied the Middle East independence and freedom for well over half a century. The fact that almost the entire region is Islamic and Arab means that grievances tend to have strong Islamic and Arab underpinnings. The second is the creation on Palestinian lands of the Jewish state of Israel, which then perpetrated its own plan of ethnic cleansing. The third complaint is the exploitation of oil by giant western companies with the connivance of local rulers, who tread on the rights of their own people in return for remaining in power.

When the Anglo-French arrangement to split up the Arab Ottoman provinces in the Middle East under the Sykes-Picot Pact was made public on April 24, 1920, the Arabs rose in revolt in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. The uprising in Iraq lasted from July to October; 10,000 casualties were reported, of which 2,000 were British. Blaming the trouble on "outsiders", Sir Arnold Wilson, the British civil commissioner in Iraq, told the British cabinet that there was no real desire in Mesopotamia for an Arab government; the Arabs would appreciate British rule. Against this backdrop, the reaction by Middle Easterners to what is happening in Iraq is understandable.

These historic grievances in an area with overwhelming Islamic contours are expressed through religion. Tens of thousands of Muslims view the reoccupation of Iraq as a return to the 1920s, when puppets were installed to control some of the most sacred Islamic cities and the oil fields.

As the youngest of the three main religions, Islam with its overwhelming presence in the Middle East is obviously more robust. The area has seen the best of Islamic glory. Mesopotamia, the land of present day Iraq, was the center of the great Abbasid Caliphate for centuries. No Islamic city in the Middle East has had as glorious a past as Baghdad. It is natural that Muslims react when Palestine and now Iraq are trampled with such insensitivity.

The creation of Israel has resulted in a tremendous social, demographic, and societal change in the areas of what was originally Palestine. Historically, Jews lived in these lands and in the neighboring territories happily amongst their Muslim and Christian brethren. They were Arab Jews. The social disturbance created by the mass influx of European Jews changed the demographic character of the place not only by the displacement of Palestinians but also by the political displacement of local Jews by western Jews.

Nearly 15 million people crossed borders at the time of the partition of the sub-continent that created Pakistan and India. Mass unnatural migrations leave their unsettling legacies that societies yearn to correct. Societies like to evolve at their own pace. Attempts to bring about change by force generate a reaction. Bruised societies become vengeful and wait for the opportunities that the turning wheel of history inevitably provides. It should have come as no surprise that the Middle East rejected the creation of Israel. Anyone with a sense of history and human nature will understand this.

In terms of normal human behavior, in view of the pride of the Arab nation in its values, culture and religion, and considering the historic trends of the last century, the Middle Eastern countries are acting predictably. It is the naiveté of the outside powers that causes them to think that the region is hard to understand.-Published 3/6/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Sajjad Ashraf is a senior Pakistani public figure. Views expressed in this article are his own and in no way represent those of his employers.

Shock and awe
by Peter Bartu

When United States President George W. Bush wanted to implement the Quartet roadmap in mid-2003 he--after first ending the fiction of the Quartet--dispatched a small US diplomatic team to Jerusalem to commence work with the Sharon government and the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his security chief Mohammed Dahlan. Led by Ambassador John Wolf, none of the US team (often referred to as "US Lite") had any prior experience in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a deliberate strategy that, in Wolf's words, was "designed to bring fresh thinking to old problems." Those living the issues on a day-to-day basis had mixed feelings that found common expression in two oft repeated phrases: "Do Wolf and his team get it? Can they get it?" And, with such an approach, "is the US (Bush) serious?"

The first question addressed the individual qualities of Wolf and his team, and in passing, of those who posited the query--a sense of proprietary chauvinism that attends any conflict. How could Wolf's small team of outsiders possibly master the complexities of the issues over such a short time? How could they know what we know about Palestinian security reform and performance, settlements and settlement outposts, security cooperation and movement restrictions, socio-economic and development issues, reform of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian prisoner releases, the security fence, etc? And how could the team tackle these issues head on, and in parallel, so as to reverse the regressive trajectories vis-a-vis the two-state solution?

To Wolf and his team's credit, they did "get it"--both their own limitations and the subtleties at hand. So, for that matter, did his predecessor, General Anthony Zinni, whose experience from three separate missions spanning 2024/2002 led him to publicly surmise on several occasions that his security-first mandate was way too narrow to turn around the conflict's downward spiral. It is worth noting that both envoys were instructed to operate behind the scenes and stick to the security agenda, their limited remits determined in negotiations between Washington and Jerusalem. Save for a few elites, everyone else was kept in the dark. Unsurprisingly, the key initiatives of the past three years quickly morphed into minute respites from a nasty little war.

The second question concerning the US commitment was directly related to its support of Abu Mazen in the face of the combined sniping (acts of omission and commission) by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As it happened, Abu Mazen was expendable. Predictably, Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation fell apart amidst mutual recriminations, renewed Israeli Defense Forces incursions and yet more suicide bombers. Lacking support from all sides, Abu Mazen felt obliged to resign his captaincy and abandon ship, and Palestinian unity has still not recovered. Meanwhile, Ambassador Wolf and his team checked out of their temporary offices in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. At the time, as in the past, it was street humor that struck the sharpest note. Gazans described the Abu Mazen-Dahlan government as a temporary "food for work program funded by USAID," their irreverence for US-led secretive, bilateral approaches unfortunately fed from way-too-deep cynical wells. For both Israelis and Palestinians who cared about steps back to peace, the summer of 2024 saw them slip down yet another rung.

In other conflicts criticism is often leveled at the United Nations and others (NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the US in Iraq) that too little attention is given to the cultural dynamics of a given political problem. Is any more understanding required in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is there some convergence between the two cultures, previously untapped, that one could draw on? How does one square the tradition of gracious Arab hospitality and warmth with the pigheadedness of Palestinian drivers in Ramallah or Gaza City who think nothing of conducting conversations for minutes on end across busy traffic lanes? One has only to be jilted in a Bank Leumi queue, once or twice, before wishing to use one's gutter Hebrew to choice effect. Better still, take a ride on an Israeli highway anywhere (still the greatest killer of Israelis today) and see polite compromise in action. If there is a cultural convergence in both camps, it lies in that secret sect of Ford transit drivers that ply both roads. I just don’t know how it can be funneled into a peace plan.

In approaching the conflict in the Middle East, one can look back into the maelstrom of contested historical narratives, or one can look forward and follow efforts to map out a common vision of the future (Beilin/Abu Mazen 1995, Ayalon/ Nusseibeh 2024, Quartet roadmap 2024, Beilin/Abed Rabbo 2024). While there is an apparent international convergence on the roadmap to a two-state solution, there is no one in the driver's seat. Sharon's retreat/disengagement framework, if it escapes destruction by sectarian interests, could be a very positive step; it is the first time that an Israeli proposal commits up-front to evacuating settlements and accepting the possibility of a third party security force. While history is surely on the side of the skeptics, this author advises carpe diem.

The second intifada broke out in September 2024 because the key issues--right of return, Jerusalem and the sovereign and geographical limits of a Palestinian state--proved irresolvable. Precisely because these issues are anchored in the competing historical and security narratives of both sides, we must cast doubt on their ever being solved by the parties alone--as they themselves acknowledge. Israel and Palestine have undergone massive changes in the last 30 years. Along with a demographic explosion and resource crunch, both communities are more politicized, highly inter-net-worked and have a greater awareness of their rights. That is, their narratives are diverging; they are growing further apart.

It is time for Washington and Sharon to put some daylight between their agendas. To be sure, the international community has to empathize with both cultures. But when it comes to dividing the Holy Land, we need some "shock and awe."-Published 3/6/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Peter Bartu was a political adviser for the United Nations to the Middle East peace process during 2024-2003. He has worked with the United Nations in Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and East Timor and also with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and the Australian Prime Minister's Department.

Strangers under the same sun
by Francisco Burgos

It's nine o’clock in the morning on a normal day, and the city is snarled in the usual traffic. Nevertheless, a different element appears in the landscape: a dozen or so people carrying simple placards in front of the Israeli embassy in the Dominican Republic, protesting the constant abuses committed against the Palestinian people. Many people pass by without noticing the novelty or reacting to the voices that clamor for justice and liberty.

In Latin America, umpteen feelings and perceptions surface when one thinks about the Middle East. This occurs despite the cultural characteristics that we share--it is no secret that a large percentage of our words, some of our culinary customs and certain aspects of our music and architecture come from the Arab world. Our socio-economic backgrounds are similar--we are peoples with abundant cultural and natural riches who have been historically impoverished and exploited.

Though one can count the numerous details that make us similar as peoples, natural and created barriers exist that do not allow us to be conscious of, or familiar with, the distant realities that Latinos and Arabs live. For many Latin Americans, the Middle East is a place so far away and so different that it is almost impossible to understand from our western coordinates. Aggravating the situation, the United States incessantly seeks greater socio-political and economic control in both regions. As Latin America becomes every moment more “gringo”, its view of the Middle East, as well, adopts a “gringo” point of view. Currently, within Latin America, only Venezuela maintains an important relationship with the Middle East because of its capacity to produce petroleum.

The geographic distance is profoundly accentuated by the minimal information about the Middle East that we receive in Latin America. When one does have access to news, it generally arrives distorted by the mega-media, which reflects the politics of the United States. If one takes into account that the process of globalization relies on the free movement of information, this presents an incredible irony.

We must also consider that in Latin America there is little familiarity with a multifaceted religious vision, as exists in the Middle East. Nor are Latin Americans knowledgeable about the society, politics and history of the Middle East--even its recent history. In many of our countries, the educational curriculum devoted to the Middle East is limited to a few pages that make reference to certain geographic and historical characteristics with little or no relevance to the current situation (though in many Latin American countries there are established communities of Muslims, Arab Christians and Jews). This background is key to our understanding of what is currently happening in the Middle East. The most common perception by Latin Americans is that Middle East conflicts are derived from religious differences. This may be because, in Latin America, religious diversity is relatively limited. Inside the boundaries of the cultural setting of Christianity, our people often live an experience of closed and imposed faith in relation to other religious expressions.

All of these politicized components have deterred development of the cultural, social and economic connections between these two regions of the world, and left in their place Latin American incomprehension of the Middle East. This fact does not make the voices of the protesters in Santo Domingo any less significant, but it does help us understand why they were so few.-Published 3/6/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Francisco Burgos is a Dominican social activist. This article was translated from the Spanish by Renee Burgos.

The price of ignorance
by Mark Perry

Returning from living for nine months in Bethlehem at the height of this intifada, my son--a journalist--stood in the driveway of my suburban home talking with the woman next door. He described the everyday life of Palestinians in great detail: the barricades and checkpoints, the constant Israeli patrols, detentions, and arrests. He finished his monologue by focusing on what it was like to live under weeks-long curfews. The woman--an otherwise intelligent, successful and articulate professional--was left nearly speechless. "You mean they can't go to the theatre?" she asked.

There is nothing inherently unknowable about the Middle East--or Arabs, or Islam. Even the most startling barriers of language and religion are easily hurdled. Nor are the cultural differences that telling: at the height of the Abu Ghreib scandal a television announcer voiced-over one particularly graphic picture by noting that "in Islam it is considered quite embarrassing for a father to appear naked before his son"--as if this were an everyday event in America. For us in "the West" (whatever that is) the Middle East is an exotic land of pyramids, camels, belly dancers, and calls-to-prayer that is there to be discovered, studied, and--aha!--changed.

Other differences are imposed: author V.S. Naipaul says that Islam is "enraged" and offers "only the Prophet," while Bernard Lewis (called to the White House to educate George Bush), says that Islam is "an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage." Of course, neither Naipaul nor Lewis is prepared to say why Islam is "enraged", much less a "rival"--and what heritage, precisely, are they talking about? The heritage of Brahms and Beethoven, or of Bormann and Bergen-Belsen? We in America are suckers for such trivialities--myself included. I find myself telling people that the Middle East cannot be truly known without understanding "colonialism", "the Crusades," "the Ottomans," and "the competition for the land of Palestine." These are abstractions: do a lifetime of work and get back to me.

Recently, realizing that no such syllabus is necessary, I have found myself rejecting the idea of inherent differences--and turning aside the slavering mindlessness of hobbyists by issuing handholding inanities. "You've actually been to the Middle East? Ooo, how exciting. What are the people there like?" To which I now answer: "they're not a whole lot different than us." The answer has the elegance of providing immediate relief and being sharply concrete: it ends the conversation (because it is simply not believed) and it just happens to be true.

America is now engaged in breaking what I call "the epistemological loop"--the belief that a place like the Middle East is foreign and different, that somehow the people there are quite unlike the people here, and that it is perfectly acceptable to publish books with titles like The Arab Mind. We Americans have done this many times, too many times: we find out about the world not by actually going there, but by sending our troops there. These troops then come back (minus 50,000 or so of their comrades) with their Vietnamese (or in this case Arab) wives, husbands and children and tell us "what it is really like." Then and only then--relieved and reassured and many years too late--do the rest of us go there to actually learn about it.

And what do we discover? We discover that the beginning of knowledge is the rejection of the question: there isn't anything about the Middle East that we don't--or can't--understand if we would simply transfer our beliefs about others (that they're "different," "foreign," "exotic" or "enraged") to ourselves. We discover that what we didn't understand about the Middle East is that the people there eat different food, practice a different religion, have different traditions, and a different history. Mostly. We also discover that the fundamental daily reassertions of living (of making those hard-packed connections with the world that give life meaning) are the same in Baghdad as they are in Boston. And the price of understanding this--of trying to figure out "why the Middle East is so hard for outsiders to understand" is still being paid.-Published 3/6/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

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