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May182014

A Distant View of the Middle East

A Distant View of the Middle East

Editor

 

Does the current chaos in the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Libya) represent the waning of American influence in the world, or perhaps failed opportunities by a U.S. administration that has refused to take a leadership role in conflicts beyond its borders, or simply era-specific developments unique to a part of the world that is struggling with the transition from autocratic to democratic rule? Or perhaps it represents none of the above—or perhaps a little of each? Certainly things are confusing to us in that part of the world. The civil war in Syria may be the most confusing. Bashar al-Assad, a leader whose religious affiliation is with the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Muslims, is a tyrant who uses his military to rein in anyone in his country who challenges his policies. His opponents are mostly Sunni Muslims, who appear to have begun as protesters and freedom fighters but many of whom  have now become champions of fundamentalist Islam as an alternative to the current regime. They are supported by Saudi Arabia and are allied with al Qaeda, both within  and without the country and particularly across the border in Iraq. Some of them want to establish an independent fundamentalist Islamic state occupying parts of both countries. The most prominent of these, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, apparently uses torture and execution techniques on civilians that are no different than the worst used by the Assad regime, which it fights.

Within Iraq, the Shiite leadership of Nouri al-Maliki has limited the voice of  minority Sunni Muslims to the point that Sunni-oriented al Qaeda in Iraq has resurfaced and taken over part of the country. The U.S. is faced with the quandary of how much assistance to provide to the al-Maliki government to suppress the Sunni uprising, since the latter is largely fed by fundamentalist al-Queda influence.

For the last several years, the United States has labeled Shiite Iran as its principle threat in the Middle East. Terrorist activities have been laid at the doorstep of Hezbollah, an Iran-financed Lebanese group of Shiite Muslims, whose principle target has been Israel, but who are now fighting in Syria in support of the Assad government.

Americans, and particularly Americans who make foreign policy decisions, have not understood Middle Easterners. A recent study, which found that Tunisians were among the most liberal of the Middle Eastern citizenry, second only to Turks, showed that Tunisians viewed themselves as Muslims first and Tunisians second. They favored freedom of expression, but not if it included criticism of their religion (their new constitution, heralded as a model for the Middle East, includes the phrase that it is the state’s duty to “protect the sacred,” referring to Islam). At the same time, they were largely tolerant of other religions. They overwhelmingly favored arranged marriages and only about half felt that women, whose rights to hold office are now guaranteed in the constitution,  should be allowed to dress as they wanted. They valued American friendship, wanted American tourism, but were in favor of American defeat in Afghanistan, where they viewed the American effort as an attack on Sunni Muslims. They had stronger faith in their army than in their government. Most of their views were echoed, either strongly or weakly, throughout the Middle East.

Into what American political storyline do the above findings fit? The answer is none. Our views of the Middle East are too simplistic and culture-centric to encompass complexities that we don’t understand, but which make perfect sense to the inhabitants of Syria, Tunisia and Egypt. Americans tend to think in terms of being either for us or against us, of being in favor of free-speech or against it, of separating religion and politics, and of human rights which include equal treatment of everyone with no regard for gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or social status. These are not the terms that determine Middle Eastern sympathies.

Fareed Zakaria, host of Fareed Zakaria, GPS on CNN, has recently argued that it has not been  Obama’s inactivity that has created the disasters of Syria and Iraq, but rather it was Bush’s activity. Bush virtually took over Iraq with no appreciation of sectarian divisions within the country. He rescinded the power of the Sunni minority through a policy of de-Baathification, without realizing that he was installing a tyrannical Shiite majority as its substitute and fueling fires of a Sunni uprising. In Syria, Obama has been accused by Senators McCain and Graham of having caused the al-Qaeda takeover of the revolution against Assad because we didn’t jump in and support the “friendly” insurgents soon enough. But recent New York Times reports of the Benghazi, Libya attack on the U.S Embassy indicate that it was the “friendly” insurgents against Gadhafi, whom we armed, who led the attack against our installation.

To say that the Middle Eastern situation is murky is an understatement. What should the U.S. do in such a case? The answer is simpler than it would appear to be.

First, don’t arm anybody. We have multiple instances of evidence from that of Afghanistan rebels, armed and trained by the CIA, morphing into al-Qaeda, to the latest exposé of what really happened in Benghazi, where the attackers used weapons that had been supplied to our rebel allies, to recent reports that Boko Haram, which kidnaps innocent schoolgirls, is also using weapons supplied to Libyan rebels, which support the idea that our own weapons almost invariably end up being used against us. Offering food, water and medicines is fine but adding more weapons to this conflict is a definite mistake.

Second, don’t impose Western values upon Middle Eastern cultures. As a country that separates church and state to the point of forbidding Christmas carols being sung on government property, we cannot begin to understand cultures that permit freedom of expression but not criticism of religion or who put more faith in their military’s ability to run their country than they do in elected officials. Go to war to protect women’s rights in a Muslim country? We don’t have a clue what rights are important to Middle Eastern women or how their thinking fits into their own country’s culture.

Third, admit we don’t understand the “Arab Spring” (now fall, winter, summer, and on and on) and what it means to those who are engaged in it. There is no opportunity to highjack it for our own ends—period. We don’t know what it is about and we’ll have to wait and see. We can pontificate about whether Arab countries are “ready” for democracy, but that’s mostly just Western (and basically White) prejudice; a haughty sense that the “dusky” races (or non-Christian countries), don’t really have the wherewithal to govern themselves democratically. Democracy can take many forms and ours in the U.S. is just one of them. Equitable governance can take many forms and we’re not even sure that we know how to achieve such a thing in the U.S. So what happens if we heed all of this advice and keep our distance?

 

We don’t know.

 

 

 

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