The Middle East – who cares?

Or at least, who cares enough to try to start thinking anew? The region is burning. Apart from the parties to the conflicts who want to win, nobody seems to have any idea of what to do.

Right now


Oh –

  • And next door in Afghanistan, the results of a presidential election are contested. The declared loser is threatening to set up a parallel administration.

The stakes are immense, outside powers are embroiled, the roar of contention and suffering is deafening. And equally deafening in a different way is the silence if you try to listen out for somebody articulating a viable way forward.

Before right now

The trouble is that you can unpick the headlines and dig deeper beneath them and see how in each case, there are added layers of complexity and intransigence that only increase each conflict’s degree of intractability.

  • In Israel and Palestine, the almost complete lack of empathy for each people’s murdered teenagers and their grieving families; and in Israel the rising tide of anti-Arab racism, the grisly counterpart of anti-Semitism and holocaust denial among Arabs.
  • In Egypt, the increasingly frequent, seemingly systematic and officially authorised use of sexual harassment and violence including rape as a way of punishing and policing women who oppose the clampdown on freedoms – or have ever done anything that implies they might oppose it.
  • In Saudi Arabia, the self-hamstrung response of the politico-religious establishment to the jihadi challenge it did so much to nurture and rear.
  • The parallels with Algeria in the 1990s, drawn by The Economist among others, when a popular movement for change was frustrated by the military, leading to a civil war of extraordinary brutality, and bequeathing to North Africa a salafist organisation that is now al-Qaeda in the Magreb.

None of this makes pleasant reading. Perhaps even worse, this summary from The Economist:

  • “The Arab spring has led to something depressingly like a region-wide rerun of the Algerian experience.”

Or as I heard in a briefing last year: “It’s not spring; it’s the start of 15-20 years of instability, insecurity and worse.”

The situation is, in a word, bad. Yet, apart from those who know they want to win, not many people seem to have much of an idea of what to do. Worse, not many people seem bothered enough to try to have an idea. Indeed, so pervasive is the lack of ideas that you start to wonder if anybody is paying the right kind of attention to the problem.

The region and the rest of us

By rights, everybody should be listening and trying. Despite my provocative headline, people care very much about the Middle East. Most of the key events make headlines everywhere. What happens there hits first and foremost the people who live there and they have the greatest stake in finding peaceful solutions. But the range of  effects goes much wider, sometimes with lethal consequences  – as can be attested in London, Madrid, New York, Bali, Mombassa, Nairobi…

Beyond the killing, what happens in the Middle East affects us all, and not just materially because of oil, the wealth of the region, and the movement of people into and out of it. It affects in the sense of touching us because the region is part of the sacred geography of all societies that have been influenced by any or all of the three world religions that began there – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And with that, it touches even the most secular among us.

Scanning the media, both mainstream and blogosphere, and considering the voluminous expert and scholarly production of research and analysis, it is evident that the region, its culture, history and current conflicts get a huge amount of attention. So it seems many people care very much.

Beyond caring, thinking

There is plenty of real caring. Great effort is going into trying to get humanitarian aid to Syria where millions are in desperate need. And plenty went into clearing Syria of chemical weapons – an outstanding achievement, almost complete against all the odds.

These things are profoundly important and I am not knocking them at all when I say that nonetheless there is a problem. Ask people about the region and what to do and from within it and outwith, in government and outside, among experts and punters, the response is not only helpless but close to clueless.

The humanitarian response and the emphasis on chemical disarmament are of paramount importance but they do not address the underlying problem because they avoid the politics of it.

The reason why violent conflict is so widespread in the region is because of the systems of power in the Middle East. There are essentially two dimensions of this – national and regional – and both are so structured that the inability to handle inevitable conflicts except through violence is an inevitable result in most of the region.

While the national specifics cannot be forgotten or else there will be no peaceful resolution, it is also purblind to ignore that what is going on is region-wide. It is as a regional political process that events unfolded and brought hope as people sought change. And it was still a regional process when things seemed less hopeful as the various power-holders blocked change in most countries. It continued to be a regional process when it seemed like disaster loomed as some countries became the playground for international interests and gatherings of the disaffected and disempowered of the region. And it remains a regional issue now that disaster has arrived.

Consequently, both national and regional efforts are necessary to create a peaceful future. The Middle East is a region of great diversity in which everything is connected and whatever it is you seek to achieve politically, you ignore that connectivity at your peril. To get that effort going, we need a period of discussion to develop ideas to drive the effort.

Beyond thinking, thinking differently

The current disaster and the way it has unfolded shows that the default politico-diplomatic-military response of finding who to support and doing so by supplying or using arms is not going to work.

If you look at Syria and are sometimes ambushed by the thought that, well, maybe, we should have intervened (whoever the “we” inside your head is), then look at Libya today, three years after armed external intervention. It is the one-word description of the perils of  intervening with the force of arms.

Of course there are people and groups in Syria whom supporters of democracy, decency and human rights could back. But doing so with the force of arms does not have a good track record. It does not always go wrong (ref Sierra Leone) but it does not often go right – at least, not all the way through.

So the ideas we need now are, by definition, new: since everything that has been tried hasn’t worked, we need something that has not been tried before.

Beyond thinking, imagining

The risk when you say ‘politics’ is that what happens is a partisan process of fixing the blame. Actually, one good way of analysing the region’s systemic problems is to listen to all the blaming. Then, rather than trying to decide who’s right and wrong, what’s justified and not, simply add it all together and go on from there to think about the social realities that lie behind the actors. US influence, Israel, the other side of the sectarian divide, oil, despots, religious fanatics and religious hypocrites, European colonialism (and before that the Ottoman empire, which is, surprisingly to my mind, usually allowed off the charge sheet) – all of these things are part of the picture. Many of the blame-gamers are not wrong as such – except for pure fantasists, to be found on most sides – they are merely incomplete.

But even a better understanding  of what is happening will not help much if we are unable to apply our imagination – to be ready to think different thoughts, to think anew.

And who is that “we”? Obviously, the people of the region are first; without them driving forward a search for new approaches, nothing is possible. But I think the rest of us have a legitimate interest too, because where I live has been affected by the violence, albeit much less than the region itself has, and also because of that shared sacred geography. So it is a pretty large “we” and a quite complex discussion that we need.

I am not saying it is easy – I understand the reasons for turning away into passivity, anger or focusing on just bits and pieces of the overall problem. I am not saying that anyone I know has the answer. I’m simply saying it’s urgent.



7 thoughts on “The Middle East – who cares?

  1. Dan your blog made me think also about how comfortable (if I can use that phrase) and complacent we in Europe are with what’s happening in the region. I was thinking of what has made more headlines this week and I bet its Brazil’s defeat! Ironically the reporting of which has some similar language as the reporting of Syria etc – “catastrophe” “humiliation” “crushing” “crisis” “capitulation”
    What can we do? is very hard to answer but perhaps increasing our understanding as an org and engaging more diasporas to engage with each other in the “neutral” space of Europe might be a step?

  2. Dan – thanks very much for this. I am pleased that you include the theological/cultural as one of the deep factors related to the historical and political analysis. Being trained as a theologian (with a PhD, no less) but also a social scientist, I would also plead for a proper understanding of the cultural/theological background, but urge great caution with this. Braudel and others stress the long term and deep cultural formative forces. I spent a lot of time in the 1990s trying to understand fundamentalism – in the monotheistic faiths in particular – as a threat to peace and came to the conclusion that the more the Middle Eastern conflicts are “theologized ” either at the macro (“clash of civilizations”) or national level ( the “Holy” Land) the more problematic that is for finding sensible political solutions.
    Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, has a telling image. When pushed, in extremis to a default position, both Israelis and Palestinians (and their external supporters) tend to regard the “Holy Land” like a warring couple trapped in a family home – they don’t seem to be able to live together, they can’t move out – so they have to find some way of avoiding provocations and disturbances as they work out a modus vivendi ( my paraphrase).
    The Palestinian issue is (among other things) a national issue of a people needing a homeland – whether a two state solution or other acceptable negotiated position. If the issue is “theologized” on the basis of claims that this is a divinely sanctioned “home” to the exclusion of the Other, that makes ordinary politics (“ordinary” here in a really good sense) increasingly impossible.
    I can’t recall or find the quote, but I think it was Lloyd George or a commentary on him, which referred to policy towards the “Holy Land” being excessively affected by half-remembered Sunday school lessons. My impression is that the religious right has less influence on US policy than it did, but the point remains. This is a political problem par excellence, and will need to be sorted out by negotiation. Trust me …. I am a doctor (of theology)

    For the rest, I thought the blog was really helpful – I just felt the need to add something (not contesting anything in what you wrote) on religion and conflict. My shorthand conclusion is that when it is good, religion can make a profound contribution to reconciliation ( cf eg. parts of the religious communities in South Africa in opposition to apartheid, and the work of Desmond Tutu on the Truth and reconciliation commission) but it can often exacerbate and harden conflict with religious leaders acting as “chaplains to their own side” and making political conflicts harder to solve through negotiation and compromise.

    Roger Williamson

  3. I am not sure it is correct to say there isn’t enough serious thinking or imagining going on about the Middle East. The consequences of being inert while all these fires rage are too serious for us not to be thinking, and thinking hard. To the extent that they are urgent, governments and their international agents will deconstruct the problems and try to address the most urgent or dangerous, first. Responding on the basis of urgency may sometimes be a mistake, however, particularly as the tools to hand may make matters worse. But it is not always so: as you say, those tools have enabled an important advance on chemical weapons in Syria, and some amelioration of the plight of some of the displaced and refugees.

    I don’t personally find the sense of a “shared sacred geography” very helpful. We understand that well enough. There are two theocracies in the region, neither of which offers a desirable or even viable model for social development. What outsider would choose – or be alllowed – to become a citizen in either? Both uphold a sense of statehood and exclusion which has wretched consequences for the excluded, even within their own borders. Can we not imagine a humanitarian model for building societies and states and take religion off its pedestal, beginning in the UK (in schools and in parliament?) Could we at least stop making the Almighty part of our blame-game?

  4. I start from pictures – streets in Aleppo (Dresden?), houses in Gaza (L’Aquila?), bodies in Iraq (Srebrenica?).Then people – a father sits in the corridor of a hospital in Gaza where his ten-year-old daughter is recovering (recovering?) from surgery after a shrapnel wound to her brain; bereaved parents attend the funeral of their sons who were brutally killed while hitch-hiking a lift back from school in the West Bank; a group of armed Kurdish fighters atop a small hill defend their town from ISIS invaders and entire families, uprooted from Damascus, come ashore in Sicily care of the Italian naval operation Mare Nostrum. Finally I read the comments, explanations, historical analysis and prognoses for the future (land invasion, Caliphate, partition, disintegration, drone attack, anti-missile system, Tony Blair . . . ) and, like you, wonder who is working on (or even thinking about)effective solutions. Some thoughts (maybe gendered?) inspired by your elegant piece:
     The Middle East, North and now Central (East and West) Africa are awash with weapons. Who manufactures/sells them and with what intent, now the Cold War rationale no longer holds? This basic fact undermines any cosy, keep- to- your- side- of- the- border negotiations, at whatever level . It is only a question of time before Hamas, for example, can fire bigger rockets further or get its hands on even more lethal weaponry. I know it is ‘idealistic’ to think of a world minus arms, but isn’t this at the core of what using our ‘imagination’ signifies?

     The profitability of selling arms underlies the self-interest (and hypocrisy) allowing – yes, allowing – conflicts to smoulder and burn, as long as they are not too close to home. Your article states that ‘we’ are not paying enough attention to solving these escalating conflict-scenarios because we, perhaps, haven’t yet perceived the necessary urgency. Think pre- and/or post- WWI. And then ask Are we intelligent or determined enough to find long-lasting solutions that avoid strategic or even all-out warfare? I do not see any sign of this intelligence.

     As you point out in your article, the players and their backers in the current surge of violence are extremely difficult to disentangle. This is the result of . . . history, certainly, but also of not having acted sooner to quell potential disaffection or work towards creating institutions that guarantee the representation and well-being of all individuals, including those in minority groups. Unfortunately, the only thing that can be done now is to put pressure on the ‘major players’ – Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US, etc. – to rein in their pet warlords, extremists, militias and affiliated groups. But given the multi-tentacled involvement of all the players, who exactly is going to do the mediating or exert the required ‘pressure’? Old negotiating tactics are no longer a viable option – wouldn’t you agree? (Isn’t the US less interested in outcomes now it has its own oil reserves?)

     You don’t need much imagination to see that a two-state solution for the Israel–Palestine conflict is not going to work. Apart from all the other ongoing issues (refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, etc.), the whole idea of ‘the state’ is in need of re-definition. Can we tolerate ‘states’ based on one religious creed? Why does identity and the idea of ‘belonging’ have to be monological? It seems obvious that true democracy depends on all-inclusive rights plus accountability, but states whose citizens appeared to yearn for freedoms which had long been denied them are now pulling vigorously in the opposite direction (music, naturally, to the arms manufacturers’ ears). I have seen no mass demonstrations against the bombing of the Gaza strip – the situation has reached a point of no return, with extremists on both sides pushing for harsher and harsher retaliation, which each sees as politically, if not militarily, advantageous, Unless there is a solution to this conflict – and here imagination really is the key – other areas of contestation will continue to burn.

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