Three assumptions about the Middle East that are just plain wrong

November 20, 2014

Three Arab taxi drivers chat near a McDonald's restaurant in Kuwait City November 10, 2002. Fast-foo..

The West’s understanding of the Middle East has often been laden with misconceptions—this has especially been the case in the years following the Arab Spring.

Here are three assumptions about this part of the world that need to be challenged.

Doing so is important as people all over the world often perceive the Middle East as a region in which ancient religious rivalries prevent the emergence of secular democracies. Among other things, this can wrongly inform foreign policy decision-making regarding ongoing crises in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Assumption no. 1: If leaders are secular, sectarianism will disappear.

This view sounds plausible, but is challenged when we take a quick look at the Levant. The Ba’ath regimes in Syria, and previously in Iraq, would have liked us to believe that they were secular—after all, their leaders pronounced their commitment to the ideas of Arab socialism and nationalism, championed the integration of women into the labor market, and labeled their opposition as religious and conservative. Saddam Hussein’s biography does suggest a man following closely the tenants of Islam, to use the understatement of the century.

And yet both regimes were loyal to the interests of the religious groups from which their leaders came. For example, when Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to crumble, he relied on a Syrian-Iranian front to protect him, throwing in the wind his previous strategic alliance with Sunni businessmen and professionals.

Many people in the Middle East, especially members of the generation growing up in the post-colonial era, identify with their religious groups. They might drink, gamble and otherwise view themselves as very secular, and yet strongly identify as Sunni, Shi’ite or Christian, in certain contexts. This is largely due to historical developments, like the Lebanese civil war, the Iran-Iraq war, and the catastrophe that is Syria today. Being “secular” and “modern,” then, does not mean being unsectarian.

Assumption no. 2: All Islamist organizations are the same, the end result is always violent extremism.

While many of the Muslim Brotherhood organizations have platforms which are not fully democratic, there is a world of difference between them and the brutality of the so-called “Islamic State”, also known as The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. These organizations are not the same in the ways they view elections or minority and women’s rights. The more moderate organizations are more than ready to have women play a part in their political organizations. The sights that we see today in northern Iraq, in which Christian and Yazidis are harshly persecuted, are utterly repulsive to the more moderate Muslim political organizations.

Moreover, whereas Islamic State sees itself as an authentic, pre-modern, Islamic state, nothing could further from the truth. Islamic State does not share the ecumenical vision of the early Muslim community during the 7th century and its disdain for the sciences and innovation puts them in polar opposition to the cultural curiosity typical of medieval Islamic court culture.

Joan Cusack once said in the film Working Girl: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.” The same can be said about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the caliphate.

Assumption no. 3: Some Middle Eastern countries are ‘Western’ and others aren’t.

We often read in the media about pro-Western Arab regimes. But does pro-Western actually mean secular? And what is Western? Is it simply being pro-American or pro-European?

The regimes in the Gulf can complicate our thinking on these matters. Many of the Gulf monarchies have maintained very good relationships with the United States–the investment portfolios of their leading companies are deeply intertwined with the U.S. and European economies. The U.S. university campuses and Al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha indicate a desire to play a more prominent role on the global stage.

And yet, these regimes are socially conservative and are not, by any means, secular. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Syrian civil war, arming various Sunni rebel and militia groups.

On the other hand, during the 1970s and 1980s, the postcolonial regimes in Syria and Iraq propagated daily critiques of Western colonialism and imperialism, alongside their secularizing and modernizing agendas.

Given these contradicting pictures, it makes little sense that we still use terms like ‘Western.’

Of course, this is not to dismiss all of these categories entirely. Indeed, the terms ‘secular’ and ‘Islamist’ are relevant to the ways in which electoral politics are framed in some countries—such as Tunisia and Egypt. Tunis, in fact, provides a hopeful example of political change through elections.. However, it is wrong to assume that everything in the Middle East is connected to battles whose roots are religious and medieval.

Many of the struggles in the Middle East are the result of regional rivalries between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, and of the civil war in Iraq which have brought unprecedented waves of sectarianism all over the Middle East. And they owe their existence to very modern processes like the oil politics, the failure of nation-states to attend to the needs of ethnic and religious minorities, and global politics.

The powers invested in the Syria conflict these days include China, Russia, and the United States –in its decisions on intervention or and lack thereof. These are not exactly powers formed in 7th century Arabia.

The politics in the Middle East are among the most complex in the world. The nuances in ground realities—so easily lost when we use terms like ‘Islamist’, ‘secular’ and ‘Western’—must be acknowledged if we are to theorize about why the region is the way it is right now and the possibilities of attaining a democratic future, the same future desired by so many young people who initiated the Arab Spring.

PHOTO: Three Arab taxi drivers chat near a McDonald’s restaurant in Kuwait City November 10, 2002. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

24 comments

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What a banal and empty article. How much is the author being paid for telling us what we already know?

Posted by wonderinghow | Report as abusive

For what its worth, “islamic law” is rooted in revenge, even at the very personal level the “victim” can decide to take financial compensation instead of the judgement on the criminal, Imagine what would happen in the US if a person cruelly murdered someone, the court gave a death sentence but the family of the person murdered decided to accept money and the nurser could walk away free,

——The basic unit of political power in the islamic world is the imam and sharia which is not a body of formal law but the right of the imam to interpret koran, hadith and any other previous interpretations and use that interpretation to BROKER POLITICAL POWER.

Islam has no hierarchy, no organization, no responsibility, its just a bunch of imams and their followers in power relationships, sometimes dominant, sometimes subordinate with each other. They also enter into single issue alliances which are over when the issue is over.

The imamc can interpret koran, hadith anyway they want and broker political power because of sharia, which is not a body of law but a relationship, the right of the imam to use interpretations to broker political power. In this sense they are dictators, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and dictators do not give up their political power easily.

This is opposed to western institutions where political power is brokered by democratic institutions (as well lobbies and campaign donations). In western law, there is one formal set of common law, precedence, individual rights and due process.

In islamic society the imam through sharia can make any interpretation they want at any time )theory are not held to precedent) and broker it as political power. Of course they have to have a following, etc to gain influence.

But in islam no imam criticizes this Right of the imam to do this, they will only criticize the “opinion” of another imam. Dictators do not give up their political power willingly and as imams they understand the source of their political power.

This is not just the opposite of western institutions but is a political confrontation with western institutions and political power.

An imam is not like a minister or a priest which represent an organized religion with a hierarchy of responsibility and authority. It is like a preacher, who gets a following but who is not bound by any ideology, faith or whatever and in the end only speaks for himself.

Christians may believe in the Ten Commandments but when someone kills someone else its the police who enforce the state law. No one takes it on themself to enforce “Thou shall not kill.”

There will always be this violence until muslims stop allowing imams to use sharia to broker political power. Its not about being western, western institutions which broker political power are in direct conflict with the islamic institutions which enable individuals to broker political power and these confrontations will always lead to violence, not just in regard to western institutions but among themselves.

Posted by quacknduck | Report as abusive

What Gulf are you talking about? Does this Gulf have a name? Aden? Mexico? Persian? Tonkin? Would you care to mention it or should we the reader just guess?

Is it possible to have the authors undergo a basic knowledge test of the region before allowing their articles to be published?

Posted by JS_P | Report as abusive

quacknduck:
That is true for Sunni Islam, what about Shiite Islam? Not the same as it does have a hierarchy.

Posted by whoho | Report as abusive

many of the struggles in the Middle East are the result of in Interference usa and EU IN THIS region.and a lot af problem backs to zionist regime

Posted by studentiran | Report as abusive

Mr. A. : This article clarifies nothing!

Mr. B. : Exactly!

Posted by LaPortaMA | Report as abusive

Worst article/op-ed I have ever read on Reuters – poorly written, naive and overly simplistic.

Posted by TheConnector | Report as abusive

“The West’s understanding of the Middle East has often been laden”…really?…Bin-Laden…you really started your article with Bin-Laden…fail…but it made me laugh

Posted by guyfromfindlay | Report as abusive

1. ‘tenants of Islam’ should be ‘tenets of Islam’.
2. Shiites and Sunnis no more agree on the tenets of Islam than Roman Catholics and Anglicans do on the tenets of Christianity.
3. Syrian Kurds, Turkish Kurds, Iraqi Kurds are mostly Sunnis. Iranian Kurds are mostly Shiites.
4. Sunni Arabs have no more in common with Sunni Kurds than the Sunni Turks do. The fact that all three groups may think of themselves as Sunni is as irrelevant as that the Bavarians, the Occitans and the Neapolitans may think of themselves as Catholic.
5. Me against my brothers; my brothers and I against our cousins; our cousins and we against our tribe; our tribe against the world.

Posted by RichardMahony | Report as abusive

Paid for by Saudi Arabia

Posted by BioStudies | Report as abusive

Blah, blah, blah.

Totally misses the point. We throw money. Throw weapons. Throw more money. Spend years trying to replicate western-style democracy in places where it is not wanted.

There will never be peace or democracy in the middle east.

The people there will never be happy until one sect or another has been expunged from the face of the earth.

Posted by DaveinKL | Report as abusive

“The West’s understanding of the Middle East has often been laden with misconceptions”

Yeah, and all the while, the Middle East’s understanding of the West is totally accurate and spot-on (/sarc)

Posted by upswhas | Report as abusive

That’s one of the most accurate articles I’ve ever read.
Thanks for elaborating to the world.

Posted by El-Dackdouss | Report as abusive

This is an excellent article. Thank you for the well-thought out analysis and commentary. It’s badly needed.

Posted by Derek2223 | Report as abusive

Article fails to mention that the Arabian Gulf region is still very much tribal in nature and behavior.

Posted by smokeymtnblues | Report as abusive

Say something new please. This superficial generalization you make in three assumptions is like saying reducing the Torah, Koran and old testament by explaining “a tooth for a tooth”

Indeed not only politics in region are complex. Almost every aspect of human interaction is nuanced and emotionally laden. Few westerners can fathom this and invariably put their foot in it and make wrong often disastrous assumption.
Just look at Obama’s reaction to and handling of the Egyptian situation.

To say nothing of the Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan catastrophes.

Posted by pharoah | Report as abusive

Quacknduck: Your contribution is interesting, contains some correct points, but I expect the degree of negativity is based in part on comparing an ideal Western system, negative realities left out, to an incomplete image of the system under Islam. What, more specifically do you mean by “brokering?”

Posted by Counselor2 | Report as abusive

Well , i have to figure out something to the readers here .
First of all , those assumptions are completely wrong . But the question is why ? , actually , being secular and sectarian at the same time is wide spread between middle eastern people across the whole spectrum of political ideologies . And this is what makes westerners think about all conflicts in the middle east as religious conflicts without considering the real causes of it . The religious reasons are widely used in middle east to justify all kinds of acts because of the religious nature of the the people .
And the most confusing assumption is to consider all islamists as one ideology , Muslim brotherhood factions are an obvious example about this . In comparison with ISIS which is a far offshoot of the spectrum .
About being a ‘westerner’ country or not , This doesn’t matter at all , because being western backed is nothing more than mutual interest between you and USA or Europe .
And concerning the guy who is arguing that sharia law is a totalitarian law , i would say that sharia is not about the imam’s interpretation of islam . It can be simply well organised as a rigid lawful system , and this -if someone wanted to do it- will be very easy considering the peole who are really religious .

Posted by Syrian_moderate | Report as abusive

What gulf are you referring to? The Persian Gulf?

Posted by rsadr | Report as abusive

If only the situation were as simple as you are stating in this “article”.

What balls to publish this ‘factoid’. Gruber,is this you?

Posted by skeeteril | Report as abusive

Orit Bashkin is a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago.
Ah …..university of Chicago. That explains a lot of missing information about a very complex situation. Must be something in the water, or just plain Chicago politics.

Posted by skeeteril | Report as abusive

SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN POLITICS : CORRECTING SOME MISCONCEPTIONS BY WESTERN MEDIAS AND JOURNALISTS :

AT THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT MORE AND MORE WESTERN MEDIAS ARE CLAIMING, THE MAJORITY OF POPULATIONS IN THE ARAB-BERBER SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN PEOPLE , DID NOT MISS MUSLIM CONSTITUTION/ISLAMIST CONSTITUTION…FOR DECADES UNDER THE RULE OF THOSE WESTERN PUPPET ISLAMO-AUTOCRATES. AND THEY WERE NOT ALL HAPPY TO SEE ISLAMISTS/OBSCURANTISTS ACCESSING POLITICAL POWER IN THEIR COUNTRIES AS EGYPTE (ISLAMO-FASHIST GROUP BROTHERHOOD/MORSI, OR TUNISIA THE ISLAMO-FASHIST GROUP ENAHDA

AT THE TOTAL OPPOSITE, ARAB INTELLECTUALS OF THE SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN AND A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF CITIZENS, OF ALL LEVEL OF SOCIETY DID FIGHT FOR DECADES IN THIS REGION , AT LEAST AS THEY COULD, IN THE DESPERATE HOP OF TRUE DEMOCRACY . — THROUGH A SECULAR CONSTITUTION/ SEPARATION BETWEN RELIGION AND STATE, AND THE REMOVAL OF THEN WESTERN IMPOSED/SUPPORTED ISLAMO-AUTOCRATES RULERS!

THE CIA, THE FRENCH INTELLIGENCE AND THE MOSSAD DID WORK ACTIVELY, VERY CLOSELY AND FOR DECADES, WITH LOCAL SERVICES OF THOSE SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN DICTATEURS FOR SEVERAL DECADES, TO IDENTIFY, ARREST OR KIDNAP, TORTURE AND SOME TIME KILL, OR MAKE DESPAIR FOREVER, ARAB INTELLECTUAL OPPOSITION MEMBERS IN MOST COUNTRIES OF THE SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN INCLUDED EGYPTE AND TUNISIA!!!!!!! SOME OF THE VICTIMS ARE STILL IN LIFE AND MANY OF THE AGENTS TOO…— FAMILIES ARE STILL CRYING FOR THE DESPAIRED, UNTIL TODAY! SILENCED OPPONENTS OF COURSE INCLUDED SOME RACIALE AND RELIGIOUS MINORITIES OF THE SOUTH-MEDITERRANEAN.

BESIDE IN VILLAGES AND SOME VERY OLD WOMEN VERY FEW WOMEN WANTED TO WEAR THE VEIL OR LIKED THE VEIL…AND IT WAS NEVER FORBIDDEN IN ANY OF THESE COUNTRIES AS IN SOME WAY CLAIMED IN THIS DISHONEST ARTICLE.

CURRENTLY, AT THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT WESTERN JOURNALISTS WANT TO CLAIM, MILLIONS OF SECULAR ARABS AND BERBERS OF THE SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN DO WANT, SEPARATION OF STATE AND RELIGION, IN THEIR RESPECTIVE COUNTRIES. DESPITE ALL WHAT HAPPENING THEY ARE STILL HOPPING TO ACHIEVE SEPARATION BETWEEN RELIGIOUS LAWS AND STATE IN THIER COUNTRIES.
OF COURSE WESTERN CURTSIED PRO-MUSLIM CONSTITUTION ACTIVISTS, DO NOT AGREE AND FIGHT HARD AGAINST A CONSTITUTION WITHOUT BLASPHEMY OR ADULTERY LAW ETC. DO WESTERN MEDIAS AND OTHERS, WHO KNOW WHO THEY ARE, HONESTLY THINK THOSE LAWS AS BISIS OF CONSTITUTION CAN PRODUCE DEMOCRACY?

THE GENERAL STRATEGY SEEMS TO BE UNFORTUNATELY STILL THE SAME..: JUST PUT NOW, SOME PRO-WEST ISLAMIST PUPETS, (TO REPLACE THE OUTDATED ISALMO-AUTOCRATES), WE WILL HELP THE NEW DICTATORS TO , SILENCE AND OPPRESS THE INTELLECTUAL OPPOSITIONS AND OTHER SECULAR OPPONENTS WHO REFUSE TO SUBMIT AND STOP FIGHTING FOR TRUE DEMOCRACY. THEY CALL THIS “STABILITY”. UNACCEPTABLE!

NO AND NO, NO STATE ISLAM/ISALM BASED POLITICAL MOVEMENT, IN THE ARAB-BERBER SOTUH-MEDITERRANEAN, (WHATEVER THE BRAND OR SCHOOL), BROTHERHOOD, ENAHDA, ISIL, TURKISH ISLAMIST ETC. SHOULD BE ELECTED OR MISSED.
ONLY THE TRUE DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL SYSTEM : THE SECULAR ONE CAN ALLO DEMOCRACY. PEOPLE SHOULD’NT LESSEN TO LIES OF ISLAMIST MEDIAS AND PRO-MUSLIM CONSTITUTION WESTERN MEDIAS.

NO ISLAMISTS AND NO ISLAMO AUTOCRATES!

PRO-SECULAR CONSTITUTIONS ARE THOSE WHO ARE OR JUSTICE, FREEDOM, CIVIL STATE AND CONTEMPORARY PROGRES IN THE SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN.

— AND IF THERE IS ANY PEOPLE IN ISRAEL WHO UNFORTUNATELY BELIEVE THIS NEW DOOR OPENING TO PROGRES, WILL BE A TREAT OR BAD FOR THEM, THEY ARE SURELY WRONG. DESPITE THEIR POSSIBLE FUTURE ACCESS TO CONTEMPORARY PROGRES, THEY WILL HAVE NO RAISON TO DEVELOP NUCLEAR OR OTHER SOPHISTICATED WEAPONS TO ATTACK ISRAEL.
AND EVERY HUMAN, ALL THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD, HAVE THE LEGITIMATE RIGHT TO ACCESS DEMOCRACY AND GLOBAL CONTEMPORARY PROGRES.

THERE IS NO QUESTION ABOUT THE HISTORICAL RIGHTS OF THE ISRAELI PEOPLE, BUT THE TWO STATE SOLUTION IS STILL A SOLUTION, POSSIBLY THE ONLY SOLUTION AVAILABLE, AS IT SEEMS THERE IS NO OTHER SOLUTION…— WHERE PEOPLE ARE HEADING?

ALL SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN COUNTRIES/POPULATIONS/RULERS, FROM SYRIA TO MOROCCO, SHOULD START AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, TRUE SECULARIZATION OF EDUCATION SYSTEM, JUDICIARY SYSTEM AND POLITICAL SYSTEM, AS WELL AS MEDIA, TV AND RADIO, IN THE PURPOSE TO IMPROVE CULTURE AND MENTALITY OF CITIZENS AND AVOID THE WORST. LET’S ONLY HOPE IT IS NOT TOO LATE!

MUSLIM CONSTITUTIONS IN THE SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN ARE MORE TREATING TO THE NEIGHBORING ISRAEL, — AND UNDER ANY MUSLIM POLITICAL MOVEMENT…BECAUE IT WILL ALWAYS DEGENERATE TO SOMETHING ELSE. THE MACABRE “SUCCESS” OF THE WESTERN SUPPORTED TOTALITARIAN DICTATORS OF SAUDI ARABIA, CAN NEVER BE REPLICATED IN THE BERBER-ARAB SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN. NO WAY! NOT SAME PEOPLE!

FOR DECADES, THE WEST AND ISRAEL DID WHAT THEY GENERALLY WRONGLY THOUGH IT WA GOOD — BUT PEOPLE SUFFERED IN A CONSIDERABLE WAY, AND WE CAN SEE THE RESULT AND ESPECIALLY NOW AND FOR ABOUT A DECADE…WHAT IS HAPPENING… WHO CAN REALLY CLAIM SUCCES?

POSSIBLY…IF CHINA AND RUSSIA WERE INVOLVED IN THE SOUTH MEDITERRANEAN FOR ALL THOSE DECADES, THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN A CERTAIN BALANCE OF POWERS INFLUENCE IN THE REGION, AND SECULAR CONSTITUTION STATE SYSTEME WOULD PROBABLY HAVE MUH MORE CHANCE TO TAKE PLACE AT THAT TIME. THE CURRENT SITUATION OF THE SOUTH-MEDITERRANEAN WOULD BE DIFFERENT.
NOW, THIS GOAL IS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT TO ACHIEVE BY THE PRO-SECULAR CONSTITUTION/STATE, ESPECIALLY DU TO THEIR WEAKNESS… COMPARED TO ISLAMIST…AND STILL NOW IN SOME WAY…BECAUSE OF THE WEST! — AN ACHIEVEMENT ALMOST COMPROMISED?
By Johanna Chentov / NOVEMBER 22, 2014 – 5:23 / UK

Posted by Johanna-Chentov | Report as abusive

Are you talking about Islamic State or the US Republican party?

“Disdain for sciences and innovation…”

Posted by dhjdhj | Report as abusive

I am so grateful for your blog post.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.

Posted by calabriatechnology.com | Report as abusive