A Mid-East Guide for the Perplexed

By Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger, “Second Thought

In the pursuit of peace, alliances and interests, western policy-makers tend to sacrifice perplexing Mid-East realities on the altar of oversimplification and wishful-thinking. However, their attempts to implement unsubstantiated policies tend to inflame rather than extinguish regional fires.

The distinquished Mid-East historian and former Director of Mid-East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Lebanese-born Prof. Fouad Ajami, asserted that Mid-East realities constitute “a chronicle of illusions and despair and of politics repeatedly degenerating into bloodletting (The Arab Predicament, Cambridge University Press, 1990).”

Western policy-makers and public opinion molders would benefit from studying the writings of some of the key Mid-East historians and scientists, whose research reaffirms that Mid-East fundamentals have remained largely intact for the last 14 centuries.

For example, the late Iraqi-born Prof. Eli Kedourie, from the London School of Economics, who was the leading Mid-East historian, wrote in Islam in the Modern World (Mansell publishing, 1980): “The fact that political terrorism originating in the Muslim and Arab world is constantly in the headlines, must not obscure the more significant fact that this terrorism has a somewhat old history…which would not be easy to eradicate from the world of Islam.”

The late Egyptian-born Prof. P. J. Vatikiotis, from the London University School of Oriental and African Studies, another icon of Mid-East history, wrote in Arab and Regional Politics in the Middle East (Croom and Helm, 1984): “The use of terrorism by [Arab] states or rulers…has been for domestic, regional and international political purposes… Rulers of this provenance and background are hegemonists of power… If Islam and those who claim to represent it and wish to implement its law and rule over man, society and the polity reject all other human forms of law and rule…then clearly there is an unbridgeable gap between them and all other social and political arrangements… The dichotomy between the Islamic and all other systems of earthy government and order is clear, sharp and permanent; it is also hostile.”

The assumption that the stormy Arab winter of 2011 is a temporary mishap, which could be cured by a constitutional panacea, is detached from Mid-East reality. Moreover, most Arab rage has been directed toward Arabs, and was introduced long before the 2011 turmoil and butchery on the Arab Street startled. For instance, some 200,000 Lebanese were killed in internal violence during the 1970s and 1980s; tens of thousands Syrians were slaughtered by Hafiz Assad in 1982; some 200,000 Iraqis were murdered by Saddam and additional 300,000 Iraqis were killed during the 1980-1986 war against Iran; about 2 million Sudanese were killed, and 4 million were displaced, during the 1983-2011 civil war; public executions and decapitations are regularly held in Saudi Arabia; etc.

The deep roots of contemporary Mid-East Islamic violence are highlighted by Prof. Efraim Karsh, Head of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at London’s King’s College, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author of Islamic Imperialism: A History (Yale University Press, 2006): “In the long history of the Islamic empire, the wide gap between delusions of grandeur and the forces of localism would be bridged time and again by force of arms, making violence a key element of Islamic political culture… Arab rulers systematically convinced their peoples to think that the independent existence of their respective states was a temporary aberration. The result was a legacy of oppressive violence that has haunted the Middle East [from the seventh century] into the 21st century… It is doubtful whether Middle East societies will be able…to transcend their imperial legacy and embrace the Western-type liberal democracy that has taken European nations centuries to achieve…”

A key lesson to US policy-makers was delivered by Prof. Vatikiotis (ibid): “Inter-Arab relations cannot be placed on a spectrum of linear development, moving from hell to paradise or vice versa. Rather, their course is partly cyclical, partly jerkily spiral, and always resting occasionally at some ‘grey’ area. Secondly, American choices must be made on the assumption that what the Arabs want or desire is not always – if ever – what Americans desire; in fact, the two desires may be diametrically opposed and radically different.”

Western interests and the pursuit of peace would be dramatically enhanced, should Western policy-making be based on the knowledge of the deans of Mid-East studies, thus learning from history by avoiding – rather than by constantly repeating – costly errors.

See also www.TheEttingerReport.com.

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