How to Understand the Middle East

The most commonly (ab)used phrase in any discussion of the Middle East is, of course:

“Well, it’s a very complicated situation.”

This is almost always used to justify Israel’s brutal occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights and it usually follows some vaguely racist statement about Arabs. Something along the lines of “those (quasi-)people just don’t seem to want freedom, democracy, and peace.”

As though it was just a matter of cultural heritage to desire constant war and upheaval.

It seems to me that these past few years have been the most tumultuous in the recent era. The Arab Spring has spawned a wild transition from uncomfortable, repressive stability to uncomfortable, repressive instability.

If you’re an Egyptian, then you’ve already experienced 4 different quasi-functioning governments over the past three years – with exactly 100% of them conveniently resembling each other in backwards authoritarianism.

If you’re a Libyan, then you’ve witnessed the brutal murder of the former dictator and the fast descent of the small population of your rather large country into chaos between warring militias and small tribal statelets.

And if you’re an American, then you’ve probably understood none of it.

Many of my dear friends have asked me to explain situations in the Middle East to them in clear terms. I ought to preface this with the other most commonly (ab)used phrase in any discussion:

“I’m no expert, but…”

I’m no expert, but I do know how to make heads and tails of the situation(s), conflict(s), and war(s) throughout the Middle East. And there’s a very easy way to do this, although it requires a bit of time and patience.

STEP 1: Gathering Background Information

You have the internet. Use it.

I’m actually kind of surprised when people come to me with total ignorance about something like the war in Iraq or the Saudi royal family. With resources like Wikipedia and Google, you can pretty much find anything.

Wikipedia has a page on Hamas, Christianity in the Middle East, Hezbollah, Iran, Kurdistan, Algeria, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, The Druze, and Elvis Presley.

Don’t like reading?

Let me recommend this speech:


Don’t want to watch a speech?

Let me recommend some documentaries for you on Youtube: Once Upon a Time in Iran, American Radical, Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark, and Islam: Empire of Faith.

Don’t like documentaries?

Go watch Paradise Now.

If you’re looking for books about Middle Eastern history, you could read anything by Laury Silvers, Omid Safi, or Edward Said. Or you could read a book by Juan Cole, Hamid Dabashi, or Norman Finkelstein.

If you’re looking for books on modern politics, then you could read literally anything by Noam Chomsky about the Middle East.


STEP 2: Ascertaining the Current Situation

Watching the news can be cumbersome, I know. Plenty of people have complained to me that it’s impossible to determine what’s happening at all. Given the state of the media today, who really knows what’s happening?

Here’s what you need to keep in mind: everyone’s agenda is usually easy to figure out.

Let’s just ignore most American news, because it’s almost all unreliable.

Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar and basically toes the Qatari line. It also appeals to mainstream Sunni Muslims. So when it comes to the media Al Jazeera produces, you need to read it with that lens in mind.

Press TV is owned by Iran. Ultimately, it serves as little more than Iranian propaganda, but occasionally has some really good material that you aren’t going to find elsewhere.

RT (standing for Russia Today) obviously represents the interests of Russia in the Middle East, but has had some really outstanding reporting on conflicts like Iraq, Israel/Palestine, and Libya.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are a couple of news outlets that are worthwhile in the U.S. – one of them being Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, which posts a roughly 10 minute video on Youtube every weekday going through world headlines.

You can spend 10 minutes every day learning about the world around you.


And since Democracy Now isn’t owned by any corporation or state, it serves as probably the single most objective news source out there.

STEP 3: Thinking

This is naturally the most difficult task of them all. But a natural skepticism towards information is probably the most important faculty you can develop with regards to the Middle East.

If someone tells you that Hezbollah in Lebanon is a terrorist organization, don’t take that as necessary fact. Read a book, watch the news, ask a Lebanese person.

I think the trickiest thing about our present situation is the fact that most Americans simply don’t know any Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, or Egyptians. They can’t turn to their friend and say, “Hey, can you explain this to me?”

So instead, they choose to make wildly ridiculous statements like “Saddam has WMDs” or “Israel is defending itself” or “Arabs are just aggressive and hate freedom”.

Don’t do that.



Maybe visit your local mosque, ask one of your Muslim friends, watch a Youtube video. You won’t get the whole story, but you may get some new insights with regards to the Middle East.

The Middle East isn’t quite as backwards, barbaric, or ballistic as it may appear.

And there’s no excuse for ignorance today.

Will you understand everything about the Middle East?

Well, I’m no expert and it’s a very complicated situation.

But this should help.


There’s No Such Thing As A “Humanitarian Military Intervention”

“You know, America really is the Great Satan.”

My friend said this as we discussed the current chaos that’s over-swept the Middle East. I’d never stopped to contemplate this term before. It always seemed too dramatic to be accurate and too sharp to be rhetorically useful.

“In North Africa, after giving a speech,” my friend continued, “the speaker will say that ‘anything good I said was from God and any mistakes I made were from myself and Satan.'”

And what role does Satan play in a theistic view of reality?

It is the role of creating the conditions to breed disorder and mayhem – to drive humans to destroy, kill, terrorize, and remove from one another the dignity of humanity.

And what role does the U.S. play around the world?

We’ll have to come back to this question.

America Great Satan

If you haven’t been keeping up with the news recently, I should probably fill you in.

Israel, once again, massacred the people of Gaza (in an ongoing process of systematic genocide), murdering almost 2,000 people (80% of whom were civilians).

The Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Shaam (recently renamed the Islamic State), led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, claimed territory across eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq. They claim to have established a “Caliphate”, have declared Shi’a, Yazidis, and regular Sunnis to be heretics of one form or another, and are also partaking in a process of systematic genocide. In response to this, the United States has recently started a new bombing campaign in northern Iraq that is sure to last, if we can take Obama’s word for it, at least a few months.

In Baghdad, the Shi’a coalition has successfully replaced Nouri al-Maliki as the prime minister (as many have viewed his brutal leadership to have exacerbated the problems in Iraq) and appointed the ever-hopeful Haider al-Abadi. God willing, al-Abadi will bring together the opposing elements in Iraqi society against terrorist organizations and sectarianism.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s new (actually, old) military regime is not accepting responsibility for the Rabaa massacre last year, where authorities killed over 800 people.

Syria has had one of the deadliest months since the beginning over the civil war that started 3 years ago. In the midst of this, Bashar al-Assad was elected president and made an important speech at his inauguration.

Libya remains trapped between factions and militias claiming territory, fighting in the streets, and attempting to get control over the oil rich regions. Of course, this chaos is the direct result of one of NATO’s Humanitarian Military Intervention, in which NATO bombed combatants and civilians alike.

The regime in Bahrain shows no signs of acquiescing to the protests against the dictatorial monarchy of the al-Khalifa family that has maintained a brutal 230-year domination over the island thanks to the corrupt Saudi-Wahhabi regime next door. And we all know that the U.S. policy towards the Saudi regime is “regime-continuation”.

So much for freedom and democracy, right?

Turkey recently elected Erdogan to be president, shifting the political structure dramatically away from the parliamentary system and towards the presidential system. Erdogan will now have more power to do as he pleases, with less push back from those pesky parliamentarians who oppose his more authoritarian tendencies.

In other words, a lot of things are shifting right now across the Middle East. Really, everywhere from Morocco to Pakistan is changing. But one thing remains static: the countries of the Middle East aren’t experiencing this alone. They’ve been actively placed in a cauldron of boiling poison and told to remain afloat.

An impossible task if there ever was one.


So in the face of all of this, what is taking place?

As the Islamic State has swept across the deserts of Syria and Iraq for the past few years, massacring Yazidis, Christians, Shi’a, and countless others, it has managed to continuously grow in size and scope. The Islamic State was the only rebel force in Syria that successfully conquered one of the provincial capitals, Raqqa.

Major funding contributions to this designated terrorist organization have been made by power-brokers in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. In other words, the West is bankrolling terrorists.

But if the Islamic State has been around for years, then why did the U.S. just start bombing 9 days ago?

And if the Islamic State has been receiving funding from our dear allies in the Gulf, then why are we bombing them? And if we’re justified in bombing them, then why are those in the Gulf our dear allies?

There are a few pretty obvious answers to these questions, but obviously you’re not going to hear them from anyone in the government. This is what Obama said to justify the most recent bombing campaigns:

“When many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. It is our responsibility as Americans. It is a hallmark of American leadership. That’s who we are.”

Here’s a video of Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, showing such compassion about the deaths of thousands of Iraqis in 1996:

That was her cold reaction to the fact that American sanctions were killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.

It is a hallmark of American leadership.

That’s who we are.

So you can see that the U.S. government is pretending like this is one of its many important Humanitarian Military Interventions.

What is a Humanitarian Military Intervention?

Wikipedia has this great definition: “a state’s use of ‘military force against another state when the chief publicly declared aim of that military action is ending human-rights violations being perpetrated by the state against which it is directed.'”

When the chief publicly declared aim…

So essentially, according to the president, the U.S. Federal Government is bombing Iraq, because we have the “capacity” to help “many thousands of innocent civilians”. In this, he’s referring to the thousands of Yazidis who were (and many of whom still are) trapped on a mountain after fleeing.

On the surface, this seems like a very altruistic measure. There was an airlift that dropped food and water on the mountain and everything, because people were dying from thirst and hunger.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly support dropping food and water in order to save the Yazidis and others. I also support doing anything possible to destroy the Islamic State.

However, the poison lies in intentions. There’s nothing Humanitarian about it. If the United States cared about suffering Iraqis, we wouldn’t have killed so many of them. If Obama cared about the “many thousands of innocent civilians”, he wouldn’t have supported Israel killing 2,000 Gazans over the past month. If this was about Humanitarianism then we would have stopped the Islamic State when it started crucifying children in Syria.

So why are we bombing now?

The Islamic State right now happens to be encroaching on Kurdistan, towards Erbil.

For those of you who don’t know, let’s play a game.

What resource do you think is most prevalent in Erbil?

a) Gingerbread men

b) Broccoli

c) Oil

Done guessing?


That’s why the United States is attacking the Islamic State today, whereas they’ve been happy to allow this al-Qaeda offshoot to terrorize the Levant for the past few years. Up until now they weren’t threatening such important Humanitarian enterprises like Chevron and ExxonMobil.

When we funded Saddam in the 80’s, it was our Humanitarian duty to help him gas the Iranian army. When we bombed Iraq in 91, it was our Humanitarian duty to protect Kuwait. When we placed devastating sanctions on Iraq through the 90’s, it was our Humanitarian duty to put pressure on the government. When we invaded and occupied for a decade, it was our Humanitarian duty to “save” the Iraqi people from Saddam. And when we bomb Iraq today, it’s our Humanitarian duty to save the victims of the Islamic State.

But everyone knows why we’re really bombing Iraq.

Today we’re bombing Iraq because of oil.

So is America the Great Satan?

Does the United States create the conditions breed disorder and mayhem – to drive humans to destroy, kill, terrorize, and remove from one another the dignity of humanity?

Only God knows for sure, but I don’t think She’s keeping the answer a secret.