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:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3I3ahtwrZE]

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jCLFWM6P60]

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5AzbnNdeEA]

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.

Pause.

Think.

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpcbfxtdoI8]
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