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Next to the Middle East itself, the region posing the biggest threat to world peace and stability, one of the most dangerous problems is so many people's inability to understand the region.
Aside from greed, stupidity, and material self-interest--certainly some of the most powerful forces in human life--there are three special factors inhibiting comprehension of this area. These issues plague politicians, diplomats, academics, journalists and the masses of regular people as well.
The first factor is the failure to consider the Middle East as a real specific place with its own situation and characteristics. This is understandable because the Middle East is different at a time when intellectual society abhors differences even as it purports to celebrate them. It is nice if people have quaint customs, diverse foods, and colorful traditional dress. What is not acceptable is to understand that some people think and behave differently. The origin of these differences is historical, not biological, and they are subject to long-term change, rather than being eternal. But they are still very important.
Uncritically putting the Western template onto the contemporary Middle East leads to remarkable distortions, not only an inability to understand the present but also a failure to predict the future.
In my view, the Middle East today is simply repeating patterns seen elsewhere in the world. For centuries, Europe was beset by wars in which one ideology or leader thought it possible to gain power over the whole continent. For hundreds of years, there were bloody conflicts between ethnic and religious communities. Pragmatism was rejected; superstition overwhelmed science, and so on. Better types of thinking won out only after the high costs of reactionary notions were proven time after time. The same was true with the historical experience regarding the impossibility for any state, ideology, or ethnic group achieving total victory leading to peace.
A second element here is a tendency to acceptance of regional ideology as truth. Many in the West assume that if an Arab dictatorship, terrorist group, extremist movement, or ideologically committed Arab intellectuals say something this is either the truth or reflects their real beliefs. And if public opinion polls in the Arab world or Iran show the effects of decades of propaganda, this, too, tells us the masses' real sentiments. The situation has reached the point that many students studying the Middle East in European or American colleges get largely the same messages and understanding of the region they would receive if they were attending Damascus or Tehran universities.
Finally, a third part of this manner of thinking is a strong streak of utopian and wishful thinking. It is not true that if people want peace or democracy or prosperity or international fraternity they should begin by assuming these things can be quickly or easily achieved. Similarly, it is wrong to conclude that if you want to achieve. Underestimating difficulties is a way of ensuring failure.
What is instead needed is the most objective analysis we are capable of producing. Goals or preferences for making the world better should not be allowed to make us misread reality. What is especially dangerous here is that once people get starry-eyed about how everyone is moderate, ideology doesn't matter, extremism is a figment of the imagination, and so on, they simply reject evidence to the contrary.
It is not surprising that the outcome of these three fundamental mistakes about the Middle East is reversing the roles of hero and villain or advocating appeasement of the latter. Here are some examples:
These are the real difficulties facing a more accurate Western perception of the Middle East. Unless they are confronted and transformed the common pattern of recent years, in which misunderstanding produces disasters and crises, will continue.
Barry Rubin is Director of the GLORIA Center of the Interdisciplinary Center. His co-authored book, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, is now available in paperback and his latest book, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, will be published by Wiley in September. Prof. Rubin's columns can now be read online at http://gloria.idc.ac.il/columns/column.html. This article is archived as http://gloria.idc.ac.il/columns/2005/05_24.html
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