Having been vitally interested in the Middle East since my days at the Military Academy in the late fifties, I have found that my interest in this still important region flagging. It is certainly not the lack of the usual mayhem and slaughter that punctuates every news item from the region. Rather it it is the monotonous cascade of the same procession of destruction and senseless killing that eventually wears out the patience and sense of novelty, of those who out of amateur interest or professional employment must observe the dreary parade of chaos and havoc.
Perhaps the most telling example of this environment and its debilitating effect on the people of the Middle East is the tumultuous celebration all over the Arab world following the victories of the Moroccan soccer team in the World Cup. In Palestine there was talk, picked up by Western sources, that that Palestinian insurgents, enthralled by the victory of the Moroccans would restart another intifada to drive the Jews out of Israel.
In Paris, Moroccans, in true Middle Eastern fashion ,trashed areas of the city in celebration of the Moroccan victory over Portugal, but alas they lost to the French in the next game, a victory of the colonizers over the colonized…as the Arabs would see it.
The Arab celebrations were a vivid example of a rather sad and pathetic state of the Arab world, and indeed the entire Middle East. Looking at the map of the Arab world, there are few spots in which there is something to cheers about. Decline of this world, continues as thousands emigrate, invade, infiltrate Europe to avoid the horrors of their homeland…and in a number of cases bringing the same chaos to their new homes.
Iraq is a satrap of Iran, itself eroding as a regional power under the daily assaults of revolutionaries who have grown weary of the evil associated with the venality and brutality of Islamism…. an ideological totalitarian doctrine that has brought only despair to the world, but especially the Middle East.
The Levant, once a cradle of civilization, is in chaos. Lebanon is held hostage by Islamist corruption and intimidation, Thanks to Hezbollah. Most who have the means have departed or live on the margins, despite some pseudo – glitter still remaining in Beirut. Syria is a hodge -podge of constantly rebranded terror groups who simply kill one another out of habit if no other reason comes to mind. Fouad Ajami,. the greatLebanese writer has chronicled this in his books. Syria is playground for terrorists, Iranian irredentism, and Turkish imperialism. Jordan, seemingly stable, is still a cauldron of enmity between the West Bank Palestinians, and East bank Jordanians. The crypto -civilization of Amman is typified by the young elite who install their nargilas ( water pipes)in the their BMW’s
When I see articles extolling the miracle of the Arab Gulf emirates, I see only artificial entities, blessed by oil but cursed by a lack of anything else and a forbidding natural environment. To me they seem only a glass and cement Disney World, kept together by thousands of indentured semi slaves. The Rulers of Saudi Arabia has been able to plug the leaks in the dikes, warding off the clash of westernization and modernism evolving amidst an unforgiving theocracy but the problems keep popping up and it remains to be seen how long the unwieldy pastiche of modernism and Wahhabism will hold together.
Egypt became Arab under Nasser and Egyptian again under Sadat. This dichotomy and identity issue remains a potent divisive issue as does Islam itself. The Expulsion of most Christians from Egypt has not brought unity. There are many varieties of Islam, especially the Shi’a Sunni divide, and it is not the monolithic religion that is often presented in scholarly works. It would seem that actually one of the unifying factors of Islam has been its hostility to Christianity, Judaism and the many smaller religious groups. The Islamic Middle East is practically denuded of minorities, including Sabeans, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, and of course Jews, with only scattered Christian communities hanging on. With these minorities gone the Muslims have apparently turned on one another, While Egypt has an authoritarian government the idea that Egypt, or any other Middle Eastern state can institute and maintain a pluralistic democracy…. one that protects the rights of minorities….. is a delusion. In fact the question remains…. Can Islam and democracy coexist? The “correct” academic answer is yes of course it can. Perhaps, but we do not know Because there no viable democracy has ever taken root in the Middle East. Some scholars speak of Indonesia and Malaysia as Asian examples, but I am skeptical of both.
Turkey was often attributed as the good example, where Islam and democracy coexist in harmony. As has become obvious under Erdogan, Turkey, never a secular state to begin with, is now more than ever drawn back into the unholy alliance of Islam and state machinery existing primarily to keep the ruling elite in power. The once vaunted Turkish army, a bastion of guardianship for a semi secular state has been enfeebled by Erdogan, using the unsuccessful coup d tat a few years ago as the excuse.
African Islam has become a killing ground for hapless Christian communities, ignored by their Western “Christian” compatriots, the destruction of villages seemingly simply a coming of age initiation rite for the young of the various Islamist bands that roam unhindered about the region. Sudan rocks back and forth as the succession off revolts and coups reverberate about Khartoum.
North Africa, ostensibly a part of the Arab world, has become the battleground of Islamist terrorism. Libya is a non state, Algeria has never recovered from its brutal civil wars. The scars of the long wars between the nationalists and islamists persist. They were far more brutal than the Algerian war of independence from France. Morocco’s ruling dynasty has kept the state together despite several near misses by would be assassins. Morocco has the advantage of being one of the few nations of the Middle East that have historical legacy as a pre-colonial country. Most of the others were creations of the West, dividing up colonial spoils. Of course in my mind the guilt of the West is not so much the colonial era but the fact that enfeebled Western nations let go of their dominions before the native rulers were were ready for providing a decent and secure life to their people. The Middle Eastern rulers have not absorbed any of the political aspects of a democratic republic but they have very adroitly adapted the oppressive state security measures of fascism and communism.
Tunisia, once regarded as the bright light in the darkness of the Middle East, has receded into a “normal” ill-ruled, dysfunctional state. The current ruler decided to latch onto the outmoded and dreary shibboleths of a sixties, anti-imperialist, anti -Israeli motif of rule.
I remember back to the days when opening the pages of a Bernard Lewis, Elizabeth Monroe, Philip Hiti, Hamilton Gibb, Elie Kadouri, Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark or many of the much maligned “orientalist” writers on Islam and the Middle East, would always promise a look into a different , somewhat strange , but always an interesting adventure. now the usual offerings on the Middle East are largely written in post-modern gibberish, far too many belaboring the Arab-Israeli insoluble problem.
A multitude of books continue to be written about the Middle East but I find it difficult to remember any particular one. We have reached a point where revisionists have revised the revisions to the point that it’s difficult to discover what history and or region they are talking about.
Rereading David Lamb’s journey in the Arab world( The Arabs) he wrote , “As I prepared to leave the Middle East in the summer of ,1985. I had a disturbing realization. ” After four years of travel throughout the Arab world he realized that …”in all that time time , nothing, not a single issue has been resolved.” Well after my nearly fifty years of study and reading everything I could get my hands on, I can say as 2022 comes to an end, nothing I was reading in 1959, analyzing the massive problems, has been resolved either.