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Mideast Fantasies By: Barry Rubin
Global Research in International Affairs | Wednesday, June 01, 2005

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:


--Believing the Palestinian movement is moderate, pragmatic, and ready to make peace. This requires ignoring the movement's daily rhetoric, failure to keep commitments, and continued incitement. If its chief Islamic cleric gives a sermon broadcast over the official television station calling for genocide against Jews with no punishment or its police look the other way while mortars are fired at Israeli civilians this is not considered relevant.


--Considering Iran to be a responsible regime. Despite its overall record and consistent breaking of commitments in negotiating on nuclear matters, Iran's denials that it is seeking nuclear weapons are accepted at face value or--even worse--it is deemed to be as qualified to have these as any other state.


--Thinking that radical Islamist movements do not really mean what they say about revolutionizing their own societies and destroying the West, it is proposed that they be given concessions or rewards to persuade them to be moderate. It is assumed that once they achieve power--no doubt like the Russian Bolsheviks or the German fascists, both of whom became rulers through elections--they will be easy to get along with and be transformed into pragmatists.


--Assuming that ideological dictatorships, those who benefit from serving them, and those shaped by decades of their propaganda speak freely and honestly, it is believed that when they blame all the Middle East's problems on the United States (or the West in general) and Israel, this must reflect reality. Or, at least, it shows their perceptions, which must then be addressed to assuage their grievances.


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 Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online here.

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