“10 Conceptual Sins” in Analyzing Middle East Politics

by Eric Davis, from The New Middle East, January 28, 2009. For an Arabic translation of this post, click here.

Sin # 1: “Presentism.” Unfortunately, many of those who analyze Middle East politics, whether journalists, policy analysts, or academics, do not take history seriously. That is, they fail to situate Middle East politics in a historical context. If they did, they would gain many more insights into the political dynamics of the region.

Analysts would have realized why, for example, Iraqis showed little enthusiasm when American troops toppled Saddam Husayn’s regime in April 2003. This response did not indicate that Iraqis were ungrateful as the vast majority were relieved to see the end of Saddam’s regime. Rather, many Iraqis, who did have a historical consciousness, knew that the US had supported Saddam Husayn during the Iran Iraq War. Iraqis also remembered that, when President George Bush senior called upon them to rise up against Saddam Husayn in 1990, many took him at his word. However, not only did the US not intervene to help the rebels during the February-March 1991 uprising (Intifada), it gave permission for Iraqi helicopter gun ships to enter the fray which turned out to be critical in suppressing it.

When Donald Rumsfeld commented that the looting that occurred in Baghdad in April was 2003 was “part of the price” that Iraqis would have to pay for their freedom, while government ministries were stripped to the bone and the Iraq Museum, home of some of the world’s most priceless artifacts, lost much of its treasures to thieves, many Iraqis lost trust in joining forces with the Bush administration’s project to bring democracy to Iraq.
The sin of presentism is closely associated with the notion of the “eternal Middle East.” Since the Middle East never changes, there is little need to understand its history, modern or otherwise. The notion that the West still holds many stereotypes about the Middle East is not new. (And there are certainly plenty of stereotypes about the West in the Middle East - the topic of a future posting). These stereotypes include such erroneous ideas that Islam is a religion of the desert, that Middle Easterners tend to be excessively concerned with religion, that there is no separation of religion and the state in Muslim countries, that the Middle East is dominated by violence, and so on.
While the question of stereotypes of the Middle East constitutes a core component of a two volume study I am currently writing on the Middle East in American political culture, I am more concerned here with the negative impact it has on the thinking of policy analysts, and the lay public in general in the United States, that the Middle East can never change. If this were true, there would be little hope of solving any of the region’s problems. As I have tried to show in numerous writings, this is not the case. Thus I would make a plea for all who study the Middle Eastern politics, and the Middle East generally, to question the assumptions that they bring to the process of analyzing the Middle East.

Sin # 2: Overemphasizing the ethnic and confessional identities, the “ethnoconfessional model.” All too many analysts of Middle East politics view the Middle East through a narrow set of conceptual eyeglasses. They focus on religion and ethnicity (and sometimes on tribe) to the exclusion of other variables. Not only does this model shift the focus away from a wide variety of important elements that affect politics and society in the Middle East, it creates the impression that Middle Easterners, particularly those in Muslim countries, are either loyal to supranational identities (particularly Islam), or sub-national identities (ethnic group or tribe). Such a mind set is obvious in book titles like Tribes With Flags that suggest that Muslims in the Middle East lack a national consciousness or identity. Consequently, Middle Easterners “need” authoritarian rulers to keep the various “artificial” nation-states of the region together.

This fetishizing of the ethnoconfessional model promotes a negative understanding of the Middle East by implying that sectarian identities predominate in political and social life. If those who live in ethnically and religiously divided countries of the Middle East cannot get along, then the natural outcome is violence and political instability. This, in turn, reinforces the stereotype of the Middle East as a violent and dangerous place.
This approach is pervasive in the media. In an January 2009 article entitled, “Sectarian Divisions and Insurgents Threaten a Fair Election in an Iraqi Province (Diyala), ” we are told, “Riven by sectarian violence that has lasted longer than in almost any other province in Iraq, Diyala is often described as a microcosm of the country: Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs, farmers and professors. All live in lethal proximity (emphasis added). Yet the relationship between sectarianism and the journalist’s otherwise grim economic portrayal of Diyala and the ability of “incumbent” [i.e, those that claim to be “religious”] parties (that) can give patronage, jobs, award contracts and make use of government employee networks,” is not examined. Might not the strength of the Islamic State of Iraq, anti-Americanism, and sectarian identities that the article notes exist in Diyala not stem from the lack of jobs and services?

However, what is left to the reader’s imagination is why - when all ethnically divided societies experience hostile feelings among different groups at one time or another - some differences lead to violence while others do not? It is not at all obvious that hostility towards a member of a different ethnic group or religion automatically leads to violence. And if it does, what are the reasons? If Iraqis have some “genetic” proclivity towards ethnoconfessional conflict, why is there over 25% intermarriage among members of different ethnic and religious groups? If we are going to think of ethnoconfessional conflict in sociobiological terms, then obviously there can be no possibility for positive change in Iraq (or elsewhere in the Muslim Middle East).

Sin # 3: The idea of a “communal mind.” If a political scientist from Iraq, Egypt, Iran or any other Muslim country in the Middle East were to come to the United States and assert that, if s/he knew the ethnic, racial or religious background of an American, s/he could tell us what that person’s ideology and political beliefs were, Americans would find such a notion ludicrous, to say the least. Yet many analysts of Middle East politics base their assessments of the region’s political dynamics on the social background of the political leader or activist in question. They assume that an individual’s political behavior is determined by his or her ethnic, religious or tribal heritage. What this model, suggested by book titles such as The Arab Mind, ignores is the notion of “cross-cutting cleavages,” namely that gender, age, education, profession, life experiences and region of origin often mitigate the ability of one’s ethnic, religious, tribal or regional origin to completely dominate one’s ideology and political behavior. Once again, we find Middle East politics painted in broad, stereotypical brush strokes.
If this commentary is thought to be a critique of the conservative right in the United States think again. During his lecture at Rutgers University in October 2005, New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh referred to Iraqi Kurds as “land grabbers,” Sunni Arabs as “terrorists,” and Shite Arabs as “religious fanatics.” Loathe to admit that anything good had come of the toppling of Saddam Husayn’s regime, Hersh extended his criticism of the Bush administration in the first part of his lecture to the Iraqis themselves, failing in the process to recognize the positive efforts of many Iraqis democrats, who did not support George Bush’s actions in their country.

Sin # 4: The excessive focus on elites. Political elites are obviously central to politics in all countries of the world. However, as the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has shown, mass movements likewise play a critical role in politics. The American and French revolutions, Gandhi’s organization of anti-colonial struggle in India, the toppling of the Shah in Iran, the ending of Apartheid in South Africa, and many other political developments, would not have occurred without popular or mass-based participation in politics. During the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, the Western media did not give any meaningful coverage to protests in Israel itself against government policy. Here, the failure to cover political activity at the mass level ends up ignoring the role of citizens in the politics of the region.

Public opinion, which is often at odds with elite behavior, is usually excluded from the “analytic mix.” Thus the focus on elites promotes a static and rigid understanding of Middle East politics, precisely because few elites want to see political change that invariably challenges their power and prerogatives. However, numerous public opinion polls have shown, for example, that Iraqis reject sectarianism, (e.g., 92% of Iraqis polled answered in the negative when asked in a March 2008 BBC poll: “Do you think the separation of people on sectarian lines is a good thing or a bad thing?”), and that they are not excessively concerned with religion, if mosque attendance is taken as an indicator. Further, while elites and “sectarian entrepreneurs” try and do manipulate politics for their own ends, citizens reject these policies because they usually have an adverse effect on their daily lives. That ordinary citizens can have positive views about the direction of social change does not factor in when elites become the be-all and end-all of political analysis.

Sin #5: The myth of “Islamic fundamentalism.” The notion of a radical Islam at the root of much if not all of the Middle East’s problems is pervasive in the Western media. I will soon upload a posting that will discuss this issue in greater detail. The idea that Islamic “fundamentalism” is a myth would begin by pointing out that most of those who claim to be pursuing a radical Islamist politics know little about Islamic theology and doctrine, or Islamic law (al-sharica). I discovered this many years ago when I conducted research on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Brothers who went on trial for participating in alleged violent behavior knew very little about Islamic doctrine when questioned by a learned judge. While they would always argue that their actions were prescribed by “Islam,” they invariably were unable to support these assertions with textual sources when questioned by the judge.
A good analogy would be to compare radicals who claim to be acting in the name of Islam to members of the Ku Klux Klan (or other such radical organizations in the US). While Klan members have terrorized and lynched African-Americans in the name of “Christianity,” the overwhelming majority of Christians find such ideas abhorrent and reject the notion that they have anything to do with their religion.

Likewise, radical Islamists (and I would argue that they don’t even deserve to be dignified with the appellation “Islamist” given their lack of education and knowledge) make up doctrines as they go along. In addition to usually knowing very little about Islamic doctrine, they in effect create an “invented religion.” These radicals begin with a political agenda, often tied to economic goals, and then politicize Islam in ways that they hope will facilitate their behavior by giving it an aura of legitimacy. In the process they thoroughly distort Islamic doctrine. For example, contrary to the stereotype promoted by the Western media, the notion of jihad can be thought of as much as a serious effort by an individual Muslim to achieve closeness to God, through study, prayer and good deeds, as it can be thought of as linked to armed struggle. The notion of jihad in Islamic doctrine is always one of defense, not an doctrine of engaging in offensive actions against non-Muslims.

Sin #6: Seeing the Middle East politics through binary thinking. Another serious shortcoming of Western analyses of the Middle East is to view political events in either “black” or “white” terms. While we can be very critical of many actions of the so-called Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) between 2003 and 2007, when it lost much of its power, it was, and still is, one of the largest social service providers in Iraq. The fact that it, not the central government, provides a wide variety of social services, such as jobs, health care, education, and security, should make us realize the need to distinguish between its armed elements, who often engaged in despicable behavior, such as ethnic cleansing and criminality, and its social service providers, who have tried to help a population in need.

The Council of Guardians in Iran, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad constitute a set of unsavory political leaders, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, as many public opinion polls have demonstrated, Iranians by and large are very supportive of democracy, especially the educated middle classes. Indeed, during the late 1990s, reformers captured a large number of seats in the Iranian parliament, and in municipal councils, which they dominated until 2004 when the Council of Guardians cracked down on them and conservatives regained power. The election of reform-minded President Mohammad Khatemi in 1997 is another indicator that large segments of Iranian society seek reform and democratic change. Once again, only viewing Iran through the conceptual eyeglasses of “the Axis of Evil,” as former President George Bush characterized Iran (and Iraq and North Korea) in his January 2002 State of the Union address, points to the manner in which binary thinking can distort the understanding of a society and the possibilities for positive change.

Sin #7: Failure to learn the history, language and cultures of the region. In 1961 the well known African-American comedian and political activist, Dick Gregory, came out with his album, Dick Gregory in Living Black and White, based on a performance in a Chicago nightclub. One of the great lines in this skit goes as follows: “Wouldn’t it be funny if Khrushchev didn’t hate us, only his translator?” Gregory make a good point. How can journalists, policy analysts and academics who frequent the Middle East be sure that they are conveying solid information and analysis to audiences in the West if they do not know the language, history and culture of the region’s countries?
In an article in the January 25, 2009 article in The New York Times Sunday magazine, “Revolution, Facebook-Style,”Samantha Shapiro presents a fascinating and insightful analysis of how Facebook and the Internet are presenting opportunities for young Egyptians to mobilize politically and circumvent government censorship and the rigid hierarchy of traditional opposition parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the author relies upon an Egyptian to inform her what exactly is on Facebook in Egypt because she herself does not know Arabic, as well as a translator to help her communicate with Egyptians who are challenging the Mubarak regime. How can she be sure that her informant and translators are sincere purveyors of quality information? Is she receiving an accurate accounting or are the informants selectively presenting information?

While I am not trying to suggest that those who do not know a country’s language should avoiding reporting on its political affairs, we can think of Eric Rouleau, who was for 30 years a special correspondent in many countries of the Middle East for Le Monde and who speaks fluent Arabic. Would we take seriously a correspondent who was bureau chief in Washington, DC, for a major daily newspaper in Iran, the Arab countries, Turkey, or Israel if s/he did not speak English? A question to ask is why major American newspapers do not make more of an effort to recruit reporters who know at least one of the languages of the region, such as New York Times reporters John Burns and Neil Macfarquhar, and Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid, just to give a few examples.

Sin #8: The failure to consider political economy. Despite the stereotype of the Middle East as awash with oil wealth (although political elites in Iran and Arab oil-producing countries do in fact have large amounts of funds at their disposal), there is great poverty and unemployment in the area. The percentage of young people under the age of 25 is as high as 60% in countries such as Iraq and Iran, and a very large percentage of them are unemployed or under employed. Numerous newspaper articles have commented on this problem, but few have analyzed what it implies for political stability in the Middle East.

Sin #9: Failure to account for exogenous influences and “neighborhood effects’” on the region’s politics. The Polity IV Model indicates that democracy score in Lebanon rises significantly when the variables “regional war” and “oil wealth” are factored into the analysis. This quantitative model confirms what all common sense analyses tell us, namely that Lebanon’s political stability is as much a function of outside interference in its politics as it is of internal conflict among contending political groups. No one would disagree that if Syria, Israel, Iran, the Saudis, and the United States would play more positive roles in Lebanese politics or desist from interfering all together, Lebanon would no doubt enjoy greater political stability and face an easier path toward s more democratization
While this type of argument should not be allowed to let citizens of Middle Eastern countries blame all their woes on external actors and effects, there is no question that colonial interference in the region’s politics was a core determinant, largely negative, of much of the region’s politics during the 20th century. For those who lament Iraq’s inability to establish a stable democracy in the 5 years that have passed since 2003, let them remember that none of Iraq’s neighbors - not Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or even Jordan - want to see Iraq become a stable, multi-ethnic and multi-confessional democracy because of what such a development would imply for their own authoritarian and culturally intolerant political systems. Thus all these countries have played a negative role in post-2003 Iraqi politics in one way or another

Sin # 10: Why can’t they be like us? At the end of the day, many Americans, including most political analysts, still cling to the unspoken belief that the peoples of the Middle East and non-Western countries generally need to accept and internalize Western value systems if they are to truly modernize and implement “real “democracy.
Westerners accept the assumptions behind Thomas Friedman’s assertion that the “the world is flat.” Yet Friedman’s empirical assertion is simultaneously a normative admonition. In other words, the word is not only flat but should be flat, meaning it should conform to Western technology and scientific know-how. Aside from the problem that many of the Indians with technology skills who have populated the back offices of Western corporations in Bangalore have lost their jobs with the recent global recession, Indians, Middle Easterners and citizens of other non-Western countries would do well to not always ape the West. Friedman seems to forget the critical role in India’s technological development played by its government’s decision in 1966 and after to use tariff regulations and a variety of mechanisms to build its own domestic computer industry.

In Iraq, as I argue in my forthcoming book, Taking Democracy Seriously in Iraq, there are many examples of what I call “indigenous knowledge” that Iraqis have used to build civil society and promote democratization in Iraq. While there is indeed a global culture that derives most of its sustenance from the West, we in the West need to spend more time understanding and respecting the positive traditions heritages, and abilities of Middle Easterners and non-Western peoples to control their own future without their needing to “to be like us.”

Future postings will analyze the Iraqi provincial elections, as well as discuss the relationship between Islam and politics in the Middle East.

Eric Davis is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. He is the author of Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).