The West’s understanding of the Middle East has often been laden with misconceptions—this has especially been the case in the years following the Arab Spring.
Here are three assumptions about this part of the world that need to be challenged.
Doing so is important as people all over the world often perceive the Middle East as a region in which ancient religious rivalries prevent the emergence of secular democracies. Among other things, this can wrongly inform foreign policy decision-making regarding ongoing crises in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Assumption no. 1: If leaders are secular, sectarianism will disappear.
This view sounds plausible, but is challenged when we take a quick look at the Levant. The Ba’ath regimes in Syria, and previously in Iraq, would have liked us to believe that they were secular—after all, their leaders pronounced their commitment to the ideas of Arab socialism and nationalism, championed the integration of women into the labor market, and labeled their opposition as religious and conservative. Saddam Hussein’s biography does suggest a man following closely the tenants of Islam, to use the understatement of the century.
And yet both regimes were loyal to the interests of the religious groups from which their leaders came. For example, when Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to crumble, he relied on a Syrian-Iranian front to protect him, throwing in the wind his previous strategic alliance with Sunni businessmen and professionals.
Many people in the Middle East, especially members of the generation growing up in the post-colonial era, identify with their religious groups. They might drink, gamble and otherwise view themselves as very secular, and yet strongly identify as Sunni, Shi’ite or Christian, in certain contexts. This is largely due to historical developments, like the Lebanese civil war, the Iran-Iraq war, and the catastrophe that is Syria today. Being “secular” and “modern,” then, does not mean being unsectarian.
Assumption no. 2: All Islamist organizations are the same, the end result is always violent extremism.
While many of the Muslim Brotherhood organizations have platforms which are not fully democratic, there is a world of difference between them and the brutality of the so-called “Islamic State”, also known as The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. These organizations are not the same in the ways they view elections or minority and women’s rights. The more moderate organizations are more than ready to have women play a part in their political organizations. The sights that we see today in northern Iraq, in which Christian and Yazidis are harshly persecuted, are utterly repulsive to the more moderate Muslim political organizations.
Moreover, whereas Islamic State sees itself as an authentic, pre-modern, Islamic state, nothing could further from the truth. Islamic State does not share the ecumenical vision of the early Muslim community during the 7th century and its disdain for the sciences and innovation puts them in polar opposition to the cultural curiosity typical of medieval Islamic court culture.
Joan Cusack once said in the film Working Girl: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.” The same can be said about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the caliphate.
Assumption no. 3: Some Middle Eastern countries are ‘Western’ and others aren’t.
We often read in the media about pro-Western Arab regimes. But does pro-Western actually mean secular? And what is Western? Is it simply being pro-American or pro-European?
The regimes in the Gulf can complicate our thinking on these matters. Many of the Gulf monarchies have maintained very good relationships with the United States–the investment portfolios of their leading companies are deeply intertwined with the U.S. and European economies. The U.S. university campuses and Al-Jazeera headquarters in Dohaindicate a desire to play a more prominent role on the global stage.
And yet, these regimes are socially conservative and are not, by any means, secular. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Syrian civil war, arming various Sunni rebel and militia groups.
On the other hand, during the 1970s and 1980s, the postcolonial regimes in Syria and Iraq propagated daily critiques of Western colonialism and imperialism, alongside their secularizing and modernizing agendas.
Given these contradicting pictures, it makes little sense that we still use terms like ‘Western.’
Of course, this is not to dismiss all of these categories entirely. Indeed, the terms ‘secular’ and ‘Islamist’ are relevant to the ways in which electoral politics are framed in some countries—such as Tunisia and Egypt. Tunis, in fact, provides a hopeful example of political change through elections.. However, it is wrong to assume that everything in the Middle East is connected to battles whose roots are religious and medieval.
Many of the struggles in the Middle East are the result of regional rivalries between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, and of the civil war in Iraq which have brought unprecedented waves of sectarianism all over the Middle East. And they owe their existence to very modern processes like the oil politics, the failure of nation-states to attend to the needs of ethnic and religious minorities, and global politics.
The powers invested in the Syria conflict these days include China, Russia, and the United States –in its decisions on intervention or and lack thereof. These are not exactly powers formed in 7th century Arabia.
The politics in the Middle East are among the most complex in the world. The nuances in ground realities—so easily lost when we use terms like ‘Islamist’, ‘secular’ and ‘Western’—must be acknowledged if we are to theorize about why the region is the way it is right now and the possibilities of attaining a democratic future, the same future desired by so many young people who initiated the Arab Spring.
Orit Bashkin is a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago. Her two books, The Other Iraq – Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq and New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq, cover Iraqi history and culture during the first half of the 20th century.