Middle East Misperceptions

Archive by Erudera News Aug 09, 2007


The Middle East spans three continents and is home to almost 500 million men and women adhering to three major faiths, belong to at least five major ethno-national groups, who follow ways of life ranging from the nomadic to the urban, and who vary widely in nearly every respect. Just as Middle Easterners’ present lives are not monolithic, neither are their histories, which extend back thousands of years to the dawn of human civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt. As the site of substantial U.S. military deployments, the location of significant energy resources, the home of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and as an arena of conflict, the Middle East’s significance is almost self-evident.

Over the years I have had numerous conversations with friends, acquaintances, relatives, journalists, civic groups, colleagues, and students about different aspects of the Middle East and Islamic world. These conversations reveal several common misperceptions that inhibit understanding the region and making informed decisions about how to approach it.

Here, in an illustrative rather than exhaustive list, are some of the more significant of these misperceptions.

Simple ignorance about the region is widespread, but is not a problem in itself so long as one acknowledges what one does not know. But before one can start to think critically about, say, U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, one must know what the Persian Gulf is. This is not as trivial as it might sound.

According to the National Geographic Society, 88 percent of young Americans can’t find Afghanistan on a map of Asia, three-quarters can’t find Iran or Israel on a map of the Middle East, and nearly as many can’t locate Iraq or Saudi Arabia either. It’s not just college-age people who suffer from this geographical illiteracy: last year the Philadelphia City Council approved a resolution condemning the proposed purchase of American port operations by a company from the United Arab Emirates. Only one of 15 council members knew where the UAE was. Plainly, we need to do a better job — in elementary and high school as well as in college — familiarizing ourselves with the rest of the world. Knowing, for example, that while most Arabs are Muslims, not all are and most Muslims aren’t Arabs, that Indonesia is the most populous majority-Muslim country, or simply what the five pillars of Islam are, would go a long way toward enabling Americans to make better decisions about our relations with the Middle East and the Islamic world.

We need to do a better job — in elementary and high school as well as in college — familiarizing ourselves with the rest of the world.

Simple ignorance can be overcome. But unfortunately for many people — whether members of the general public who are attending a talk on the Middle East or students taking my classes in Islamic and Middle Eastern history — it is compounded by belief in things that just aren’t so. Little can be done about bigotry or deep-rooted ethnic or religious prejudice, but many unfortunate misperceptions can be ameliorated.

The first main misperception to be overcome is that “the Middle East is so alien that only an expert can understand it.” Many of the other main misperceptions stem from this one. I don’t disparage expert knowledge. I wouldn’t have spent a lot of time and effort learning Arabic and earning a doctorate in modern Middle Eastern history if I didn’t think expert knowledge were important. But the twinned notions of Middle Eastern alienness and the cult of the expert are pernicious. In fact, the Middle East today has a lot in common with other regions of the developing world, and one can bring to the study of the Middle East the same critical tools one would to understanding, for example, Latin America. But the idea that the Middle East is radically different and the cult of the expert encourage ordinary people to suspend their own judgment and take on faith what “experts” say. This is dangerous.

Why? Because many of the experts prominent in the mass media are partisans of one side or another in Middle Eastern disputes, and are seeking to persuade their audience of their position rather than to expand understand-ing, or their expertise is used by others as an endorsement for a political agenda. Prominent examples include Bernard Lewis and Foaud Ajami, whose academic status validated their arguably naive endorsement of the invasion of Iraq, and who were cited frequently by the architects of that invasion.

Once we begin to confront our misperceptions, we can begin to move on to wider and deeper understanding.

“Islam is the answer” is another common misperception. But despite the rising prominence of Islamist political organizations in recent decades, “Islam” is not a monolith and is not the sole cause of actions by Muslims, any more than “Christianity” explains everything that Europeans do or say. In fact, it would be hard for “Islam” to be just one thing, since it is a multifaceted faith followed by more than a billion people worldwide and one which, significantly, lacks a central hierarchy to fix doctrine. As in other faiths, many Muslims are only nominally or culturally so, while others are very pious.

Across this broad spectrum of observance, Muslims disagree about a great many things. Even those who argue for a more prominent public or political role for Islam disagree as to the precise meaning of that call. Many if not most Muslim-majority countries have secular governments or ones that pay only lip service to Islamic precepts. What motivates Muslims are the same things that motivate everyone else. Some Muslims express their grievances and hopes in religious language while others use the rhetoric of nationalism, socialism, or any number of other ideologies.

The focus on Islam (or religion more generally) as a principal or sole motivator for Middle Easterners’ actions, and the notion that Islam or the Middle East is utterly alien, lie at the root of the “clash of civilizations” misperception. Mercifully, few people except those with a vested interest in it (for example, Usama bin Ladin and the al-Qa’ida leadership) seem to believe in it, at least according to a recent BBC poll. But it is perhaps the most dangerous of misperceptions: if “Islam” and “the West” are doomed to fight one another, then there is little point in seeking to avert conflict.

In such an environment, teaching or studying about the Middle East and Islam is reduced to an exercise in knowing one’s enemy. As valuable as such an exercise is for certain purposes (obviously the U.S. military needs interpreters, intelligence officers, and others with relevant language skills and other specialized training), it should not be the sole or primary focus of academic study of the Middle East, Islam, or any other region or religion. But even if one rejects the idea of a “clash,” it is still misleading to conceive of “Islam” and “the West” as hermetically sealed “civilizations” in isolation from one another. It is perhaps too much to argue as some do for the existence of an “Islamo-Christian” civilization, but certainly Muslim and Christian societies have been in close contact — sometimes cooperatively, sometimes conflictually — for centuries.

To take a familiar example, late-medieval European philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas were frank in admitting their debts to Muslim philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, and it is clear that the transmission of classical learning to Europe by Muslims who built upon the ideas of Aristotle and Galen helped pave the way for the European Renais-sance. Perhaps more practically, if “Islam” were ever separate from “the West,” it is no more, as the estimated six million American Muslims indicate.

These of course are just a few of the common misperceptions about the part of the world I study, and I haven’t addressed at all the equally important issue of Middle Eastern misperceptions of America. But hopefully I’ve identified some obstacles to be overcome in seeking to understand the region.

Once we begin to confront our misperceptions, we can begin to move on to wider and deeper understanding.

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