The haunting images emerging from Syria, and especially Aleppo, continue to paint a very dismal picture not only of Syria, but equally of many parts of the Middle East. Similar images of death and destruction are found in Iraq, Libya and Yemen today. These were all relatively stable nations but have now descended into the abyss of war and turmoil.
The history and politics of these countries and others all over the Middle East are not that simple. And a combination of centuries of external interference and oppressive regimes have not helped to make several of these countries any better off. Yet the Middle East can be characterized as having several extremes.
I was invited in July to present a paper on the topic: The Middle East Crisis: Political, Economic and Religious Implications for the Caribbean. It was organized by the Open Campus of the University of the West Indies in St. Vincent. As I prepared for that presentation, I recognized that many persons in our part of the world do not fully appreciate what goes on in other parts of the world and especially the Middle East.
Sadly, much of what we know is what is fed to us via the Western media and through their own lens. Their opinions and conclusions inform us and so, generally, many of the views existing in our region are the same. I will share in this column and, over the coming weeks, some of what I presented to the audience in Kingstown.
Much of the narrative we have of the Middle East, especially as portrayed in the Western media, is one that is a mixture of negativity and wealth. Arabs are either portrayed in much of Hollywood films as filthy rich sheikhs or fanatics. There seems to be no in between.
To quote Jack Shaheen, an American writer and lecturer specializing in addressing racial and ethnic stereotypes: “For four decades I have been tracking these kinds of images of Arabs and Muslims in more than 1,200 feature films and hundreds of television programs, from dramas and news documentaries to comedies and children’s cartoons. Along the way, I’ve discovered that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes have a long and powerful history in American popular culture.
“Constantly repeated, these damaging portraits have manipulated viewers’ thoughts and feelings, conditioning them to ratchet up the forces of rage and unreason. Make no mistake: fictional narratives have the capacity to alter reality. As the Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli reminds us, “The great majority of mankind are…more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”
Given this type of portrayal, it is not surprising that in December 2015, according to a report released by Public Policy Polling, almost one-third of Republican primary voters said they would support bombing the fictional kingdom of Agrabah set in the Disney movie, Aladdin. The question was framed: Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?
The response was:
30% supported bombing Agrabah.
13% were opposed.
57% were not sure.
A significant number of respondents actually thought Agrabah was a real place in the Middle East.
Such thinking and concepts are dangerous and certainly do not contribute to creating a more harmonious world. Having a full understanding of what goes on in the Middle East means that a person has to go beyond the given headlines and stories.
The reality is that the Middle East is as diverse as the world we live in and, for many centuries, has been the focus of much of the world’s attention. It has been an important geographical area for the major religions of the globe. In particular, the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Most, if not all of the history of these faiths, have their genesis in the Middle East.This importance to the religious identity of the region ensured that the politics of the countries of the Middle East were very closely woven together with faith and belief.
The history of the Middle East dates back to ancient times, with the geo-political importance of the region being recognized for millennia. The Middle East is largely regarded as the home to the Cradle of Civilization. It has certainly seen many of the world’s oldest cultures and civilizations. This history started from the earliest human settlements, continuing through several major pre- and post-Islamic Empires through to the modern collection of nation-states covering the Middle East today.
Post Islamic Middle East was regarded as the centre of learning and civilization. Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were leading world capitals in education prior to the Renaissance in Europe. Science, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and so many other branches of knowledge were found in this region.
The term ‘Middle East’ is itself not without problems. First, it has colonial connotations, as the phrase first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century as part of the Europe-centred division of the East into the Near, Middle and Far East. Secondly, there is no consensus on the geographical extent of the Middle East. Some define it as the region between India and Egypt, in which case it has been aptly designated by the United Nations as Western Asia. Other definitions also add North Africa or central Asia.
The Middle East is largely regarded as a collection of states composed of Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, State of Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Population numbers are around 500 million (7.4% of the world’s population) with Egypt having around 20% or 90 million. There is an annual average relative growth rate for the region of around 2%.
Arabs, Azeris, Kurds, Persians, and Turks constitute the largest ethnic groups in the region by population, while Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Druze, Greeks, Jews, Maronites, Somalis, and other ethnic and ethno-religious groups form significant minorities.
The economy of the Middle East is just as diverse. Individual economies range from hydrocarbon exporting rentier economies to government-led socialist economies to free market economies. When oil was discovered in 1908, economics entered the equation and so the mix of religion, politics and wealth became the lethal cocktail of the region and remains so today.
Collectively, the Middle East is best known for producing and exporting oil. This industry significantly impacts the entire region, both through the wealth that it generates and through the movement of labour. Most of the countries in the region have undertaken efforts to diversify their economies in recent years.
I will further explore the wealth and politics of the region in future columns.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace.
Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI.