Eastern Mysteries

Most people in the West who claim to understand the Middle East are just guessing

Two years ago I began researching Middle Eastern history for a screenplay I was writing, meant to be set partially in North Africa and Turkey during the time of the Iraq War, as well as post-WWI Iraq and Iran (then Mesopotamia and Persia and other remnants of the collapsing Ottoman Empire). I read lots of books, Assassin’s Gate, A Peace to End All Peace, Cobra II and Fiasco just to name a few. But a strange thing happened. The more and more I learned about the Middle East the less I seemed to understand. All four of those books were written by Westerners, two were about the Iraq War solely from the perspective of the US military. At least Assassin’s Gate looked at the lives of everyday Iraqis impacted by the war and Saddam Hussien’s dictatorship, but it was still through the eyes of an American.

More after the jump.

All of these were good, informative books, especially David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. I’m still reading and re-reading that one. But I don’t pretend to fully understand all the complexities no matter how many news reports, documentaries and books I consume.

When I look at the protests in Iran, I’m wondering if the angst isn’t so much about stolen elections, but about the promise of reforms gone? American Middle East experts who have flocked to the CNN feed the beast and talk about the desire for “freedom” and “Democracy.” But during the Bush Administration Democracy became short-hand for elections which makes little sense as you need to have more than just a popular election to be a Democracy. Even the United States didn’t have completely “free and fair” elections at its inception, considering the fact that you had to be a white, male landowner to vote. And the Founding Fathers were even concerned that the aristocrats might not get the vote right, hence the creation of the most undemocratic thing about our system — the electoral college.

It was several years after its founding when United States elected a president who was actually from outside of the aristocracy and won the popular vote (Andrew Jackson, 1829).

So while I’ve been told that the Iranian system is a Byzantine mystery of clerics, elected politicians, advisors and a supreme leader ruling them all, it is still a system of sorts. Not one we would choose. Not one that we would have, as our democratic, representative republic has evolved over the years. But it is what it is for the Iranians. They had a system and now they’ve had a system failure. In the past it seemed the mullahs respected whomever was elected. After all, they retained power at the end of the day. But many seem to believe this election was stolen from the reformer and now all bloody hell has broken loose.

I don’t know if the fighting in the street is solely about democracy, but it is about Iran’s middle class and youth demanding a change, demanding their promises of reform, the promise of their voting meaning something. Perhaps a bloody push towards Republicanism compared to our heated nudges when all men, blacks and eventually women were given the right to vote.

It frightens me a little when politicians like Sen. John McCain argue that we should be more vociferous in a situation that has nothing to do with America. Nothing. I’m not sure what McCain wants the Obama Administration to do. Further agitate a government that is already accusing the West of meddling and labeled protesters “terrorists?” Invade?

Meet the Press on Sunday was especially scary with not one, but three people essentially advocating more involvement from West, even some disappointed sighs about how the Iranian people were doing what “we” had always been trying to do in Iran. That statement didn’t make much sense as we’d done PLENTY of work making sure Iran didn’t become a democracy (it’s easier to pay off one guy for oil than deal with a voting populace who might elect someone unfriendly to us). Even if this fight produces the most successful outcome — a peaceful transition of power and the end of theocratic rule — we’ll still be back to the Iranians picking who they want and possible not who American thinks should be their ruler.

Oddly, I found myself in agreement with Republican Pat Buchanan on this, who was one of the few conservatives not calling for sterner action on Iran. Arguing on MSNBC’s Hardball that the president was right to hang back and take a muted tone as it would only worsen the situation and pull us in the middle of a fight that was not ours. Many people who agree with the White House’s tone have pointed out that we would not have tolerated any comments or meddling in our disputed 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush.*

But I mostly think we should hang back because we are clueless as to what is going on over there. We don’t really understand it. We should be supportive of fair elections and be against violence, but that’s about it. This simply isn’t about us. Even the Obama Administration has tried to take some credit (behind the scenes) that Obama’s Cairo speech may have inspired some of the reform movement. That is by far the most arrogant statement in the world.

While the speech was a good speech and touched on many notes that needed to be addressed in American-Middle Eastern relations, one really good speech a revolution does not make. The Iranians have been bristling under low wages, inflation, few jobs and a huge youth population for years. This was a powder keg and no one speech from an American president was going to set that keg aflame. This was a confluence of many different things, several of which we possibly know nothing about because we’re not there.

Obama speech from Cairo, which was criticized by some on the right for being to conciliatory, was actually very much needed. For decades the United States has meddled in a region we don’t know much about, often to surprising/disastrous results. They call it the “sandbox” in the military sometimes, but it’s more like quicksand. Our ignorance causes us to go down fast and the more we fight it, the deeper in it we get. And it would be too simple to say this is about oil, as we, and other Western countries, have been trying to save the Middle East from itself since before oil was a priority.

We don’t get it. We just don’t. So we should leave it alone and simply dance with whoever is elected, appointed or wars their way to the top. Regime change didn’t work. Drawing lines in the sand didn’t work. Importing people of Jewish decent to repopulate the Holy Land didn’t work. Propping up the Shah didn’t work. War, war and more war, didn’t work. Call the Cairo speech “apologist” if you want. But we’ve done our dirt and we have a lot of things to apologize for. The only sore spot was President Obama could speak on behalf of France and Great Britain and the “Great Game” they played on the Middle East for decades. As if people’s lives, cultures, religion and homes were simply part of the board game Risk.

Or ignorance is often displayed in how we refer to the Middle East as if it is monolithic. Usage of “the Muslim World” is often not apropos, as not everyone in the Middle East is Muslim and some of the most populous Muslim countries are not in the Middle East. Many Muslims also live in the United States and we’re clearly not in conflict with them. We get Arabs confused with Persians, Shites confused with Sunnis, radicals confused with conservatives and confuse a government stance of American distrust in Iran with the Western-friendly middle class. We expect the terrorists to come from the poorest families when they’re usually the most educated. We don’t get it. I don’t get it. It’s time to stop guessing, just address each country and citizen’s story as individual and let them tell us how things are.


*Our contest was vastly different in the respect that there was little popular protest and most Americans politely waited for the system to work, accepting things when Bush was declared the winner despite losing the popular vote. While some see our 2000 election as a travesty, there is one thing I always was proud of about it. In many other countries such an election would have caused unrest, but despite all the complaints about our government, at the end of the day, most of us believe in the system and prefer to work within it than subvert it. All our presidential and congressional elections are like bloodless revolutions. Rhetoric can get heated and radical change can happen, but most people accept the will of the people and the law of the Constitution, and that is a beautiful thing.

6 thoughts on “Eastern Mysteries

  1. A well thought out and nuanced post. I know very few people, who take the time out to read the good books you have. Another good one is All The Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer a great book on Iran.

  2. really good thoughts… Americans have been meddling too much in other people’s politics and culture… Congo, Grenada, Cuba… the list goes on and on.Time for the ignorance to stop and start respecting how other people do things..

  3. I’ve read several books about the region, including the ones you mentioned as well. And just like you, despite my efforts to educate myself, I don’t get it, either. I would imagine I would actually have to live there, possibly in several different countries in order to truly understand the various nuances. This shouldn’t be surprising, when you think about it. Most countries, including our own have regional differences that aren’t readily apparent until you actually live there. When you consider that ‘the Middle East’ covers a vast array of countries, languages, ethnicities etc… it’s not surprising that it’s so difficult to understand. I applaud Obama for his calm, reasoned response and the discipline it requires. We have to respect the Iranian people enough to allow them to make decisions about how they want THEIR country to be run. It’s none of our business.

  4. I had a course on Arab-Israeli politics decades ago that I found illuminating. That region was a mess in the ’70s and it’ll probably stay a mess for a long time.

  5. Good essay! I find my assessment of Iran is very similar to yours: I think the basic emotion motivating the peaceful protesters is a sense of betrayal by the people they entrusted with power.I don’t agree, though, that the U.S. (“we”) should simply “dance with” whatever tyrant winds up ruling a place with resources the U.S. wants — like Khameini, or like Pinochet in Chile. There are, after all, other alternatives to “dancing with” evil besides the combative ones you mention. A nation can decline to do any sort of business that furthers the evils one objects to or strengthens the wrongdoers. It can facilitate communications and reportage, so that the downtrodden can organize themselves and the truth emerge more easily. It can make resources available for learning constructive, nonviolent resistance (the sort of thing Gandhi and MLK specialized in) — for example, on the Internet. It can make a point of providing humanitarian aid, free of charge, to victims of violence and oppression on all sides.It can also reform its own act. Last weekend, when Khameini held up the U.S. as a supposedly good example of a country that simply acquiesced in the theft of a presidential election (the Bush-Gore election of 2000), it ought to have made U.S. citizens aware of the degree to which their/our own example matters. The most fundamental, indispensible answer we can offer to wrongdoing is to live in a better way ourselves; for without such a visible example, it becomes hard for anyone to believe that their activism elsewhere can achieve good results.If you’re still wanting to learn and want to hear from explainers who can actually think like natives, two books to look at might be Fariba Adelkhah’s Being Modern in Iran and Ali Gheissari’s Contemporary Iran: Economy, Society, Politics. They’re available through Amazon.com for about $27 each. More specialized is Amir Taheri’s The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution (about $17).

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