Moshe Arens has gained credit for coining the expression, The Middle East is not the Middle West.
It serves to warn westerners, and especially Americans, that culture matters, and that the culture of the Middle East is not like that of the Middle West.
This is a good time to recite yet again some of the crucial details. If you don''t recognize them, you cannot find your way in the area from Algeria eastward to Pakistan.
A large part of the story is Islam, stupid.
Sure, not all Muslims are alike. If they were, they wouldn''t be killing one another with the enthusiasm we are seeing so clearly in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt.
Many Muslims are as indifferent to their religion as many Americans of the Middle West. They observe the holidays, go to the mosque, circumcise their sons, but are not inclined to kill or die for the faith.
However--and this is the major point--a much greater incidence of Muslims today are prone to fanaticism than is the case among Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or any other cluster of believers.
And it is not only Islam. The Middle East is more complex by virtue of having a multitude of ethnic groups, and powerful extended families that demand one''s loyalty and often one''s fanaticism.
The countries of the Middle East have not passed through whatever produced national patriotism in Western European cultures, and their extensions into North America. Ethnicity and family, as well as Islam, exert greater loyalties than nation or political party.
Several countries of the Middle East, most notably Iraq and Syria, were cobbled together from mixtures of ethnic groups and religions at the convenience of colonial powers after World War I. Without strong central leaders, capable of trading favors with little reference to the niceties of democracy, and willing to be brutal at the sign of revolt, such countries have little chance of survival.
The favors may be traded not so much with an eye to keeping the country together as keeping families from warfare, helping a relative, or on the basis of what may be a personal whim. A lack of predictability can foil the best efforts of outsiders to understand, predict, or control, as witnessed recently in Afghanistan, to the frustration of Americans trying to shape things.
Muslim countries of the Middle East (i.e., all the countries of the region except Israel) have not absorbed the norms associated with democracy. Those include a freedom of expression and criticism, free and critical media, open political competition, and adherence to accuracy in counting votes at higher levels of credibility than have prevailed in Chicago and some other cities of the American Middle West.
Apologists for the likes of Barack Obama and Thomas Friedman who saw Arab Spring as the onset of democracy say it will come. It may take time, perhaps longer than it took for for the United States to move from religious and property qualifications for voting at its birth, through slavery and until the end to legal segregation and the benefits of affirmative action. What the American optimists overlook in forecasting a movement like their own in the Muslim Middle East is that the American revolution occurred in a political culture that had its roots in the Magna Carta, more than five centuries older than the Declaration of Independence.
The New York Times appears to be part of the Obama-Friedman chorus of democratic enthusiasts. Its item on the possible release of former president Hosni Mubarak, while former president Mohamed Morsi is facing ever more serious charges, included
"Some analysts said that even the possibility of Mr. Mubarak’s release, previously unthinkable, provided another sign of the return of his authoritarian style of government."
As if the Morsi government was something other than authoritarian.
There is more than enough in the Middle East to confuse westerners.
The initial signs are that the ascendance of an aggressive Islam has so far produced more deaths than any kind of paradise. The rebellion against central authority in Syria has produced a cacophony of groups, some apparently secular but some stridently and aggressively Islamic, against a line-up of the religiously extreme Hezbollah and Iran along with Russia supporting Assad . Christian, Druze, and Kurdish minorities that had benefited from the stability under Assad initially stayed away from the rebellion, and now may be over-represented among the refugees outside of Syria.
Egypt moved sharply toward the Islamic pole, which provoked a counter-revolution, with a continuation of violence involving not only the Muslim Brotherhood but other stridently Islamic and independent movements.
The alignment of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah on the side of the Assad regime in Syria may represent an underlying desire of Russia to maintain a strong footing in the Middle East, with Iran and its Hezbollah client willing to use Russia as a supplier of arms and a veto in the Security Council. Saudi Arabia on the side of the military in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood, and against the preoccupation of the United States with election results and civil rights, may reflect the Saudis'' concern for stability and against revolution, and their bet that the Egyptian military is the best way to assure those goals in Egypt. The Palestinian regime of the West Bank has lined up against the Palestinian regime of Gaza. Each Palestinian faction is supporting the enemy of its Palestinian enemy in Egypt.
The Egyptian commanding general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, asserts that there is no cooperation between his government and Israel. Working with the Jews is a sin in Egypt, despite that country''s other admirable qualities. The worse claim that the Muslim Brotherhood has made against el-Sisi--whether true or not--is that he has a Jewish mother.
Nonetheless the Egyptian military has already moved against Gaza, closing the border and tunnels that have moved arms in and out between Gaza and the Sinai. And the army''s escalation against the Bedouin of the Sinai may bring it even further into conflict with the Islamists of Gaza.
Egypt isn''t the only Middle East country with a Jew phobia. Turkey''s Prime Minister Erdogan has spiced up his support of theological cousins in the Muslim Brotherhood by proclaiming that the military overthrow was managed by the Israelis.
There appears to be a tiff between the US and Israel, with the Obama administration inclined to go all out for its norms of democracy in Egypt--which means tilting toward the winner of the last election--with Israel warning that such a choice is not only harmful to Israel, but is likely to harm anyone concerned about a war against terror coming from Muslim extremists.
The Kurds may be the main beneficiaries of recent months. They have gone far in Iraq toward establishing a state in everything but international recognition, and recently have been pressured in the short run, but perhaps strengthened in the long run by a growing flood of Kurdish refugees from Syria. They are going to Iraq against the background of atrocities committed against Kurds by Islamic fighters in Syria. Kurdish nationalists have their own factions that have had trouble with one another. What the awakened Kurdish nationalism will mean for Turkey is an open question, and one that threatens a spread of unrest to yet another Muslim country.
Meanwhile the world--including the United States--picks on Israel. It''s the brightest spot in the region, but has fallen victim to the aspirations to risk the good in hopes of attaining the perfect that has also led the US to condemn the Egyptian military.
Involved here is the issue of Palestine. Politically correct democratic humanists think this is the time to create another Muslim state, with who knows what capacity to arm itself and create alliances in the name of sovereignty. While the focus is currently on the not so religious regime of the West Bank, the Islamic regime of Gaza--with its leading party Hamas an off-shoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and other factions even further into the nether-land made popular by al Quaida--is proclaiming its stance against negotiating with Israel under anything like the current terms. The most moderate of the Gazan leadership has hinted that it might accept Israel without anything acquired after 1949, but even that may be far from what the Gazans would actually accept.
None of the above resembles the images of the Middle West associated with Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, or Moshe Arena.