Map of Middle East.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is strange that we still call the Middle East by the name given to it by the British colonial empire over a hundred years ago. Despite decades of decolonization, the establishment of independent states and the growing power of the oil economies taking their political affairs into their own hands, the name has stuck. Even the countries of the region use this term, forgetting that the name is no more than a relative geographical term used by the European powers of the past century to define the region located between the Near East and the Far East, regions of far greater importance in the world politics of the nineteenth century.
It was only with the discovery of oil in the latter part of the nineteenth century, along with the construction of the Suez Canal enabling easier and quicker access for ships and their cargoes from Europe through to the Indian Ocean that the region became transformed from one of little importance to the European powers of the time to one of growing strategic significance. Unclear as to what it should be called, consisting of a number of micro-regions such as the Levant on the Mediterranean Coast and the Arabian desert further to the east, it was all lumped under a single term, denoting its location with respect to those countries and empires which still controlled large swaths of the world.
It was nothing if not colonial, depicting the strong Eurocentrism of world power at that time.
In his ongoing analysis of what he terms the world’s “shatterbelts,” those regions constituting sites of instability and ferment, American political geographer Saul B. Cohen has, over a period of almost 50 years, always included the Middle East in his list. Indeed, while other regions of instability come and go, the Middle East is the only region which has remained a constant “shatterbelt” in his constant re-evaluations of changing world politics every 10 to 15 years.
It is a region which lies at the very interface of continents and cultures, especially that part of the region – the Levant and Palestine – with which readers of this paper will be most acquainted. Modern Israel is located at the geographical meeting point of Europe, Africa and Asia and their respective cultures, and is the place where the three great monotheistic religions of the world – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – trace their historical origins, locate their most sacred sites and fight with each other for exclusivity and ultimate hegemony.
No amount of post-World War II discourses of human rights, “understanding the other” and celebrating difference has done anything to make the religious and cultural conflict of the Middle East any easier to deal with. In recent years we have witnessed a significant growth in religious fundamentalism where, contrary to the idealized teachings and slogans of brotherly (and sisterly) love, religion has become transformed into the narrative of conflict, hatred, violence and a disdain of the other – not only of other religions but also of those within one’s own religion who do not behave according to the most stringent and orthodox standards.
In short, the Middle East is perceived as the region within which many of the world’s most pressing problems remain unresolved and where its populations and governments have failed to engage in the discourse of modernity. We have witnessed a retrogression in recent years, as the messages of fundamentalism have become even more powerful than they were just 20 years ago, and where messages of world peace and reconciliation are as far removed from the daily agenda of both peoples and governments, as is the mythical coming of the Messiah (each of course has its own Messiah who, when eventually arriving, will demonstrate the single truth of their own religion as all others will be vanquished).
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Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict will not bring about a magical end to the current regional instability, although it may go a long way to calming parts of the region and refocusing the global dimension of the problem on what is clearly a “clash of civilizations,” a clash which most of us refused to believe in when it was first suggested by international relations expert Samuel Huntingdon 25 years ago. His book, which was obligatory reading for students in the 1990s, if only to refute his arguments, has returned with a vengeance as world politics has reached a point of ferment which none of us – politicians, diplomats, academics and media analysts – predicted or foresaw throughout the transitional period. Just as no one predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, this raises serious questions concerning the power of analysis on the part of people we label “experts” and the amount of resources that we pour into funding their research which, we would hope, would have greater predictability value over and beyond alternative understandings of the past – when it is too late to change things and when, so it would appear, we are not very good at learning or taking lessons from history.
The region which was dismissed for so long by the European powers, and about which we remained ignorant for much of the subsequent period, content to do business with local despots and dictators so long as they ensured stable relations with the Western world and the uninterrupted flow of oil for the benefit of our economies, has become an even bigger and more volatile shatterbelt than the one described by Cohen in his geopolitical analyses.
Israel, located at the very heart of this geopolitical shatterbelt, is unclear as to whether it is located (geographically) in the East, or (culturally) in the West. Are we part of the Middle East or are we an outlier of Europe? Are we part of the hybrid region linking Europe to the Middle East, known as the Mediterranean, with a mix of cultures and religions which rejects exclusion and which attempts to bring peoples together? It requires a greater understanding of the internal human and cultural complexities of this region if we wish to see Israel develop in any other way than as “fortress Israel,” surrounded by walls and fences and, in effect dislocated from, and threatened by, the geographical region within which we are located, a geopolitical outlier in the midst of a hostile environment.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences and professor of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.
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