In his State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama stumbled into a minefield of semantics and umbrage. Speaking about the Middle East’s current conflicts, he claimed the region was “going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” The seemingly blasé sentence with its typical Obamism of non-committal language, ruffled feathers among a legion of people on Twitter, who accused the US President of “Orientalism” and using “reductionist” and “essentialist” views of the poor benighted Middle East.
Al-Jazeera cooed that Obama had been “schooled” by those who know better.
Max Fisher at Vox claimed the sentenced was “cringe-worthy.” All his PhD friends, he claimed, had “beat me to it,” skewering the President. You see, “the Middle East’s conflicts almost all date within the past century, and many have their roots within Obama’s own lifetime,” claimed Fisher. The Sunni-Shia sectarian violence in Iraq doesn’t date from the 7th century, but rather from “1979 onward.” Zach Carter, a “senior political economy reporter” at Huffington Post, was one of those schooling the President, claiming, as others parroted, that the conflicts really are only 100 years old.
You could be forgiven for being confused.
According to all these experts, commentators, and people with PhDs, anyone who implies the Middle East has “ancient hatreds” is playing into a racist view that sees the region as brutish and savage merely because it is different. Therefore it’s a cynical manipulation to excuse the current violence in the region by pretending it is just “how it has always been” and thus cannot be “fixed”. In this narrative, the Middle East was largely a peaceful region until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the arrival of the European powers who carved up the region and gave it illogical borders. This narrative pegs all the problems of the region on treaties like Sykes-Picot in 1916, that catered to European interests, rather than the locals. This Orientalism is thus doubly brutal, because it means the Europeans caused most of the region’s problems and then those like Obama claim the region has “ancient hatreds.” In fact, the region was peaceful and only outsiders cause its problems? It’s clear why any challenge to this myth in the ivory tower would be toxic, for it would go against the Eurocentric view that all the world’s problems boil down to European colonialism.
What if the real Orientalism is this constant attempt to pretend the Middle East doesn’t have the same problems as the rest of the world, and this constant coddling of it? The vicious religious bigotry, ethnic cleansing and mass murder, the unparalleled intolerance in the region, which is the world capital of beheading people for blasphemy, stoning women, selling people into slavery and blowing up religious buildings, is all supposedly part of an Orientalist plot. No other region in the world would be permitted to be subjected to such a lack of robust critique if it engaged in the absolute hatreds that are common in the Middle East. If people were sold into slavery in South America, Europe or Asia, there would be no coddling. If Ahmadiya Muslims were persecuted in Europe the way they are in Pakistan we would shout “Islamophobia,” yet with Pakistan it is excused.
You can test this by simply repeating Obama’s phrase about European history.
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Had he been talking about the world wars or conflict between Germany and its neighbors and said the continent was “going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” would Obama have been bashed for being a racist “reductionist”? He might be chided for being partly incorrect, since the causes of any mass conflict can be ascribed to many factors. But whatever is happening in Europe today has roots going back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The fact is that the current sectarian violence in the Middle East does have its roots in hundreds of years of intolerance and war.
The martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed at Karbala in 680 is commemorated throughout the Shia Islamic world on the day of Ashura. To pretend that the entire world of Shia Islam, commemorating the murder of Husayn and his band of followers by the Ummayad Caliphs in 680, somehow only created tensions in the 20th century is to be willfully blind. Shia Islam didn’t come to dominate Iran by love and sweetness, it was part of a forcible conversion of the country by its Safavid rulers in 1501. Someone cheeky has even modified the Wikipedia page titled ‘Safavid conversion of Iran’, defining it as making it the “spiritual bastion of Shia Islam against the onslaughts of Sunni Islam, and the repository of Persian cultural traditions and self-awareness of Iranianhood.”
One of the closest parallels we have in Western history to the vicious sectarian conflict in the Middle East today between Sunni extremists, such as al-Qaida, Boko Haram, the Taliban and Islamic State, and Iranian-backed Shia militias, are the wars of religion that were fought in Europe in the 16-17th centuries. Consider the current disposition of forces across the Middle East.
We know that the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 transformed the power of otherwise persecuted and poor Shia communities into forces of irredentism. From there it is a percolating march to the current setup where Iran and its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen have re-made the Middle East and are fighting a series of proxy wars with the Sunni regimes led by Saudi Arabia.
Obama was right when he said that this will play out over a generation, but he has underestimated. The Protestant Reformation, whose symbolic beginning was the nailing of the 95 theses by Martin Luther to the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517, took years to play out. The “wars of religion” fought in Europe between 1524 and 1648, of which the Thirty Years’ War was the final ghastly chapter, should be seen as an entree into what is happening in the Middle East. Without taking the parallel too far, the fact is that the war being waged today that is breaking apart Syria and Iraq, is similar in its remaking of the regional order as the Thirty Years’ War was.
That war destroyed large swathes of Germany, reducing populations by up to 30 or 40 percent in some districts, not so dissimilar to what has happened in Syria. It brought in all the European powers of the day from Russia to Spain, Austria, France, Sweden, the Ottomans, Prussia, Hungary and many others.
The viciousness of the conflict, compared to other European conflicts before then was due to the religious nature of it.
This brings us back to the question of Orientalism and the “ancient hatreds” in the Middle East. One could be “reductionist” and say European wars of religion had deep roots, or one could be sweet and say that it had only loose roots exploited and manipulated by outsiders. No one does the Middle East any great service by continually obscuring the worsening trends in the region. They can whine “Orientalism” all they want, but it is not racist to point out the truth about the current conflict in the region and its long-term effects. It will take generations for the current wars to play themselves out.
One can wax poetic about the good old days in Baghdad when everything was diversity and tolerance, but those days, for whatever reason are no more. Perhaps they never truly were, but either way the rose-colored glasses have been smashed. There is no “fix” for the current mass-violence and deriving of millions into refugee camps in the region.
Ancient cities have been laid waste, from Yemen to Syria. They are not coming back, probably ever. The unique ethnic mix of areas will never be the same again.
Rather than playing “gotcha” with the Obama’s speech, people would do well to stop pretending the Middle East is something other than what it is. It is a place of ancient hatreds and incredible intolerance, not unprecedented in human history, but with much in common with the darkest periods of human history. If you are not given to coddling and excusing the massacres of the wars of religion in Europe, the massacres of people and slaughtering of communities, then don’t ignore it in the Middle East.
Be cognizant, it will take generations to heal, there is no “fix” for the conflicts we are seeing today.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman
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