The Region: East and West

There can be great virtue in being unable to understand the Middle East.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
A fascinating way to improve one's understanding of the Middle East is to try to explain the region to people from a totally different culture and history. I've done this in several far-flung places around the world, but visiting Thailand provides a particularly interesting example of the particularity and, in global terms, bizarre nature of the Middle East. Of course, many people in Asia have fewer preconceptions about the region because Hindus and Buddhists do not have the links to the Holy Land or what might even be called the Holy Region, a factor which so affects Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinking. While there are some strategic interests in the area, they also tend to be less than in many other places. There are certainly economic links, notably the flow of tens of thousands of workers to the area and the dependence on energy from the region. On the former issue, many of the workers go to the Persian Gulf, where low pay by local standards brings relatively large savings when brought back home. In Israel alone, there are an estimated 30,000 Thai laborers. As for oil and natural gas, China's modernization effort, to cite one example, is largely dependent on Middle Eastern energy imports. THEN THERE is another Middle Eastern export: terrorism and radical Islamism. At first glance, it is surprising that this has become a major problem in Thailand. But the country's Muslim population is 10 percent, mostly concentrated in the far south. To compound the issue, there is an ethnic distinction involved, as well. Ethnic Thais are about 70% of the population, while the Muslims are Malays, the same community as the one dominating neighboring Malaysia. In recent years, Thailand has played unwilling host to what is probably the most mysterious Islamist terrorist movement in the world. There is no group, no apparent leadership, no demands and no clear evidence of external support. Yet Buddhists in the south are being murdered on a regular basis in particularly gruesome ways, including workers at rubber plantations, peddlers bicycling down lonely roads and students walking to school. The death toll is already between 2,000 and 2,500 and the situation has gotten so bad that Buddhists are starting to leave the area - presumably one of the terrorists' main goals. There have been a few terrorist attacks even in Bangkok, the capital, where 20% of the country's 68 million people live. The army rules Thailand in a military junta and plans are just starting for a return to civilian rule. Yet this is by no means a repressive or militaristic system. Everything is done in the name of the king, who this year is celebrating both his 80th birthday and his 60th year on the throne. This military wants to avoid any impression that it is "occupying" the south, and so is treading very cautiously in dealing with the problem. It is not yet considered to be a war, but that time may come. WHAT ARE some of the characteristics of Thailand that make it so difficult for its leaders and intellectuals to understand the Middle East? They are actually virtues, though some might open them up to suffering. One is the clear sense of pragmatism that animates the country. While Thailand has many problems and real poverty, it has also made remarkable progress. Moreover, it has a good record of solving internal disputes and avoiding problems with neighbors. For Thais, it could not be more obvious that problems should be examined in practical, logical terms in order to find solutions without resort to fanaticism or ideology. How could people choose to flatten their own countries? Several Asian countries have achieved outstanding successes in moving toward democracy and raising living standards by hard work and a willingness to make changes. In almost every positive category of social and economic statistics, Asia is ahead of the Middle East. To comprehend that pragmatism is rejected by most of the Middle East, in terms of governments and movements, intellectuals and institutions, simply does not make sense to Asians. Second, is an open-handed acceptance of Westernization, modernization and globalization. Thais have long accepted the idea that they can learn a lot from the West and import ideas and cultural items without fear of destruction. Again, there are real problems - the most famous one being the sex industry - yet no one doubts that this is the proper path. ONE IS LEFT with the startling conclusion that many of the biggest defenders of Western civilization today are found in Africa and Asia. These are people who, having experienced or seen war, poverty, and oppression at close-hand, believe they have found a way to achieve something better. Again, this is an approach far different from what is seen in the Middle East - much to its detriment. Third, alongside this Western-oriented approach is Asians' strong sense of security regarding their identity. Listening to classical music, reading Shakespeare or wearing Western clothes do not make them frightened of ceasing to be who they are. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Japan, though South Korea, the Philippines, and even China are also case studies of the ability to mix one's own culture, system or ideas with those of the West, with great gain. This is quite different from the Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority world. On more than one occasion, Arab friends have told me about discussions they have had with people in China or Japan. One conversation went like this: "How do you feel about having been the victims of Western imperialism for so many years?" a Chinese official was asked. "We got over it and moved on with our lives," was the response. There is a lot of wisdom in the Asian approach to these matters. In some ways, these people are very lucky that they do not understand the Middle East. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.