The West frequently gets things wrong in the Middle East because it projects its own ideology and terminology on Middle Eastern developments, argued Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren at a recent Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies event.
“[If] you portray reality in your terminology, that becomes an imagined reality. That happens a lot in the Middle East.” UCLA International Institute, March 15, 2017
— Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren argued that the West is failing to understand tumultuous developments in the Middle East because it defines these developments in its own terms. Koren, a Middle East scholar and former Israeli diplomat in Egypt, South Sudan and Nepal and other countries, delivered a wide-ranging speech — “A New Framework for Thinking about the Middle East” at the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies
on March 6. The event was cosponsored by the Center for Middle East Development
and Center for Near Eastern Studies
The speaker warned the West against projecting its own world view on the region. “You can’t force your ideology and terminology on somebody else,” said Koren. “When we [try] to use our point of view and think that others share the same idea, we are not correctly interpreting reality,” he said. “[If] you portray reality in your terminology, that becomes an imagined reality,” he added. “That happens a lot in the Middle East.”
Koren cited the term “Arab Spring” as a good illustration of this analytical problem, noting that “spring” was a reference to the political revolutions of 1848 in Europe (known as the “Spring of Nations.”) Rather than “Arab Spring,” Koren suggested “Arab Shaking” might be a better term, given that “spring” has no resonance in Arabic or in Middle Eastern political history more generally.
In the same way, he said, the West’s expectation that political change in the region can lead to democracy — both following the colonial period and today — severely underestimates the long process needed to move from societies based on clan and tribal relationships to societies based on modern political relationships. Democracy, he argued, is a state of mind, an educational system and many other factors. “You cannot expect that in one day, all outcomes will be democracy,” he remarked.
Israel, he said, cannot condition its relations on other countries becoming democracies. “We cannot choose our neighbors. If we would like to make peace, we must make peace with those very neighbors,” he continued. “We cannot preach democracy and human rights to them…. We don’t need to dictate anything to them.”
Borders and identity: The two constants of modern Middle East
According to the speaker, borders and identity have been the two constants of Middle Eastern politics since the end of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since that time, he said, the region has experienced a long process of continuity and change, discounting the word “revolution” as a misnomer for this ongoing process.
Since the end of the 19th century, said the speaker, Arab nations in the region have attempted to create new identities based on the nation state, a process in which they have been influenced by both pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. Most modern states in the Middle East gained their independence from colonial powers in the 1940s, with the exception of Sudan, which achieved independence in 1956. Expectations of democracy were quickly dashed and in many cases, great instability followed, said Koren. The legitimacy of the Arab states, he commented, tended to be rooted in either monarchy (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco) or the rule of commoners who rose through the military ranks (e.g., Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Yemen).
After Egypt fought three wars against Israel with other Arab powers— the Arab-Israeli War (Israeli War of Independence) of 1947–48, the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 — it eventually concluded a full peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Shortly thereafter, Koren said the 1979 Iranian Revolution shifted the dynamic of the region from the Arab-Israeli conflict to an “Islamic-Jewish” or “Islamic-Israeli” conflict, in which the Iran sought to destroy Israel because it was a Jewish state.
Iran began to use armed proxies in the region to advance its interests and oppose Israel, making radical Islam the main issue in the region during the 1980s. Iran, said Koren, worked an anti-Israeli axis based on the Assad dynasty in Syria. This strategy, he continued, allowed Iran to challenge Israel from the north (through Hezbollah in Syria) and from the east and south (through Hamas in Syria, the Golan Heights and eventually, Gaza), while giving it time to pursue a nuclear weapons program.
Today, said the speaker, the region (and the world) is experiencing both Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” and a “fight for the soul of Muslims,” which he defined as a struggle “between the crazy minority who believes in jihad and most Muslims, who are normal people and believe in a normal life.” The same fight in the West, he said, “is for the soul of the Muslim youth, over whether or not they can be radicalized.” The Islamic world is further riven, he said, by a Shi’a-Sunni split in which both sides think nothing of depicting the other as “worse than the Jews” — an epithet Koren defined as “supposedly the worst insult in the Middle East.”
Meanwhile, the U.S has largely retreated from the region. In Koren’s view, the U.S. is now viewed as unreliable by actors throughout the region either because it withdrew its support from Egyptian President Mubarak in 2011, or because it concluded a nuclear agreement with Iran against the wishes of its allies (both Israel and Arab Gulf allies) or because it attempted to use Qatar and Turkey to mediate the last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Today, he said, Israel and the Sunni Arab nations — with the exception of Qatar — find themselves in a loose coalition based on two shared security interests: opposing the hegemonic aspirations of Iran and eliminating radical terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda. The result, he added, has been unparalleled military cooperation with Egypt.
Noting that the current crisis in the Middle East offered both tremendous opportunities as well as risks, Koren implied that Israel must remain vigilant to the fragile nature of its current de facto alliance. It is imperative, he said, to remember that just six to seven years ago, Israel was considering a peace agreement with President Bashar al Assad of Syria to maintain peace.