For the past two years, Islamic extremism has been dominating the consciousness of the United States and the Western world. The rise of the Islamic State, inflammatory political rhetoric, and ethical questions about refugee placement have all brought discussion concerning the Middle East and Islam to the forefront of political discourse. However, in an age of misinformation and digitization, true understanding of this complex situation continues to elude the average voter.
Discussion in the past few months in particular has led to a resurgence of a general uneasiness that comes with trying to decipher the Middle East. It can be all too tempting for both sides of the political spectrum to let the general topic of understanding the Middle East tailspin into a simple dichotomy, one that focuses on either antagonizing or fetishizing the region.
The Middle East may seem to be a Gordian knot to the average observer. For that reason, we sat down with Dr. Will Hanley of the FSU History Department, not for politics, but to learn how the average person can begin to look at the Middle East, and begin to draw conclusions for themselves based on what they see within.
James Novello: What is your own personal academic background in regards to Middle Eastern Studies?
Dr. Will Hanley: I have a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University and a Ph.D in History from Princeton where I studied Middle Eastern History. I also spent a year’s study in Jordan, and I’ve spent substantial time also in Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey.
JN: From both your own personal and academic experience, what sets the Middle East as a whole apart from other areas of the world when it comes to analysis?
WH: Part of what I try to argue in my teaching and scholarship is that the Middle East shouldn’t be set aside from the rest of the world. It’s quite an ordinary place characterized by the same influences you find in other parts of the world, including the United States. It’s a place where the modern state and modern politics and democracy are difficult struggles people have trouble with. It is a place where religion is important to some people, while irreligion is important to some people. One of the things which makes the Middle East different from America or Europe is that it was subjected to colonial influence and continues to be subjected to world politics in a way that hurts it more than helps it. It has been the scene of a lot of wars, a lot of which are wars that focus on solving European or American issues through proxy conflicts. It’s this constant conflict that has had some severe effects on the politics and society of the region.
But as far as the ordinary lives of the people and what they want out of the states in which they live, I think there’s a lot there that is very recognizable from any society that people are familiar with.
JN: What are the most common perspectives that people in academia use to look at the Middle East?
WH: The perspective of Islam is the most popular lens, and is what I certainly talk a lot about in my teaching. Islam is a difficult phenomenon to get a handle on because it’s both similar to other religions that we are more familiar with such as Christianity, and it’s also its own entity. The Middle East is a region that has been governed by Muslims for a millennium or more, so it has a deep imprint on the state and social norms of the region. At the same time, it has, until the middle of the 20th century, been a place where there has been a lot of religious diversity. An interesting perspective is how the region went from a religiously diverse place, to a religiously homogeneous place.
There are other important questions about the region. It is a crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and has coastline on the Indian Ocean. This is very important, its geographic location as a setting. That is seen in its history as a place of empires, as an area to be colonized by others, and as an area of population movements and migrations.
More recently, the history of resources like land, water, and oil are quite vivid in the Middle East, as well as questions of decolonization, state formation, and democracy, which include struggles against authoritarianism. These are all important themes we can understand very well by looking at the Middle East.
JN: Is there a viewpoint that you believe is not utilized enough when we look at the Middle East when we try and pick apart at the complex issues that take place within it?
WH: Getting back to the theme of a relatively recognizable and ordinary place, I believe that theme is not stressed enough. There are good reasons for that. One of the main reasons is that the names of things, like places or people, are often unfamiliar to American students, as is the case in China or South Asia where the foreignness of names can make the place seem more foreign. It takes quite a while to get past that and instead look at the currents that are organized in society and in people’s lives. Only when you can get past that foreignness can you find the familiar things. That theme of familiarity or ordinariness is something that I think can help if it’s introduced early on.
After the political revolutions of 2011, it became, for a period of time, easier to talk about these similarities because there was clearly a popular democratization movement in the Middle East, which had a lot of similarities to the Occupy Wall Street movement here, making some of those links as both protesters here and in the Middle East established some of that commonality. But now, that window is closed in the Middle East, returning to some of its previous politics, and that makes it a little harder. I think that the Israel-Palestine question is another stumbling block in teaching about the Middle East; it’s often hard for people to see beyond that big issue, and see that the region has many more aspects that are perhaps much more important to understand than that question.
In my own teaching, I like to talk about law quite a bit. The law is something that operates in the lives of anybody that lives in modern states. Its operation is a way of understanding ordinary life, and everyday life, instead of high politics. So if you start looking at property law or marriage law, and consider how that operates in the lives of average people, how you acquire property, how property changes hands when states change, I see this as a useful way of understanding what goes on in the modern Middle East. People can quite rapidly understand and make parallels with their own lives, and put themselves in the place of actors they might see in the Middle East. I think law is a good means of normalizing the understandings of the Middle East.
JN: Through your teaching as a professor, why do you think that the Middle East is such a conundrum for observers from all backgrounds? Would it be a result of the foreignness that you mentioned earlier?
WH: I don’t think that anyone who spends some time thinking about it will find it to be such a strange topic or conundrum. Unfortunately, the media often doesn’t give us many tools, or much material, when we try to understand it. They like to accentuate its foreignness or imply that to understand it one would need particular expertise in order to even start to think about the Middle East. But once you have a background in the region, and watch the pundits and experts who talk about the middle east on the media, you realize they are only using a couple dozen technical terms, and using them comfortably, and by doing that, they seem to be able to exert a lot of power over listeners and readers who aren’t educated about the middle east. But it doesn’t take that much education to become familiar with those couple dozen terms, which is something that I encourage my students, even in an introductory class, to become familiar with: for example, what these pundits mean when they talk about Sunni and Shia. You begin to see quite quickly that they are mischaracterizing these terms in many cases, oversimplifying these terms. I think that the media doesn’t help us overcome this conundrum, and they do us a great disservice in that regard.
Another aspect about the Middle East that can be confusing and difficult to understand is the notion that it is a problem to be solved, and that the United States has a role to play in solving this problem. I believe that way of thinking is unhelpful on two accounts. The first is that the problems that the Middle East is facing are similar to the problems the whole world is facing. These are problems which are produced by power imbalances, by lack of democracy, by racism, by poverty, by oppression of various kinds, religious extremism, but these are found everywhere in the world. That is one side, and the other is that the United States in terms of its foreign policy has claimed to be solving this problem, but the solution is never forthcoming. Britain and France claimed to be solving this problem hundreds of years ago, and they’re not really offering a solution either, they’re working in their own interests.
Again, framing the Middle East as a problem to be solved helps elites and powerful people to be able to undertake their projects there, but what they do rarely has anything to do with solving problems in the Middle East. Certainly, if the claim is sustained that there is a problem that the United States or European powers are solving in the Middle East, and it doesn’t get solved for 150 years, of course this is a confusing situation and a conundrum. That’s because there is a lack of honesty and clarity over what these imperialistic undertakings are in the Middle East.
JN: Most people act very confused in terms of what these actors in the Middle East do. You’ll find that many people critique their own governments for their respective state’s actions within the Middle East. How could a citizen of one of these major actors educate themselves in regards to what their country’s aims are in the Middle East?
WH: That undertaking requires you to do a couple of things. We can presume that you’ve already absorbed what the foreign policy officials, the state department, say their aims are, and that information is fairly easy to gather. A historian would say to look at what the United States has done in the past, and compare that to the present. I think you see a relative consistency, the same sort of message being passed around, and then you ask why this message doesn’t change, why there isn’t flexibility, reaction, or revision within this message. Thinking about that will make you ask questions, which will help you understand what the real aims of the United States may be.
For instance, the United States for decades has called for democratization in the Middle East. It has called for popular rule, pluralist politics, but the assistance that they have offered has not delivered many results, and in many cases they have continued to support authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships. The public in the Middle East is not naïve about this, and has come to mistrust the official rhetoric from the United States. This is another way that ordinary citizens can think about American objectives, and see the results of these objectives.
The same can be said about war, obviously. Looking quite carefully at what states get military aid and get funding, and are called into alliances with the United States is important when looking at the policies of these countries. From there, it is useful to try to read some of the media from many of these states. Not really the official media, but the more popular media and academic commentary that comes out of these states about American policy. There are lots on the internet, and it’s easy to find information like this. There’s a very good site called Jadaliyya, which has a large volume of commentary from all over the Middle East, but there are many other sites besides. Without accepting this commentary at face value, I think it provides a good counterpoint to the official story that we hear from government sources. I’ll say too that one of the manifestations of undemocratic or weak politics, or people not having a political voice, is propensity to go in for conspiracy theories, and you see that a lot out of commentary on Middle East politics. A lot of these are ridiculous, and not to be trusted, and many of them refer to American policy aims, but there doesn’t have to be a conspiracy or complex plan in place for there to be something unfair, wrong, or unjust going on. Injustice creates its own bizarre conspiracy, the things that could be read as conspiracy theories. I think it’s a lot more useful to see conspiracy theories as sort of false manifestations of real weakness or real lack of voice. While it can be tempting to follow commentators down the conspiracy theory line, it’s better not to do that and get stuck on the details, but think instead about the general process which alienates people from more genuine, realistic politics, and makes them take refuge in these bizarre conspiracy stories.
WH: I’ve found that a helpful way of moving beyond these stories which are patently false, but are coming from people whose predicament I feel sorry for, so what do you do with that? I think you should ignore the implausible bits, and try to think about what more realistic politics would look like for these people.
JN: What do you believe is the best way to educate someone about how to look at the Middle East, or even the international spectrum as a whole?
WH: I think the key for Americans is to recognize the diversity in our own society, and to recognize that we live in an international society, even in a city like Tallahassee: that there are people who are different, that there is tremendous diversity within this city and the society we live in. And to try to understand that diversity within our own society. There are thousands of people living here who have lived in the Middle East. They all have their own take on things, and have a real understanding of the place. But we have segregation and compartmentalization in our own society here that prevents us from learning from these people. If we can’t do it within our own communities, it’s much more difficult to do it on a global scale.
A first step is to engage the diversity in our own communities, and be open to living with others in that way. From there, I think having an open minded curiosity is the most useful way to learn about any sort of topic. Certainly most historians think that the more you think you know about a topic, the less successful has been your education, and that the more you know about a topic, the more you see its complexity. Understanding complexity and suspending a desire to give clear answers about things is a sign about a deeper and maybe more nuanced understanding of a topic.
Certainly, the more people learn about the Middle East, the less and less that it exists as a distinct region that is markedly different from the United States, which is also a pretty diverse object in and of itself. So I hope that people who want to learn about the Middle East will approach it with an attitude that there are no clear, simple answers, and learning about it means gathering a bunch of stories and impressions from different corners, and holding on to the contradictions between those stories, and reconciling yourself to these contradictions in order to come away with a complex and nuanced understanding of a region of the world.