Essentializing the Middle East

By Othman O'Malley

I have had many conversations on the Arab and Muslim world during my college career. There are few things that give me as much pleasure as a long conversation on the region. I have been thinking about what most of those conversations focused on. Naturally, most of these conversations covered Islam, Iraq, terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While these are important topics, I fear that I have at times committed the grave sin of essentializing the Middle East. Essentializing in this context is the act of boiling down an entire society into a few essential components that adhere to our preconceived notions of what that society is.

At times, a number of my views have been based on a convenient framework of the region and I have overlooked some of the subtleties that may counter my views. I acknowledge this mistake and will also say that it is unavoidable. On any issue, one must create some framework in order to discuss it. We must balance the imperative of discourse that is partially based on generalizations with the realization that they have their limits.

I have found that all too often, conservative commentators in the Arab media will hamstring an argument concerning say, women’s rights, by forcing one to consider every little instance where women’s rights in the West were violated. The conversation becomes a manifesto on the impropriety of swimsuits instead of a discussion on the widespread discrimination against women in Arab and Muslim societies.

In a similar vein, many well-intentioned liberals will make arguments that claim that we are imposing our values on the Middle East, values that are inherently incompatible with theirs. I cannot count how many times I have heard that any suggestion that there are deep flaws in Arab and Muslim societies is an overt act of imperialism.

The Enlightenment, belief in secular government, and a commitment to human rights, are as applicable to the Middle East as they are to the West and have been advocated by many Arab and Muslim intellectuals.

These fundamental values do not apply exclusively to the societies that articulated them. Hence, one cannot have Islamic human rights any more than one can have Christian agriculture. Some ideas are universal and I sincerely believe, as should all of us, that these are values are not inherently incompatible with any society or culture.

That said, there must be room for pragmatism and understanding. The differences between Arab and Muslim societies and the West are very real and it does not do us much good to try to fit triangles into squares. If Iraq has taught us anything, it is that spreading democracy has its limitations. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars, lost 4,000 of our soldiers, and tens of thousands more wounded, only to end up with a weak and fragmented phantom that we now call the Iraqi Government. Think of it as a very expensive and mangled triangle.

Iraq is an example of the limits of essentializing a culture. I remember quite vividly during the early stages of the war, a number of “experts” in our media were fond of describing “the Arab mind.”

They would say with furrowed eyebrows and straight faces that the Arabs respected force, and that if we showed them who is boss, the Iraqis would be cowed into submission and would appreciate the wonderful gift that we have bestowed on them. We can all safely say that this is not how things panned out. We must always guard against advocating values without the participation of the very people whom we are addressing.

This is why disengaging from Iraq right now is a mistake. We are now seeing a number of Iraqis that want to break out of the sectarian tailspin and restore order and bring prosperity to their country. As long as there are Iraqis committed to a unified, sovereign and prosperous Iraq, we must stay and help in any way we can.

You may have noticed that even as I write this column, I have used generalizations. I have used “The West,” “The East” and others that purport to describe hundreds of millions of people. We must be mindful of the limits of these terms and phrases.

At the same time, let us not shy away from the claim that the ideals of democracy, human rights and freedom of conscience are universal. Any society that practices them is better for it.

Othman is a senior in political science and recommends that you read “Orientalism” by Edward Said.