The New Middle East Narrative -- Is Washington in or Out?

by Sharmine Narwani Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies. 10.01.2011

Picking up a copy of the English-language Daily Star in Beirut this summer, I was struck by the lead story. A photo of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by his Arab counterparts, accompanied this huge headline: "Arab Nations Applaud Turkey's Erdogan for Tough Stand on Israel."

What a truly pitiful sight it was.

What is it about the psyche of Arab leaders and nationals that prevents them from making the same "stand," I wondered?

In part, just as an observer, it is clear to me that there is still a strong stench of "defeatism" that lingers heavily in the air around much of the Arab Mideast -- a negativity that has been canonized in works of literature and has become deeply embedded in Arab public discourse, including commentary, mass media -- and even academic conferences, where more critical thinking should prevail.

Knowing that the Arabs are busy creating their own cages, the increasingly right-wing and militant Israeli political body seems to eke out its latest appalling policies a little at a time to train us collectively to accept a new bar for bad behavior. Arabs protest in one loud shout, then defeatedly scurry back to an ever-shrinking existence.


Non-Arab Turkey and Iran
This condition does not afflict the Iranians or the Turks. Innovative and proud in the face of western attempts to isolate it, and US/Israeli attempts to define it, Iran has managed to forge its own path based on perceived national interests, and churns out world-class achievements in many fields:

A 2010 Canadian report on "geo-political shift in knowledge creation" claims scientific output has grown11 times faster in Iran than the world average, faster than any other country (Turkey ranks high in the data, too). Progress in science, medicine and technology outpaces most developing nations -- whether in AIDS research, nanotechnology, biotechnology, genetics, nuclear technology or aerospace. Iran's remarkable film industry generates award-winning art films the world around -- in Venice, Cannes and Toronto. The Islamic Republic of Iran has crafted such a creative health-care system to deal with critical problems like infant and maternal mortality that the state of Mississippi has requested special permission from the US Department of State to bring in Iranian experts to teach them how to do the same. When sanctions are slapped on Tehran, Iranian entrepreneurs manufacture the banned goods themselves. When the Afghani and Pakistani drug trade seems to overwhelm Iran's borders, the Islamist government shrugs off religious myopia and sets up needle exchange programs, free methadone prescriptions, and the distribution of condoms to promote safe sex. Proactive, self-preserving behaviors serving a self-defined national interest -- not something you see often in the Arab world.

Turkey defies all stereotypes as a Muslim-majority country on the edge of the Middle East. A staunchly secular nation as defined by its constitution, it has nevertheless demonstrated genuine democracy by allowing the participation of a progressive, Islamist-leaning political party. It is ironic that this party has been the one to make the groundbreaking, democratizing improvements in its political structures to facilitate its bid to join the EU, an effort backed by Washington. Turkey is as much at ease with the US, Russia and China as it is with Iran, Brazil and India, and has redefined the possibilities of global diplomacy as it inserts itself proactively into power-brokering conflicts the world around. A major tourist destination and now a real economic hub in the various regions it borders, Turkey too has carved its own destiny, independent of others, yet in tight cooperation with all.

So what happened to the Arabs? Is it the use of the collective term "Arab" that waters down this ethnic group's possibilities? Surely if they were only defined as Algerians, Lebanese, Tunisians, Kuwaitis, Jordanians, it would be easier to break out of a pack malaise? Or do they have to get even smaller -- Bedouins, Hashemites, Christians, Druze, Alawites, etc.?

Assassinated Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir once wrote that Arabs are "haunted by a sense of powerlessness":

Powerless to be what you think you should be. Powerless to act to affirm your existence in the face of the Other who denies your right to exist, despises you and has once again reasserted his domination over you. Powerless to suppress the feeling that you are no more than a lowly pawn on the global chessboard even as the game is being played in your backyard.


And this is the crux of the matter. The Arab has been defined by the Other. So successfully in fact, that most Arabs speak amongst themselves using a narrative that has been constructed by others, external to the region.

To be sure, there is a local defeatist industry that has sprung up organically from lost wars, corrupt systems and bad leadership, but it is perpetuated by the impotence that comes from this Other narrative.

What do I mean? Let's focus on the discourse surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a prime example:


Language to Tame and Control
The United States and Israel have created the global discourse on this longstanding and contentious dispute. They have set stringent parameters that grow increasingly narrow regarding the content and direction of this debate. And anything discussed outside the set parameters has, until recently, widely been viewed as unrealistic, unproductive and even subversive.

Participation in the debate is limited only to those who prescribe to the tenets of the discourse -- in this case, it is the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, the Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis, and a smattering of other "defeatist" Arab leaders who are happy to serve our interests over theirs.

These tenets include the acceptance of Israel, its regional hegemony and its qualitative military edge, acceptance of the shaky logic upon which the Jewish state's claim to Palestine is based, and acceptance of the inclusions and exclusion of certain regional parties, movements and governments in any solution to the conflict.


Words are the Building Blocks of Psychology
The language parameters that come into play to shape the discourse are largely based on these three tenets, although undoubtedly there are others. Words like dove, hawk, militant, extremist, moderates, terrorists, Islamo-fascists, rejectionists, existential threat, holocaust-denier, mad mullah determine the participation of solution partners -- and are capable of instantly excluding others.

Then there is the language that preserves "Israel's Right To Exist" unquestioningly: anything that invokes the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and the myths about historic Jewish rights to the land described as Eretz Yisrael. This language seeks not only to ensure that a Jewish connection to Palestine remains unquestioned, but importantly, seeks to punish and marginalize those who tackle the legitimacy of this modern colonial-settler experiment.

And finally, there is the language that suggests Israel's "value" to the world: Americans often cite "common" or "shared" values, or "Judeo-Christian" values, the "only democracy in the Middle East," a bulwark against Islamism (which increasingly addresses all Muslims), tyranny, autocratic rulers and native savagery -- for which many other terms and nefarious concepts are invoked, i.e., suicide-bombers, Palestinian lack of value for life, willingness to sacrifice their children, human rights violations rampant in the Arab and Islamic worlds, etc.

Further to these three main areas where parameters have been effectively set, there are concepts and language that have been institutionalized through international agreements and conditions determined by the "powers that be." Whether it is refusing to deal with parties who do not accept Israel, Quartet principles, renunciation of violence -- or -- the stream of US-brokered agreements starting from Madrid to Oslo, Annapolis and so forth -- these concepts create further hurdles that seem impossible to counter, so often are they repeated in Washington, Tel Aviv, London, Paris, Riyadh, Cairo, Amman and elsewhere.

In effect, the US, Israel and a small, largely powerless coterie of others have created insurmountable parameters in dealing with the Palestinian-Israel issue within the international arena. Yes, that means no peace ever, just a pressure-free Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. This is the only "game" in town.

But that is only so long as this narrative is allowed to continue.


The New Middle East
And suddenly that change is here. The handful of Arabs that have raised a new vocabulary are a mixed lot, with different political leanings, historical experiences and religious traditions. But they bring with them a psychology of potential -- or as we may call it, the "audacity of hope" -- the first time since the nationalist leadership of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser that the views of influential Arab leaders actually resonate with the public masses.

It is the first transformative post-Cold War shift the region has seen in its centers of influence and power. A development almost entirely lost on think tankers and policy wonks in Washington -- and within the Middle East's old guard who cling to yesterday's narratives for their very legitimacy.

From Qatar to Hezbollah to Syria, we are now seeing a language of "pride" -- a desire to forge a new narrative of possibilities. These entities are not complaining about the status quo -- economic, political, social stagnation -- they are offering solutions.

And not grandiose, hard to live up to remedies, but incremental, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other problem busters. They are crossing borders to solicit assistance, utilizing public and private diplomacy to characterize their new direction, and employing collective strategies to strengthen their hand.

Trade is increasing with "value" partners -- like-minded nations interested in creating clout through commerce and broadening political independence through market diversification.

Take a look at Qatar. A tiny Arab nation in the Persian Gulf with a native population of less than 300,000 and huge gas reserves, Doha has done the unthinkable. The largest US military base in the region is stationed there alongside arguably the least censored major media outlet in both the East and West, Al Jazeera -- and it will be hosting the first World Cup in the entire Middle East in 2022. Outpacing staunch US ally Saudi Arabia in leaps and bounds, the Qataris have adopted women's suffrage, introduced a new Constitution, established education as a cornerstone of their growth strategy (Georgetown University and Cornell now have campuses there), are diversifying their economy well beyond dependency on energy resources, and even opened limited relations with Israel until the Gaza war put a swift end to that goodwill gesture. A homegrown vision and a determination to act in its own interest -- not some fantasy, regional, brotherhood lockstep -- is what drives Qatar and others who embrace new narratives in the Middle East.

The narratives now taking hold in the region will create innovative, homegrown solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, broken governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, arms control, nuclear proliferation, Salafist extremism, water rights, human rights, representative government, refugee crises, economic growth, border issues and other impediments to real progress.

It was not Washington's input that was necessary to form governments in Lebanon and Iraq after elections -- the deals were struck with the assistance of Riyadh, Damascus and Tehran. And it will not be the State Department that will ultimately solve the Palestine-Israeli issue either. I predict an entirely homegrown solution to that enduring conflict -- the idea will come from the region, if not the enforcing of it.

Importantly, the new narratives have opened up "possibilities" already. We are seeing this in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain recently -- populations suddenly deciding that they will strive for change; that the status quo has not served them well. Local corruption and economic, political and social decay are the root causes of this popular dissent, but it would be foolish not to recognize that these have been fueled by a new "chutzpah" derived from watching uncensored news (Al Jazeera) for the first time -- or bursting with pride at a perceived Israeli loss against Hezbollah in 2006 -- or frankly, just watching Turkey and Iran curb external hegemonic aspirations in the region. These events have inspired pride and honor in a part of the world that values these attributes highly.

This Mideast's new centers of influence are progressive ones. Yet we still quite deliberately cast them as militant, destabilizing, worrisome. They may threaten our exclusive hegemony, but if our goal still remains access to resources, we are better served by befriending and cooperating with the region's newest power brokers, than by alienating them at a time when our stock is falling globally.

The bottom line is that these regional actors are the only ones that can help preserve the peace and open up markets in the Middle East. If Washington does not recognize these developments, the new regional narrative will forge ahead without us, and we will be excluded until we learn some respect.


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