Opinion
Americans harbor basic misconceptions about Middle East
Old Gold & Black
By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, November 3, 2016

The incisive journalist Scott Anderson paid a visit to Wake Forest on Oct. 26 to discuss his landmark narrative for the “New York Times Magazine” entitled “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart.”

When this piece first came out in August, many people, including me, were anxious to read it.

They were anxious both in the positive connotation of the word, seeing as the article was the longest in the history of “The New York Times Magazine” and would surely be a complex and powerful narrative of why the Middle East exists in the form that it does today, but some were also anxious in the negative sense.

With any attempt to encapsulate an entire region of the globe, there is always a tendency for the journalist to overgeneralize or make generic statements that do not accurately reflect what the region truly is.

Anderson essentially took on the task of a lifetime, as most people would probably concede that there is no possible way to write a piece (regardless of how long) that could fully epitomize the Middle East in all its endless intricacies.

To Anderson’s credit, “Fractured Lands” comes relatively close. Instead of a standard history lesson about the region, Anderson employs the personal narrative style, following and telling the stories of six people who have lived the reality and have seen the Middle East unravel right before their eyes.

More than anything, it is truly laudable that Anderson did not put forth any sweeping thesis about the region as a whole in his piece. At the end of the riveting work, he notes that after 16 months of travelling in the Middle East, he finds it “impossible to predict what might happen next, let alone sum up what it all means.”

The truth of the Middle East, Anderson recognizes, is that there is no overarching, supreme truth. There is no one narrative, no one story and no one commentary that could ever satisfy everyone. When authors can fill multiple books with explanation and analysis of ethnic conflicts in one particular region of Afghanistan, any attempt to completely typify the Middle East is a futile exercise.    

That being said, though, there are a few generalities that stand up to scrutiny, and Anderson did an admirable job of highlighting those in his talk while also shattering many of the preconceptions that Americans hold when thinking about the Middle East.

The first misconception he sought to do away with was the notion that one can understand the Middle East by simply looking at today’s conflict.

Anderson correctly insisted that the roots of the Middle East’s woes go back quite far, and he traced the origin of them all the way to World War I and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

His fascinating take on the imperial powers demarcating their spheres of influence and carving out the different nations was that the countries that we now see today are in fact “artificial states.”

They did not exist before the imperial powers carved them out, he asserted. This idea is an important point to remember, as many of us likely learned about the agreement in school but forget it when we are inundated with today’s news of bombings and unrest.

The second key misconception Anderson discussed was the nature of the Islamic State itself.

Many Americans believe that the Islamic State, as one of the most radical and brutal terrorist groups, is filled with individuals who are, as Anderson chillingly described, “foaming-at-the-mouth radicals.”

However, he stated, this characterization is better applied to those who are at the very top of the organization. Many of the rank-and-file Islamic State soldiers, he stressed, were confused young men who joined purely because of the money or because their friends did.

Many of the members of the Islamic State, he went so far as to say, join the organization for the same reasons as a young, disillusioned man would join a gang in an inner-city.

Some Americans likely do not take well to this comparison. Extremist terrorism, they insist, is in a league all its own.

In many ways, they are right. None of the inner-city gangs in the U.S. claim they want to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate, or at least none with which I am familiar.

But Anderson’s point bears repeating, as we cannot claim to truly understand the group if we believe that all of its members are heartless, despicable human beings with no soul or moral compass whatsoever.

Some of them undoubtedly are, but many more of them, as Anderson makes clear, are just disaffected young men who see no future for themselves.

To be sure, the choice to join the Islamic State is obviously an indefensible one, and I do not claim to be condoning the soldiers’ actions in any way whatsoever.

Rather, we must first and foremost understand precisely what the Islamic State is, what it stands for and who its members are before we can hope to destroy it.

Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, a number of former intelligence officers have come out and said that one of the biggest mistakes we made and continue to make in the War on Terror is not having a sense of who or what the enemy really is. They proclaim that it is imperative that we know this before we can expect to move forward with effective counterterrorism measures.

Given the incredibly bleak situation that confronts the U.S. foreign policy at present, the U.S. would do well to heed their advice in the years to come.