“Don’t try to explain — just describe. That’s the only way to get to the truth.” These were some of the first words of advice I received after arriving to freelance in Lebanon. They came from a young woman whom I had only just met, who rolled her eyes when I told her I was in Beirut as a journalist. “Not another one,” she laughed. Beirut is a hub for journalists from around the world, each covering the Middle East with their own agendas and preconceptions. But for all the strides outsiders writing about the region have seemingly made over the last century or so, our shortcomings are still painfully obvious to those living there.
Many American or European observers who struggle to understand the Middle East often attempt to “demystify” it by digging into its history, its religions, or its geopolitics, trying to pinpoint the driving factors for the region’s instability in order to find a way to remedy it all. In some ways this makes sense — the Middle East has been the ultimate “other” in the western imagination for hundreds of years. But what started as a fascination has over time morphed into an apprehension, and in the aftermath of 9/11, into a hatred, fueled by coverage of war, terrorism, the refugee crisis, and the society-wide misunderstanding that came with it.
Yet modern journalism’s efforts to explain and qualify these headline-grabbing problems have unintentionally helped bolster this very misunderstanding, underscoring the idea that the Middle East is a mysterious, far-away world that is different from our own in every way. Journalists have often pored over the details of the Sunni-Shi’a divide or the history of great power struggles in the region as if the Middle East were some sort of esoteric puzzle, incomprehensible to the untrained eye.
However important these complex issues may be, letting them dominate our understanding of the Middle East obscures the simple realities of life there today — rather than a distant “other,” the region is in fact integrally connected to the west, and is much more similar to America and Europe than either westerners or Middle Easterners realize. Moreover, the region has and will continue to act as both a microcosm and a melting pot for cultural, technological, and political trends taking place across the globe, constantly shaping the rest of the world in the process. And whether they understand the Middle East’s history and politics or not, Americans need to be paying more attention, or risk being left behind.
If statements like these sound like clichés, that’s because they are. But despite how often they’ve been repeated, in my experience, they still haven’t sunken in. Having only limited exposure to the Middle East through sensational news coverage, even self-described progressives continue to associate the entire region with its worst elements, while westerners who know a thing or two about the region often choose to highlight and prioritize differences over commonalities. Despite their good intentions, arguments like these can be shallow at best and alienating at worst. Yet even these more benign points of view have repeatedly been upstaged by openly hostile nationalists who, when not railing against Middle Eastern immigrants in their own countries, argue that the region is nothing but “sand and death” — words President Donald Trump used to describe Syria this month. Why would Americans ever care about such a place?
For years, the answer came down to three things — security, oil, and Israel. If we didn’t pay attention to the Middle East, the terrorists would get us, OPEC would jack up oil prices, or our best ally in the region would be attacked, and news coverage of the region reflected these anxieties for the better half of the last half-century.
But now, those days are long gone. Over the last ten years, the types of media, narratives, and images coming out the Middle East have rapidly diversified, breaking the near-monopoly that regional strongmen and extremists had long held over Middle East coverage in the west. According to data pooled from the United Nations, Nielsen Online, and other sources, between 2000 and 2018 the number of internet users grew at a higher rate in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world besides Africa. The democratization of information through social media that accompanied this change revealed a truth that anyone with connections to the region had known all along — that very little separates the average Middle Easterner from the average American. Weary citizens protesting out-of-touch politicians and wealthy elites, working families demanding better services and rights from their leaders, young professionals looking outside the box to find creative ways to achieve their dreams, jaded youth yearning to reap the benefits of a new and changing global economy — these all-too-familiar realities are facets of everyday life in Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and beyond.
But these circumstances did not suddenly pop up with the rise of the social media — the societies of the Middle East at the beginning of the Arab Spring were overall much less removed from the west than Americans might understand. In 2011, according to the UN, eight Middle Eastern countries had a “high” level of human development, and four others were placed in the “very high” category. Some of these were unsurprisingly oil-rich Arab monarchies along the Persian Gulf, but many were not — Libya, Lebanon, and Iran stood out as exceptionally highly-ranked.
Although many Americans see war as a mainstay of Middle Eastern life, the society-wide trauma that came with the Syrian, Libyan, and Yemeni civil wars after 2011 demonstrated just how untrue this notion is. The refugees who have left Syria in the last eight years have hardly been backward, rural, villagers — they were doctors, engineers, lawyers, artists, actors, and writers, unprepared and unused to the chaos their country had descended into. This was no conflict-stricken backwater, and the outbreak of total war was no less shocking for Syrians than it would have been for Americans.
None of this is news, and none of it is unique to the Middle East. But what is unique is the Middle East’s centrality to world politics — what happens there will inevitably have implications for the rest of the globe, and vice versa. The Arab Spring protests were some of the first movements in the world to take advantage of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to facilitate collective action, a trend which gained momentum through the Occupy Wall Street protests in the US and has become commonplace today. By the same token, the Middle East just as quickly became a key theater in online information wars when authoritarians started using the internet to further their regional goals. Russia, which infamously weaponized social media to spread disinformation in the US, Europe, and the UK, used these tactics to galvanize support for its ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. Russian influence networks spread conspiracy theories about chemical attacks in Syria, confusing and dividing the western public over a Middle Eastern war that had come to define politics in the 21st century. In the worldwide battle for hearts and minds, the Russians calculated that what was happening in Syria was important enough for them to respond with both airstrikes from the sky and propaganda online.
In ways like these, what is happening in the Middle East is giving us a glimpse of what a new, multi-polar world may look like — one where cold national interest will drive geopolitics with little regard for truth, human rights, or the input of the governed themselves. Potential futures like this would have seemed far-fetched only a few years ago, but today they seem just around the corner. And as the effects of global warming creep up on the western world, the Middle East has also shown us how badly these factors can impact our societies — droughts and the loss of arable land contributed to the instability that helped ignite the Syrian uprising in 2011, while competition over disappearing water resources has fueled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and led to a full-blown humanitarian crisis in Yemen. It is only a matter of time before issues like these boil over much closer to home.
After years of costly involvement in the region, Americans are eager to forget about the Middle East and move on. Let Russia, Turkey, and Iran fight their own battles there, President Donald Trump said in December. But what we and Trump fail to understand is that battles themselves are only one side of the equation, and focusing on security threats alone betrays our outdated way of thinking about the Middle East. Where America sees wars between unfamiliar actors, the Chinese, America’s chief rivals, see opportunity — for them, working with Middle Easterners is unavoidable, and there’s a lot more at play than just oil money. Infrastructure development, post-war reconstruction, consumer goods, and even “green financing” are all facets of China’s plans to expand its Belt and Road Initiative into the Middle East. Whatever the ultimate political aims of the project, what is clear is that an expanding marketplace in the region is causing America’s biggest competitor to take notice, reasoning that investment in the Middle East is worth more than military intervention.
News outlets in the US have covered all of this already — that’s not the problem. The problem is that the various threads that connect Americans to the Middle East, and the reasons why we should relate to the people who live there, simply aren’t reaching the American public. Instead we find ourselves out of step with the present, believing the oppositional narratives that both ISIS and Donald Trump are selling us. Yet the simple truth is that there is much more that binds us to the Middle East than separates us from it, and much that the Middle Eastern experience can teach us about our own political lives and futures. If we hope to play any role at all in the new, uncertain world order that that lies ahead of us, we better start listening soon.