Many times, partial information is good enough for the kind of decisions we need to make, but what happens when that partial information leads us to have an inaccurate understanding of the issues? Will our decisions be helpful or introduce more damage? No region in the planet is probably more complex and conflictive that the area comprising the Middle East, from Turkey to the Arabian sea, and from Iraq to Egypt. Yet many of the policy decisions made by western countries are based on very partial (and often inaccurate) information. Let me go through some of the most common misconceptions...
Misconception number 1: All Muslims are the same
There are a large number of differences among Muslims in the Middle East. Some are Arabs, some are not; some are Sunni, others are Shi'a or Alawi or belong to a number of other sects within Islam. Many of these groups have been at each other's throats for more than a 1,000 years...
Misconception number 2: All Arab speaking inhabitants of the Middle East are descendants of the Arab conquerors
As the troops of Islam poured out of the Arabian peninsula and went one to conquer one of the largest empires in the history of the world, they subjugated other people as they conquered them. A process of “Arabization” (replacement of the local language with Arabic) started in parallel to the process of Islamization. Not all people adopted Islam immediately; the process of conversion to Islam took place over centuries fueled by discriminatory policies from the Caliphs against non Muslims. Later invaders of the area (Turks, Mongols, etc.) also adopted Islam and the Arab language.
Misconception number 3: Other than the Turks and the Israelis, the citizens of the Middle east see themselves as Arabs
There are multiple oppressed minorities in the areas politically controlled by the Arab countries. The Kurds are the best known of these minorities, and their area of habitation spreads from Iran to Turkey, Northern Syria and Northern Iraq; their everyday language is Aramean. There are also the Assyrians, descendants of the ancient Assyrians. Some of them are Christians, others Muslims; their language is Assyrian. They live in different areas of concentration over a wide geographic dispersion going from the Mediterranean to the Iranian border and from the Caucasus to Northern Syria. There are also the Mandeans of Southern Iraq who claim descendant from the followers of James the brother of Jesus. There are also Caldeans in Iraq who claim descent from the ancient Caldeans and speak Caldean as well as Arabic. The Armenians, while mostly concentrated in Armenia and Turkish territory, have also pockets of population in Syria and Israel; they also speak their own language. The Druze are originally from Egypt and are descendant of a native Egyptian and Arab stock; their religion, while born of Islam, is very distinctive – they claim descent from Jethro, Moses father in law. They live dispersed in Israel, Lebanon and Syria. The Partians of ancient history survive in their modern day descendants in the northern section of the border between Iraq and Iran. The Sabeans are an ancient tribe in Southern Arabia who adopted monotheism well before the advent of Islam and their descendants still live in the area of Yemen. The Samaritans are descendants of a splinter group of Judaism which originated in the Northern Kingdom before its destruction by the Assyrians; they live today mostly in Nablus (Samaria) and Holon (Israel); they speak a variation of Hebrew mixed with Arabic. These are the main groups – there are more.
Misconception number 4: Jews were expelled or killed in mass by the Romans, effectively depopulating Judea and replacing its population with other ethnic groups.
While the leadership and those who fought against Rome were taken as slaves to other parts of the Empire, not all Jews were expelled. Rome needed to keep those who worked the land because the main concern of the Empire at the time was the need to produce food for Rome. Jews continued to be the main population group in the general area known today as Israel for several centuries. Over time, some of them converted to Christianity while others joined their brothers in the Diaspora and still others remained as Jews living in the land. By the middle of the third century the Jews were replaced by the Christians as the main population group in the area.
Misconception number 5: The Qur'an gives Muslims the right over Palestine and Jerusalem because it was the destination of the Prophet's “Night Journey”.
There are several passages in the Qur'an that clearly stipulate that the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean belongs to the Jews and should be respected as such. Furthermore, many Muslim commentators incorporated into Islam the Christian concept that the return of the Jews to the land given to them by God is a necessary preliminary step to the End of Days.
Misconception number 5: If Ahmedinejad were to be replaced in Iran by somebody else, the resulting regime will probably be more moderate and accommodating with the West and with Israel.
Mahmoud Ahmedinejad came through the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and he is the product of the indoctrination in the ranks of the Islamic Republic. The power behind the scenes in Iran is not the President nor the political class – it is the Iranian religious leadership. While there are some power struggles within that leadership, they are very much united in their opposition to Western influence as well as their drive to dominate the Middle East and destroy Israel. Many common Iranian citizens would in fact like to find a way to reestablish the relationship with the west they enjoyed under the Shah before the 1979 Islamic Revolution – but they live in a Police State in which expressing dissent I very often dangerous for your health...
There are many other misconceptions, but the ones I presented are enough to make my point. When it comes to the Middle East, with many complex historical, social and cultural conflicts, making wide ranging decision with partial information is very risky. Successive American administrations have made big mistakes over the years this way. The invasion of Iraq, intended to contain the influence of Iran in the Middle East it did in fact facilitate the expansion of Iranian influence; the blind support for the so-called “Arab Spring” facilitated the rise of Jihadist governments in several Arab countries, and so forth...
As Americans, we tend to believe that making a decision, even on limited information, is better than making no decision. The Middle East is the living proof that sometimes it is more important to get your facts straight first...
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