By Barry Rubin
OK. I admit it. It’s hopeless. When prestigious newspapers can’t get the most basic points about the Middle East correct, when they make mistakes that I wouldn’t expect from an undergraduate taking an introductory course on the contemporary Middle East (by the end of the first semester, not on the opening day).
Years ago, an acquaintance of mine wrote a novel whose plot involved brain surgery. His mother was bragging that he had become an expert on brain surgery.
I joked, “Yes, but you wouldn’t want him to operate on you!”
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She quickly responded, “He could if he wanted to!”
And that is precisely the situation that exists in regard to understanding the Middle East today. Most of those carving away with scalpels as analysts or policymakers—especially since September 11 and even more so since Tahrir Square—should never be let into the operating room.
I’m not going to say the newspaper’s name because it isn’t relevant. This stuff is omnipresent. The argument is as follows: Syria is in turmoil; the West is tied up elsewhere. What to do?
Brilliant idea! Turn the problem over to Turkey! It likes getting involved in things and it should do its best to persuade the Syrian dictatorship not to kill people. Also (and it is hard not to laugh while writing this):
“Turkey is able to provide Syria with a model of a well-functioning democratic and secular Muslim majority state, an example that Syria could follow.”
[Note: The words have been altered so don’t try googling it.]
Unfortunately, this robust democratic and secular state has been moving toward Islamism for most of the last decade, hundreds of people have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges, Turkey is number one in the world in terms of jailed journalists, Turkey is an ally of the regime in Syria, and also of Iran.
Oh, yes, and Syria has been ruled by a largely secular regime for about fifty years.
Other than that, it’s a great idea.
There’s a problem in Syria an ARAB country that we don’t want to go ISLAMIST or to be allied with IRAN. So let’s turn it over to the non-Arab TURKISH GOVERNMENT who are ISLAMISTS and allied with IRAN and also one of the Syrian regime’s two best allies. (I’m not including Lebanon since that is a satellite state.)
You see, a lot of the problem for governments and the media in dealing with the Middle East derives from politics and ideology. But also a lot arises from just plain total ignorance.
The general public cannot be expected to know better. Yet when government officials (the Muslim Brotherhood is secular?; Hizballah is moderate?), journalists dealing with international affairs, and “experts” who provide the talking heads (recently I heard a top expert when asked to cite examples of contemporary moderate Islamists, name two people who have been dead for almost a century; did a single expert on the mass media point out that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a radical group that favors violence?) make the most basic errors, ignore what they say and expect things will turn out differently from what they predict.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center’s webside is: http://www.gloria-center.org/. His blog is on PajamasMedia: http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/