Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The New Middle East: A Different Kind of Blog

It seems appropriate on a day when Barack Hussein Obama has been inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America, whose motto is "change we can believe in," and who has raised such hope about a new American role in the world, that I begin "The New Middle East." Having studied the Middle East for over 40 years, I am struck by how much the region's problems have grown but how little has changed in the way in which the region is portrayed in the news media and in scholarly analysis. Given the urgent need for solutions to these problems, many of us who have committed our lives to understanding the Middle East no longer feel that we can wait the months and years that is often takes to publish our research and analysis in articles and books. Blogs provide the opportunity to offer our perspectives to the public in an instantaneous fashion. Still, the question may arise: why the need for yet another blog on the Middle East?

The stakes in the Middle East are higher today, both for the peoples of the region and the West, than ever before. Rather than follow the pattern of most blogs on the Middle East (many of which are excellent), I propose to take a new tack. I will offer political and social analysis to be sure, but the main focus will be on those developments in the region that suggest ways in which its problems can be addressed. The New Middle East will also examine what I consider to be the biases, both conceptual and normative, in the West and the region itself, that are part of much analysis of the Middle East. Most postings will be in English, but I hope to offer at least some in Arabic as well.

It is significant that President Obama reached out to the Muslim world in his inaugural address when he stated, "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Also interesting is that one of the first news organizations to post his speech was the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet (http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english), indicating the anticipation that exists in the Middle East that Barack Obama's adminstration might actually help solve some of the region's problems. As CNN reported shortly after President Obama was sworn in, he expressed his determination to immediately begin to address the Middle East's problems. While tomorrow begins the hard work of Barack Obama's presidency, the spirit of his inaugural address calls for a new approach to the region's problems. Just as the cynics who argued that white voters would not pull the lever for an African-American candidate for president once in the ballot booth were wrong, so too are those who continue to argue that the Middle East's problems are intractable and must "be lived with." A good example is a recent Stratfor posting that characterized the crisis in Gaza, and the larger Israeli-Palestinian dispute as "intractable." Stratfor asserted that President Obama will, de rigeur, appoint the necessary Middle East envoy, but that this envoy will only go through the necessary motions and end up doing little or nothing to move the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians forward. It is precisely this type of cynical thinking and argumentation that reflects what is wrong with current approaches to the Middle East.

The number of serious crises in the Middle East is staggering. Iran pursuing nuclear weapons, war in Afghanistan, political instability in Pakistan - one of the region's nuclear powers, intensified political repression in Egypt, increased demands by Turkey's Kurds for equality, foreign interference in Lebanese politics, Iraq's struggle to establish a workable democracy, not to mention the patterns of conflict and violence that link Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and Syria, represent only some of the region's most pressing problems. If we add the problems of dramatic income inequality, the massive unemployment that faces much of the region's youth, and the lack of national education systems that promote the values of tolerance, pluralism, and critical thinking, we see that the Middle East, still the source of most of the world's hydrocarbon wealth, faces the potential for continued violence, radicalism and politcial instability. These considerations underscore that it no longer acceptable to simply "report the facts," whether in the media or in policy and academic publications. Those whose vocation it is to report on and analyze the Middle East owe their audiences much more.

Analysts, whether in the Middle East or the West, cannot by themselves bring about change. However, they can be more cognizant and reflective about the ways in which they analyze the Middle East. Journalists, policy analysts, academics and intellectuals generally have a tremendous impact on the manner in which political elites, aspiring political leaders, political activists and especially young people, understand the region. While those of us whose job it is to think about the Middle East cannot implement change, we can and do shape how the region and its problems are understood by those who can.

Tomorrow, my posting will offer what I consider to be the key failings of analyses of the Middle East. What I consider to be the "10 analytic sins" often distort more than clarify political and social developments in the region. Equally important, these analytic shortcomings cause many of us to frequently neglect important developments in the Middle East precisely because the conceptual eyeglasses through which we view the region prevent us from seeing them.

I welcome comments and encourage readers to visit my webpage for articles, commentaries, interviews, and media appearances on the Middle East: http://fas-polisci.rutgers.edu/davis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.