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The Multiple Identities of the Middle East
What does it mean to be haunted by one's past? Bernard Lewis focused on this question and its relevance to the Middle East in a recent lecture in the Albert Wood Lecture Series. A number of issues concerning this topic were discussed.
History's Role in the Middle East Conflict. While we are all haunted by our pasts to a certain extent, the peoples of the Middle East have a very special sense of history which is much longer, much more active and much more detailed than in the West. This does not make it any more accurate, however. As a result, governments are able to invoke historical myth and legend, rather than fact, as part of their propoganda machine. History is studied and understood not for its own sake but, rather, for its usage in the political arena. The Middle East stands in stark contrast to America where a sense of history, is virtually absent from public consciousness.
Periods of Western Involvement in Middle Eastern History. The role of Western domination in the Middle East, which began in 1798 and concluded in 1991, is divided into a variety a stages. The first of these was the period of Anglo-French rivalry in which Napoleon and Admiral Nelson of the British Royal Navy were the primary figures. This imperialist period taught the Arab states several important historical lessons. Chief amongst these was the realization that the barbarous infidels of the West could defeat the armies of Allah with very little difficulty and could, in turn, occupy and govern their societies. The Arabs also learned that only a Western power was strong enough to upset the rule of another one. Anglo-Russian rivalry marked the second stage of Western involvement in the Middle East. The third period consisted of the great struggle between the allies and the axis powers in World War II which was followed by the last phase - the Cold War.
The Gulf War. The invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1991 and the ensuing Western military response is historically significant for two main reasons. First, it symbolized the end of the Cold War rivalry and thus, the end of either American or Soviet domination of the Middle East. Russia is incapable, today, of playing the imperial role and the United States is unwilling. The Gulf War, which began as an inter-Arab war, also signified the death of panArabism - i.e, the belief that the Arabs form one nation and should thus unite to form one Arab state. The Gulf War, thus, marked the beginning of a new era in Middle East history whereby domination and responsibility, for the first time, no longer lie with outside powers. It remains to be seen whether or not Arab governments are willing to grasp this new political situation and act accordingly.
The Peace Process. There are several historical factors which made the peace process possible. First and foremost was the decline of the USSR and, thus, the absence of a rival power to oppose the signing of the accords. Second was the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the realization by Arab governments that its member cells constitute a greater threat than Israel ever did. The third factor was exhaustion and the growing awareness by both sides that the military option was not a viable long-term solution. The "deArabization" of the conflict, signified by the Gulf War and the end of panArabism is the final reason. There are also a number of factors mitigating against The peace process. The first of these is internal opposition on both the Israeli and the Arab side, particularly, the growing power of religious fundamentalism. The second is the difference in culture and perception between Israel and its Arab neighbours. The latter places great emphasis on dignity, courtesy and respect while the former does not.
American National Interest in the Middle East. During the Cold War, the primary interest of the United States was to prevent the Soviets from dominating the region. The Middle East is an important place both because of its oil and because of its geo-strategic location, situated at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. Today, America's interests are Israel and oil. While Israel is less strategically important now than it was during the Cold War, it retains strong sentimental, political, religious and institutional ties to the United States. The main danger concerning oil is its possible monopolization by Iraq which would give Saddam Hussein great strategic, political and economic power.