The Public Humanist

Point the Finger: External influences on Middle Eastern group conflicts

It’s very enlightening to see my U.Mass. colleague Mary Wilson’s succinct account of the centrality of demographics to the Palestinian/Israeli and Lebanese conflicts. I share her view of the problems that can arise when governments divide people and treat them differently based on their religion. The political scientist Arend Lijphart used Lebanon as an example some decades ago of the potential fragility of a society in which religious identity is so primary an affiliation for citizens that they don’t share other forms of connection across confessional lines. Lijphart argued that what he called cross-cutting cleavages, or organizational links among people of different religious confessions, made a confessional political system more likely to stabilize. Lebanon has shown variation in terms of when confessional differences erupted into war or could be transcended for common cause such as the Cedar Revolution.

Although Lijphart’s work is old political science, it highlights another issue about conflict in the Middle East based on religious divides. If such conflict varies over time, what explains this variation? Many answers can be advanced, but one that comes up quite a bit in discussions with Middle Easterners is outside influence. Mary’s post shows that some Israeli, Palestinianand Lebanese leaders can stir up demographic discord just fine by themselves. Yet outside powers frequently have gained in various ways by such conflict.

External influence in Middle Eastern conflicts can take many forms. It experienced its heyday during the 19th and 20th centuries, when the British, French and other European imperial powers exercised diverse forms of direct control over the Middle East and North Africa. In Morocco, the French tried to play Arab Muslims off against the indigenous Berber people in the early twentieth century, in a policy strategy known baldly as “divide and rule.” This strategy actually backfired for the French, when they sought to place Berbers under a separate legislation system from their Arab peers, and helped precipitate and broader Morocco’s nationalist movement. The French acted in similar ways to play religious groups off in Lebanon, as did the British with respect to native Palestinians and emigrant Jews before Israel’s independence.

As soon as you arrive in a contemporary Arab society, you’ll quickly hear the opinion that post-WWII US involvement in the Middle East, particularly in the post-9/11/01 context, is the continuation of Western imperial control. While this perspective may distort the differences between overt colonialism and indirect influence, it isn’t that hard to understand why many Middle Easterners see Israel as an imperial enclave, or are wont to believe that American tolerance for a Shi’i-dominated Iraqi government represents an echo of divide and rule. The US government’s lack of interest in helping to resolve the horrific war in the 1980s between the Sunni-dominated Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and Iran’s Shi’a government can also be viewed as an example of outside interest in stoking the fires of regional sectarian conflict, among other things.

One of those other things is the indirect political, but clear economic advantage, of Middle Eastern conflict to Western countries that host large weapons industries. The Middle East has long been by far the most profitable region of the world for arms dealers. Clich├ęs like “military-industrial complex” or conspiracy theories about who controls the US government need not be invoked to recognize that the interests of major US arms companies create possible disincentives for Washington to commit substantial policy energy towards resolving major regional conflicts.

It isn’t just powerful Western governments or large corporations that have facilitated, or at least stood by and watched, confessional conflicts in the Middle East. Regional governments are implicated as well. Iran has been known to fund militant Shi’a movements in Lebanon, occupied Palestinian territories and elsewhere; other Arab states have provided similar resources to Sunni Muslim groups that advance violent sectarian conflict. Syria’s broad interference in Lebanese politics reached a boiling point when many Lebanese blamed Syria for the truck bomb that killed Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and triggered the aforementioned Cedar Revolution in 2005. Israel too was involved in strengthening Christian militias against Muslim ones in Lebanon. Israelis themselves find it easy to blame Arab statesfor creating or exploiting the Palestinian refugee problem, and certainly have had cause to point the finger at Europe, specifically Nazi Germany, for coming so close to destroying the Jewish people. This put in place the dynamism and desperation behind the demogaphic push to establish and maintain Israel as a Jewish state.

Two basic points follow from all of this. First, it’s easy for people with a strong confessional affiliation, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, to find a government, organization or religious group to blame for their problems. When I was teaching my comfortable, bright Qatari students last year as a Fulbright Professor,their arguments about complex Middle Eastern policy issues shiftedprettyfrequentlyto overly broad theories that point the finger at US actions as driving virtually every conflict in the Middle East. I have heard similarly large perspectives about Islam as producing irrational hostility to Americans in the world from some students here in Massachusetts,although there is clearly nothing inherent in Islam or Muslims' identity that would predict such hostility.Pointing the finger, however appealing, can be a good way of avoiding fair analysis of complex problems.

A second point is that those of us who consider ourselves far removed from concerns such as religious conflicts and demographics in the Middle East should perhaps think twice about this. Is our government, and some of us perhaps by implication, to blame for some of the resilience behind the problems between Palestinians and Israelis or among Lebanese that Mary Wilson illustrates?

This is a hard question, and does not or shoud not have a simple answer, even in the analysis of one particular situation. When exactly are we responsible for our government's actions? Are we citizens of an elected government more responsible than Syrians living under a more repressive system, since the latter can't speak out safely against their regime's actions in Lebanon? Suppose, for exmple, that post-1967 waves of Jewish settlers from the US to occupied Palestinian territories are a significant portion of the demographic confessionalism that encumbers an Israeli-Palestinian solution. If this is true, how might this create the responsibility for the US government, or American citizens, or even individual American Jews, to try to broker a fair settlement?

I wouldn't presume to answer such questions or want my fellow Americans to get caught up in endless or undifferentiated waves of guilt (at least not in a short blog entry). Nor do I wish to overstate the potential or even use for the US or Americans to solve conflicts in other places, since national hubris can itself engender bad policies abroad.

I do think, however, that focusing on very particular ways that elements of our country’s policy have been or can be part of current Middle Eastern problems encourages both responsibility and a feeling that there’s something we can do. The sense that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or Lebanon’s internal agonies have a variety of forces that sustain them, and, therefore, suggest diverse points to try to resolve them, is one that I try to convey in the classroom to my students. I encourage them to weigh evidence, consider diverse moral perspectives and come up with their own sense of what sort of responsibility and duty they and their co-citizens might (or might not) have for portions of a particular problem in the Middle East (or elsewhere). This is especially a consideration today not only in Palestine/Israel and Lebanon, but in Iraq, where it may make sense to hold the US partially accountable for the problems that followed its military overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Pointing the finger may be justifiable, or even necessary, at times. Yet “the buck stops here” also carries rhetorical power, and perhaps even the seeds for empowering action.

-- Prof. David Mednicoff, University of Massachusetts -- Amherst

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