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Why is the Middle East Such a Complicated Region to Study?

The following story acts as a primer for researchers and readers into the complicated world of the Middle East and the impact of its portrayal by the West.

Middle East

Sarmad Ishfaq |

A culturally, politically, and historically diverse area, the Middle East has been quite an enigmatic region for scholars to study. This is mainly because of past and present complexities in the region itself and also due to the obscure picture painted by the methodologies employed by scholars in the past. Although, there are copious amounts of problems, I have only briefly elucidated several major ones i.e. History, Definitional Issues, Islam, West-Dominated Field, Orientalism, and a Lack of Theoretical Focus. This paper highlights complications faced by both international relations (IR) scholars and anthropologists alike.

History

The Middle East has a profound and rich history encompassing ancient civilizations, empires, and in relatively recent decades, various nation-states. Although there are many events that shaped the region, I started problematizing the study from the Ottoman Empire. In 1299, the Ottoman Empire was born and in its succeeding years, it experienced a meteoric rise, which cast a mighty shadow on to the world. The Ottoman Empire, in its pinnacle, absorbed much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

A culturally, politically, and historically diverse area, the Middle East has been quite an enigmatic region for scholars to study.

But as much as the rise and hegemony of the Ottoman Empire changed the geographic and socio-political landscape of the region, its decline and demise perhaps contributed even more so. The decay of the empire occurred in a period when nationalism was gaining popularity and Zionism along with British-French imperialism had become major actors in the region. The British and French mandates were set up in the non-Turkish geographies after the dissolution of the Empire subsequent WWII.

In the 1940s and 1950s, specifically after the second Great War, many of the Middle Eastern colonies like Jordan, Tunisia, and Iraq became independent nation-states while Israel – the first Jewish state – also gained its independence. It must be noted, although, that the manner in which the British and French demarcated the borders and installed pro-British and French regimes, still has implications for the region to this very day.

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Middle Eastern nation-states have been unable to build a national identity post-Ottoman Empire. One of the reasons he offers for this injustice is British-French imperialism, stating that under their rule either homogenous national communities were divided into different states or different national communities were joined together to form a singular one. Thus, nation-states were indeed created but they were full of predicaments due to their un-organic and problematic inception.

In more contemporary times, there have been wars, revolutions, coups, dictatorships, secularization movements, Islamist uprisings, women’s rights engagements and also an ‘Arab Spring’. The region is marked by a Shia-Sunni schism and an Arab-Israel conflict. The Middle East is a region with a history of profound politicization, which has been subject to heavy external influence and interference. Although the focus is usually on Muslims and Islam, the region also hosts a variety of ethnicities and religions, from the Christian Copts in Egypt, Libya, and Sudan to the Kurds of Turkey, Syria, and Iran.

The decay of the empire occurred in a period when nationalism was gaining popularity and Zionism along with British-French imperialism had become major actors in the region.

The Arabs of Saudi Arabia, U.A.E, and other GCC countries are contrasted by the non-Arabs of Iran and Turkey. The region is neatly packaged under the term ‘Middle East’ but it is a space full of historical, cultural, and political complexities in which many diverse nation-states exist. The region is and has been in a state of flux and its history – ancient and contemporary – proves this. One must be aware how Middle East’s history has shaped the region and how it continues to do so today.

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Definitional Issues

The name ‘Middle East’ in itself is a European creation and comes laden with definitional dilemmas. There is no universal agreement on which countries encompass the Middle East. Some definitions include Pakistan and Afghanistan while others do not; likewise, some include Turkey while others exclude it. The ‘Middle East’ is not only a European innovation but that it does not have clearly fixed boundaries.

To not have a preconceived idea of what the ‘Middle East’ truly is, only further impedes the study of the ground realities, as different definitions proliferate or decrease the different cultures, ethnicities, religions, social and political conditions being studied and generalized upon. The lack of knowledge of ‘outsiders’ regarding the identities of people in the region is only problematic. Questions like: ‘are they all Arabs?’ And ‘are they all Muslim?’ signify the mindset of Anglo-Americans and how academia has not educated them effectively.

Islam

The term ‘Middle East’ has become synonymous with Islam for the majority of the world and the same is true for the academic discourse that surrounds the region. Many Western academics cite Islam to be the reason as why cultures in the area are backward, anti-Western, and beset with terrorism. These generalizations are quite archaic and have seemed to intensify in the present day, not just in academic discourse but also in the mainstream media. The rising xenophobia and Islamophobia on display in America (especially post-Trump) as well as in Europe, reify this point.

The Middle East is a region with a history of profound politicization, which has been subject to heavy external influence and interference.

The Western discourse and public see Islam as the antithesis of their being. This does not imply that all academic writers have used such an un-objective lens to capture a broad entity like Islam, but only that the issue is prevalent in the overarching dialogue. It is problematic when anthropologists study a solitary people or community and extend their findings to entire regions or to an ideal Islam; this undermines the diversity of the religion. It also must be stressed upon that other religious and ethnic communities in the region have been academically alienated due to scholars focusing solely on Islam.

Scholars give little credence to interreligious ethnographies – thus, the study of Judaism and Christianity in the Middle East becomes confined. Islamic movements and their study have also attracted controversy in the past years. Firstly, the study of Islamic movements is seriously lacking in scholarly discourse. Social Movement Theory has been used by academics predominantly in the Americas and Europe but the same cannot be stated for Middle Eastern movements. Furthermore, when these movements are studied they sometimes are plagued with the secular vs. religious debate where the former is seen as logical, rational, and modern while the latter is considered to be its polar opposite.

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The political participants of Islamic movements are thus considered to be ‘un-modern’, irrational fundamentalists who exploit religion to further their motives. Staying on the topic of secularism and religion, scholar Annabelle Sreberny disagrees with how Islam is being studied without recognizing the secular politics of the region or the diverse voices within the religion itself. She suggests that the analysis should use concrete historical and already existing evidence.

West-Dominated Field

The field of anthropology and international relations not only has Western origins, but is also dominated by Western scholars who primarily study the West. International relations theory is born from Western countries by Western scholars for a Western audience. This raises a few issues due to these fields being at the mercy of a select few. Not only is the Middle East neglected by IR scholars with regards to the development of theory, but some scholars even cite that the region seems to be incompatible with most IR theories. This has resulted in inattention towards the Middle East, relative to other parts of the world especially the West.

The rising xenophobia and Islamophobia on display in America (especially post-Trump) as well as in Europe, reify this point.

The Western produced theories and approaches have not taken into account perspectives of different regions, so these so-called universal theories cannot be applied to other regions in the world. It is evident, until this very day, that colonialism and post-colonialism have subjected most of the world to doctrines, practices, theories, frameworks fashioned by the colonizing powers. Transnational processes like trade, labor and capital between the regions’ nations have also received underwhelming attention.

There must be an increased insertion of Middle East in the IR discipline and also in its teaching in colleges and universities. To rectify the generic and biased theories, there should be either work done on a universal theory or that a pluralistic approach in theories of world affairs should be adopted. If this issue is not rectified, the picture painted of the Middle East along with the other under-represented regions will be a tainted one due to the starting points – i.e. theories, methodologies, paradigms, and frameworks – being unsuitable for different regions.

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Western domination also continues due to constraints on local scholars or would-be scholars in the Middle East. Some Middle Eastern countries are infamous for suppressing individual liberties and rights of their citizens – this includes curtailing any academic discourse deemed unacceptable by the ruling regime. Such an environment is not conducive for fostering independent homegrown scholars. This issue of lack of representation from the Middle East is a critical one as many academics cite that the most capable scholars who can effectively study the region are Middle Easterners themselves.

Orientalism

Listing an array of problems in the study of Middle East without citing Edward Said’s 1978 classic ‘Orientalism’ would not do the list justice. Said argues that the lens or framework used to study the Orient or the Eastern world, which includes the Middle East, is a polluted one that gives the viewer an erroneous reality of what the East truly comprises. The problem is that there was and still is a plethora of fantastical work regarding the Orient that historians, novelists, political scientists, writers have and still rely upon.

International relations theory is born from Western countries by Western scholars for a Western audience. This raises a few issues due to these fields being at the mercy of a select few.

Said comments that these academics and artists have used the East-West divide as a ‘starting point’ for their respective works. Therefore, not only are the Orientalist works of the past corrupted, they continue to be a false foundation for any academic who wishes to draw from them. Due to factors such as Said’s ‘Orientalism’ and his critique of essentializing, anthropologists had to rethink how to approach the study of Middle East. Unfortunately, there is still no sound or universal method to approach the study of Middle East.

Orientalism and colonialism also go hand in hand, according to Said. He argues that Orientalism is more than just a misrepresentation of the Orient; it is due to the West’s patronizing attitude that it constructed itself as modern and correct while portraying the East as backward. This is how and why the British and French – in the 19th century – and later the Americans – in the 20th century – justified occupying the Middle East physically and later in a more post-colonial non-physical manner.

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Colonialism itself has left a highly negative legacy behind for the colonized regions: the creation of new nation-states with problematic borders; placing imperialist-friendly governments or monarchies to protect imperial interests; loss in rural powers as centers became all-powerful are only some of the issues. Unfortunately, Orientalism and post-colonialism are a reality even today as Arabs are portrayed as terrorists and fundamentalists by Hollywood and the media. This signifies that the true Middle East and its people remain somewhat of an enigma to most of the Anglo-American public.

Lack of Theoretical Focus

There is also criticism, especially in anthropology, that there is a lack of theory or theoretical focus in the study of the region. This problem is cited by quite a few academics and seems to be ubiquitous in Middle Eastern studies. Middle Eastern anthropological work is, to an extent, devoid of theoretical issues with respect to ethnology. Scholars have been criticized for not stressing enough on theoretical concerns and have stated that the region is too unique for theory. Furthermore, most writers have not been willing to develop new theories but have rather focused on narrative pieces that already exist.

Listing an array of problems in the study of Middle East without citing Edward Said’s 1978 classic ‘Orientalism’ would not do the list justice.

He attributes this unwillingness to Said’s ‘Orientalism’. Without theory building, the Middle East will remain academically in the dark, so to speak. Theoretical focus and theories produced from the region are a must, not only for scholars but for the general public especially in the West – as they will allow for a better understanding of a region which is presently gravely misunderstood.

Read more: Has the US policy in the Middle East failed? – John Glaser

Conclusion

In conclusion, the study of the Middle East is fraught with complications that make it very problematic to study. All problems that were discussed play a major part in explain why the Middle East and its study are challenging. Although the list of issues discoursed is not an exhaustive one, the paper deemed them as the most pressing.

Finally, these problems should not pose as a deterrent for scholars to avoid studying the Middle East but instead, should act as a guide to help them avoid making mistakes that have been made in the past and should serve to further their comprehension about the region. If the study of the Middle East is in its infancy, it will only blossom with time but the diligence and willingness to engage must be present from all parties involved whether it is the academics or the public.

Sarmad Ishfaq is a researcher for a Lahore based think tank. He has several publications in international journals and magazines in the field of Terrorism/Counterterrorism and International Relations. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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