Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Middle East: Deep background

Friends want to know from where I know what I know about the Middle East (ME). My first advice: stop watching television news and treat newspapers with a large grain of salt. The latest faux-tography scandals just reinforce this point.

The Middle East's most basic problems are (1) its tribal/sectarian social structure; and (2) the curse of oil money.

1. The first means that ME countries are not societies in the Western sense, but tribal collectives lacking a "social contract" and making civilization and progress impossible. The only apparent alternative to endless Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all is dictatorship or theocracy.

2. The flow of oil out means a flow of oil money in. That money goes into the hands of elites (governmental and otherwise). It gets squandered on war and terrorism, or socked away in Swiss bank accounts. Governments also use it to buy off their populations, inverting the normal relationship between productive citizens and the tax-dependent state. Without the normal flow of money from society to state, society has no say in how the state operates. Here is one of the main reasons why the Middle East is not democratic.

American policy must be rebuilt from scratch to counter these two problems:

1. Political reform (NOT forced regime change) in promising Arab countries (like Jordan, Morocco, Gulf States) while reducing American relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt; and

2. An international effort by oil-consuming countries to reduce demand for oil. This is not mainly an American problem (most of that oil goes to Europe and Asia), but American leadership here is nonetheless essential. The international oil market is fully flexible, and oil is a fully fungible commodity, meaning that its pointless to try to achieve "energy independence" -- the oil market in one place is completely coupled to everywhere else.

On the subject of oil money and what it does, look at Roger Stern's concise, arresting analysis of oil market power (a politically managed monopoly with artificially elevated prices) and the ME mischief it makes possible (PDF download). Here's a non-technical summary.

Take a look at JihadWatch and its DhimmiWatch page. You will learn things that the establishment media would rather not discuss about Islam and its attitude towards nonbelievers and their status under traditional Islamic law. If you want to know what a dhimmi is, think of Uncle Tom living under Islamic law, then go read DhimmiWatch. In this vein, consider these books: Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad (2005) and Ibn Warraq (pseudonym), Why I Am Not a Muslim (2003). In a related vein, check out The David Project, led by the brilliant Charles Jacobs.

The best blog on the Middle East is that of Michael Totten. It is essential reading if you want to keep up and get a flavor of what it's really like. Totten has spent the most time in Lebanon, but also a lot of time in Israel, Kurdistan, and other places. And he has a long list of links to other great blogs and resources, as well as to wonderful essays by himself and others.

Here's my own, far from exhaustive, list of essential books, with comments.

Bernard Lewis: Any book you can get, especially The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982), The Jews of Islam (1984), Semites and Anti-Semites (1986), Islam and the West (1993), and What Went Wrong? (2001). The last of the polymathic giants, an unrivaled knowledge of languages and literature, one of the last century's greatest historians and Orientalists. Increasingly under attack by PC-ignorant "Middle East studies" hacks not worthy to lick his shoes. Has important blind spots -- too close to the subject in some ways, often blinds him to what Pryce-Jones writes about (see below).

Speaking of PC-ignorant academic hacks, contemplate the corruption of American academia by political correctness and Saudi oil money by following Martin Kramer's devastating study of "Middle East studies," Ivory Towers on Sand (2001).

David Fromkin: International relations faculty at Boston University, author of A Peace to End All Peace (1989), the best single book on the origins of the modern Middle East. Narrows temporal focus to 1910-1924, broadens geographic focus to all of "greater" Middle East, including central Asia (Persia, Afghanistan, Soviet "stans").

Critical insights: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and its caliphate in 1921 started the transition of the ME from an imperial-theocratic to a Western-style secular nation-state system, which transition is resisted by Islamic traditionalists and reactionaries. More than ever, now that the Cold War is over, this is THE major conflict at issue in the ME.

David Pryce-Jones: Journalist and novelist, 60-plus-year veteran of the ME, author of The Closed Circle (1989), the best single book on the culture of the Middle East. Dark, dense, long, with depressingly pessimistic conclusions, worth the long slog to get through it.

Critical points: defines like no other book the keys to the ME's tribal culture: the honor-shame system, power challenging and violent careerism built on sponsored proxyship (think Arafat, Zarqawi, Nasrallah etc.), lack of social contract, resulting in no progress possible -- hence, the "closed circle" or "zero-sum" game. How these tribal patterns interact in a toxic way with Islamic restrictions on women and religious and ethnic minorities. The noxious role played by petrowealth in creating pseudo-modern countries with the material trinkets of modernity (bought from actually modern countries), but lacking real political, social, and economic modernity.

Fouad Ajami: Now teaching at Johns Hopkins, author of two essential books on the post-1967 Middle East, The Arab Predicament (1981 and 1992) and The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998). The best criticism of the ME is by semi-insider/semi-outsiders -- in Ajami's case, a half-Persian, half-Arab Shiite from Lebanon now living in America.

Conor Cruise O'Brien: Famous Irish diplomat, once Ireland's ambassador to the UN, got to know Israel's ambassador because "Ireland" is next to "Israel" in the alphabet, author of The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism (1986). Somewhat dated and superseded by more recent scholarship, but still the best single-volume introduction.

Fareed Zakaria: I should also mention a book that I'll return to later, his The Future of Freedom (2003), one of the most important foreign policy books published since the end of the Cold War.

This generations' sharpest critics of Islam, not surprisingly, are women. Everyone suffers under the theocracy-based system of honor-shame, but women more so as a rule than men. Many of the best women authors here are Iranian. See these personal odysseys:

- Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), an astonishing best-seller
- Marjan Satrapi's Persepolis (2003) and Persepolis 2 (2004)
- Roya Hakakian's Journey from the Land of No (2004)

And they're not all Iranian: don't miss Irshad Manji (The Trouble with Islam, 2004) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (The Caged Virgin, 2006, based on Submission, a 2004 film co-produced with director Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by an Islamic fanatic as a result). See Christopher Hitchens' tribute to Ali here.

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