Retiring Tired Myths about the Modern Middle East

By Jesse Wheeler

Thanks to the advent of social media, my access to Western media sources is nearly as good (perhaps even better) than it would be were I not an immigrant living in Beirut, Lebanon, just another sign of the ever shrinking world we inhabit. Yet in my readings I consistently encounter the same myths about the modern Middle East and its peoples; some myths are seemingly innocuous, others less so. And, it is precisely because our world is now so interconnected that such long-standing myths must no longer have a place within our global discourse.

Misinformation abounds when it comes to the Middle East, and certain misperceptions have proven to have profound socio-cultural consequences and destructive policy ramifications. (Nothing I write here is particularly new or inspired, most especially for our Middle Eastern readers, but certain perceptions simply refuse to die.) Some myths are basic, such as the erroneous belief that all Middle Easterners are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, and all Muslims are terrorists. However, two myths have been particularly vexing as I’ve encountered them in the past few weeks.

They are as follows:

  • MYTH #1: The Middle East is a Desert Wasteland

Now don’t get me wrong, there IS a lot of desert in the Middle East. Georgetown’s Margaret Nydell describes the Middle East as an archipelago of densely populated islands amidst a vast desert ocean.[1] This is an apt, but nevertheless misleading description. From Morocco to Iran and from Armenia to the Yemen, the MENA has its fair share of sun-soaked beaches, snow-capped mountains, and modern metropolises. It also has fertile river valleys, the very ones from which Western civilization sprung. And, the Mediterranean coastline is exactly how you might picture…well, the Mediterranean coastline.[2]

Geography lesson aside, more troubling is how this notion of the MENA as a desert wasteland so easily bleeds into the erroneous notion of the Middle East as a cultural and intellectual wasteland, beholden to a medieval religion hell-bent on world domination, comically backwards sheikhs, dancing harem girls, and throngs of helpless masses crying out for the ‘benevolent’, yet nonetheless ‘superior’ hand of Western intervention. Edward Said has said this all before.[3] Yet such misperceptions refuse to die.

Perhaps the most staggering image highlighting the gulf between perception and reality comes from a 2012 episode of the award-winning American drama “Homeland.”

(Photo source)

Either the producers didn’t know how to google ‘Hamra’, or they clearly had ulterior motives. And yet, the sheer amount of ‘culture’ per square km in the Levant is staggering, both ancient and modern. Ancient monasteries sit within minutes of the most modern, diverse, and technologically sophisticated cities one could imagine, replete with art, film, music, literature and scholarship. A quick internet search lists over 32 universities within two hours of my apartment alone.

Subsequently, this notion of the MENA as a geographical and cultural desert feeds in to the second myth.

  • MYTH #2: Islam is in need of a Reformation

As a student of modern religious history, I am always puzzled by this declaration. I’m not saying there doesn’t exist a profound crisis of religious authority within the Islamic community, nor that recent events haven’t inspired a revaluation of core religious texts among certain segments of the ummah. But, Islam has been ‘reforming’ for generations.

Revival movements have been a quintessential part of all religious traditions since their respective beginnings, Islam included. Yet the advent of European political and economic domination in the 18th-19th century triggered within the Islamic community a period of deep introspection and the reexamination of core methodologies[4]. Later, Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate in 1923, sending shock waves throughout the Muslim world from which it has yet to recover. The ensuing epistemological crisis set the stage for the events of the 20th century, witnessing the growth of Islamic liberalism, ethnic secularism, and reformist Islamism each offering a different response.

I was surprised to learn recently that Sayyid Qutb, the most influential ideologue of the Salafi movement, was an admirer of Martin Luther and saw himself in a similar vein regarding his own hermeneutical revolution within Islam[5]. The behavior of ISIS, most evidently its strident iconoclasm, clearly indicate that they see themselves as an Islamic reform movement. In essence, when Westerners call upon Islam to reform in response to the proliferation of Islamic radicalism, they are forgetting that such movements are themselves the byproduct of modern Islamic reform movements, and that such movements developed largely as a reaction to western colonial aggression. The irony is that movements such as these also encompass dramatic calls for the West to reform itself!

Furthermore, such misperceptions represent an acutely white-washed version of Christian history, wherein the Protestant Reformation represents the emergence of an enlightened, modern religiosity from the chains of medieval barbarism and ignorance. Whereas in reality, the Reformation unleashed one of the most fratricidal and tragically bloody eras of Western history culminating ultimately in the 30 Years War. In reference to the religious wars, Christian philosopher Brad J. Kallenberg writes,

“The Calvinist reasons that if a war satisfies certain just-war criteria, then it is their duty, as God’s stewards of creation and culture, to fight such a war for the honor and will of God… [T]his outlook gives Calvinists a certain resoluteness in their conception of duty. As one seventeenth-century observer of the religious wars remarked, ‘I’d rather see coming toward me a whole regiment with drawn swords, than one lone Calvinist [convinced] that he is doing the will of God!’[6]

Sound familiar?[7]

In failing to acknowledge the bloody remains of our own past, we ultimately perform a true disservice to our global neighbors. In failing to examine our self-serving narratives, we too easily project our misinterpretations upon the ‘non-western world’, with all the socio-cultural and policy ramifications therein entailed. Sometimes, I think that we project the boogeyman of our own dark past upon the playing field of the modern Middle East. If this is the case, could ISIS then be the specter of our own creation, reshaping the modern Middle East in imitation of our own worst nightmares – nightmares unjustly thrust upon our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters?

Conclusion

In the end, if we purport to follow the gospel of Truth we must be persons absolutely committed to truth, about ourselves as much as others. I conclude therefore with the words of Musalaha’s Salim Munayer:

[P]art of seeking after the truth, and part of righteousness, is to take a closer look at some of the things we believe and assume, especially about history, and particularly our history, and examine more closely some of what we believe to be truth. Some of what we are asserting could be very close and dear to our hearts, but if we discover that it is not the truth, or that it is not the whole truth, we are obligated to admit it.

This can be a very painful process, but it is needed if reconciliation is to occur. In conflict situations, people on both sides of the divide must seek after the truth, and challenge any assumptions made about the past or about the ‘enemy’. If we do not challenge these assumptions, narratives or myths, we become enslaved by them, and will only be made free by embracing the truth:

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).[8]

__________________________

[1] Margaret Nydell, Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society, (Intercultural Press, 2012)

[2] We mustn’t forget too that there is a lot of desert in a place like California.

[3] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, (Vintage, 1997)

[4]Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices), ( Routledge, 2011) 179

[5]Jan Slomp, “Christianity and Lutheranism from the Perspective of Modern Islam” in Luther zwischen den Kulturen: Zeitgenossenschaft, (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004) 281

[6] Brad J. Kallenberg, Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age, (Brazos Press, 2002) 100

[7] This is not an attack on Calvinism, but a recounting of history. Prior to moving to Lebanon, I served three years as a pastor in a Reformed Presbyterian Church.

[8]Salim Munayer. Musalaha: A Curriculum of Reconciliation. (Musalaha Ministry of Reconciliation, 2011)

7 thoughts on “Retiring Tired Myths about the Modern Middle East

  1. Dear friends at IMES/ABTS,

    we greatly value your contributions / observations and analyses.

    stay blessed!

    Rev. Dr. Owe Boersma EMW

    >

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