What are the historical challenges of democratization in the Middle East? What are the possibilities?
Dr. Suri, and Ph.D candidate Emily Whalen, discuss why global perceptions can be damaging, and how the countries that comprise the Middle East could move towards a true democracy.
Zachary sets up the conversation with his poem, “The Last Time I Cried For The Middle East”.
Emily Whalen is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Texas – Austin. Her dissertation, The Lebanese Wars: Civil Conflict and International Intervention, 1975-1985, focuses on the transnational history of war and U.S. policy in the Middle East. She is currently a Smith Richardson Predoctoral Fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. Her website is www.emilyingridwhalen.com.
- Emily WhalenDoctoral Candidate in History at the University of Texas – Austin.
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Introduction with many voices: “This is Democracy”- a podcast that explores the interracial, intergenerational, and intersectional unheard voices living in the world’s most influential democracy.
Jeremi Suri: Welcome to our new episode of “This is Democracy.” I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving. Today we’re going to discuss one of the most important areas of the world that receives more attention, in many ways, than many other areas of the world, but an area that’s often not well understood. And not well understood, not only for its foreign policy implications, but also for domestic policy. I’m referring to the Middle East and we’re fortunate today to have an expert on the region, one of my students in fact and colleagues, Emily Whalen, good morning, Emily.
Emily Whalen: Good morning.
Jeremi: It’s so nice to have you on. Emily has spent the last year living in the region and she’s writing about many of the historical and current developments in the region, she’s really one of the foremost young people who understand the region, writes about the region, and puts current events in historical perspective. So we’re very fortunate to have her with us this morning. Before we turn to Emily, we have Zachary’s poem. Zachary, what’s the title of your poem today?
Zachary: “The Last Time I Cried for the Middle East.”
Jeremi: “The Last Time I Cried for the Middle East.” Well let’s hear it.
Zachary: Sitting in a TV studio looking out at the peaceful evening sky below, watching the pictures of Syria’s slow slip into the slick of dissolution. The aghast blown out, waiting for medicine from never, or runes ruining the ruing of forever. Children, and the world doesn’t wait for the injured. Over the radio the stories from Yemen flow into the living room, the starving, bomb-blasted living in the dark, hills losing the civilized mark. People, and the world doesn’t stop for the Middle East. Trying to sleep one night, losing the battle for rest, the forever fight, hoping not to have heard of the tortured soul, missing dead journalist on the floor of the consulate. The can’t drive, can’t eat, daring to defy, wide desert of deserted and can’t remember why. A nation, and the world doesn’t pause for an instance. And I can’t remember the last time I cried for the Middle East, the last time I cried for the bountiful bazaars spread across the sidewalks. The expanse of dunes that haunts one to the core, the hero smashed deep into the desert swept, the hills rising sharp beyond the temperate blue seas, the temples lost among the sand blown towards the stars on low quality video footage, and I can’t remember the last time I cried for the Middle East.
Jeremi: That’s a very evocative poem, Zachary. Why the title? Why the “can’t remember the last time I cried for the Middle East?”
Zachary: Well it’s speaking to the fact that we’ve become numb to all the violence that we see in the Middle East and it’s become normal and we forget all of the, like, wonderful things in the Middle East. And we just begin to expect the violence and we don’t think about the violence in our everyday life as we do in other regions.
Jeremi: Right. Emily, Zachary’s poem presumes that we all know what this concept of the Middle East refers to, where does the term come from and why do we use it?
Emily: Well, thank you, Zach, for that poem and thanks, Jeremi, for having me on, I’m really delighted to be here. In terms of the term “Middle East” that is– you know, I actually am not sure of the provenance of the term itself, but it does, there’s a lot in that phrase, right? A lot of times, my friends and I will jokingly refer to America as the Middle West.
Emily: Because, you know, when you designate as something “East” you’re also implicitly designating where the center is and what is at the center.
Emily: And so it’s “East” as Europe, it’s “East” as North America and implicitly in the term Middle East is, of course, the idea of the West as well. So, you know, it’s so widely used at this point that it would be, sort of clumsy not to use it, but it technically it refers to the Arabian Peninsula, the Lavant and then also sort of Western Asia and now it has also come to refer to North Africa as well. So there’s a broad swath of land and it’s sort of, it’s not confined to one particular continent. So its representative of the region as a place of exchange, as a place of interaction, and as a place of blending, which it has historically served, you know, throughout most of human history.
Jeremi: Right. Why do we use this term for such a diverse place? I mean we have four to five religions more, we have so many different languages and cultures– why this term for such a diverse place?
Emily: Some of it, sort of, convenience, people often– you need a term to be able to refer to a group of countries and a group of regions that share significant cultural elements and share significant historical elements. So the Arab Conquest in the 6th-century that covers– what we refer to as the Middle East sort of covers the heartland of what was the Arab Conquest. The reason, I think, that we have such a generic term for it is particular, as you said, you know there’s so many different religions, there’s so many different languages, there’s so many distinct cultures. I spent a few years living in Jordan before I was living in Lebanon and, you know, those are two countries that are very close to each other, but they’re incredibly different cultures. Jordan is more of a Bedouin culture, more of a desert culture, Lebanon has a much more urban culture, it’s much more, sort of, the heart of the Levant. Particularly because the Middle East doesn’t fit easily into any of the categories that we have invented for people in this post-war, you know post-World War II era, we kind of give it a generic term that doesn’t really capture all of its complexities, if that makes sense.
Jeremi: Yes, yeah no that’s actually very helpful and why, with this generic term, why has the region come, in the eyes of many Americans, to be associated with particular kinds of behavior and particular experiences and not others? Zachary’s poem refers to a sort of recurring list of violence and tragedy, which is part of the history, but of course, not the entire history of the region.
Emily: Sure. There are a few reasons for this, one is an historical reason. In the, sort of– I’m going to skip over the colonial era because that’s a whole other podcast (laughs), but as the world begins to organize itself and the United States and Western Europe begin to engineer this program of organizing people by ethnic or religious designation into homogeneous nation-states, starting in 1919, let’s say, in earnest, we run up against a problem in the Middle East, which is that there is really very little ethnic, religious, or even linguistic homogeneity. It is a place of extreme, just as I said, of blending, of diversity, and it’s a place where there’s been a very ecumenical approach to culture. You know, even during the Ottoman Empire, there was no, sort of, concerted program for converting people to Islam. You could be, you know, any religion that you really wanted to be and you face different laws, but– and you were in different political positions because of that, but there was a much more, as I said, ecumenical approach to people’s identities.
So with the advent of nationalism and the creation of a nation-state. You run up into a lot of problems in the Middle East because you start to get people, sort of, competing over which identity is going to be the primary identity, is going to be the organizing principle and then that sort of runs up against the waves created by the colonial empires and imperialism. So there’s a lot of overlapping currents here that are really hard to parcel out and very difficult to kind of quantify, but the end result has been that there’s been a lot of conflict and a lot of war in the Middle East.
Jeremi: And in a sense, the term leads us to, as outsiders, leads us to emphasize that element of it, yes?
Emily: Yeah, yeah and what I would say is that there’s another, another component of this, which is what’s historical and much more contemporary? And it can be difficult to remember how contemporary it is, but pretty much, since 9/11 the relationship of the United States to the Middle East had been immediately politicized, intensely politicized. So the coverage of the region tended to bias violence and to bias towards, you know, negative stories and things like that because of the way in which the Middle East, sort of, broke into our 24 hour news cycle and the media culture so dramatically with the attacks on 9/11.
Jeremi: And do you see this period since 9/11 as a period of, not simply of conflict within the region, but conflict, in some sense, spurred and encouraged by outside actors?
Emily: Yeah, so this is always a point of conversation, there’s an Arabic term “Anlamida” it means “the plot” and so there’s a strong discourse and it’s existed ever since the colonial era, but it definitely accelerated since 9/11, that all of the regions probably are due to the interior intervention of outsiders. (laughs) And to a certain degree that is true, but I would say that a lot of the outsiders have had local actors who have been allies.
Emily: So it’s much less, you know, the CIA coming in and screwing things up for the Middle East and it’s much more, sort of, the local partners– people who are, you know, Lebanese or Jordanian or Saudi or any number of these different nationalities, who sort of ally with external powers in order to increase their advantage at home and in doing so, create a situation that is beneficial to certain classes of people, certain political and economic elites, but that in general is very difficult and worse for most of the people of the region.
Jeremi: Right, so you have internal and external dynamics overlapping and in some moments exploiting one another.
Emily: Exactly, yeah, absolutely.
Jeremi: So, so a couple of countries that I think draw an inordinate amount of attention, at least in the Western media, most recently of course Saudi Arabia and– first of all why has the United States found itself for so long, so closely allied with what, in many ways, is one of the most dictatorial, undemocratic regimes in the region?
Emily: That’s a great question and I have to say, this is one of the more encouraging developments I’ve noticed in the past– even just few months, is that people are beginning to draw a more critical lens to the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia. So the short answer is that for a long time the United States didn’t really have a Saudi Arabia policy and didn’t really prioritize having a relationship with Saudi Arabia so they were happy to defer to people who were very interested in Saudi Arabia, namely American Oil Companies. And the, sort of, the first few decades of the relationship between the United States and the Middle East and, in particular in the golf, those relationships were entirely in the hands of American Oil Companies, I’m thinking of Aramco in particular, but you know there are a variety of different actors there.
Emily: So when you have the nationalization of the oil companies in Saudi Arabia and the turn over to Saudi control of those oil companies, there is a little bit of a shift, but for the most part, the people who are directing U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia have, at one point, been beneficiaries of this system of oil extraction and selling.
Jeremi: So you would refer, for example, to the Bush family that made money in oil, exactly, in particular.
Emily: Yeah, exactly. Yes, exactly. And so there is, you know, I would hesitate to kind of talk about this because you don’t want to, sort of– you don’t want to promote conspiracy theories or things like that, but there is a demonstrable history of people who have been heavily involved in oil being the people who drive our policy towards Saudi Arabia. And so some of this is just bureaucratic inertia at this point, we are allies with Saudi Arabia because we’ve been allies with Saudi Arabia and to change the gears of the, sort of, the shift of state away from that would be incredibly difficult.
Jeremi: But how do we reconcile that, Emily, with repeated, I think sincere, American pronouncements about supporting democratization in the region?
Emily: Yeah, it’s difficult because we haven’t really supported democratization, we’ve supported democratization in the sense that we support elections and the, sort of, what I would call “formal democracy” the external indicators, the “measurable”, “achievable”– I’m doing air quotes, but you can’t see that because I’m a podcast.
The measurable and achievable sort of things that we associate with democracy, but we haven’t supported substantive democracy because then a lot of– especially in Saudi Arabia, you know there’s a long history of the American oil companies helping the house of Sa’ud to repress labor riots and to marginalize, particularly the Shia population in the Eastern provinces. So we haven’t actually supported substantive democracy, by which I mean meaning– people having a meaningful say in their own governance at every level and that political figures will be accountable to the populations that they govern. That is not something the United States is, unfortunately ever really supported in the region because there is in that an implicit threat to the economic interest of particularly powerful companies and now the United States’ government, in terms of our arm sales to the region.
Jeremi: So when we look today at the Saudi assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a dissident figure, an immigrant to the United States, a journalist who covered the region, is this something unusual? Is it unusual that the Saudis killed a dissident figure outside of their country? And is it unusual that the United States, at least the American President, is accepting this behavior?
Emily: I would say it is unusual in one particular regard, which is that in its blatancy, in its flagrance. I think of Mohammed bin Salman who is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the mastermind of this assassination, not as a– he is not the cause of the problems, he is sort of the result, he’s a symptom of a longer problem that we’ve had towards the region. So there has been a long tradition in Saudi and in other countries with which we are allied of repressing political dissent that is something that is as true in Morocco as it is in Jordan, unfortunately, that is now one of the defining features of the region. Even Lebanon and Tanzania, which are two places where you have a degree of oppressed freedom that you do not have anywhere else, there is still, you know, things you can’t really talk about, things you can’t publish. So this is entirely in keeping, frankly, with the trend of the Saudi government in particular, but as with many other governments in the region.
Jeremi: What should the United States do? What would you, as an expert on the region, what would you like to see the United States do?
Emily: Yeah, I think, well I think that there is an encouraging trend here, which is that people are starting to, kind of, question the status quo, there’s more of a critical lens– and not just in people who are among people who are studying the region, but among people who are just sort of generally interested in U.S. foreign policy. For a long time, the status quo of the U.S. Middle East relationship was, sort of, sacrosanct and now people are beginning to question it more often. I had someone at a dinner a few weeks ago ask me, “Well why are we allied with Saudi Arabia and not Iran because they’re both of authoritarian theocracies, they’re both repressive, and it just seems like, you know, six of one half of the other?” And that question made me– I was very, very happy to answer that question simply because that is the right kind of re-framing.
For a long time, particularly after 9/11, there was a lot of focus on, “Well are the Sunni better than the Shia?” You know, “Which of these, sort of, various sects should we ally ourselves with?” But the point is we shouldn’t be concerned about the kind of granular level details, it doesn’t matter what sect or clan or particular religion we ally ourselves with in the region, it matters if we ally ourselves with freedom and with, as I said, substantive democracy versus authoritarianism and theocracy. So that is encouraging, I see more people making that fine distinction and I think we need to keep doing that and I think it’s important that American citizens– even if they don’t think they have a stake in the Middle East and are not particularly interested in the region, need to kind of make that leap themselves, because what happens, you know, in the Middle East it effects what happens at home because I would say we’re in our own struggle here in the United States against creeping forces of authoritarianism and theocracy.
Jeremi: And focusing on a substantive democracy, as you put it, makes a lot of sense, but of course it gets very complicated when we bring in Israel, which we haven’t talked about yet. So–
Emily: I was avoiding that. (laughs)
Jeremi: I know you were but– (laughs) So many would argue, many Americans would argue that our substantive defense of democracy is a defense of a strong Israel and an Israel playing a more, often aggressive, role in the region.
Jeremi: Is that, how do you reconcile that with, with an argument for more attention to democratization in countries like Saudi Arabia?
Emily: So I think it’s important to make a few distinctions here, one is Israel is not the Likud party and Israel is not Benjamin Netanyahu. So there is, I believe, a space for a democratic nation named Israel if you so desire–
Jeremi: But many would say, Emily, that the Likud is a democratic– it’s a manifestation of democracy, the immigrants from Russia and elsewhere who came to Israel in the last 20 to 30 years, have shifted the political winds and produced a political leadership that looks different from what we were accustomed to with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin and others.
Emily: Well I would say that that’s definitely an argument, but it’s where, kind of, if you look at Israel in its entirety and I mean it sort of even just from a demographic perspective, it’s very difficult to argue that it is a functioning democracy because there are a significant populations of people who live within the boundaries of the state of Israel who do not have any political rights whatsoever. And I’m referring, of course, to the Palestinians and who live in occupied territories. And even the Palestinians who live in West Bank and in Gaza, you know, I have never been to Gaza, I’ve been to the West Bank a few times, just going there, it’s very– sort of this kind of international pretense that we maintain, but that they have any substantive form of sovereignty is very frustrating. Just the architecture of occupation penetrates very far into the West Bank, very far into– and obviously in Gaza it’s, you know, it’s an open-air prison. So I think that in order for Israel to become a truly democratic state, they would need to award Palestinians full political rights. I think it’s very– I find it… I know that it’s a very difficult topic for a lot of people and it’s very emotional, I think it’s hard to argue that people who live in a country should not be awarded full political rights in that country simply on the basis of their ethnicity or their religion. And this is precisely what the, you know, I think the Likud has pushed Israel more– farther away from that reality. I think there are a lot of people who live in Israel, there are a lot of Palestinians even, who are happy to be Israeli as long as they have political rights.
Jeremi: It’s true, but many would argue, of course, that there’s a recurring terrorist threat, that there are violent actors within those areas– these are difficult, these are difficult topics to reconcile. Why do we have such difficulty with these issues, Emily? I mean I think you’re doing a valiant effort to explain these very big, big–
Big, big questions and it’s interesting to hear you struggling to bring in so many different perspectives and you’re doing it so well. Why is it so hard to talk about these issues? It seems harder in the Middle East than almost anywhere else.
Emily: You know it’s so funny that you say that because I was just thinking it’s so much harder to talk about these things in the United States than it is in the Middle East. (laughs) One of the things I love about the region is that, you know, everybody is very– you don’t have the luxury of not being political. So everybody is very politically engaged, not in terms of actual political activity, unfortunately a lot of them have had their rights curbed, but in terms of talking about politics, you talk about politics all the time and because you talk about it all the time, there’s less concern that you’re going to offend somebody or someone’s going to misinterpret what you’re saying, you have a more constant dialogue about it. And I think that’s a big part of the problem here in the United States is that we– there’s almost a taboo against talking about particular topics in the Middle East, Israel in particular, as I indicated, it’s really difficult to discuss Israel in the United States because there are people– I mean people feel very strongly about it and for good reason.
Emily: But people feel strongly about it and then simultaneously there is not a culture where you can actually talk about this stuff, you can’t, you know, there’s almost a silencing that goes on of public discourse and there’s a political reason behind that. You know, if people don’t feel that they can talk about things or make mistakes or try out new ideas, then they’re more likely to protect the status quo.
Jeremi: Right, right, so maybe, Emily, that’s a place for us to turn to our last question, which is really what this show has been all about. How can we as citizens, who don’t have the expertise and the in-region experience you have, how can we connect our hopes and aspirations for democracy to the way we talk about and think about the region? How can we move our dialogue forward, in your terms, in the United States? How are you, through your research and writing and activism, helping us to do that?
Emily: I think there are a couple, sort of, things I always try to keep in mind when I’m consuming information about the region. One is not to confuse governments with people, often what we see of the Middle East, particularly in the, sort of, the main media channels is just at the surface level. We see the interaction of government, we see statements made by political and economic elites, we shouldn’t forget that there are people who live in the region who are just trying to live their lives. You know, they just want to wake up in the morning and go to their job and then come home to their families and that’s the vast majority of people in the region. Life is very normal for a lot of people, even people who are living, in the sense, of a war zone. If you know, in Aleppo, there are, there have been Russian strikes recently, half of the city is decimated, but the other half of the city remains pretty much untouched and, you know, people are kind of– unfortunately, you know, living pretty normally, not unfortunately but it’s, there’s a sense of, “Well this is not ideal, but this is our chance at normalcy so we’re going to take it.” You know? And that, I think, I think remembering that there are people like that in the region, and again, that that most people in the region, is very important.
You know we, something you’ve talked about on your podcast and that you and I have spoken about, is that we’re facing a lot of chances to democracy and to justice here in the United States as well, so I think, you know, in the coming decades we will need to build, you know, broad solidarity across national and regional boundaries and the more that we can look at people who live in other countries, in other regions and say, “That person is not so different from me” that’s going to be very, very important moving forward. So I think we, you know, opening yourself to having conversations that are difficult with people, asking questions that’s– I always try to make sure that the first three things that I say in a conversation with someone about the Middle East are questions, even in conversations where, you know, I’ve had more experience in the region than other people, it doesn’t– to me, I have something to learn from someone who has no exposure to the region.
Emily: I’m interested to know what people think and just kind of getting away from this idea that you have to, you know, spend decades of your life studying Arabic or live in the Middle East to have an opinion about the Middle East. I think if you come to it, sort of, with some humility and some curiosity it’s perfectly fine for you to form opinions about the region. I think it’s a good idea to have strong opinions loosely held.
Jeremi: I like that, “strong opinions, loosely held.” I also, I love your emphasis upon the willingness to question and learn, even from a distance, rather than the almost flawed and seductive effort to impose one’s views– to learn the views of others rather than impose one’s views is an important discipline.
Emily: Yeah and I think– I mean I think it’s going to be important for the Middle East and for the United States and I think for a lot of the world in the coming years to be willing to think creatively about substantive democracy. How we achieve substantive democracy and don’t fall victim to this kind of attachment to forms of democracy. So thinking about, you know, maybe more participatory governments, you know, associative government– things, ways that we can engage politically even here at home that focus on what the important functions of government are, not on controlling particular territorial, you know, territorial designations.
Jeremi: Yeah, so Zachary, are these the kinds of issues that motivate young people like yourself when you think about the Middle East? Do you and your friends care about democracy in the Middle East?
Zachary: I think we do, but I do think there’s still a lot of people of my age who just think that the Middle East is just violence and that’s it and they can’t think beyond that and that’s–
Jeremi: And how can we get beyond that, Zachary?
Zachary: I think we just need better education because often what we’re taught about the Middle East is more about the conflict and less about the people and the culture.
Jeremi: Right, right. Well I think that’s a perfect note to close on, Emily has given us such a tour de horizon, such a beautiful and deep understanding of the very complex dynamics in the region and allowed us to understand the human element of it and I think that connects to Zachary’s poem and Zachary’s final point here on how humanizing our understanding of a region is essential for a discussion of democracy. You cannot talk about democracy in any substantive form unless you actually think about the people who live within these systems that we’re talking about, systems that we’re often intervening in, one way or another. Thank you for an enlightening conversation today, thank you for joining us on “This is Democracy.”
Speaker 1: This podcast is produced by the Liberal Arts Development Studio and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.
Speaker 2: The music in this episode was written and recorded by Harrison Lemke and you can find his music at HarrisonLemke.com.
Speaker 3: Subscribe and stay tuned for a new episode every Thursday, featuring new perspectives on democracy.