The top 10 myths about the Middle East

30 June 2007
Many misleading ideas are held about the Middle East, but the most pervasive myths are universal. Fred Halliday examines the top 10 myths.

Two years ago I published a book entitled 100 Myths About the Middle East. It was a way of reflecting on the many misleading ideas that circulate about the region: that Islam is a ‘religion of the desert’, that Lawrence of Arabia was a figure of any importance, that Arabs do not have a sense of humour, that oil in itself produces conflict, that some European nation or other, be it the English, the Greeks, the French or whoever, has a ‘special’ relationship with the Arabs.

The response of my Middle Eastern friends, Arab and Persian, was one of indignation. Not for the myths I discussed, but at the fact that I included only 100. “Why not 1,000?”, said the Arabs. “Why not 10,000?”, said the Persians.

The result is that I have continued to collect more, yet in the process I have had growing doubts about my original argument, namely that these myths are specific to the Middle East. The more I step back and read about other regions, their conspiracy theories, wars, and self-regarding claims, the more I see that the most pervasive myths about the Middle East are common to many parts of the world.

They are myths about the nature of culture or politics or society. We can identify falsehoods about Zionism, the origins of humus or the meanings of ‘Andalus’, but in so doing we take our eye off the even more pervasive falsehoods that distort our understanding of the region. So, for starters, here are 10:

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics

  1. That knowledge of a language is the key to understanding a society.
    The claim that someone who knows the Arabic language, and is therefore ‘an Arabist’ and understands the politics and society of a country, is baseless. Politics, economics and culture have to be studied and researched separately.

  2. That any country or people can be explained by reference to unchanging cultural or religious values.
    Books and articles about Muslims, Jews and Persians that explain their present behaviour in terms of cultural influences and values going back centuries are legion. Yet a moment’s reflection would show that this is true of no country: the crises, conflicts and concerns of these peoples are a product of the modern world and its economic and social tensions, even if they use historic terms and references to justify what they do.

  3. That Eastern societies cannot, and do not, change.
    The modern Arab world is a creation of the post-first world war settlement. Their societies and economies have been shaped, arguably warped by their subsequent intersection with the modern world. As their nervous rulers are all too aware, they are changing all the time.

  4. That concepts of rights that originated in the West are not relevant to the peoples of other parts of the world.
    Every country uses a different terminology to refer to their political and ethical values - thus their parliaments are called Majlis and Duma, Tag and so forth. But the institutions are broadly similar. Likewise, every people and culture supports general principles of modern politics - the right to self-determination, economic growth, popular representation. The denial of universal rights is a result of state interest, not cultural difference.

  5. That relations between states were, are and will be determined by a ‘clash of civilisations’.
    Huntington’s 1993 argument is false about the past, the contemporary Middle East and the future: culture is an idiom more than a force in its own right. Most relations between Muslim peoples and the outside world are conducted on the basis of interest, be this on oil prices, arms sales or territorial disputes.

  6. That the only thing the peoples of the non-European/nonwhite part of the world understand is force.
    Everyone has made this mistake, from George Bush in Iraq, to Vladimir Putin in Chechnya, to President Bashir in the south of Sudan, to the Israelis in Gaza. The lesson of modern history is that peoples demand respect and will continue to fight, and resist, as long as they do not receive it.

  7. That major historical events can be explained by single causes.
    Events such as the Iranian revolution, the rise of Islamism or the US invasion of Iraq have no simple explanation. Major events in the Middle East need examining in terms of their local, regional and global causes, as well as immediate, mediumand long-term factors.

  8. That only Western peoples are ‘civilised’.
    There is much to admire in the best of Western society and politics. Yet the briefest of glances over the past century shows it is the West that has perpetrated the greatest crimes in the Middle East. Terrorism itself is in part an invention of secular, Western, politics; Al Qaeda is in part a creation of the policy of the US and its allies in the Cold War.

  9. That identity is something fixed, and one-dimensional.
    Identities, of an individual, people or culture, are always multi-layered and allow for different interpretations. They also change, in response to change within the society, and the influence of a constantly changing outside world. The attempt to freeze or fix identity, or to reduce it to one version, is only possible with lies and violence.

  10. That some conflicts can never be resolved.
    Human beings create and sustain conflicts; they can solve them.

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