Ten things you need to know about the Middle East and Arabs

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Ten things to Know About the Middle East and Arabs Professor Stephen Zunes, University of San Francisco

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as a senior policy analyst and Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project.

1. Who are the Arabs?

Arab peoples range from the Atlantic coast in northwest Africa to the Arabian peninsula and north to Syria. They are united by a common language and culture. Though the vast majority are Muslim, there are also sizable Christian Arab minorities in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Palestine. Originally the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, the Arabs spread their language and culture to the north and west with the expansion of Islam in the 7th century. There are also Arab minorities in the Sahel and parts of east Africa, as well as in Iran and Israel. The Arabs were responsible for great advances in mathematics, astronomy and other scientific disciplines while Europe was still mired in the Dark Ages.

While there is great diversity in skin pigmentation, spoken dialect and certain customs, there is a common identity which unites Arab people that has sometimes been reflected in pan-Arab nationalist movements. Despite substantial political and other differences, many Arabs share a sense that they are one nation, which has been artificially divided through the machinations of Western imperialism and which came to dominate the region with the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th century. There is also a growing Arab diaspora in Europe, North America, Latin America, West Africa and Australia.

2. Who are the Muslims?

The Islamic faith originated in the Arabian peninsula, based on what are believed to be divine revelations by God to the prophet Mohammed. Muslims worship the same God as do Jews and Christians, and share many of the same prophets and ethical traditions, including respect for innocent life. Approximately 90 percent of Muslims are of the orthodox or Sunni tradition; most of the remainder are of the Shi'ite tradition, which dominate Iran but also has substantial numbers in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon. Sunni Islam is nonhierarchical in structure. There is not a tradition of separation between the faith and state institutions as there is in the West, though there is an enormous diversity in various Islamic legal traditions and the degree with which the governments of predominately Muslim countries rely on religious bases for their rule.

Political movements based on Islam have ranged from left to right, from nonviolent to violent, from tolerant to chauvinistic. Generally, the more moderate Islamic movements have developed in countries where there is a degree of political pluralism in which they could operate openly. There is a strong tradition of social justice in Islam, which has often led to conflicts with regimes that are seen to be unjust or unethical. The more radical movements have tended to arise in countries that have suffered great social dislocation due to war or inappropriate economic policies and/or are under autocratic rule.

Most of the world's Muslims are not Arabs. The world's largest Muslim country, for example, is Indonesia. Other important non-Arab Muslim countries include Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, as well as Nigeria and several other black African states. Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world and scores of countries have substantial Muslim minorities. There are approximately five million Muslims in the United States.

3. Why is there so much violence and political instability in the Middle East?

For most of the past 500 years, the Middle East actually saw less violence and warfare and more political stability than Europe or most other regions of the world. It has only been in the last century that the region has seen such widespread conflict. The roots of the conflict are similar to those elsewhere in the Third World, and have to do with the legacy of colonialism, such as artificial political boundaries, autocratic regimes, militarization, economic inequality and economies based on the export of raw materials for finished goods. Indeed, the Middle East has more autocratic regimes, militarization, economic inequality and the greatest ratio of exports to domestic consumption than any region in the world.

At the crossroads of three continents and sitting on much of the world's oil reserves, the region has been subjected to repeated interventions and conquests by outside powers, resulting in a high level of xenophobia and suspicion regarding the intentions of Western powers going back as far as the Crusades. There is nothing in Arab or Islamic culture that promotes violence or discord; indeed, there is a strong cultural preference for stability, order and respect for authority. However, adherence to authority is based on a kind of social contract that assumes a level of justice which -- if broken by the ruler -- gives the people a right to challenge it.

The word jihad, often translated as "holy war," actually means "holy struggle," which can sometimes mean an armed struggle (qital), but also can mean nonviolent action and political work within the established system. Terrorism is not primarily a Middle Eastern phenomenon. In terms of civilian lives lost, Africa has experienced far more terrorism in recent decades than has the Middle East. Similarly, far more suicide bombings in recent years have come from Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka than from Muslim Arabs in the Middle East. There is also a little-known but impressive tradition of nonviolent resistance and participatory democracy in some Middle Eastern countries.

4. Why has the Middle East been the focus of U.S. concern about international terrorism?

There has been a long history of terrorism -- generally defined as violence by irregular forces against civilian targets -- in the Middle East. During Israel's independence struggle in the 1940s, Israeli terrorists killed hundreds of Palestinian and British civilians; two of the most notorious terrorist leaders of that period -- Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir -- later became Israeli prime ministers whose governments received strong financial, diplomatic and military support from the United States.Algeria's independence struggle from France in the 1950s included widespread terrorist attacks against French colonists.

Palestine's ongoing struggle for independence has also included widespread terrorism against Israeli civilians, during the 1970s through some of the armed militias of the Palestine Liberation Organization and, more recently, through radical underground Islamic groups. Terrorism has also played a role in Algeria's current civil strife, in Lebanon's civil war and foreign occupations during the 1980s, and for many years in the Kurdish struggle for independence. Some Middle Eastern governments -- notably Libya, Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Iran -- have in the past had close links with terrorist organizations. In more recent years, the Al-Qaeda movement -- a decentralized network of terrorist cells supported by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden -- has become the major terrorist threat, and is widely believed to be responsible for the

September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Bin Laden himself has been given sanctuary in Afghanistan, though his personal fortune and widespread network of supporters has allowed him to be independent on direct financial or logistical support from any government.

The vast majority of the people in the Middle East deplore terrorism, yet point out that violence against civilians by governments has generally surpassed that of terrorists. For example, the Israelis have killed far more Arab civilians over the decades through using U.S.-supplied equipment and ordinance than have Arab terrorists killed Israeli civilians. Similarly, the U.S.-supplied Turkish armed forces have killed far more Kurdish civilians than have such radical Kurdish groups like the PKK (the Kurdish acronym for the Kurdistan Workers' Party). Also, in the eyes of many Middle Easterners, U.S. support for terrorist groups like the Nicaraguan contras and various right-wing Cuban exile organizations in recent decades, as well as U.S. air strikes and the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq in more recent years, have made the U.S. an unlikely crusader in the war against terrorism

4. What kind of political systems exist in the Middle East?

There are a variety of political systems in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Morocco and Jordan are all conservative monarchies (in approximate order of absolute rule). Iraq, Syria and Libya are left-leaning dictatorships, with Iraq being one of the most totalitarian societies in the world. Egypt and Tunisia are conservative autocratic republics. Iran is an Islamic republic with an uneven trend in recent years towards greater political openness. Sudan and Algeria are under military rulers facing major insurrections.

Lebanon, Turkey and Yemen are republics with repressive aspects but some degree of political pluralism. The only Middle Eastern country with a strong tradition of parliamentary democracy is Israel, though the benefits of this political freedom is largely restricted to its Jewish citizens (the Palestinian Arab minority is generally treated as second-class citizens and Palestinians in the occupied territories are subjected to military rule and serious human rights abuses). The largely autocratic Palestinian Authority has been granted limited autonomy in a series of non-contiguous enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza Strip surrounded by Israeli occupation forces.

5. What sort of political alliances exist in the Middle East?

All Arab states, including the Palestinian Authority, belong to the League of Arab States, which acts as a regional body similar to the Organization of African Union or the Organization of American States, which work together on issues of common concern. However, there are enormous political divisions within Arab countries and other Middle Eastern states. Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance, closely aligned with the West and hopes to eventually become part of the European union. The six conservative monarchies of the Persian Gulf region have formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), from where they pursue joint strategic and economic interests and promote close ties with the West, particularly Great Britain (which dominated the smaller sheikdoms in the late 19th and early 20th century) and, more recently, the United States.

Often a country's alliances are not a reflection of its internal politics. For example, Saudi Arabia is often referred in the U.S. media as a "moderate" Arab state, though it is the most oppressive fundamentalist theocracy in the world today outside of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; "moderate," in this case, simply means that it has close strategic and economic relations with the United States.

Jordan and Egypt are pro-Western, but have been willing to challenge U.S. policy on occasion. Israel identifies most strongly with the West: most of its leaders are European-born or have been of European heritage, and it has diplomatic relations with only a handful of Middle Eastern countries. Iran alienated most of its neighbors with its threat to expand its brand of revolutionary Islam to Arab world, though its increasingly moderate orientation in recent years has led to some cautious rapprochement. Syria, a former Soviet ally, has been cautiously reaching out to more conservative Arab governments and with the West; it currently exerts enormous political influence over Lebanon. Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Libya under Muammar Qaddafi and Sudan under their military junta remain isolated from most of other Middle Eastern countries due to a series of provocative policies, though many of these same countries oppose the punitive sanctions and air strikes the United States has inflicted against these countries in recent years.

6. What is the impact of oil in the Middle East?

The major oil producers of the Middle East include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Algeria. Egypt, Syria, Oman and Yemen have smaller reserves. Most of the major oil producers of the Middle East are part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC. (Non-Middle Eastern OPEC members include Indonesia, Venezuela, Nigeria and other countries.) Much of the world's oil wealth exists along the Persian Gulf, with particularly large reserves in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. About one-quarter of U.S. oil imports come from the Persian Gulf region; the Gulf supplies European states and Japan with an even higher percentage of those countries' energy needs. The imposition of higher fuel efficiency standards and other conservation measures, along with the increased use of renewable energy resources for which technologies are already available, could eliminate U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil in a relatively short period of time.

The Arab members of OPEC instigated a boycott against the United States in the fall of 1973 in protest of U.S. support for Israel during the October Arab-Israeli war, creating the first in a series of energy shortages. The cartel has had periods of high and low costs for oil, resulting in great economic instability. Most governments have historically used their oil wealth to promote social welfare, particularly countries like Algeria, Libya and Iraq, which professed to a more socialist orientation. Yet all Countries have squandered their wealth for arms purchases and prestige projects. In general, the influx of petrodollars has created enormous economic inequality both within oil-producing states and between oil-rich and oil-poor states as well as widespread corruption and questionable economic priorities.

7. What is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict about?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially over land, with two peoples claiming historic rights to the geographic Palestine, a small country in the eastern Mediterranean about the size of New Jersey. The creation of modern Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of the goal of the Jewish nationalist movement, known as Zionism, as large numbers of Jews migrated to their faith's ancestral homeland from Europe, North Africa and elsewhere throughout the 20th century. They came into conflict with the indigenous Palestinian Arab population, which also was struggling for independence. The 1947 partition plan, which divided the country approximately in half, resorted in a war which ended in Israel seizing control of 78 percent of the territory within a year. Most of the Palestinian population became refugees, in some cases through fleeing the fighting and in other cases through being forcibly expelled in a policy of ethnic cleansing. The remaining Palestinian areas -- the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- came under control of the neighboring Arab states of Jordan and Egypt, though these areas were also seized by Israel in the 1967 war.

Israel has been colonizing parts of these occupied territories with Jewish settlers in violation of the Geneva Conventions and UN Security Council resolutions. Historically, both sides have failed to recognize the legitimacy of the others' nationalist aspirations, though the Palestinian leadership finally formally recognized Israel in 1993. The peace process since then has been over the fate of the West Bank (including Arab East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip, which is the remaining 22 percent of the Palestine, occupied by Israel since 1967. The United States plays the dual role of chief mediator of the conflict as well as the chief financial, military and diplomatic supporter of Israel. The Palestinians want their own independent state in these territories and to allow Palestinian refugees the right to return. Israel, backed by the United States, insists the Palestinians give up large swaths of the West Bank -- including most of Arab East Jerusalem -- to Israel and to accept the resettlement of most refugees into other Arab countries.

Since September 2000, there has been widespread rioting by Palestinians against the ongoing Israeli occupation as well as terrorist bombings within Israel by extremist Islamic groups. Israeli occupation forces, meanwhile, have engaged in widespread killings and other human rights abuses in the occupied territories.

Most Arabs feel a strong sense of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, though their governments have tended to manipulate their plight for their own political gain. Neighboring Arab states have fought several wars with Israel, though Egypt and Jordan now have peace agreements and full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. In addition to much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel still occupies a part of southwestern Syria known as the Golan Heights. The threats and hostility by Arab states towards Israel's very existence has waned over the years. Full peace and diplomatic recognition would likely come following a full Israeli withdrawal from its occupied territories.

8. What has been the legacy of the Gulf War?

Virtually every Middle Eastern state opposed the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990, though they were badly divided on the appropriateness of the U.S.-led Gulf War that followed. Even among countries that supported the armed liberation of Kuwait, there was widespread opposition to the deliberate destruction by the United States of much of Iraq's civilian infrastructure during the war. Even more controversial has been the enormous humanitarian consequences of the U.S.-led international sanctions against Iraq in place since the war, which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children, from malnutrition and preventable diseases.

The periodic U.S. air strikes against Iraq also have been controversial, as has the ongoing U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states and in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Since Iraq's offensive military capability was largely destroyed during the Gulf War and during the subsequent inspections regime, many observers believe that U.S. fears about Iraq's current military potential are exaggerated, particularly in light of the quiet U.S. support for Iraq during the 1980s when its military was at its peak. In many respects, the Gulf War led the oil-rich GCC states into closer identification with the United States and the West and less with their fellow Arabs, though there is still some distrust about U.S. motivations and policies in the Middle East.

9. How has the political situation in Afghanistan evolved and how is it connected to the Middle East?

Afghanistan, an impoverished landlocked mountainous country, has traditionally been identified more with Central and South Asia than with the Middle East. A 1978 coup by communist military officers resulted in a series of radical social reforms, which were imposed in an autocratic matter and which resulted in a popular rebellion by a number of armed Islamic movements.

The Soviet Union installed a more compliant communist regime at the end of 1979, sending in tens of thousands of troops and instigating a major bombing campaign, resulting in large-scale civilian casualties and refugee flows. The war lasted for much of the next decade. The United States sent arms to the Islamic resistance, known as the mujahadin, largely through neighboring Pakistan, then under the rule of an ultra-conservative Islamic military dictatorship. Most of the U.S. aid went to the most radical of the eight different mujahadin factions on the belief that they would be least likely to reach a negotiated settlement with the Soviet-backed government and would therefore drag the Soviet forces down. Volunteers from throughout the Islamic world, including the young Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden, joined the struggle. The CIA trained many of these recruits, including Bin Laden and many of his followers.

When the Soviets and Afghanistan's communist government were defeated in 1992, a vicious and bloody civil war broke out between the various mujahadin factions, war lords and ethnic militias. Out of this chaos emerged the Taliban movement, led by young seminary students from the refugee camps in Pakistan, educated in ultra-conservative Saudi-funded schools, which took over 85 percent of the country by 1996 and imposed long-awaited order and stability, but established a brutal totalitarian theocracy based on a virulently reactionary and misogynist interpretation of Islam. The Northern Alliance, consisting of the remnants of various factions from the civil war in the 1990s, control a small part of the northeast corner of the country.

10. How have most Middle Eastern governments reacted to the September 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath?

Virtually every government and the vast majority of their populations reacted with the same horror and revulsion as did people in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Despite scenes shown repeatedly on U.S. television of some Palestinians celebrating the attacks, the vast majority of Palestinians also shared in the world's condemnation. If the United States, in conjunction with local governments, limits its military response to commando-style operations against suspected terrorist cells, the U.S. should receive the cooperation and support of most Middle Eastern countries. If the response is more widespread, based more on retaliation than self-defense, and ends up killing large numbers of Muslim civilians, it could create a major anti-American reaction which would increase support for the terrorists and lessen the likelihood for the needed cooperation to break up the Al-Qaeda network, which operates in several Middle Eastern countries.

While few Middle Easterners support bin Laden's methods, the principal concerns expressed in his manifestoes -- the U.S.'s wrongful support for Israel and for Arab dictatorships, the disruptive presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and the humanitarian impact of the sanctions on Iraq -- are widely supported. Ultimately, a greater understanding of the Middle East and the concerns of its governments and peoples are necessary before the United States can feel secure from an angry backlash from the region.

October 1, 2001

-- robert waldrop (rmwj@soonernet.com), October 13, 2001


What this article doesn't mention is that the opening of the vast oil and natural gas resources of Anwar in Alaska would give us a new energy indeendence that could lead us to say, the hell with what's going on in the Middle East.

-- Uncle Fred (dogboy45@bigfoot.com), October 13, 2001.

One thing you need to know about Arabs in the Middle East. 1) These people are power drunk from the riches that the oil on their land have given them. They pay off the terrorists so they will leave them alone so that they can enjoy their power and be left alone. They don't give a shit about their own people and let them starve even though they make plenty of money from oil. They have contempt for any other people and value nothing but power and money. If it wasn't for the oil on their land, they would have nothing and would be as backward as Africa. They are like as leaches sucking of they productivity of real humans. This is of course a generalization. But most of the good people there they have probably already killed. --my 2 cents

-- jimmie-the-weed (thinkasur@aol.com), October 13, 2001.

Thanks for the insight Jimmie. We all know what two cents will buy today...

-- neil r (nmruggles@earthlink.net), October 13, 2001.

Yeah, well here is my nickel's worth.

Slanderous, blanket bigotted generalizations of entire populations such as "weed's" is the reason we will NEVER see peace in this world.

I thought Mr. Zunes' piece was pretty informative.

jonesey...........now where's my Roundup?

-- David A Jones (jonesey@bigfoot.com), October 13, 2001.

Uncle Fred - We won't have energy independence until we find an alternative to oil for our transportation needs. Fleet gas mileage has gotten worse thanks to our addiction to gas guzzlers.

-- Guy Daley (guydaley1@netzero.net), October 13, 2001.

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