At the beginning of March, UNESCO declared that ISIS had committed a war crime. The term did not, on this occasion, apply to the Islamic State’s attacks on living, breathing, people, but instead referred to its deliberate, measured attacks on world culture, specifically in relation to Nimrud, Iraq, an ancient Assyrian archaeological site.
This condemnation is an interesting marriage of history and modern-day politics, two halves of a generalised regional ‘identity’ rarely considered in tandem. Expressions of outrage in response to the destruction of swathes of historical sites by ISIS are symptomatic of composite and somewhat confused Western perceptions of the Middle East, which have created a chaotic dichotomy between the region’s rich cultural past, and its supposedly ‘terrorist’ nature today.
So Scheherazade began
As one of the cradles of origin for civilisation, we have much to thank the Middle East for in terms of its varied contributions to the global corpus of history and culture. The agriculturally rich Fertile Crescent allowed the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Persian civilisations to flourish. Towns such as Jericho were the first to emerge, aided by their ability to support the development of the non-agrarian professions crucial to the building of the civilisations which followed from around 3,500BC onwards. This facilitated a number of firsts within the Middle East: a vast array of languages developed in written forms; some of the earliest evidence of the use of wheeled vehicles comes from Mesopotamia; in the 13th Century BC, the Treaty of Kadesh, the oldest known extant peace treaty in the world, was signed by the Egyptians and the Hittites. Various other empires and peoples have had some degree of involvement in this part of the planet. Greece. The neo-Assyrian Empire. Macedonia. The Parthians and Sassanids. Rome. Byzantium. The ancient period alone reveals the startlingly comprehensive role played by the Middle East in the development of human civilisation and life on earth.
But it goes on. The Islamic Golden Age saw knowledge and learning valued and preserved. The era has been credited with ensuring the survival of a very significant amount of Classical learning, in fields such as medicine, at a time when the civilisations based in Europe and the West did not look upon knowledge as a particularly important pursuit. The Middle East also forms the bedrock for much of literature and folklore; the collection of tales largely known as ‘The 1,001 Nights’ or the ‘Arabian Nights’ not only contributed a wealth of stories to the canon, but also served as a literary innovation, featuring early examples of cliff-hangers and framing narratives.
The civilisations involved in Middle Eastern history are by no means identical. The existence of conflict attests to this; attacks on Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar which culminated in the burning of Solomon’s Temple bear religious motivations not unfamiliar today. When we consider the myriad of empires and civilisations which have existed in the region today labelled the Middle East, we think of them as individual entities, with individual practices, beliefs and achievements. As these civilisations developed in the Middle East, so too did different religions, further evidence of the region’s lack of cultural uniformity. The Middle East witnessed not only the development of the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity), but also far more recent spiritual developments, such as that of the Bahá’í Faith, founded in nineteenth-century Iran. That many of the fragile relationships between nations in the Middle East today and throughout history have stemmed, in part, from religious differences, appears indicative of the region’s spiritual diversity; even as early as the Crusades, religion was used as a justification for war and an attempt to alter geopolitical boundaries, but perhaps one of the most significant of these conflicts today is the volatile relationship between Israel and Palestine, its most recent manifestation coming in the form of the conflict in Gaza in 2014, which was borne out of twentieth-century religious and political tensions. Though our perceived idea of the importance of religion to conflict in the Middle East might be somewhat heightened by the simplification of conflict in the media and in popular thought, it has historically been a key cause of conflict and given the array of religions to have originated in the region, it is not difficult to understand why religion might have become a key political issue.
Scheherazade used the power of an unfinished narrative to delay her death at the hands of her murderous royal husband, notorious for taking a new wife to bed each night and having her killed the following morning. Perhaps it is the ingenuity of such a scheme, or the swathes of culture of which this narrative frame allows the presentation, or the dramatic tension fostered by a constant sense of impending peril, which has contributed to the popularity of the ‘Arabian Nights’. Whatever it is, Scheherazade’s means of surviving a cruel fate has become a greatly romanticised image of Middle Eastern culture.
In part, this positive reception of the story of a bride’s attempt to prevent or at least delay her death is the result of distance. Even if the tales which feature in the various collections of ‘Arabian Nights’ have some historical basis, brutality can be excused, because so much separates the modern-day reader from the tales both in terms of time, and often geographically, that they feel little connection with the tales beyond a sense of enjoyment and an appreciation of a history and a culture. This is largely, it seems, because we are enthralled by these behavioural extremes, and can revel in what would be wholly unacceptable in the context of the modern day, simply because we are so far removed from them. Similarly, less tasteful aspects of any history are diluted by time; Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khufu was considered a cruel leader according to historical accounts, using slave labour for the production of his Great Pyramid at Giza and reportedly prostituting his daughter for financial gain. However, despite depictions of his cruelty, we rarely consider this period of history or any other in ancient or medieval Middle Eastern history in the same negative terms that we would had Khufu’s reign taken place closer to our own lives. Perhaps the modern-day consumer of romanticised Middle Eastern culture feels that the acceptance of the existence of what would be labelled brutality within a modern context is diametrically opposed to the concept of civilisation in any form. The production of great works of literature or wonders of the world – hallmarks, it would seem, of the achievement of civilisations – is believed to be the antithesis of barbarism and brutality.
Perhaps it is this view which has heightened negative reactions to the destruction of historic sites by ISIS. In any case, the Middle East in its modern-day form is not romanticised. When looking at history, we as spectators are provided with a comfortable distance. Hindsight serves as the armour through which history can be explored, preventing harm. We do not know how contemporary events will unfold in the Middle East. As a consequence, the region as a modern-day geopolitical entity does not have the same luxury as its history; the Middle East is often only considered negatively, as a region rife with political tensions.
A region full of terrorists
Stereotypes are at the heart of interpretations of the Middle East, both historical and contemporary. Considerations of the region’s history rely, especially in popular culture, on generalisations. A token list of historical facts, alongside tales such as those of Ali Baba and Aladdin, comprise the entirety of what many know of the region, just as the bare bones of contemporary news headlines form popular narratives on the Middle East. A cartoon published by the Huffington Post in 2014 details a map of the world as it is according to UKIP. Though intended as a satire, there is perhaps more than a little truth in the label affixed to parts of the Middle East. Though wholly untrue as a factual representation of the region, the cartoonist’s decision to provide a label of “terrorists”, ostensibly a humorous depiction of UKIP’s latent racism, arguably plays on a stereotype bought into by many in the West.
That is not to say that the West as a whole believes that the Middle East is a terrorist hotbed. Still, it is noteworthy that, especially since 9/11, Islamist extremism has dominated talk of the Middle East by virtue of its having landed squarely on the Western political agenda as something that could directly impact the West. Undeniably a result of the U.S. launch of the War on Terror and subsequent developments in the region, most currently the rise of ISIS, this blanket stereotype of the ‘terrorist’ Middle East is nevertheless dangerous. By limiting our ability to perceive an entire region covering multiple nations to an image of barbarism, a brand of negative stereotyping and caricaturing which can be seen as far back as Herodotus’ account of the invasion of Greece by Persian kings Darius and Xerxes, we are at risk of placing ourselves on a pedestal which argues that ‘we’ are better than ‘them’ and revels in a sense of self-righteousness at the expense of positive relationships with the region. This is perhaps especially true when our stereotype of the Middle East is primarily influenced by events that directly affect us; we not only place ourselves on a pedestal, but also define an entire region by the events and concerns of the West, meaning that when the politics or concerns of any party deemed to be representative of the Middle East manages to break into the Western sphere of attention, the popular reaction and subsequent shaping of stereotypes only becomes stronger.
A self-perceived sense of superiority, even if it is not based on race but is simply a geopolitical generalisation, seemingly justifies a lack of interest in the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. Perhaps this easy, deliberately vague term is symptomatic of a wider issue; as long as the problems of the Middle East don’t stray outside regional boundaries or impact on the West in a sizeable manner, a dismissive term such as ‘Middle East’ is acceptable because the West has bigger priorities and can afford to step in only when there is an immediate threat. Consequently, the region is regularly viewed only within the context of the West. Regional specifics are limited to events with wide-reaching impacts, often viewed only in terms of individual relationships between leaders and western superpowers such as Obama, or as individual faces of evil suitable for vilification by the Western public. Although this is perhaps an inevitable effect of the priorities of those media corporations which generally target Western recipients, the message is clear: the West does not want to have to think about the Middle East any more than is absolutely necessary. Perhaps this is because it has already written it off as a source of terrorism, and terrorists are not to be negotiated with. It is certainly not an issue of distance, as the UK and the U.S. are more than capable of keeping abreast of the politics of the other, and the same can be said for elements of Australian politics too. Regularly shifting viewpoints on the merits or dangers of intervention in any aspect of Middle Eastern conflict, or decisions regarding diplomatic relations with nations as seen recently with the development of a nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S. are evidence, it seems, of Western uncertainty when the Middle East is concerned. America and Britain are still dealing with the fallout of their decision to invade Iraq, so it seems reasonable to suggest that intervention and therefore interest in any aspect of Middle Eastern politics is relatively unpopular with leaders. However, as long as we see the persistence of this negative attitude, in which it is believed that interaction with the Middle East can only concern conflict, and in which the Middle East is only considered in relation to the West, there will be no impetus to view the region and its politics in any level of detail substantial enough to encourage the West to move on from the dismissive ‘Middle East’ label.
When the myriad political relationships within the Middle East are considered, it is usually within a Western frame which often downplays or at least fails to recognise the gravity of each situation. In ISIS’s recent dealings outside of the Middle East, in Tunisia, a news story was created out of a (erroneous) report that the militant group posed a danger to the Star Wars production. The concern was not for lives, but for film sets. It appears that the developments most likely to draw attention are those which concern objects and locations rather than human lives, and yet again culture seemed to have won out against mortality. Perhaps it is indicative of the media’s interest (and by default the interest of those for whom the media caters) in relaying information of direct relevance to readers in the West. In the case of Nimrud, it was the devastating loss of the opportunity for historical discovery. In the case of the Star Wars sets, it was the threat to the production of a blockbuster.
In light of recent developments in Yemen, a map was published online detailing Middle Eastern geopolitical relations, though this naturally included the U.S. and Russia in order to provide a global context for the alliances and tensions in the region. The map was a complex collection of dashes and lines designed to indicate the nature of Middle Eastern politics, but came with a note explaining that Israel and Palestine had been omitted to prevent over-complication. In a political bubble which is often limited to the E.U. and the U.S., it is difficult to comprehend the complexities of this region politically, an issue exacerbated by the nature of the label ‘Middle East’ as a catch-all term. As the E.U. and the U.S. are two united entities themselves, there is far less tension and as such, perhaps it is incomprehensible to those living in the West that political circumstances elsewhere might be not only more delicate but also more intricate. Being major players on the world stage who both wield a great deal of power, the E.U. and the U.S. are often by default assumed to be superior to the Middle East, especially in the context of any argument involving present-day conflict in the region. The now-automatic Western generalisation of the region under this label, despite the fact that it is comprised of a number of diverse nations, is symptomatic of a frequent lack of interest in any involvement. And where there is little direct involvement, there is no motivation for interest or media coverage, this being largely West-centric. The relationship between the UK and the U.S. is arguably not, in the twenty-first century, natural and automatic, but the result of a deliberate attempt to maintain diplomatic relations. There is no reason, beyond a lack of comprehension and a dogged refusal to learn, for the West’s lack of similar relationships across the Middle East, even if the cultural differences are harder to overcome – that just makes it all the more important to understand those cultural differences.
The term ‘Middle East’ has in the past been branded ‘Eurocentric’. As a colonialist term, and in the context of its geographical definitions, it is undoubtedly so. However, more than this, it is a term which demonstrates exactly how the West perceives the region. The generalisation is indicative of the West’s wilful failure to consider individual nations in the region, which manifests itself more widely as an eagerness to stereotype, all too often negatively. It is part of a deliberate show of self-interest by the West, which has isolated and afforded a sense of superiority to the E.U. and the U.S., rarely interacting in a positive manner with the Middle East. This has perpetuated a sense of negativity in opposition to perceptions of Middle Eastern history, which perhaps by virtue of the existence of numerous names, empires and civilisations, was not forced under one ostensibly all-encompassing heading in the same manner as contemporary politics in the region. It is this which allows the West to condemn ISIS for its attack on history and culture even whilst the likes of Syria’s Assad can assert that Britain, France and the U.S. do not truly want to entirely eradicate the Islamic State.