Tuesday, April 05, 2005

middle east myth machine

Saudi Gazette
5 April 2005
by Susannah Tarbush

In his new book, published by Saqi of London, Professor Fred Halliday tackles head-on some of the oft-repeated statements about the Middle East that he considers to be myths. Among the myths he identifies in “100 Myths about the Middle East” are:

- The Middle East is, in some fundamental way, “different” from the rest of the world and has to be understood in terms distinct from other regions.

- The Middle East is a region contaminated by hatred and solemnity; its people have no sense of humour.

- The crisis of the Arab world can be explained by the negative impact of the conflict with Israel on democratisation and social change.

In debunking these and other myths in his pithy book, Halliday, the Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, freely wields words such as “nonsense”, “fiction”, “grotesque distortion” and “preposterous”. He tackles most of the myths in just one or two pages of tight argument.

Among the other myths Halliday demolishes are: There can be no “anti-Semitism” in the European sense in the Middle East because both Arabs and Jews are Semites; the ‘West’ has, for centuries, been hostile to ‘Islam’; the US, backed by the UK, invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 to gain control of Iraqi oil; we live in an age when international relations are dominated by a ‘clash of civilisations’; the new cause of conflict in the Middle East is going to be water, with the prospect of ‘hydrowars’, ie wars about water, looming in the future.

Not every reader will agree that all Halliday’s targets are myths. Some of the statements he seeks to discredit appear to have at least a large grain of truth in them that makes it hard to dismiss them completely.

The tone of Halliday’s book reflects his impatience with his years of encountering accepted “wisdom”, flabby thinking and unchallenged assumptions. As well as deconstructing 100 myths, Halliday provides a handy 63-page “Glossary of Crisis”, with punchy and witty definitions of everything from battlespace, and corkscrew journalism to groupthink, halal hippie, nuclear souq and “perceived liberal bias”.

Halliday writes in his introduction that he intends to challenge the appearance that the Middle East is a region where the past, political, national and religious, holds sway, while a closer examination shows this is far from being the case.

Another aim is to challenge the assumption that in looking at religions or cultures we are looking at separate, discrete and monolithic entities. Cultures have interacted with each other over time.

Halliday also has an ethical mission, in encouraging a critical distance from the identification with history. “Far from the world being swept by a wave of rationality, historical accuracy and universality, the very turmoil produced by globalisation, by the collapse and discrediting of the dominant radical ideologies of the twentieth century, of left and right, and by a world where violence in many and unexpected forms is prevalent, has led to a strengthening of myth and emotional claims.”

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