Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Peace remains elusive in Mid-East

Sep 21, 2010

By Cheong Suk-Wai

STUDYING political modernisation at Yale University in the 1960s, the young Michael Hudson was required to spend time in a country that was deeply divided ethnically. His options were Lebanon, Malaysia or Nigeria.

He plumped for Lebanon, and struck academic gold because it proved to be 'a place where all the political forces of the Middle East competed with one another, and so I got sucked into the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab politics'.

Today, Professor Hudson, 72, is a world authority on Lebanese politics as well as on other hot-button issues in the region. In 1975, he co-founded Georgetown University's Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, and steered it for 35 years.

He left all that to become director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

A widower with two daughters, he met me earlier this month to tell me why the latest round of peace talks between Israel and Palestine will go nowhere, and more:

How do you plan to contribute to Singaporeans' understanding of the Middle East?
My Singaporean colleagues made it very clear to me that they felt the Middle East has not figured very prominently in the educational systems here, and even specialised knowledge of that region was rather limited. So one of the points I made in discussions with them was that if you're looking to develop a research institute that offers advice, that advice is best informed by academic scholarship.

Can academics in ivory towers offer better advice than observers on the ground?
To put it bluntly, many in the academic community who have studied the Middle East have long taken a very dismissive view of policy research in the region. They find such research often superficial, poorly informed and unreliable because it depends on the anecdotal 'I was there' experience, which can be valuable but might be misleading. Whereas policy researchers say: 'These academics spend all their time engaging in complicated studies of unimportant things which mean nothing to us.' I'm exaggerating the gap, but you really need the academics if you want to convey the complexities.

What can they see that others can't?
Well, take Islam and terrorism: many American policy researchers tend not to understand the nature and depth of religious commitment and identity, and see Middle Eastern societies as monolithically religious and so vulnerable to manipulation by extremists... If you don't understand how Islam plays out in their lives, it's hard for you to gauge how extremists use Islamist discourse for particular ends.

Is that lack of understanding the result of ignorance or complacency?
If you are in the United States, where Middle East initiatives are highly politicised... there will be those driven by dark and simplistic partisan views to demonise Islam and paint all Muslims with the same brush. But you don't want to leave that understanding to the terrorism experts or even theologians. You need sociologists, anthropologists, cultural historians and political scientists to look at how Islam actually functions in society.

I don't think it's the role of the researcher to be an apologist for Islam, but it's pretty evident what the policy implications are of an imperfect understanding of Islam. For example, there's a resurgence of Islamophobia in the US that's opened a Pandora's Box of prejudice... When this happens, you're attacking someone's very identity and culture, and that's a big problem.

Some argue that Arab/Muslim communities in general tend to be insular, lack initiative and are slow to grow.
I don't agree with that. The Muslim world in general is a very complicated place and there's a lot of variety in it... There has been a very big debate among Middle East scholars over the last 25 years about how to study and characterise The Other, as opposed to non-Muslim Westerners. The late Edward Said's book, Orientalism, changed the way the informed public think about Islam, saying that Westerners were really exporting their own prejudices and identifying The Other in a very superficial, incomplete and pejorative way. So most academic scholarship on Islam is now free of such prejudice. But public perceptions of early stereotypes still exist.

But do they exist for good reasons?
You're raising a very important point. It's true that Muslim communities are not doing so well in many ways, but in many other ways, they're doing quite well indeed - such as in Lebanon and the Gulf states. There's also a great deal of self-criticism going on now in the Muslim world. But it's true that it could grow more, as shown in the United Nations' Arab Human Development Reports, which were put together by Arab researchers.

Public opinion data also shows that Muslims in Arab countries value democracy, but their political systems have not been particularly good at delivering that. But to say that's just because they are Muslims misses the larger point that in mainstream Islam one is enjoined to work hard, cooperate and treasure family, which is consistent with humanistic norms.

What's the cost of its weak leadership?
There's a disjunction between the region's self-perpetuating political systems and the people who are underneath them, who don't really like it but can't do much about it because these governments have got the police and all that. So that's a real concern. Still, there are currents in Middle Eastern civil society challenging this and the rise of new media has opened up the public space a lot. So things are not entirely static.

But it's all static on its No. 1 problem, Israel and Palestine.
It's certainly the most durable of the many conflicts in the region. It's also the most important one because it fuels all sorts of extremism elsewhere in the region. So why don't things move? Because Israel, with the almost unlimited backing of the US, does not feel inclined to make concessions. I'd be surprised if the latest effort to broker peace really brings about a breakthrough.

Has US President Barack Obama lost the plot on that?
Yes. At the beginning of his term, he was on the right track. He said this issue was important and tried to reach out to the Muslim world in his speech in Cairo over a year ago. He said the Israeli-Palestinian problem was part of the problem, and Israel had to stop building and reinforcing its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu simply stood up to him and said: 'No, we won't.' And Mr Obama blinked and backed off on what had been a proper, balanced approach.

Should the Middle East enlist emerging powers to broker a breakthrough on this?
This is a good question that can be addressed by the realist theory of international politics, which holds that power is the name of the game. And the US can apply more military power than any other country in this situation. Can China or India project such power? The answer is no and they've no compelling interest to do so anyway.

So can the Israeli-Palestinian problem ever be solved?
At the moment, I don't see diplomacy bringing a clear end to this... There's been a debate that the proper solution is a two-state one, but a good many Palestinians now want a one-state solution because how can you have a proper state when it's divided into little enclaves and surrounded by Israeli settlers and troops?

Sep 21, 2010
The biggest beef and the biggest paradox
FIRM and focused, Middle East scholar Michael Hudson is hopeful that the region is progressing slowly but surely. Here he is on:

'Moderate' Middle Eastern governments
'Those who mainly do what we tell them to do.'

What people should be most aware of about Muslims
'That when you make nasty, brutal characterisations of Islam, that does a lot to radicalise the Muslim centre, or the vast majority of Muslims for whom religion is important but would not by any stretch of the imagination go on an extremist jihad.'

Why the Israeli-Palestinian crisis still matters
'Because it engages Arab and Muslim opinion and is a religious, and not just national, issue because of the holy places in Israel.'

The Arabs' biggest beef about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis
'That they didn't have either the diplomatic or military strength to bring about even a partial solution. And they're very angry that even the US doesn't understand their case.'

The biggest paradox about this crisis
'That the US has such military power and political leverage over most countries in the Middle East, but has very little leverage over Israel despite protecting it against all comers and supplying it with well over US$3 billion (S$4 billion) a year.'

US President Barack Obama's Middle East peace efforts
'Since he seems to be a prisoner of the structure of American politics, it doesn't seem likely that he's prepared to play a balanced role here.'

Why he wants to work here
'I thought it's time for an adventure.'


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