The West’s analysis of the Middle East is far too simplistic

There is a tendency in the West to over generalise the Arab world, writes HA Hellyer

British prime minister David Cameron and his team is looking at the Middle East through oversimplified analysis of what is driving events. Photo: Chris Ratcliffe / EPA
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The British prime minister David Cameron made a statement to the House of Commons this week on the measures the UK government is taking to deal with extremism. As expected, it tackled the growing threat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria and the relationship between British counterterrorism policy and that threat.

The statement he provided and the discussion that ensued exemplified many of the flaws that plague discussions about the Arab world, and how certain parts of the political establishment in the UK continue to view the region, which can hamper the UK’s ability to engage effectively with it.

For example, Sir Peter Tapsell, described ISIL recruits from the UK as “British jihadists fighting in Arabia”, and blamed their rise on those who “supported a Sunni rebellion against the Syrian Alawites”. In this world view, there is a religious civil war that has already lasted for 1,300 years.

He does not speak for the UK government, but is a member of the Conservative party, which is part of the ruling coalition. Nevertheless, his interjection is worthy of consideration, precisely because it was so misleading. The mistakes in that world view have deep resonance in British society at large.

The “fighting in Arabia” comment was not just an idle slip of a tongue. On the contrary, there remains a tendency to overgeneralise about the Arab world in certain parts of the British establishment.

The Arabian peninsula probably hasn’t been described as “Arabia” by British Orientalists in the Foreign Office for more than a century. It’s not simply a mistaken reference – it harks back to an era where the peoples of these lands were considered to be colonised subjects, or the exotic Orient, whose inhabitants were objects in some great game.

That lack of perceived agency feeds directly into much of the talk around the region today – within it and by outsiders.

From without, it is not simply Mr Tapsell who would rather disengage from Syria and Iraq, because he considers the current crisis to be just another round in an unending war between Sunnis and Shias.

He is wrong, of course, both in terms of how the conflict has evolved and in characterising the relationship between Sunnis and Shias as being some sort of centuries old religious civil war.

But he is not the only one – many would use that same kind of frame to urge a lack of engagement on the Syrian (and now the Iraqi) file.

Some might even suggest working with Bashar Al Assad. In a region where the parties are represented in oversimplistic terms, it is easy to come to the wrong policy recommendation.

When the region’s complexity is understood, and engaged with more effectively, it’s far more difficult to come to such simplistic answers.

But again, it is not simply the outsiders who come up with these kind of answers. Within the region, the number of absurd conspiracy theories that plague common discourse remains incredible. It is bizarre to reduce every occurrence to some kind of grand scheme, where even Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliph, is painted as some sort of Western invention.

There is another type of denial about the complexity at work in the region – and it relates to the revolutionary uprisings of the past three years. Some ask the question: was it worth it? Considering all the chaos that has been wrought, and the blood that has been spilt, were these uprisings a good idea? Surely they were simply plots, anyway, and Arabs couldn’t make them work?

This is a deceptive line of enquiry. If we are to ask that question about whether or not they were a good idea, perhaps it is appropriate to ask the rulers of those lands who turned on their populations, and fired upon them. The blame lies not on those who simply wanted a better future – but on those who sought to take any future away, as they fired upon protesters. But that would not be simple – and complexity is difficult.

The Arab region is in the midst of turmoil. As we seek to understand these events, it remains important that we check our temptations for simplicity at the door. The Arab world is many things – but simple is not one of them.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services ­Institute in London and the ­Brookings Institution in ­Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer