Friday, January 08, 2016

Iran, the Saudis, and the US -Conflict and Complexity

From the Economist at On Being
We like easy answers to complex questions. Americans, especially Americans of European descent (like me), don't like to think of ourselves as being a colonial power. We don't mind being seen as the world's police (always keeping peace), but never as colonial powers. While we may never have had the direct rule over as many peoples as the French and British, we have our own colonial past (just ask the people of the Philippines). 

At this moment in time there is great turmoil in the Middle East. Not only is ISIS trying to control much of Syria and Iraq (it seems to be losing steam in Iraq), but we have the geo-political jockeying for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Many have taken to paint this as a a centuries old conflict between Shia and Sunni factions within Islam. While there is religious dimensions to the conflict, it's much more complex than that.  And the current conflict isn't a replay of a 7th century conflict. It's a modern one, with deep roots in Colonialism.  

I ran across a most helpful essay by Omid Safi, the Director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University. Safi offers "Ten Ways on How Not to Think About the Iran/Saudi Conflict."  Safi writes not as a political scientist, but as a religious scholar. 

Safi makes an important point about how the West sees the region:

 The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.)
Safi points out that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are modern states, where religion is a factor, but so are a lot of other things -- including oil.  Each of the points made by Safi are thought-provoking, and should be attended to carefully.

I want to note this quotation about context, something we tend to forget.

Six. Context, context, context. We cannot make sense of the strife of the modern world without dealing with nationalism, colonialism, and the oppressive apparatus of modern states. Watch the always amazing Mehdi Hasan to see similar points. 
So why are we so hesitant to engage in a discussion of context? Because to discuss the history of the Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have to discuss colonialism, first of the British and the French, and then of U.S. support for autocratic and dictatorial regimes (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, etc.) In short, we cannot tell the real story of the destabilization of Middle East without accounting for our own complicity.
One of the mistakes that I think the United States has made over the years is to side with the Saudi's in the conflict between two modern powers jockeying for influence. We speak of Iran as an exporter of terrorism, while forgetting that much of the terrorist activity has roots with the Saudi's. 

My point here is that the issue is complex. It does involve sectarian rivalry, but it is more. Think of Northern Ireland. In part it had a sectarian dimension, but it was much more than that.  It had to do with nationalism and more.  So, I close with Safi's closing words, which I think are worth pondering:

What I am saying is that Sunnis and Shi‘a have not always hated each other, and have certainly not always killed each other. Like the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, this is not an “ancient and eternal enmity.” It is an earthly, historical conflict, which at times uses the language of religion to justify a political conflict. It has an earthly beginning, and God-willing, it will have an earthly resolution. The lives in Iran, Saudi Arabia — but also in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere — depend on it.
These are words we need to hear and consider!

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