1PS121 Lecture 1 The Region: Geography, Demography, Society and Politics Thinking of the Middle East in political terms familiar to Europeans and Americans risks missing important differences between this region and others. Early in the last century, the British traveler, writer, and archeologist Gertrude Bell made two observations about the peculiar role of religion and tribalism in the Middle East that remain worth noting at the outset, especially because they help explain the problem the U.S. now faces in confronting radical Islam and pacifying Iraq. As she stressed, 1) religious belief is peculiarly important there, to an extent that can override political boundaries and makes nationalism less of a force, and 2) in Iraq tribalism works against national unity:Islam is the bond that unites the western and central parts of the continent, as it is the electric current by which the transmission of sentiment is effected, and its potency is increased by the fact that there is little or no sense of territorial nationality to counterbalance it. A Turk or Persian does not think or speak of “my country” in the way that an Englishman or Frenchman thinks and speaks; his patriotism is confined to the town of which he is a native, or at most to the district in which that town lies. If you ask him to what nationality he belongs he will reply: “I am a man of Isfahan,” or “I am a man of Konia,” as the case may be, just as the Syrian will reply that he is a native of Damascus or Aleppo—I have already indicated that Syria is merely a geographical term corresponding to no national sentiment in the breasts of the inhabitants. (Wallach, Desert Queen, p. 78.) And: A variety of groups was needed to form a consensus for Faisal [as King of Iraq while it would be under British mandate]. The Sunni townsmen, the Jews, the Christians and Armenian Orthodox were all important in Baghdad, the Kurds in Mosul and Kirkuk, but in the provinces it was the predominantly Shiite tribes that made up most of the population. Each tribal nationhad to be approached and won over. Yet the very idea of a centralized state was anathema to them. Their major concern was the tribe, their leader the chosen head of the tribe, their immediate interest, grazing land for the herds of the tribe. They had no wish for a king. Only a dynamic personality could convince them otherwise. ((In 1921 on the creation of a unified Iraq, quoted in Wallach, Desert Queen, 315) As these observations indicate, traditional patterns persist in the Middle East and make efforts to introduce change especially hard. An Israeli joke current some years ago had the late Menachem Begin as Prime Minister emulating Moses by visiting a burning bush to converse with God. Begin asks God, “Will the PLO ever recognize Israel’s right to exist?” God answers: Not in your lifetime. Begin asks a second question: “Will the other Arab and Muslim-majority states ever
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