Any attempt to summarize the direction of the Middle East at the cusp of the Millennium is hazardous indeed: We should long ago have resisted the temptation to see the region as a single, integrated political or socio-economic whole, or to reduce what are, perhaps now more than ever, contradictory regional trends. One of the besetting distortions of the region, replicated by Western stereotyping and local ideology alike, is that the region’s politics and history can be explained by timeless cultural features, a Middle Eastern “essence” or an “Islamic mindset.”

The Millennium itself, while reflecting one of the many cultural contributions the Middle East has made to the rest of the world, is an ethnocentric concept: The incoming year is 1420 for Arab Muslims, 1379 for Iranians, 5760 for Jews and 1992 for Ethiopians. Indeed the very dating of the Christian era from 2000 years ago is itself a fraud, since the census that compelled Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth for Bethlehem was held either before or after that year, and not in the depths of a frozen Palestinian winter. Herein lies a moral of contemporary relevance: Like so much in today’s Middle East that masquerades as God-given, traditional and natural, the dating of Christ’s birth from December, year 0, is a result of retrospective state ideological invention, in this case, that of Roman Emperor Constantine three centuries later.

Generalization about the region is all the more risky when linked to hopes and anticipations of a new era. As the century closes, it may be salutary to recall the various occasions over the past century when a “new” Middle East was proclaimed: in 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed; in 1945, when Britain and France departed in earnest; in 1967, after the “Six Day” War when radical movements challenged the “petty-bourgeois” Arab regimes; in 1973, when Egypt forced Israel to negotiate and the Arab states used the oil weapon; in 1979, after the Iranian Revolution promised a new, authentic liberation through Islam; in 1991, when the defeat of Iraq and the end of the Cold War produced a new diplomatic and, it was hoped, economic climate. Each period of anticipation was followed by an anti-climax, and often despair.

Enduring Patterns

The briefest survey of the issues dominating the region reveals much that would have been familiar a decade ago, and much that is likely to remain unchanged. This is so in four significant respects. First, the relationship between the Middle East as a whole and the world economy is characterized by structural weakness and dependency. Oil apart, the region exports no major primary product. All export activity transpires under conditions of persistent inequality. Only Israel, Turkey and (to a lesser extent) Tunisia have significant exports to the OECD states. In terms of food, the region is increasingly dependent on imports. Capital investment is minimal–indeed the region hardly figures in Third World discussions of foreign direct investment (FDI), up from around $50 billion a decade ago to $250 billion now. On the map of globalization, the Middle East hardly figures. Meanwhile, multiple environmental pressures are growing: Urbanization is producing overcrowded cities, cultivable land is neglected or used for other purposes, water reserves are falling, food sufficiency is declining, uncontrolled development scars landscapes and shorelines, and a tidal wave of garbage and plastic bags sweeps over much of the region.

Secondly, relations between states and societies continue to be dominated by authoritarian rule, complemented by elite theft (averaging 30 percent of state income), and maintained by an ideological resort to nationalist and/or religious demagogy. Measured by indices of democratization or human rights observance, the Middle East has long ranked near the bottom of international indicators. Token concessions to multi-party elections, controlled liberalizations of the press and internationally sanctioned fake privatizations fail to conceal most Middle East states’ enduring failure to meet the political and economic aspirations of their peoples.

Turkey is a partial exception, but the authoritarian military apparatus at its core is now flanked by rival anti-democratic and regressive trends–the Islamism of Necmettin Erbakan and his Virtue Party cohorts on one side, the nationalism of the National Action Party on the other. In Iran a partial opening under President Mohammed Khatami remains hostage to the violence and repression of the clerical-security apparatus forged during years of revolution and war. In Israel a functioning democratic system exists for Jewish citizens, but has far to go to meet the minimal, legitimate Palestinian demands for territory and sovereignty. Israeli democracy is also imperiled by anti-secular, regressive tendencies within Jewish society itself. Elsewhere–in Syria and Iraq, Egypt and Libya, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — little has changed over the last decade.

Thirdly, relations between the states of the region themselves remain dominated by suspicion, conflict and latent (when not overt) confrontation. Although other regions of the world — not just Europe and North America, but parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia as well — are moving in the direction of effective economic cooperation, no one speaks seriously (some moments of lapsed realism aside), of economic cooperation between Middle Eastern states. Earlier projects, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Maghreb Union, are stymied, and the Arab Cooperation Council collapsed in 1990. Trade, investment and exchanges of know-how and goods between Middle Eastern states remain minimal. Private capital does not flow across frontiers, but out of the region. Where states do provide aid (and they do so to a decreasing degree and usually as a function of particular states’ interests), it is turned on and off as the donor states see fit. Far from economic and financial flows being used to lessen political or security tensions, as liberal models might suggest, economic factors create greater tensions between Middle Eastern states — Turkey and its Arab neighbors to the south, and Egypt and the other Nile riparian states are dramatic recent examples. Trade and investment have clearly not acted as solvents in relations between Israel and Egypt or the Arab world more generally.

Militarily, the region is one of the main areas (the Far East is the other) where interstate military rivalry prevails. Expenditures and a sense of insecurity, far from decreasing with the end of the Cold War, remain as high as ever. Relations between states are dominated by suspicion, a stance reinforced by popular attitudes on all sides, where memories of recent wars remain strong. In the Gulf, Iraq remains contained, yet resolute and vengeful. Saudi Arabia has embarked upon an arms purchase boom and, Iran is systematically building up its military potential. More dangerous still, the nuclear threshold has been crossed: Israel has an estimated 200-300 operational warheads, while India and Pakistan, in an act of supreme self-indulgence and folly, openly tested nuclear weapons in May 1998.

Fourth, in terms of culture, individual freedom of expression and ideology, the region remains under the sway of regressive and dictatorial structures. In the literature, popular music, cinema and, not least, political jokes of the region signs of resistance are clear. Here we find chronicles of the dishonesty of rulers, the cruelties of patriarchal males, the idiocies of clerics and the ravages of inter-ethnic and social conflict. Anyone who thinks that aspirations for gender rights, a decent education and clean government are some alien, Western epiphenomena has not yet read or heard of this work.

Culture continues to evince a vitality and distinctiveness that contrasts with the official surfaces of paralysis and domination. Media significantly more lively than in years past can be seen in some countries — most notably Iran. Satellite television and the Internet provide new outlets and sources for those wishing to defy conformity. Yet such cultural vitality stands in sharp contrast to the protracted agony of official intellectual mediocrity as far as the future development of politics and society is concerned. The educational system is riven with control and inhibition from top to bottom. In pursuit of cheap demagogic appeals, regimes easily resort to censorship of critical or independent voices — from Khomeini’s attack on Salman Rushdie to Mubarak’s condoning of attacks on secular books and teaching in Egypt.

In many countries, a significant proportion of the intelligentsia has colluded with power and serves not to challenge but to reinforce dogma and division — academics, historians, novelists and journalists all bolster their rulers’ myths and paranoia. On the one hand, many regimes and writers remain fixed in a deluded national authoritarian mode inherited from the regimes of the Cold War era. On the other, there are those who espouse a regressive Islamist anti-secularism — whether reformist or violent — which is less and less capable of grappling with the challenges of the modern world or meeting peoples’ needs. One of the least edifying trends of the past two decades has been the capitulation of former left-wing, secular intellectuals to religious obfuscation and irrationalism. If one surveys the offerings of any bookshop or street newsagent, one sees row upon row of bearded men, whose books, pamphlets and other ramblings provide the fodder now read by the young. Into this arena of transfixed stasis now steps a third contender for the region’s hearts and minds — a neo-liberal regional yuppiedom mouthing marketing and telecommunications verbiage while attempting to apply Western managerial gimmicks to the region.

The Onset of Change

Each of these trends entails a dynamic that simultaneously confirms the subjugation of the region to domination — internal and external — while affording opportunities for alternative, more democratic and peaceful futures. All caution about invoking a “new” Middle East notwithstanding, several recent trends suggest that, even as older tendencies endure, others are emerging and interacting with what otherwise appears to be a static agenda.

First and foremost, the people are changing — quite literally. At the top, the leaders who have dominated the region since the 1960s are leaving the scene. New faces are becoming visible, possibly more vicious and determined than their predecessors, but perhaps not. At the bottom, the region’s population is exploding. The majority of the population is now under the age of 25 and has little memory of formative events before 1990. Herein lies an opportunity and a danger: If the rising generation is not provided with decent economic and political conditions, and if the young are taught, by rulers and by demagogic oppositions, to view the world in paranoid and confrontational terms and to use history only as an instrument for perpetuating hatred, they could easily lend support to chauvinist trends. If, however, the challenges — economic and intellectual, as well as political — are met, the possibility of transcending the fruitless politics of past decades exists.

Change is also evident in the realm of ethnic identity and conflict. Successive waves of the post-1945 epoch–secular, radical nationalism and Islamism — are being challenged. So, too, are established definitions of identity. The greatest fallacy of the orthodox–nationalist and religious alike — is that identity can be defined and then frozen. Yet all the constituents thereof — language, music, religion, dress, political community–change constantly in response to internal and external developments. The Middle East is no exception.

In Iran, twenty years of the Islamic Republic have engendered a widespread, lively debate on Iran’s political and cultural future. Hundreds of voices are being heard. Certainty and authority are diminishing daily. In the oil-producing states of the Peninsula, a new generation, linked to the Internet and partaking in international youth culture, no longer accepts the stifling pieties of Wahhabi orthodoxy. In Turkey, a cultural shift challenging Kemalism, reinventing Ottomanism and — of considerable political significance — accepting the existence of a Kurdish identity, has emerged since the early l990s. In Israel, a debate on Israeli identity, its relation to Jewish identity, Zionist history and coexistence with Palestine has underpinned a political and ideological evolution.

The international context has also changed. The end of the Cold War produced profound, interrelated shifts: the disappearance of the USSR as a significant strategic ally for Middle Eastern states and the emergence of newly independent ex-Soviet republics along the borders of Turkey and Iran and an independent Ukraine on the other side of the Black Sea. Russia’s two and a half centuries of contiguity with the Middle East, initiated by Catherine the Great in the 1760s and 1770s, have now ended. The former Soviet republics have provided neither the economic nor the political openings that many in the Middle East had expected; they are largely isolated, authoritarian and poor. Yet the politics of pipelines on the one hand, and competition among different variants of nationalist and Islamic models on the other, have engendered a new geopolitics in which all states — Turkey and Iran most obviously, but also Israel and some Arab states — are implicated.

The relation of the West to the Middle East has also changed. To ascribe all of the region’s ills to Washington’s actions, or inaction, is facile. To argue consistently that alternative possibilities are preferable and practicable is not. US policy remains fixed where it was a decade ago — indulging Israel disproportionately and condoning authoritarian Arab client regimes in the Gulf, which have become very familiar with the election-monitoring industry of the 1990s. The US has failed to follow European and Japanese initiatives regarding Iran and Libya. On Iraq, the US has sought to contain any further Iraqi aggression while bolstering the autonomous Kurdish region and waiting for the moment, which none can predict but many eagerly anticipate, when the Ba‘thist regime finally cracks.

In some respects, however, there has been a shift for the better. In contrast to the situation that prevailed for forty years after 1948, the US is now involved in a two-sided negotiation process that contains the possibility of Palestinian statehood. Despite the flaws of this engagement, and the general — and justified — criticism of Oslo’s limitations and deficiencies, the current US stance is preferable to the wholesale denial of yesteryear. Whatever critics from afar may say, the new US stance is encouraged in Palestine itself.

On the largest ethnic issue in the Middle East, that of the Kurds, there is also movement: The US is defending the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, in spite of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party’s (KDP) disagreements with one another, and has, for the first time, called for recognition of the cultural rights of Kurds in Turkey.

The Vagaries of Solidarity

Recent developments in the Middle East and the onset of new global trends and uncertainties pose a challenge not only to those who live in the region but also to those who engage it from outside. Here, too, previously-established patterns of thought and commitment are now open to question. The context of the l960s, in which journals such as MERIP Reports (the precursor of this publication) and the Journal of the North American Committee on Latin America (NACLA) were founded, was one of solidarity with the struggles of Third World peoples and opposition to external, imperialist intervention. That agenda remains valid: Gross inequalities of wealth, power and access to rights — a.k.a. imperialism–persist. This agenda has been enhanced by political and ethical developments in subsequent decades. Those who struggle include not only the national groups (Palestinians and Kurds) oppressed by chauvinist regimes and the workers and peasants (remember them?) whose labor sustains these states, but now also includes analyses of gender oppression, press and academic suppression and the denial of ecological security. The agenda has also elaborated a more explicit stress on individual rights in tandem with the defense of collective rights.

History itself and the changing intellectual context of the West have, however, challenged this emancipatory agenda in some key respects. On the one hand, oppression, denial of rights and military intervention are not the prerogative of external states alone: An anti-imperialism that cannot recognize — and denounce — indigenous forms of dictatorship and aggression, or that seeks, with varying degrees of exaggeration, to blame all oppression and injustice on imperialism, is deficient. The Iranian Revolution, Ba‘thist Iraq, confessional militias in Lebanon, armed guerrilla groups in a range of countries, not to mention the Taliban in Afghanistan, often represent a much greater immediate threat to human rights and the principles in whose name solidarity was originally formulated than does Western imperialism. Islamist movements from below meet repressive states from above in their conduct. What many people in the region want is not less external involvement but a greater commitment by the outside world, official and non-governmental, to protecting and realizing rights that are universally proclaimed but seldom respected.

At the same time, in a congruence between relativist renunciation from the region and critiques of “foundationalist” and Enlightenment thinking in the West, doubt has been cast on the very ethical foundation of solidarity: a belief in universal human rights and the possibility of a solidarity based on such rights. Critical engagement with the region is now often caught between a denunciation of the West’s failure actively to pursue the democratic and human rights principles it proclaims and a rejection of the validity of these principles as well as the possibility of any external encouragement of them.

This brings the argument back to the critique of Western policy, and of the relation of that critique to the policy process itself. On human rights and democratization, official Washington and its European friends continue to speak in euphemism and evasion. But the issue here is not to see all US involvement as inherently negative, let alone to denounce all international standards of rights as imperialist or ethnocentric, but rather, to hold the US and its European allies accountable to the universal principles they proclaim elsewhere. An anti-imperialism of disengagement serves only to reinforce the hold of authoritarian regimes and oppressive social practices within the Middle East.

Recuperating the Millennium

The challenge of the coming century, for those concerned with critical analyses of the Middle East as much as for those within it, is a double one: to formulate policies of the democratization and security of the region while remaining engaged with the public debate outside in a resilient and informed manner.

At the heart of the concept of rights are two universal and rational moral principles: the right to resist authoritarian and unjust power, and the moral worth of the individual. Both of these are, of course, inscribed in the value systems of the three great religions which originated from, and still flourish in, the Middle East, even as those religions have been, and continued to be, exploited to deny such values and rights. Generalized and in secular form, such values can provide a firm basis for any prospective analyses of, and solidarity with, the peoples of the region. In this respect, a recuperation of the Millennium may serve a useful, emancipatory, purpose.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "The Middle East at the Millennial Turn," Middle East Report 213 (Winter 1999).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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