It is easy to be rendered speechless, or cast into despair, by the sheer enormity of the conflagration in today’s Middle East. At year’s end in 2014, more than half of the countries this magazine covers were embroiled in wars within their borders or nearby. The Saudi-led assault on Yemen launched in March brings that proportion to over three quarters. The retrograde political forces in the region—authoritarianism, paranoid nationalism, ethno-religious chauvinism—are on the rise, while democrats and defenders of human rights are in prison or in exile. One ray of hope is the framework for an agreement between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear research program, but thus far that development merely dims the prospect that bombs will fall on still another regional capital.
Mainstream coverage resorts to exceptionalism to explain the sorry state of affairs, with allegedly ancient sectarian hatreds, or Islam itself, often identified as the factors that make the Middle East uniquely prone to violent explosion. This trope is not new, of course, but it was powerfully reinforced by the September 11, 2001 attacks, the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq and now the phenomenon of the Islamic State, or ISIS. Somehow the Middle East is always seen more clearly the more distant the mirror.
But the recent past is far more relevant. The Arab uprisings of 2011 uncovered a cauldron of tensions that had simmered for decades—the suppression of participatory politics, the chasm between rich and poor, the erasure of minorities, and others. In Iraq the lid was already lifted with the 2003 invasion, which is only one example of how external intervention stirred the pot. It cannot be a coincidence that the most war-torn countries today—Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen—once had some degree of socialist orientation, or were in the Soviet orbit, and so were subject to Western subversion. Two of these states were reclassified as “rogue” in the 1990s, the pretext for more punishment. The regimes survived through tyranny so brutal that the societies became black boxes even to themselves. Recall as well the effort expended to stunt the growth of pan-Arab nationalism, as well as the Saudi campaigns to spread Wahhabi ideas and, later, blunt the impact of the Arab uprisings. The appearance of ISIS and other crises are very much part of the neoliberal era, when the authority of nation-states as governing bodies and autonomous economic entities is eroding. All that is left of the post-colonial state-building project, in many places, is the military and some sense of national identity.
And one does not have to look too far back to find historical parallels outside the region. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked another occasion when the sudden disappearance of autocracy led to social upheaval, war, rehabilitated strongmen and redrawn borders. This last process, as the fighting over Ukraine shows, is incomplete. The antithesis of severe repression is the evisceration of order.
It would be a grave mistake, however, to view the region solely through the lens of war and peace. That is how one forgets that, though the first two decades of the twenty-first century Middle East are a time of extremes, most people in the region do not inhabit any extreme. That is how policy decisions in, say, Washington are reduced to a false choice between, say, ISIS and restoration of the status quo ante or “Iranian-backed rebels” in Yemen and “stability” policed by the House of Saud. That is how US arms deliveries to Egypt resume at the nadir of authoritarian reconsolidation there. And that is how the majority of Middle Easterners are routinely left out of deliberations about their collective future.