Review: The New Middle East by Paul Danahar

Paul Danahar - The New Middle East book review
The New Middle East


My first attempt at understanding the ‘Arab Spring’ beyond flashy headlines and the surging visuals was not a great success. ‘Arab Spring, Libyan Winter’ seemed more like a hasty collection of chronicled events, with everything else left to the reader’s imagination. After that my searches on Amazon and Flipkart didn’t suggest any meaningful books to read on the rapidly changing politics in Middle East. So I waited for a good time so that some more could be written about it. And this is a product of that waiting period.

A line which caught my eye in the page which gave out mandatory technical details was: “No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews” (emphasis my own). I had never come across a publisher being this lenient towards reviewers even though it is a given fact that people, in reviews and otherwise, do quote from a book. Salman Rushdie bore the brunt when Madhu Jain had quoted paragraphs from his Satanic Verses in India before the book launch. The rest is (fanatical) history.

In ‘Introduction’, Danahar covers a lot of ground. He touches upon a lot of inconvenient truths of the region and how most of them have been a doing of Western world – “…the Europeans conjured up plans for a whole raft of new countires, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Israel” reminding us of “interests over values” theory and “America doesn’t understand the rules of the game” poking us with grim reality. He writes that an American admiral, Alfred Thayer Mahan coined the term ‘Middle East’ in 1902 edition of London’s National Review. Some points though leave one with a bitter taste – “it was the culture shock of imported Western modernity and Soviet-style dictatorship that gave birth to much of the region’s religious extremism”. Why can dictatorship be worse only when colored with ‘Soviet’ shades? The introduction was broad; however lack of a cohesively-woven story left me wanting for more.

First chapter, ‘The collapse of the old Middle East’, is a well written essay on not just what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, but also on ideological aspects of the upheavals. One of the most important parts of this chapter is when the author writes, “If the army sees itself as an instrument of the state it will ditch the regime to protect the People. This is what we saw in Egypt and Tunisia. If the army has no investment in either the state of theregime, then the military will crumble, which is what happened in Libya. If the army is not only an instrument of the regime, but helped build the state, it will kill the People to protect it. Then, the People must not only overthrow the regime, they must fight to overthrow the state, because they are one and the same. That is what happened in Syria”. However, what keeps me thinking is that why such predictions couldn’t be made, say, in 2009 or 2010 beginning. Why all this back-tracking when the events have happened and joining the dots later? Why create a historical mammoth out of nowhere when all it needed was a man dousing himself in Tunisia to kick start it? This leads to two conclusions: (i) no matter how many of historical precedents we might ponder over, rarely can we predict its impact on the future. We might foretell a generic outcome or trend or outlook based on the past, but just can’t predict mathematically what would topple whom. Who could predict the Iranian Revolution of 1979? Who could predict that Arvind Kejriwal (and Anna Hazare) would capture India’s imagination (just after Cricket World Cup 2011) on their plank of anti-corruption? (which also led to Jantar-Mantar of Delhi being compared with Tahrir Square of Cairo - 1,2). Who could predict the ongoing Ukrainian crisis? Lot of Shale gas exploration is leading analysts to comment on the declining influence of Saudi Arabia in coming decades – but can we just predict when will the ‘monarchy’ there be toppled? We can only pass a generalized statement, stressing upon influence of Shale gas in global economy, but nothing more than that. (ii) The role of Media is not just important, but it rather goes hand-in-glove with any movement, whether revolutionary or not. The Bahrain protests fizzled out as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya didn’t give them any airwaves. North-East region of India is still treated as a step-sister of other states as they rarely garner any coverage beyond Irom Sharmila and Mary Kom. The non-existent WMDs….and I could go on and on. That the ‘Arab Spring’ has also been given the moniker of being a ‘Facebook / Twitter / YouTube revolution’ is not only incorrect, but also a ploy by mainstream media to assign undue importance to social media (probably to escape ostracism later if the revolutions later failed?). Let’s be honest here: Newspapers / Magazines / Books (more credit to print than otherwise) and Television and somewhat Radio are the 3 major movers and shakers of the world. The social sites might just want to poke their heads out and proclaim ‘we did it, we did it’, but they are just a part of the whole game.

Another significant point to be taken from this chapter is about the relationship between democracy and Middle East. As the author explains, “the message for decades from the Arab dictators was ‘Islamist extremists’ or me. Over time the people stopped believing this, but the outside world did not. The people in the Arab nations were ready for democracy but the Western world was convinced otherwise”. And with a master stroke Danahar explains why Democracy-crazy West allowed all that to happen: “West wanted oil more than anything else”. But then 9/11 changed all this and the West now desired peace not just nearby but everywhere. And that’s when the ‘Freedom Agenda’ of George Bush took form (The interview quoted Bush to The Guardian in October, 2005 – “I am driven with a mission from God…I feel God’s words are coming to me”. Right. ). End of second chapter lucidly explains the underpinnings of the revolution in Tunisia; while regaling us with anecdotal incidents from the region – Asma al-Assad’s online shopping frenzy during early days of Syrian crisis; Ben Ali’s exile in Saudi Arabia and auction of their personal belongings back home; and the more serious “what now” moment after toppling of the regime. The logical explanations given in second chapter, the ideological ones – this is what I missed the most in ‘Arab Spring, Libyan Winter’, in which an onslaught of characters and events just made the maze all the more bewildering.

Chapter Two is about Egypt and is the longest one with dedicated seventy-two pages – and justifiably so as the land of the pyramids has garnered the maximum media attention. Danahar’s style of writing, as with most journalists, is predictable. He first starts with current events or a specific incident (‘current’ in the sense of when it was written), then introduces few people and their views on the region and conflict and then starts with the history, going back as far as necessary to put things in context. The same style was used by Robert Fisk in ‘The Great War for Civilisation’. The author covers the unsettling protests of Cairo, then transitions to cover the beginning of Muslim Brotherhood by Hasan al-Banna when he “founded the Society of the Muslim Brothers, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, in 1928”. The turbulations of power and the fight between the religious and the rulers is very well covered, bringing in major players like King Farouk, Naseer, Sadad and Mubarak. Intermingled is the history of creation Palestine and the ensuing many wars with Israel (read Avi Shlaim’s ‘The Iron Wall’ – an excellent revisionist account covering the creation of Israel and its politics till early 2000s). That the death of Khaled Said would precipitate repressed people, millions of them, and make them occupy Tahrir Square and capture imagination of global media (to the horror of Saudi Arabia), again, is little hard to digest. If things were so simple why couldn’t this happen earlier? What was it that was not present in the past which did not result into overthrow of ‘much hated’ Mubarak? A little online research throws up various credible sources which do point to the involvement of an outer hand (1, 2, 3,) and an impending revolution since at least a decade (BrainPickings review of 'The Hidden Brain' serves a good purpose here to explain how our unconscious brain makes us believe and act on things). This chapter is the best written one in book – it explains complexities of the country one by one, without throwing in hard to understand sectarian conflicts with a corresponding explanation.

Next two chapters cover creation of state of Israel and the resulting permanent conflict zone, which was a byproduct of it and various internal divisions which exist in the Israeli society. The latter bit was an eye opener for me. Having read quite a handful of books on Israel, I was surprised to find that none of them covered these divisions in as much detail as this one. Following chapters then cover the fallacy of American foreign policy (can we call it Foreign Fallacy?), Iraq, Libya and finally Syria – the place which is currently garnering unprecedented media coverage. Uprisings in Libya and Syria are again assigned reasons of regular suppression events (regular because they must be so, given that they were being ruled by dictators).  The one on Iraq was the most difficult to understand and I had to re-read portions to understand it – the ‘Sunni against Sunni against Shia’ conflicts should have been given more accompanying explanations. The one on Libya is captivatingly well written and charts a gruesome yet moving account of the end of not only Mubarak’s regime but of himself too. In ‘Afterword’, Danahar outlines what the Muslim Brotherhood – a major player in the region – should do. It should look towards India and how despite all of its “sectarian divide; disastrous infrastructure; bloated, corrupt bureaucracy and huge tracts of poverty”, it is still working democratically and the army is “being subservient to the state”, in contrast to “the one across India’s border with Pakistan”.

In a fast-changing world of Middle East and power-hungry Superpowers, Paul Danahar’s ‘The New Middle East’ is a timely and gripping account of what has happened in last 3 years in one of the most important regions of the world. Read this one before the colors conflict change and outpace it, and even if they did, this work is going to remain important for quite a few years to come. Lack of accompanying photographs was disappointing though. This is an important book and nobody who cares about what is going around the world should miss reading it. But as mentioned earlier, some interpretations are simplistic to be assigned to the rise of so many revolutions (Western media in general carries this strain when it comes to explaining these powerful waves of change – it willfully propagates pro-US judgments).

Paul Danahar usually does respond to tweets and mentions on Twitter, so you may send in your views to him: @pdanahar.

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