Saturday, November 29, 2014

In the Middle East, details point to the bigger picture

 With so many ongoing conflicts (both ideological and military) in the Middle East and North Africa, it's no surprise that the bloodiest, most explosive incidents are the ones which get the most intense media coverage. We should not ignore things like terror attacks in Egypt or Israel, or the latest clashes with ISIS, but I do think that for serious observers of the Middle East, the actions, statements and policies that form the basis of political culture and civil society in the region warrant equally close, if not closer, study.

While these less sensational stories may not lead the evening news, they do get media coverage and are often pretty easy to find. One example that caught my attention today was a report that the Turkish President told a gathering of leaders from other Muslim countries that Westerners don't value the lives of Muslims, and are only interested in this part of the world as a source of gold, diamonds and cheap labor. As a piece in The Times of Israel pointed out, this is hardly the first bizarre or offensive thing Erdogan has said, and if he had simply said this during an interview or in off the cuff remarks, I would suggest that this sentiment was intended for an internal audience, essentially a cheap swipe at the West in order to increase domestic political support. However, given that these statements were delivered directly to fellow Muslim leaders at the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, I think they are further evidence that Erdogan has a vision for Turkey (and likely himself) that is less about engagement with the broader world and more about Turkish regional influence and distant dreams of empire.

To understand any part of the world it's always necessary to go beneath the surface, and the Middle East is no different. It is for this reason that I think this story about Erdogan's latest remarks should not be ignored; yes, he says a lot of bizarre things and yes, leaders across the region frequently resort rhetorical pyrotechnics to shore up political support at home, but this doesn't mean we can dismiss stories like this one out of hand. In fact, it is media reports such as this one and countless others which may not grab the world's attention right away, but contain clues to the attitudes, plans and future policy maneuvers of those who wield political and military power in the Middle East and North Africa. And this is clearly something that no serious observer of the region can afford to ignore. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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