Saturday, August 15, 2009

Catharsis in the Middle East

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions. (1449[b])

-Aristotle, Poetics
Conflict in the Middle East will probably end in violence. It is difficult to see it going down any other way.

The Economist declares that the Arab World is awaking from a slumber to find itself in the modern world. Such views, common among Western thought these days, are poorly thought out. They may offer some insight, but they ignore the scope and intensity of the underlying problem. More importantly, they offer no solution to it. But however you conceptualize things, ignoring the problems won't make them go away.

The Patronizing View

The Economist writes in a special report on the Arab World:
Imagine an Arab Rip Abu Winkle who had fallen into a deep slumber some time in the early 1980s. If he woke up now, he would rub his eyes in disbelief at how little had changed.
Coming off of Iran’s recent election protests, the magazine’s writers see the Arab World as ripe for political and philosophical change. In the face of the region’s common religious-political charges of heresy, they challenge a Middle Eastern academic to spark an intellectual revolution. Jestingly they conclude:
It turns out the French thinker Voltaire probably never uttered the words so often ascribed to him: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” So the way is clear. Let some Western Muslim sage be the first philosopher to make that pronouncement, and mean it.
The Economist is right to point out the region’s state of transition, but it’s hard to see how the solution lies in a philosophical breakthrough. Furthermore, it's tempting to view the region as absent from the world’s rapid changes over the past 20 years, but the first half of the 20th century saw a similar stagnation in Europe.

Contemporary History

A European Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep after the First World War only to wake up during the Second undoubtedly would’ve had déjà vu. Many of the direct causes of the First World War can be traced further back to the late 1800’s, and its proper resolution lay in the Cold War - all of which arguably stretches the period of European unrest to just shy of a century.

During the years leading up to World War I, Europe has in retrospect been called a powder keg, waiting to explode into violence. It would not be far off to call the modern Arab World a powder keg. And despite the region’s residual violence and ongoing tensions, it doesn’t seem to have exploded yet.

The Arab Rip Abu Winkle who wakes up today should be gravely concerned, similar to the European Rip Van Winkle waking up around World War II. From an outsider’s view – such as The Economist’s – it’s tempting to conclude that nothing has changed in the Arab World; but this cannot be correct from an Arab’s perspective. Dealing with the same issues for nearly 50 years has likely built a huge amount of tension, which has only been released in small doses of short wars, border conflicts, and mini-massacres.

The Arab Rip Abu Winkle who awakes this year, unlike his European counterpart, is unlikely to think that little has changed, as if all of the strife is a trifle annoyance preventing him from getting on with his life. He is more likely to think, "Why do my bloodsucking neighbors still roam the earth?"

What Has Changed

In the meanwhile, the West has thrown all the resources and diplomacy into the region that it can, none of which has had appreciable effect. If the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again without meaningful results, then working on yet another treaty is certainly stupid. By this point wishful diplomacy further carries the risk of alleviating violence in the short-term while failing to solve the underlying problem. Indeed, the longer the underlying problem persists, the more powder is added to the keg.

Disregarding meaningless diplomacy or the rise of an Arab Voltaire, there are a few key factors at play that will determine whether the region falls into bloodshed.

First, the region is getting younger. The baby boomer phenomenon in the West has been echoed throughout the world through dramatic jumps in the average lifespan. Older generations throughout the world are yielding to younger ones. This transition is even further delayed in developed nations, where average lifespan is longest. But it has already occurred in 2nd world areas like the Middle East, where over half the population is entering their 30’s.

The world is just beginning to witness this transition, as seen in Iran’s election protests. The near future of the Middle East rests in the hands of the young. If the region erupts in bloodshed, it will be their doing. If nations lay down their arms, it will be their doing as well.

The protests might signal that the new generation is growing tired of the old regimes, and may consequently be less violent than their ancestors. Moreover, Israel’s culture, in many respects, is known as being surprisingly secular.

But forgetting such violent past grievances is easier said than done. Contemporary history doesn’t suggest that peace will do a good job at burying the hatchet.

A second but less critical factor is the global recession. The Middle Eastern economy is disproportionally reliant on oil, making it overly sensitive to fluctuations in world demand while eschewing other forms of internal economic growth (a phenomenon known as Dutch Disease). Unemployment is particularly high among Arab youth, which further worsens its prospects for peace.

Looking Forward

In a famous piece, American-Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy called Israel the opium of the Middle East; the statement was made in the same sense that Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. She claimed that the conflict has blinded the region from pursuing more virtuous goals by influencing each nation to play the victim.

The conflict certainly has taken their gaze off of more noble aims, but the region is hardly in a pain-free euphoric state, even be it artificially induced. The conflict with Israel is hardly intoxicating, and it hasn't trumped more noble other pursuits simply because it's easier. It's trumped these other pursuits because it has remained red hot with intensity for nearly half a century.

All hope is not lost for a peaceful solution. But whatever that solution may be, it will have to genuinely come from within the region; patchwork external solutions merely risk making things much worse. The greatest source of hope lies in the new younger generation, who are just beginning to take power. At the same time, their young hubris remains an even greater risk for volatility.


Modern day relations between European nations might not seem like anything special, but it's no coincidence that Europe's current peacefulness arrived off the heels of almost a century of cyclical violence and tension. The devastation of two World Wars, followed by the bitter taste of the Cold War, thoroughly purged Europe. The world will have to wait and see whether the Middle East need undergo a similar purging of her own.

But again, tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. (1449[b])

-Aristotle, Poetics

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Issue cover for July 25th Economist; (2)MontageMain Page; (3)WWI ChartX: A diagrammatic illustration of European political alliances in the period leading up to the First World War, depiction of Europe's preWWI "powder keg" from Wikipedia; (4)Will it ever stop?, 06/28/2009, Clar@bell; (5)TL032318, 06/03/2008, Ava Pearl; (6)Oedipus at Colonus by Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust 1788 French Oil, 11/10/2006, mharrsch. for the World War I Wikipedia.

Music: (1)Video, 10/30/2007 Basketballerke, of the song "Broken Chord Can Sing a Little" from the 05/27/2000 album He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corners of Our Rooms by the band A Silver Mt. Zion.
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