Why You Will Never Ever Understand the Middle East

Whether you are from Moscow or San Francisco, from Mosul or Riyadh, from Tehran or from Tel Aviv, you will have your personal understanding of the Middle East, but you will probably never understand the Middle East. It is a little like religions: the understandings cannot all be true. 

The cause of this disability that we all have is very simple to explain but nearly impossible to fix. It is called


You may have heard about it in your psychology courses. Very simply it is the fact that we tend to listen to conflicting facts and opinion, but after a while it hurts the brain, so we simplify beliefs.

Simple example: You want to buy a car but cannot decide between a Fiat and a Renault. They seem about the same. So you talk to friends who own Fiats or Renaults, read ads and articles in journals about Fiats and Renaults. Soon you have now filled up with contradictory opinions and "facts" from contradictory sources. It hurts. And you have to buy a car.

So on Monday you buy a Fiat. From that day forward you discuss Fiats with you Fiat friends, read Fiat articles in automobile journals and become a strong Fiat supporter. You more or less ignore the Renault stuff. No more cognitive dissonance. No more pain. Just a little nagging anxiety that perhaps you made a mistake. That anxiety fades. This is called


It is a form of psychological self-preservation.

Most of you can see where this comes into understanding the Middle East. Consider the sources available to us for "news", "facts" and opinions. Here is just a small sample of on-line options:

RT - an English language news journal from Russia
Hurriyet - a semi-independent Turkish newspaper
Rudaw - an English language paper from Iraqi Kurdistan
Özgür Gündem - paper in Turkish reflecting the PKK views
The New York Times
The Guardian 
The Jerusalem Post
Ekathimerini - Athens
Iran Daily -  Tehran
CNN Turk
Al Monitor 

And the list goes on for pages and pages.

Usually, those of us who are interested in the Middle East pick several sources. Often they are related to our personal interests and inclinations. We may have specific connections - mine include Turks, Kurds, and Greeks, and to a lesser extent Russians and Iranians.

The problem is like the choice between Fiats and Renaults. We may strive for objectivity - whatever that is - but sooner or later we must reduce cognitive dissonance. We discount the opinions of one source and question the facts presented by another. And though I have never served in government, my guess is it is even worse in an atmosphere in which my job or even my security depends or presenting an official or factional point of view.

This is the mechanism behind the constant misunderstanding we all have about the politics and conflicts in the Middle East. What can we do about it?
Listen more than speak, read more than write. If you are an Israeli, meditate on what it would have been like if you had been born in Gaza. If you are a Turk, go back and reread your history from the point of view of one of the several minorities in Turkey. If you are a Greek, try to understand what a German worker feels like when some of the 50% she pays in taxes goes to subsidize a Greek government that cannot collect taxes. The Germans could try to put themselves in the position of the 50% of Greek youth who are out of work. And if you are Sunni, if you are Shiite, if you are Alevite, if you are Druse - then the divide may seem even greater since it is centuries old. 

Finally, if we have managed to improve our understanding of "the other" in the Middle East, then take on the monumental task of understanding the refugee question, which may in fact be the defining global political problem of our age both inside and outside of the Middle East.

But unless we are willing to endure the pain of cognitive dissonance, of living with contradictory opinions and perceptions, there will never be understanding in this complex region.


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