52. The Incomprehensible Middle East

According to the great French poet Baudelaire, the world goes around by misunderstanding — “If by ill luck people understood each other they would never agree,” he wrote. Many people use the now fashionable word “postmodern” as a synonym for incomprehensible. I can understand this because postmodernism considers comprehension as an accident of form. Perhaps if comprehension is optional, my turbulent sea of misunderstandings can justify writing this blog on the chaos in the Middle East. Like most people I know, I continue having trouble understanding the psychology of the leading players in the Islamic world.

In Iraq and Syria the leadership of the new Islamic State, modeling itself on the caliphates of yore, is carrying out a program of exceptional brutality against fellow Muslims, the Shias, as well as Christians, Kurds, pagans and anyone who does not accept their Sunni interpretation of post-Mohammed, 7th century AD leadership. The excesses of their viciousness have alienated every nation and every religion in the world and have even convinced a reluctant President Obama to order air attacks against IS militants. Their motivation apparently was that spreading fear to all civilians with whom they might come into contact would permit them to advance unhindered. For a short while this was effective, but almost inevitably — if history is any indication — their hostility, like that of the Mongols, will lead to their own annihilation. What ails them? And what ails our media in agreeing to call them an “Islamic State?”

In Egypt the new regime of General el Sisi, now the elected President of a military dictatorship, continues to direct operations against the shattered remains of the Muslim Brotherhood. Again the fierceness of his police and the military have alienated the leadership of practically the entire world. Gen. Sisi’s ideological ally and chief underwriter remains the oil rich and democracy poor autocracy of Saudi Arabia. I am mystified by what drives a leader who is familiar with the more civilized ways of the Western world to act with such ferocity against a group of what had been a relatively tame, if misled, group of Muslims. It has certainly done little but instill fear into the Egyptian people and to detract tourists (until recently Egypt’s foremost industry) from visiting Karnak and the pyramids.

How come Hamas continues to have approval in the misbegotten Gaza enclave when, after years of massively unsuccessful efforts, it continues to fire rockets with little or no guidance, futile short-ranges, and minimal effect? It fired over 1,500 truce-breaking missiles into Israel in the latest round of attacks. The cost was enormous and the result (in part due to effective Israeli defense measures) was three Israelis killed and a few dozen injured. Anywhere else in the world the military responsible for such a long running fiasco would have been dismissed in disgrace. In Gaza they remain in control ordering more of the same missiles from North Korea and Iran. Some experts interpret this as a symbol of the desperation of the Hamas leaders. But to me the consequence of such profound despair turning into folly is incomprehensible.

I do acknowledge that there is widespread and fundamental misunderstanding of Islam but I shall not try to delve into the motivation of such erratic regional figures as Turkey’s new President, Erdogan, Sudan’s dictator al Bashir, or the ruthlessness of Syria’s blood-stained Assad. I can only shake my head in disapproving incomprehension at the lot of them.

The narrow mind-set of the American-educated leader of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, is at least somewhat comprehensible and in part predictable. On the one hand his feisty approach is constrained by the medieval views of the orthodox Jews with whom he is in uneasy coalition. On the other hand Netanyahu has to consider his increasingly concerned American supporters, as well as the fractious Jewish settlers on the West Bank, a troubled military, and numerous minority groups voicing their continuing fears about the national future. What is not comprehensible to me is how an entire nation can continue over three generations to hold a million and a half human beings imprisoned in Gaza. True, the number was less than a third of that when the enclave was first created. Sex and procreation have been the only outlets for these unfortunate but innocent inmates. Global embarrassment has not, however, prompted Israel to take the necessary steps to resolve this ever more unjustified tragedy of keeping over half a million children in what has in effect become a frequently bombarded internment camp. I cannot understand how the inhabitants of a nation, created on the backs of those who escaped Hitler’s extermination camps, have been unable or unwilling to end the unjustifiable and ever more desperate conditions of the inhabitants of Gaza.*

Alas, life and politics are too often shaped by misunderstandings. I am reminded of the famous saying of Jean Cardinal Retz that “Nothing so easily persuades people of little sense as that which they cannot understand.” Since you, my readers, are full of good sense you may have understood the direction of my blog: perhaps you will even accept my misunderstandings.

*FYI — Since the 1950s I have been aware of the fact that the surrounding Arab nations did not want to resolve this festering problem. Gaza served them as a convenient propaganda tool against Israel — a nation they did not and still do not want to recognize. Israel has used this as an excuse for the continuation of the deadlock. The concerted opposition of the Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis and others to various proposals by Israel over the past 60 years steadily weakened the protests of those Palestinians in Gaza who desperately wanted a resolution. Now Israel finds itself in the predicament of not having any kind of effective political leadership in Gaza with whom they could communicate. Over the years, instead of educating successive generations, they have killed, driven into exile or selectively imprisoned most of those Palestinians in Gaza who demonstrated the intellectual or organizational abilities which could have enabled serious talks.

4 thoughts on “52. The Incomprehensible Middle East

  1. This is good. It is thinking clearly and I like it. It provokes. There is a lot more to the Israel issue. But you do ask the right questions – prompt the right approach.. WHY IN THE NAME OF..?. And God as you know is invoked on everyone’s side much to his/her lament. Thank you.

  2. Great article, Yorick.
    You are saying: “I cannot understand how the inhabitants of a nation, created on the backs of those who escaped Hitler’s extermination camps, have been unable or unwilling to end the unjustifiable and ever more desperate conditions of the inhabitants of Gaza.*”

    How would you end the “unjustifiable and ever more desperate conditions of the inhabitants of Gaza”?
    open the gates to Israel? let them build a new sea port or an airport?
    Israel, like any other nation, is expected to protect its citizens. even at the price of limiting freedom from others.
    I would be curious to hear what you think a solution would be. I dont think there is one at the present time.

    • Yair,

      Thank you for writing to me about the difficulty of understanding the fixed positions of many parties in the different struggles currently taking place in the Middle East. Alas, you are right in pointing out that there is no immediate
      solution to the Gaza nightmare on the table at the moment. Alas, the Orthodox limit the degree of maneuverability
      available to Israel and the lack of competent leaders in Gaza restrict the options there. Perhaps only some
      political upheavals can alter this deadlock. In the meantime increasing number of youths in Gaza will become keen on vengeance, violence and hatred.

  3. Dear Yorick

    Such a relief to have your description of the Middle East situation. I feel muddled every time news hits me; like boiling in a stew and not knowing the difference between a carrot, an onion and a lump of chicken.

    You say simply that it is beyond comprehension. Giving us permission not to comprehend. It helps. And is, possibly, a platform for serious diplomacy.



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