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Transcript: Understanding the Middle East

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In a recent, much publicized lecture — “It Takes a Historian to Understand the Middle East…Doesn’t It?” — Jane Hathaway of Ohio State's History Department offered a challenge to pundits and policymakers who seem unable to offer sound strategies for the Mideast. In this episode, hosts Leticia Wiggins and Patrick Potyondy ask three historians — Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer, Patrick Scharfe, and Jane Hathaway — to lay out what you really need to know to understand this troubled region.

Transcript Begins Here:

Patrick Potyondy 
Welcome to History Talk produced by Origins, Current Events in Historical Perspective from Ohio State and Miami University in Oxford History Departments. I'm your host, Patrick Potyondy.

Leticia Wiggins 
And I'm your other host, Leticia Wiggins. The Middle East makes the news each day. Often with the most turbulent topics, the average person could be excused for failing to follow, let alone understand each new development,  group or event.

Patrick Potyondy 
Unsurprisingly, policymakers also seem unable to understand the region's complexities or developed sound sustainable strategies for a more peaceful Middle East.

Leticia Wiggins 
In a recent distinguished talk for the Ohio Academy of History, Jane Hathaway of Ohio State's History Department called for historians to wade into the policymaking debate so that more informed decisions might be made in the future.

Patrick Potyondy 
So on today's History Talk, we meet with three historians to ask, "It takes a historian to understand the Middle East, doesn't it?" Just maybe they can help us better understand the complex developments in that region of the world. So stay tuned.

Patrick Scharfe 
Hi, my name is Patrick Scharfe. I'm a PhD student in the History Department. I study early 19th century Egypt, specifically the role of Muslim scholars in political debate.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
Hi, I'm Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer. I'm also in the History Department at Ohio State University. My main area of research is the early modern conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites in the Muslim community.

Dr. Jane Hathaway 
And I'm Jane Hathaway. I'm a Professor of History at Ohio State, and a scholar of the Ottoman Empire.

Leticia Wiggins 
Thank you all for joining us today. We appreciate it. And in a recent Distinguished Lecture at The Ohio Academy of History, Jane, you asked it takes a historian to understand the Middle East, doesn't it? So why are historians better prepared to make sense of the Middle East today?

Dr. Jane Hathaway 
When a historian studies the Middle East, he or she is entering what's often a lifelong engagement with the society in question. And this is true of the three of us. We go to these countries, frequently, often over the course of many years. We speak the languages of the countries concerned, we don't rely on interpreters, and we also read the languages, living and dead. We know something about a pretty good cross section of the society in the countries we study over a period, a lengthy period. This is an engagement with the region. We are not foreign interjection, studying the Middle East as an object. So when we study the Middle East, we're really becoming part of a scholarly community that very much includes colleagues in those countries and from the countries concerned.

Patrick Potyondy 
Is that the case you found with your own research, Patrick and Ayse?

Patrick Scharfe 
Absolutely we've all spent significant time in the countries we look at -- actually multiple countries that we look at -- and we end up sort of interwoven in the scholarly communities there, meeting people from all walks of life, but particularly people from scholarly communities there. And I do think that historians often times end up with a linguistic advantage, for example, over you know, a lot of people who are engaged in the Middle East, I think that historians have a particularly rigorous linguistic background, which I think is very helpful for, you know, at the very least, following the news, things like that. And of course, engaging in real conversations with people from lots of different parts of the Middle East.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
And in my situation is a little different, because I'm originally from Turkey, and I'm studying Ottoman history. So in that part, I don't have that perception of studying another culture or history. But when I'm in Iran, and I'm studying the Iranian language and culture I that part of scholarship comes to me as well.

Patrick Potyondy 
And Ayse, I really want to throw this next question to you first. One of the most important divisions we see right in the middle east and yet one that you know, we find is often really poorly understood is the sectarian divide of Sunnis and Shiites. And so what is this religious difference and how has it been important both historically and for today as well?

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
It is actually important to know the origins of the division if we are trying to understand what is going on in the current Middle East between the Sunnis and the Shiites. The original schism between the Sunnis and Shiites occurred in the seventh century. And this part is important because it actually began as a political division, not a religious one that almost everyone assumed.

Patrick Potyondy 
That's fascinating.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
After Prophet Mohammed died in 632. The inevitable question of succession emerged in the Muslim community, and majority of Muslims believe that the elite members of the community should determine who will succeed the Prophet. But on the other hand, a smaller group of Muslims believe that the leadership of the community should stay within the family of the Prophet himself through his cousin and son in law, Ali, who is actually an important figure the name Alawite comes from which means the partisans or supporters of Ali, which is like an additional term that we use for some of, or many of the Shiite communities throughout the Middle East.

And it was fundamentally that political division that began the Sunni-Shiite split. Eventually Ali was chosen the fourth Calif, but the violence in the Muslim community had already begun, the second and third caliphs or leaders of the Muslim community had been murdered, and Ali's ultimate end wasn't actually any different because he was also killed in 661. This ongoing violence continued between Ali's son, Hussein, and another leading Muslim family, the Umayyads, who became the ruling dynasty of the Muslim community after Ali's death. Hussein and the supporters of him rejected the Umayyad rule, and in a war between the Umayyads and the supporter of Hussein, the latter was killed and decapitated, and his head carried in tribute to the Ummayad Calif in Damascus. And this is important because his death became the crystallizing force, around which a sect, the Shiite sect, formed in the following decades and centuries. The Shiites called their leaders "Imam"s, Ali being the first and Hussain being the second, and the significance of the Imams for the Shiite is actually one of the fundamental differences that separate these two sects and even the Shiites. The Imams have taken a spiritual significance almost a divinity that the Sunni clerics deny to have. And other than the issue of succession and the Divinity attributed to the Shiite Imams, there is naturally much religious difference between the two biggest sects of Islam. And today the Shiites are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq, and southern Lebanon. But there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and India.

Dr. Jane Hathaway 
I'll just add that we tend to see these two sects in very monolithic terms, each one as a monolith. In fact, they're both diverse in and of themselves. And Shiism in particular, has and has at least three major subsects today. When we think of Shiites, I guess if we tend to think of one, it's the Twelvers because they are today the largest subsect in the world and the one dominant in Iran. Because of the conflict in Yemen, and the Houthi, the advance of the Houthi rebels, people have begun to be aware of the smallest subsect today, the Zaidis, who are quite different from Twelvers and also Isma'ilis, the second largest who today are by and large followers of the Agha Khan or another leader in India.

Leticia Wiggins 
And thinking about defining these differences, and what we hear today in the news, analysts of the Middle East often talk about ancient ethnic hatreds. When discussing the enduring instability and violence in this region, and over the past decades, this has been true. But is this explanation of ancient hatreds true or helpful to understanding the Middle East today? And Patrick we'll throw this one to you.

Patrick Scharfe 
This is one of the most difficult questions. In a sense, I think the answer has to be yes and no, because we can't say that there was no such thing as a Sunni-Shiite split -- there was -- but the yes part isn't really helpful. It's the no part that's helpful, because the motivations and the context is completely different. Right? Yes, the rhetoric of sectarianism can draw on a very long tradition. But that tradition is in part rhetorical and it's not entirely relevant to the to the conflicts that are going on today, and it's certainly not the cause of the conflicts that are going on today. The causes of the current conflicts spring from very contemporary circumstances, as is always the case.

Dr. Jane Hathaway 
You also see a continuing pattern of ethnic change in the region. But one thing I find puzzling about attitudes towards the middle east, and other parts of the world, is the idea that until the 20th century, or at least the late 19th, everything had been unchanged for millennia. And yet, the Middle East, as every student who studies history in high school learns, I hope, is that it's a crossroads. And there have been migrations throughout a various ethnic, religious lifestyle, ecological groups, pretty much from the beginnings of human civilization, if not before, straight through till today, including a number of major demographic changes in the Islamic period, beginning as early as the 11th century if not before. So the current demographic of people can be seen, as in some senses, a continuation of past patterns, despite very unfortunate circumstances that accompany it.

Patrick Potyondy 
Yeah, and I think that really refers back to the first question, we started with too about why historians are so well positioned to kind of highlight an understanding of these issues. And so keeping an eye on this really long, broad outlook here, we often kind of talk about this clash of civilizations between Islam and the West kind of a popular trope. And so is there such a thing as such a clash, and for how long, if so? And is this a helpful idea for understanding global history or today's events? And Jane, if you wanted to start here?

Dr. Jane Hathaway 
The short answer would be no, it's not helpful. And it is, there is no clash of civilizations. There is the perception of a clash of civilizations and we could take it back to a number of starting points or first articulators, whether it's Samuel Huntington or Rudyard Kipling. To speak of a clash of civilizations assumes that each "side" the Middle East, on the one hand, or Islam on the one hand, and the west on the other, conceived of themselves as such for a very long time, perhaps going back to the beginnings of Islam in the seventh century. And that's clearly not the case, there was no conception of the West. Islam was just starting out as a new religion. So there arguably was no conception of the religion as a developed entity. Today, one of the ironies of the current situation is that some of the jihadist groups in particular ISIS and others, have taken up this rhetoric of clash of civilizations and are using it themselves, referring to Judeo-Christian crusaders and the like. So it's more or less taken on a life of its own, even though there really is no historical reality to it. And what strikes you particularly in a situation like the Crusades is the divisions on each side.

Patrick Scharfe 
I absolutely agree that it really does not exist the overwhelming majority of cases, but of course, there are some people really on both sides that want it to exist, right? And the challenge is to make sure that it doesn't but there's a great video on YouTube with the amazing Egyptian novelist, Alaa Al Aswany, who said quite pointedly that not only does civilization --  clash of civilization not exist today, but it never has. Civilization has always been a cooperative enterprise between many different cultures. And while political divisions and wars have always happened, to describe that as a split between civilizations really seems tendentious, in a way.

Leticia Wiggins 
And so thinking about civilizations and all these different places, as well, who do you see as the most important regional powers today? And how and why did did they become regional powers and have they always been these regional powers?

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
I will say the main regional powers of the region are now Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. And starting with Turkey, I would say Turkey's power partially comes from its Ottoman legacy as the main empire that ruled the region for more than 400 years. And Turkey as the present country, the current country, in which has been placed as a role model in the region due to its 90 year old democracy sometimes well functioning, sometimes not very well functioning, but also has played a buffer zone between the Middle East and Europe and Israel has been accepted and promoted not only by West, but also by Turkey.

Patrick Potyondy 
In part by it's geographical positon?

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
But geographically, it is in between, but also Turkey, on the one hand, has the second largest army in the members of NATO, and also has been trying to be a member of European Union as a secular democracy. On the other hand, it is a majority Muslim country with strong connection to its Sunni identity so that two parts has been playing like the the main aspects of this being in the middle. Iran, on the other hand, constitutes the majority of the Shiite community, and especially after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has acted like the main supporter and protector of the other Shiite countries and communities in the region. In this sense, it is enjoying a strong influence over Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly after the US policies of President George W. Bush, but also over Syria and Yemen, who, these two countries were also in these ongoing wars, between different branches of Sunnis and Shiites. Also, I will mention Saudi Arabia as a regional power, just due to being a very staunch Sunni country, but also a country that enjoys a large amount of oil revenue in the region and uses that oil revenue to support sectarian conflicts sides. And for Egypt I will definitely mention that has been an opinion leader for much of the Arab world. And I will see that I will see Egypt as a birthplace of not only Arab nationalism, but also political Islam in its modern sense, when we look at the emergence of the significance and the role of Muslim Brotherhood not only in Egypt, but also in various other Middle Eastern countries. And, of course, the importance of Suez Canal and geopolitical, the importance of Egypt in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern security and, and the close relationship between Egypt and United States are all very important to understand Egypt's location. And lastly, of course, Israel is an unusual, I will say regional power, because of its limited natural and human resources. While its military is qualitatively stronger than many other countries in the region, its population is less than 9 million compared to 80 million Turks and Iranians and 90 million Egyptians and 30 million Saudi Arabians. But while lacking natural resources and manpower, Israel is bountiful in technology, including a widely believed nuclear weapon technology. And, of course, the almost unconditional U.S. support. Both financial and political support has made Israel a very strong actor in the region.

Dr. Jane Hathaway 
I'll jump in and say I agree with all of Ayse's choices, except maybe Saudi Arabia and Egypt. When I gave my talk to the OAH, I said, Saudi Arabia is not on my list. Because even though it certainly has an amazing degree of U.S. support, and has a lot of oil money, at least for now, I don't really see it as a regional power in the sense that Iran and Turkey are. It doesn't have the population, it doesn't have the societal complexity. It would very much like to be a regional power and I think that's part of the reason it's bombing Yemen today. It is inserting itself into the equation. Egypt, certainly, as Ayse has pointed out, has historically been one of the most important region regional powers and as she said, an opinion leader for the Arab world for decades, if not over a century. But what's going on today, we don't really see it fulfilling that role.

Patrick Potyondy 
In the last few years it's been in the news as well, too.

Patrick Scharfe 
Well, in a sense, some people thought that, with the Arab Spring, Egypt could in some way, regain a role of leadership. And certainly, the Arab Spring has continued to be a testament to Egypt's cultural power. But I absolutely agree with the question marks surrounding Egypt. I couldn't agree more with that. Because Egypt has witnessed over the past few decades, a continual slip in power that Egyptian elites can decry, but they feel powerless to stop unfortunately. And this has continued or even accelerated, since the recent overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, the elected president of Egypt, who was line with the Muslim Brotherhood by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And, for example, just in the last few months, we see an incredibly interesting development, which is also puzzling in some ways, namely the proposed move of the capital of Egypt, from Cairo to a new city, which would be called "The Capital: Cairo."

Patrick Potyondy 
That's an interesting choice.

Patrick Scharfe 
And what this reveals is, not only the plan itself, but it reveals I think, another aspect of the long term shift of power from Egypt, to the Gulf. At least, especially in terms of economic power, because this new city is funded by Gulf capitalists, particularly the Emirates, but also the Saudis. And the Saudis have been major backers of Sisi financially. So they've really been asserting their influence within Egypt. So certainly, the Saudis have been trying with at least some success to assert themselves to a greater extent in their near abroad.

Leticia Wiggins 
And I think this is something that maybe another question you guys are all reminding me of, is how do we define a regional power? Is it different in the context of the Middle East? And maybe just you know, just to backtrack for a second? I'm just curious on what is a regional power?

Dr. Jane Hathaway 
I think what we've all said here, has reflected the different definitions, the different

Patrick Potyondy 
Right, right.

Dr. Jane Hathaway 
measures population is one, social complexity, meaning a certain amount of diversity, class, stratification, etc. But money and military power, and technological expertise are also definitely factors. And so if you take all those factors into account, I would say there's no one country that has the highest levels of all of them. And there are different concentrations in different countries.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
And I will just add some, something new to the into the equation about Turkey. Since early 2000, one of the main cultural exports of Turkey has been its TV shows to soap operas, and now they, these TV shows are huge in an all the Middle East, and actually, including Balkans and North Africa. I just read a survey and every three out of four people in the Middle East said that they are closely watching those Turkey, Turkish soap operas.

Patrick Potyondy 
That's astounding.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
Yes, so Turkey is also playing, not, this is not a State Initiative of course, these are all private companies are making these TV shows and exporting them into different countries. But at the end, we are encountering this new phenomenon about the whole Turkish culture being exposed too.

Patrick Potyondy 
Yeah, kind of cultural power, soft power

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
Yes, exactly.

Patrick Potyondy 
kind of influence across the region too. And so kind of thinking about kind of the broad picture here continuing into a different area. So you know, if we think about things like climate change, or drought and water, famine, population growth, fossil fuels, you know, pick your kind of environmental issue. How have, you know, environmental factors like these affected the course of Middle Eastern history, you know, both past and even in the present? And, Jane, if you want to start us off here.

Dr. Jane Hathaway 
I'm sure we all have something to say about that. Drought would stand out as the major contributor to the current situation. Certainly, we know, it's been widely acknowledged, even in the popular media that drought has played a significant role in the Syrian Civil War. Both Syria and Iraq have had multi-year droughts in the recent past. And when that happens, and certainly anyone who studies the middle historically knows this, rural populations tend to flee to the cities. This tends to create growing cultural conservatism in the cities. And you can certainly see this throughout the region, not just in Syria, but also Egypt, Turkey, I assume Iraq. And feelings of alienation by a growing urban population, many of them are underemployed or unemployed, and therefore, desire for belonging in these conservative groups, which operations like ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra have taken advantage of. This also has an historical antecedent, the much heralded and now rejected decline of the Ottoman Empire, the 17th century crisis, resulted from a wave of cold dry weather in the region, particularly in Anatolia, what is now most of Turkey, and led to similar population movements and significant social unrest with  rebellions, actual armed rebellions, marching through Anatolia in the early 17th century.

Patrick Scharfe 
I would add, we have to look at Middle Eastern and environmental issues in the global context. Because just like the Little Ice Age of the 17th century, well, environmental issues are a global issue today. And I would point to specifically, the role of food production and environmental impacts on food production, leading up to the Arab Spring because having been in Egypt, just prior to the Arab Spring, one of the major complaints was the price of food, especially bread, right? And the slogan was "Adala Egtema'eya", right? So the "social justice, bread and freedom", right? So bread is one of those, one of those three things, and there was serious inflation regarding the price of bread in particular in Egypt prior to the Arab Spring, and this is has been linked by many people to broader global environmental issues.

Patrick Potyondy 
And I think that wraps up our discussion today. I'd like to thank Jane Hathaway, Ayse Baltacioglu- Brammer and Patrick Scharfe for joining us today on History Talk. So thanks.

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 
Thank you very much.

Patrick Scharfe 
Thank you.

Leticia Wiggins 
History talk is produced by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. Full length History Talk interviews and full info on Origins, editors and staff can be found at origins@osu.edu.