The Middle East in Context: Terence O'Brien Provides a New Zealand View of Events in This Troubled Region

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Middle East in Context: Terence O'Brien Provides a New Zealand View of Events in This Troubled Region


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


Tempting as it is to view the so-called Arab Spring as a single convulsive movement, the patterns and social dynamics of various Middle Eastern countries differ widely. They are, moreover, imbued with the consequences of longstanding intervention in the affairs of the region by a succession of outside powers intent upon imposing their versions of order. How far outside powers can or should strive to influence events of the Arab Spring will have direct bearing upon relationships between the West and Islam, and the prospects for authentic Middle Eastern peace. New Zealand needs to retain independent judgment.

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Someone once said that unless or until peace is assured in the Middle East, the world will itself never know peace. The history of Middle Eastern conflict over the centuries is protracted. Clashes of religion, of empire and of civilisations have scarred the record. Twice in the 20th century tentacles of conflict from within the region extended to remote New Zealand--as the result of recurrent miscalculation and foreign policy failure inside Europe that embroiled the entire world. The prowess of New Zealand's combat efforts in the Middle East in two world wars subsequently played a part in fashioning a New Zealand sense of identity. Paradoxically the Middle East occupies, therefore, a place in modern mythology of Kiwi nation-building. New Zealand has further committed to various peace support operations and humanitarian missions in the region, under different banners, and at different times. In this contemporary inter-dependent world, good global citizenship is the badge of responsible nations, large and small. New Zealand foreign policy portrays New Zealand interest and involvement with the Middle East as evidence of New Zealand credentials for good global citizenship. Indeed, the present government anticipates that we shall be asked to contribute to future regional stability efforts there, (1) although the range of New Zealand international interests is now vastly more complex and multi-directional than when we were first implicated in Middle Eastern conflict in the early years of the 20th century.

There is obviously no one single explanation for history or indeed for the present condition of the Middle East as the so-called Arab Spring unfolds, which is most likely to be a long drawn out process. Tempting as it might be to view the Arab uprisings as a single movement, the patterns and social dynamics of the protests differ widely. We live in a bumper sticker world of sound bites and graffiti. 'Arab Spring' is a media friendly label that disguises longstanding complexities inside the Middle East. Each transition process is different and unique. In this article I will reflect upon the broader context behind present developments and upon the actual nature of the Arab encounter with the outside world, whose legacy imbues the convulsions we are now witnessing.

External intrusion

Since the early 19th century, beginning with Napoleon Bonaparte, there has been a persistent record of external intrusion into the Middle East that has striven to tie the fate and the resources of the region to a succession of outside powers--France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, Turkey and the United States. It is fair to suggest that no other region on this planet has endured such sustained trespass and manipulation. (2) The introduced Western model of colonialism, when confronted by the formidable cultural influence of Islam, sought to divide the region from outside into nation states, drawing boundaries that frequently ignored history, traditional kinship and ethnic loyalties. Most notably, Britain carved out of Palestine a territory for a Jewish homeland. This was for the region overall a fractious legacy that endures.

Surrogate leaders and movements were variously cultivated, patronised and armed in order to serve and sustain external influence. …

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