Stunned by Middle East Violence, Shocked to Discover Its Causes

By Hurd, Robert | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1991 | Go to article overview

Stunned by Middle East Violence, Shocked to Discover Its Causes


Hurd, Robert, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


My first contact with the Middle East, probably shared with most Americans my age, came with the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. I can remember pictures of the US Embassy staff blindfolded by their captors on the nightly news, which always ended or began with an announcement of the number of days the hostages had been held captive. I remember the embarrassment that came with the failure of the American rescue mission, and how Time magazine made the Ayatollah Khomeini its "Man of the Year," with a huge, sinister portrait of his face emblazoned upon the cover. Finally, Ronald Reagan became president, the hostages came home, and the crisis was over. However, this painful episode left me with the image of the Middle East as a region characterized by brutality and violence, whose inhabitants seemed bent on destroying the West as well as themselves.

A New Trouble Spot

A few years later, Lebanon was the new trouble spot in the region. The suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in 1983 reinforced the violent images that I had of the Middle East. Every time the news media reported on the region something horrible had happened, whether it was a car bomb in Beirut or an Israeli bombing run on a Palestinian refugee camp. I cannot recall any stories that reported positively on events occurring in an Arab or Muslim country.

During my last year of high school my best friend was a student whose family had lived in Beirut in the late 1970s. During lunch period he would often talk politics with a Jewish friend of ours, and they often spoke about groups and people of whom I had never heard, such as the Phalange, the Druze, the Gemayels and the Franjiehs.

Subsequently, I did a research paper for a government class on the Lebanese conflict. I was amazed at the number of factions involved in the political system. With the exception of the Kurds, it seemed as if every Middle East conflict was present in Lebanon, Arab versus Israeli, Sunni versus Shi'a, Christian versus Muslim, and so on. On top of this were the internal rivalries within each group and the attempts of outside governments to shape the Lebanese conflict according to their own desires. I began to follow Lebanon and the surrounding area in the news, trying to determine the motives of the different players involved in the dispute.

After high school I attended the University of Virginia, and in the first semester of my first year I preregistered for a class in Islam. The notion of studying Islam was more appealing than a history course on the Middle East. The teacher of the course was a guest lecturer replacing the regular professor, who was away on sabbatical. Although the visiting professor seemed pompous and unduly academic, his lectures were interesting and delivered with a great deal of authority. I took two more Islam classes from him the following semester.

At this time, the University of Virginia began to offer a major in Middle East studies, combining courses from the government, history, religion, and oriental language departments. Friends had spoken highly of many of the professors whose courses were included in the major, and I chose to start taking Arabic and history classes in order to sample these courses for myself. I declared the Middle East studies major in the spring of my second year.

As I continued my education, the earlier notions I had about the Middle East were dispelled. I came to understand that the people of the region were people with legitimate grievances who were responding to their problems with the few methods left open to them. …

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