The Middle East and Our "Received Wisdom"

By Cooley, Laura | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 30, 1990 | Go to article overview

The Middle East and Our "Received Wisdom"


Cooley, Laura, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


At least one good thing may have come out of the current crisis in the Gulf. Americans are suddenly talking about the Middle East. At long last we are seeing Arabs and Arab nations as individuals and countries with political, ethnic, religious and cultural differences. No longer can the" Arab world" be seen as a monolithic bloc. Saddam Hussain may have been denied his "air time" with President George Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but some of the contradictions in US policy toward countries in the region have become apparent to even the most casual observer.

Changing one's "received wisdom" about anything is, however, a long, arduous process. Five years ago I probably could not have told you what a Kurd is, would not have dared venture an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and might have confused Qatar for some new computer game. The Middle East was a muddle, or so I thought, and this excused my own muddled response to it. And anyway, I reasoned, as a Western woman having humanistic inclinations, I "knew" that the situation of Arab and Iranian women was reprehensible. The forced seclusion of women and, in some places, deliberate mutilation of their bodies did not pass my human rights checklist. I was thus content, at least for a while, to live with my simplistic understanding of the Middle East.

False Impressions

During the past decade I have discovered that many of my impressions of the Middle East and its people were inaccurate, stereotypical and downright false. I had grown up near Washington, DC, and in college I majored in international relations. Yet it took me a long time to realize how years of misguided messages in film and in the media had warped my view of "the Arab," and how that ignorance continued throughout a predominantly Eurocentric "liberal arts" education which never called upon me to question these assumptions.

There were no courses offered on Middle Eastern civilization, with the possible exception of art history. We did not read literature from that part of the world. When the Middle East was discussed, it was usually in political science classes within the context of concepts like "terrorism." Happily, since that time, the curriculum at Vassar has changed, as it has at most liberal arts colleges and universities in the US.

After graduating from college, I decided to live in a non-Western, predominantly Muslim culture. A Princeton-in-Asia fellowship took me to Indonesia, where I learned that Islam takes many forms, even, or perhaps especially, in this archipelago nation of over 13,000 islands, having the largest Muslim population of any single country. I learned the value of Javanese tolerance, and the practice of rukun -- a philosophy of mutual cooperation and harmony practiced in Java.

In Indonesia, I lived under the constraints of a military regime whose control was not always obvious, but sufficiently threatening to stifle any political discussion. The overcrowded villages of Central Java prepared me well for the poverty and densely populated refugee camps of Gaza, which I was to visit years later. The crucial difference, however, was that one group, the people of Gaza, was "stateless" and living under foreign occupation.

After two years in Indonesia, I returned to Washington, DC, to work at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I became involved in a project on the psychological motivations for political violence. …

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