Understanding the Middle East (a History Talk podcast)

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, 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, the 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
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