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Three Myths About the Middle East

No, the region isn’t the source of all evil.

Credit: PeterPhoto123 -


  • Compared with Europe, Asia and Africa, the Middle East’s record on wars and human rights abuses is minuscule.
  • In assessing problems around the world, never fall into the trap of convenient cultural biases and stereotypes.
  • The Arab world resisted colonization by Europe longer and more effectively than any other world region.

Myth No. 1: The World’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood

The Middle East is certainly not the most peaceful region of the world. Let’s take Iraq’s perspective: It has fought three major wars in the past 35 years, including an eight-year war with Iran that cost 1-1.5 million lives on both sides. It also saw the widespread use of poison gas by Iraq, with the strong encouragement of the United States.

Looking at the region from Israel’s perspective cannot make one any cheerier. Israel has fought five major wars with its Arab neighbors — in 1947-48, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. It also had to deal with the bloody Second Palestinian Intifada from 2001 to 2005.

The first four major wars were all ones of national survival. The Lebanese Civil War next door cost at least 150,000 Lebanese lives.

Here is a surprise, though: The Middle East’s record in longevity and scale of wars, as well as of human rights abuses is actually minuscule when compared with the records of Europe, Asia and Africa.

Even Saddam Hussein’s vicious campaigns against the Kurds in northern Iraq never approached the scale of genocide, or inflicted the scale of casualties that Mexico has experienced in its unsuccessful war against the drug lords in its northern provinces over the past decade.

Myth No. 2: The Arab World Has Been Exceptionally Backward

This is a racist and anti-Muslim stereotype that has wrongly received the force of a self-evident truth — which is mostly due to the fact it has been repeated ad infinitum.

In fact, the Arab world resisted colonization by the European powers longer and more effectively than any other region. It was the last region to be annexed into the colonial system after World War I. And it was the first region to gain its full freedom after World War II.

Until the past 20 years, the Arab world vastly out-stripped all of sub-Saharan Africa in its development and rise in prosperity. It is still far ahead of it.

Myth No. 3: The Middle East has the Worst Human Rights Record in the World

The horrific dictatorships of Adolf Hitler in Germany, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong in China enslaved hundreds of millions of people each. They brought terror and death to scores of millions across Europe and Asia. They did so on a scale no Arab government ever dreamed of doing.

Yes, torture was regularly used by autocratic regimes through the region. But until recent events in Egypt, it took second place, for example, to the military junta dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s, which murdered at least 30,000 people

Egypt also doesn’t match the vicious Central American dictatorships from the 1950s onward that killed scores of thousands of native peoples.

And let us not forget the following global horrors that have had nothing to do with Arabs, Muslims, the Israel-Arab conflict or the Middle East in general:

  • the ongoing deaths of 10 million people from wars, chaos and genocides in the Congo (formerly Zaire),
  • the extermination of nearly a million Chinese in Indonesia in 1965-67,
  • the deaths of 2 million people from famine in North Korea in the late 1990s,
  • the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s and
  • the killing of nearly a million Tutsis at the hand of their neighboring Hutu citizens in Rwanda in 1994.

No question, parts of the Middle East have often been very dangerous. And no doubt, the current wave of upheaval could have very serious consequences.

But, hard though it may be on the issue of war and human rights abuses, it is also important to keep a sense of proportion. And most of all, one should never fall into the trap of convenient cultural biases and stereotypes, whether about the Middle East or anywhere else.

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About Martin Sieff

Martin Sieff is a book author, consultant and former foreign editor.

Responses to “Three Myths About the Middle East”

Archived Comments.

  1. On April 8, 2014 at 4:53 pm P!NG responded with... #

    Pretty pro-middle east article here.

    You forgot to mention, all these things are true, if your not Christian.

    And presently it IS a pretty nasty place, just like Mexico.

  2. On April 8, 2014 at 5:43 pm ADM64 responded with... #

    Regarding Myth # 1, the region is considered exceptionally dangerous because of the potential it has to spark larger conflicts. I find this to be borne out by the evidence.
    Regarding Myth #2, beating sub-Sahran Africa in development is hardly a milestone. Check out the number of books published in the Islamic world over the last century versus the last decade in the West. The Ottoman empire was a great power that resisted the West for a long time – indeed fought wars of aggression against the West until late into the 17th century. If, however, one assumes rough parity in military technology between the Ottomans and the West circa the battle of Vienna, the subsequent two centuries saw the West outstrip the entire planet while the Islamic world stagnated. Contributions to science and thought by Muslim scholars 1000 years ago don’t of themselves re-dress the balance. Nor can the divergence be explained by anything other than the suffocating nature of doctrinaire Islam.
    Regarding Myth #3, there’s merit in the author’s comment. The really huge genocides and the like have been mostly elsewhere, the Armenian one excepted. However, during the high water mark of Islamic power, there were considerable atrocities. More to the point, the most repressive regimes in terms of individual rights, freedom of the press, of association, of religion, and equality of the sexes are all in the Islamic world. The simple fact that no religion other than Islam can have any structure or organization within Saudi Arabia and that no non-Muslim can visit Mecca speaks volumes.

  3. On April 9, 2014 at 4:03 am Claude Salhani responded with... #

    Allow me to jump in and defend the author, who i must reveal is a
    close friend and former colleague. while it is a fact that Islamic
    countries are caught in the spotlight of violence, that violence is
    something that is not exclusive to the Mideast. Catholic Spain did some
    pretty nasty things during the Inquisition and during the Franco days.
    The Albigensian Crusade or Cathar Crusade (1209–1229) was a 20-year
    military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism
    in Languedoc. When he sent the crusade into Beziers, the officer sent
    word to the pope asking how he could differentiate between Catholics and
    Cathars. The pope replied, “Kill them all, God will sort his own. I
    have spent nearly half my life in Arab countries and i can attest that
    is a question of EDUCATION and not religion. the proof is here: just
    look at Kazakhstan, a Muslim country on which i wrote a book about:
    “Islam Without a Veil.” and for the past six months i have been living
    in Azerbaijan, a Muslim country where religion is treated much the same
    as in any Western European country.

  4. On April 9, 2014 at 12:36 pm P!NG responded with... #

    I’m speaking more in the present than historically.

    Sharia law, if enabled, is the single largest human rights violation of our time.

    Granted there are aspects that are worth praise in the Sharia law, there are to many atrocities that comes with it that makes it a not so feasible solution if you’re trying to make points regarding human rights.

    That being said, the current state of Christianity, of real Christianity, is so far polar opposite of Islam regarding human rights it’s almost unmentionable that you bring up a 20 year war that took place 805 years ago. Did it happen yes, do modern Christians agree with what happened? No. Would change it if they could? Yes.

    So in abstract and in modern times, anywhere Sharia law is present, human rights is in a disastrous situation. It’s quite opposite of where we are sitting in modern time Christianity.