Three Myths About the Middle East
No, the region isn’t the source of all evil.
- 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.