Andrea Teti: Middle East – security, Sunni-Shia divide and the Palestinian question

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (October 2009) Tags: Middle East Security Sunni-Shia divide Palestinian Question

Andrea Teti

Andrea Teti

Dr Andrea Teti (Naples, 1973) is Lecturer in International Relations at University of Aberdeen. His teaching focuses on Middle Eastern history and politics, and on political theory (particularly post-structuralism).

Dr Teti studied for his MA (Hons.) and PhD at the University of St Andrews.

In this interview, he elaborates on some of the key challenges for the Middle East in the 21st century.

Security in the Middle East

To what extent are the tensions in the Middle East rooted in the Shia-Sunni divide?

This ‘divide’ manifests in a series of cultural dimensions, but it would be a mistake to take the religious affiliation as a direct or even proximate cause of political divergence.

“Political differences are certainly framed in religious terms at times, but to forget that these are at root differences arising from political problems would be a very considerable mistake.”

Political differences are certainly framed in religious terms at times, just as they are sometimes expressed in ethno-national terms and so on, but to forget that these are at root differences arising from political problems would be a very considerable mistake. Western scholars and analysts do not make such mistakes in relation to conflicts such as Northern Ireland, so there’s no reason they should make them in this context.

“The point of ‘political Islam’ is not so much that it’s Islamic, but that it’s political.”

This is a mistake which many commentators make, despite what are now decades of scholarship which have demonstrated how erroneous and downright politically dangerous it is to look at ‘religious’ politics through culturalist lenses. Still today, thirty years after Edward Said’s Orientalism, and even longer after classic criticisms of Western attitudes and the political practises they give rise to – I’m thinking in particular of the Algerian struggle for independence, Fanon or Sartre – there are plenty of academics, ‘experts’ and politicians who view the Middle East (and Western Muslims) in such culturalist terms. The point of ‘political Islam’ is not so much that it’s Islamic, but that it’s political.

What scenarios are most likely for the relationship between Israel and the other countries in the region?

This is notoriously difficult to predict – at least, with any optimism.

“The differences between certain governments and Israel are often over-stated in the popular press.”

On the one hand, the differences between certain governments and Israel are often over-stated in the popular press – obviously the Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians come to mind.

Then there is the question of Washington’s relationship with Israel, and the past few months have confirmed – if such a thing were necessary – both the importance of Washington’s position and the difficulty of making progress given the internal politics of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Obama’s first months have resulted in a surprisingly firm and uniform public message to Netanyahu’s government, as well as a considerable resistance from Tel Aviv.

Having said that, it is perfectly obvious – and has been for a long time – that several key Arab governments would privately prefer to see the Palestinian question, which can affect their domestic stability so much, resolved once and for all.

The obvious exception would appear to be Syria, but even here, there are very obvious limitations to its commitments dictated by self-interest (e.g. the Golan, Lebanon, their macroeconomic predicament) and attempts by Bashar’s regime to engage the ‘West’ in some form (witness the renewed discussion over an EU-Syrian Association Agreement, which Javier Solana recently optimistically stated would be done and dusted by the end of the year).

“This requires us to ask not just what the issues at stake are, but more generally what this conflict actually ‘does’, i.e. what practises, what kinds of actions does the existence of this conflict legitimise.”

Stepping back from the immediate issues which the conflict is articulated in terms of, any prospect for the conflict’s resolution has to be placed into a wider context. In particular, as analysts this requires us to ask not just what the issues at stake are, but more generally what this conflict actually ‘does’, i.e. what practises, what kinds of actions does the existence of this conflict legitimise.

Some answers are obvious – the usefulness of Israel as a US ally, and vice versa – while others are less often noted. For example, what makes things infinitely more arduous is the complicity – unwitting or otherwise – of important part of political leaderships on both ‘sides’ of the Palestinian-Israeli divide for whom the radicalisation of relations between Israel, its neighbours and particularly Palestinians both within and outside the country, are actually politically useful in order to stay in, or stake a claim in power (of course, this also goes for Israel’s counterparts).

“What are the implications of portraying the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis as intractable, and in particular as being somehow rooted in some kind of difference in cultural ‘essences’.”

This leads us to ask: aside from the obvious suffering of people, what are the implications of portraying – as often happens – the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis as intractable, and in particular as being somehow rooted in some kind of difference in cultural ‘essences’ which manifests itself religious radicalism (one should not underestimate the popularity of such interpretations – very recently Israeli historian Benny Morris has published and defended arguments very closely resembling Huntington’s or Lewis’ worst excesses, if not Patai’s infamous The Arab Mind)?

There are several other examples, truly too numerous to list, but they range from terrorist groups’ legitimisation of their own actions to Western foreign and indeed domestic policy choices. Just think of debates on ‘hijab’, the invocation of supposed Clashes of Civilisations in debates over democracy-promotion, over asylum and immigration, civil liberties, and so on, or the disgraceful practises which governments like Italy towards immigrants and even their own citizens (the Roma, for example).

“The ‘frontline’ actors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have too great an interest in escalation rather than conflict resolution.”

The ripples of the Palestinian Question can be felt in all these contexts. Thus, it is important to recognise how the existence of a conflict such as this is ‘useful’ in a certain series of contexts before one can talk sensibly about prospects for its resolution. At the moment, despite the inclinations of conservative Arab governments, Europeans and the US, it seems that ‘frontline’ actors in this conflict have too great an interest in escalation rather than conflict resolution.

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