For the Middle East to become stabilized, diplomatic personnel from all countries involved must seriously consider cultural differences and history in all negotiations and discussions.
Most public communications, whether coming from American or Middle Eastern sources, tends to be rhetoric and talking points. These reports are meant to satisfy the citizenry, raise fear, or just sell the story. At least that’s my perception. At the same time, I am certain serious discussions are ongoing between foreign policy advisors and staff of all concerned countries. To succeed, all parties must remain mindful of cultural differences and history of the other. Without this level of understanding, I believe negotiators are approaching issues from different directions, and will never meet on solutions.
For this article, I will focus on two concepts in addition to the history of foreign intervention that I feel are crucial to our success in the Middle East: democracy and compromise.
When discussing either of these topics in the context of the Middle East, one cannot separate Islam from the discussion.
Americans and most of the West define democracy as a system of government where there is a right to vote, separation of powers, basic civil and human rights such as freedom of speech and assembly, religious liberty, and separation of church and state. These are normally guaranteed through a constitution.
Does this definition apply to governments or cultures where Islam is a central force? John L. Esposito, founding director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and the author or editor of over 30 books about Islam and Islamist movements, and Bernard Lewis, a renowned Islamic scholar and historian both point out that dialog would be better served if centered around a system based on the development of local, self-governing institutions, in accordance with the Islamic tradition of "consultation."
Compromise is defined as the settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions. To most of us, this is a reasonable concept and one that can more often than not, lead to resolution of a problem.
In an Islamic society, compromise may not be seen in the same vain. The very act could be interpreted as going against Allah. However, if approached as doing justice, the outcome could be favorable as the doing of justice is an overriding value of Islam.
The Middle East is a region that throughout history has been conquered by many. This fact must be considered as it lays a foundation of distrust.
In dealing with Iran, Shia identity and Iranian nationalism cannot be separated. And while the days of the Pahlavi dynasty are gone, recognizing the grandeur of those days is present in the minds of Iranians today could help us to understand Iran’s insistence of being treated as an equal when negotiating with the U.S.
It is also important to note that the U.S. was once respected in the Middle East. This was the case following the British and French colonization of the region following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.
If the Middle East is to be stabilized, all sides must consider the cultural and historical differences between them. The countries in the Middle East must be just as knowledgeable in Western culture and history as the Western countries should be of Middle Eastern and Islamic culture and history. Understanding the differences and considering those during negotiations I believe is the only way a permanent resolution can be achieved.