Lone and Level Sands
I usually use this column to discuss the Middle East, but today I would like to raise a very First World issue. It is one that aggravates student life at Harvard, yet we all have unwittingly participated in it in some form or another.
By way of example, here is a conversation I overheard yesterday:
Election season is that special time when, all across America, families and friends parrot party rhetoric instead of discussing the weather, and then Ohio elects the next president.
Among the timeless traditions of presidential election season is arguing that the opposing candidate is a neophyte on politics in the Middle East. As we saw in last Monday’s final presidential debate, President Obama and Mitt Romney are desperately and vainly trying to persuade voters that they offer two distinct choices for America’s foreign policy agenda. However, when it comes to relations with the Middle East, the distinction between them is practically nil.
The “actual” cause of the Arab civil uprisings became the pet debate of Middle East analysts almost immediately after protests seized the Arab world last January—most likely because that conversation conveniently avoided discussion of why the great majority of academics and pundits denied the possibility of a region-wide revolution in the first place. Now, the rise of political Islam has replaced that subject as analysts’ pet debate. Unfortunately, the character of both debates reflects a myopic, politics-based perspective that overlooks the region’s most prominent threat: an economic winter.
Since 1949, American journalism on the Middle East has tended to concern itself with Israel’s security and, since 1979, political Islam. But these concerns encourage a shortsighted focus on surface-level political developments in the Arab world. With the exception of the Gulf oil market, the region’s economy remains a subject of neglect.
Four dead in Benghazi, the America embassy stormed in Cairo, and protests across the Islamic World. Those calling for a post-post-9/11 era will have to wait a little longer. Anonymous statements by U.S. officials on Tuesday claimed that the attack in Libya was considered a premeditated assault unrelated to the demonstrations that spread beyond the Arab world from Nigeria to Bangladesh. This watershed moment in regional relations arises from an unexpected place—an obscure short film of unclear origin that denigrates the prophet Mohamed.
A trailer for the video first appeared on YouTube in July. I warn you, though, it is very offensive—and I’m not just referring to its dark depiction of Islam’s prophet. With its plastic axes, fake Santa Claus beards, misplaced green screen backdrops, and irregularly dubbed lines, the trailer makes “On Harvard Time” look like a Spielberg production.