How do I become an informed citizen of the world?
May 3, 2011 10:59 AM   Subscribe

What's the best neutral, digestible, comprehensive primer to politics in the Middle East?

A book or essay would be nice if it's not too dense, but a documentary or something like a TED talk would be even better for a general audience who might be intimidated by a long read.

I'm particularly looking for something that unclouds the waters of the American ethos. Most people I know couldn't distinguish Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan; for them the Arabic world is one big homogeneous desert full of burqa-wearing terrorists. I'm tired of my own ignorance about this stuff, but that's hard to overcome when my culture assumes everyone knows the truth while obfuscating all details about it.

I'm really hoping to find a clear breakdown of the different governments' policies, along with various other groups in the news (Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, the Taliban, etc.) and their ideologies. I hear that the United States actually installed people like Saddam Hussein and the Iranian Shah, and that the CIA created al-Qaeda and distributed weapons to terror groups. I'd like some concrete facts to clarify these accusations. Help me understand the different sects of Islam (I know they're not all the same but I couldn't list them or contrast their doctrines). I want to know why terrorists do what they do apart from "they hate us for our freedom." Bin Laden released statements and videos over the years, but the content of these was glossed over by the media. I assume there's a manifesto in there that probably shouldn't have been ignored but was. Some reason why certain groups are regarding him as a martyred hero instead of a mass-murdering villain.

I'd like to see a timeline of Middle Eastern history that doesn't begin on 9/11/01. I'd like to see clearly defined goals of the U.S. military on each of its campaigns, apart from "spreading democracy" or "stabilizing the region." I've heard the death toll of innocent civilians numbers in the tens of thousands — has there been any explanation for this by the American government? Surely they have some justification?

What about natural resources? Who owns the Middle Eastern oil fields and what is their relationship with western governments? How much personal involvement does the U.S. military have with those fields, and what exactly are they doing? I've heard reports that Afghanistan's poppy fields are similarly desired by the U.S. but I don't understand how such a thing isn't precluded by the War on Drugs. What's actually going on?

Sorry if I sound biased... a lot of what I said above is just what I've heard through the grapevine, which is a terrible place to glean information about important things. I am biased but I really shouldn't be, until I've got a better grasp on the situation. I also know that I've asked a ton of questions about a wide range of topics. I don't want you to answer them here, please just point me to good sources of information.

I only want verifiable facts with attribution. I don't want anything that's pro- or anti- America, Islam, or has any other bias. All opinions should be clearly marked as such. Speculation should be avoided. I simply want objective information about what's happening in that part of the world, without anyone telling me whose side I should be on. I'm trying to avoid controversy; if a "fact" is controversial it's probably not a fact (and thus not what I'm looking for here). If facts about something simply aren't available, I'd like to know why that is, and what's being done to change that.

The more I look into the Middle East, the more aware I become of how complicated it is. The more effective a resource is at uncomplicating things, the better. I don't want to spend months buried in research, I just want an overview that's good at breaking things down for regular Joes who want to be informed.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I found Who Hates Whom to be very helpful.
posted by Melismata at 11:23 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is not exactly what you asked for, but I recently stumbled on Harvard's Belfer Center's chart comparing the different Middle Eastern countries (and some Asian countries). Very helpful as I ask the same types of questions.
posted by weezetr at 11:25 AM on May 3, 2011

Palmer's Politics of the Middle East, is pretty good, although slightly out of date since the Arab Spring. But really, if you want to go way down to where the whole jujuflop situation started, grab a copy of Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace. It's interesting but also kind of a slog, but by the time you're done you'll be going, "It makes so much sense now," and screaming at NPR about how you can't believe you couldn't see it all along.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:58 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: If it doesn't dilute my original question too much, a similar primer on the motivations leading up to the Arab Spring would also be awesome!
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:01 PM on May 3, 2011

For Afghanistan (and Bin Laden) specifically, Ghost Wars is an excellent book, if VERY LONG. (I asked for book recommendations about the Great Game era in Afghanistan in 2009. Might be a bit far afield, but there were some good books.)

I'll also second WidgetAlley's recommendation of A Peace to End All Peace. Lots of Aha! combined with WTF?
posted by epersonae at 12:51 PM on May 3, 2011

There are good, scholarly books on the history of the Arab world (a recent one is The Arabs: A History by Eugene Rogan), but they might be way more than you're looking for, especially if you're just looking to make connections between events as they happen and their historical backgrounds, which is something good journalism should do.

So, you might just want to try a more serious source of news reporting than whatever you've been watching/reading up till now. The Economist offers some sophistication and neutrality. Things like the the 'Arab Spring' are covered in-depth with historical background. (You won't find books on that because the events only started a few months ago.) That particular magazine is just one option: there are many other sources of current events reporting you could read that are meatier than TV and local newspapers.

You mention Iran and Pakistan in your question, but those are separate societies with different languages and cultures than the Arab countries (and Pakistan is not even located in the Middle East), so you'd have to pursue their histories in other books if you're interested (the people who become scholars of each culture have to learn entirely different languages and literatures).
posted by Paquda at 12:51 PM on May 3, 2011

a little different than you are looking for, but i found The Desert Queen to cover the history of the area really really well. it also made me shake my head about how history basically repeats itself -- the british had the exact same troubles we are waging war in the area years ago.
posted by nanhey at 1:26 PM on May 3, 2011

This prior question on Israel and Palestine led me to the PBS documentary "The 50 Year War", which I found a useful introduction to that conflict.
posted by Zed at 1:36 PM on May 3, 2011

First things first: Read up on the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire post-WWI and of India post-WWII.

(You could whet your appetite by watching Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi.)
posted by Sys Rq at 1:51 PM on May 3, 2011

Everything I know, I learned from public radio.

If you are interested in what happened in Egypt this spring and what is happening in Libya, a surprisingly digestible source of information for me was NPR's Planet Money podcast (Egypt's Military Inc. and The Difference Between Libya and Egypt). The events in Egypt were greatly illuminated by the former, and the latter discussed how the economy of Libya (money flows out of the ground in the form of oil) affects its governance.

Two incredible windows into Iraq were from the This American Life episodes What's in a Number (about the number of casualties in the Iraq War; I found it gripping) and Iraq After Us (which is a stunning piece of journalism; I might not have had the patience to read something as in-depth as this, but when someone is talking to me on the radio, it all seems so much more digestible.) Both come from the starting place of the Iraq War, but I learned a lot about Iraq before the war too.
posted by purpleclover at 4:04 PM on May 3, 2011

This isn't 100% related to your question, which seems more focused on military and strategic aspects of the region, and I generally bristle at attempts to insist on the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but that said, The Much Too Promised Land by Aaron David Miller is an excellent introduction to the politics and perils of peacemaking in the Holy Land.

The Strong Horse is all the rage recently, and advances a thesis that might be called into question by recent revolutions.

I will warn you that this is a region where objectivity and facts are necessarily subjective, so always be on alert for biases and subtle leanings.
posted by j1950 at 6:14 AM on May 4, 2011

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