I consistently encounter the same myths about the modern Middle East and its peoples.
Some myths are seemingly innocuous, others less so. And because the world is now so interconnected, such long-standing myths must no longer have a place within our global discourse.
Misinformation abounds when it comes to the Middle East, and certain misperceptions have proven to have profound socio-cultural consequences and destructive policy ramifications.
Some myths are basic, such as the erroneous belief that all Middle Easterners are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, and all Muslims are terrorists.
However, two myths have been particularly vexing as I’ve encountered them in recent weeks:
Myth No. 1: The Middle East is a desert wasteland.
There is a lot of desert in the Middle East. Yet, from Morocco to Iran and from Armenia to the Yemen, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has its fair share of sun-soaked beaches, snow-capped mountains and modern metropolises.
It also has fertile river valleys, the very ones from which Western civilization sprung. And, the Mediterranean coastline is exactly how you might picture it.
More troubling is how this notion of the MENA as a desert wasteland so easily bleeds into the erroneous notion of the Middle East as a cultural and intellectual wasteland, beholden to a medieval religion hell-bent on world domination, comically backward sheikhs, dancing harem girls and throngs of helpless masses crying out for the “benevolent” yet nonetheless “superior” hand of Western intervention.
Such misperceptions refuse to die.
The sheer amount of “culture” per square kilometer in the Levant is staggering, both ancient and modern.
Ancient monasteries sit within minutes of the most modern, diverse and technologically sophisticated cities, replete with art, film, music, literature and scholarship.
Myth No. 2: Islam is in need of a reformation.
As a student of modern religious history, I am always puzzled by this declaration.
I’m not saying there doesn’t exist a profound crisis of religious authority within the Islamic community, nor that recent events haven’t inspired a re-evaluation of core religious texts among certain segments of the community.
But Islam has been “reforming” for generations. Revival movements have been a quintessential part of all religious traditions since their respective beginnings, Islam included.
Yet the advent of European political and economic domination in the 18th-19th centuries triggered within the Islamic community a period of deep introspection and the re-examination of core methodologies.
Turkish president Mustafa Kemal AtatÃ¼rk abolished the caliphate in 1923, sending shock waves throughout the Muslim world from which it has yet to recover.
The repercussions of this event set the stage for the events of the 20th century, with Islamic liberalism, ethnic secularism and reformist Islamism each offering a different response.
The behavior of ISIS, most evidently its strident iconoclasm, clearly indicates that they see themselves as an Islamic reform movement.
When Westerners call upon Islam to reform in response to the proliferation of Islamic radicalism, they forget that radical movements are the byproduct of modern Islamic reform movements and are developed largely as a reaction to Western colonial aggression.
The irony is that movements such as these also encompass dramatic calls for the West to reform itself.
Furthermore, such misperceptions represent an acutely whitewashed version of Christian history, wherein the Protestant Reformation represents the emergence of an enlightened, modern religiosity from the chains of medieval barbarism and ignorance.
The Reformation, in reality, unleashed one of the most fratricidal and tragically bloody eras of Western history, culminating ultimately in the Thirty Years War.
In failing to acknowledge the bloody remains of our Christian past, we perform a true disservice to our global neighbors.
In failing to examine our self-serving narratives, we too easily project our misinterpretations upon the “non-Western world,” with all the socio-cultural and policy ramifications therein entailed.
If we purport to follow the gospel of truth, we must be persons absolutely committed to truth, about ourselves as much as others.
Salim Munayer, founder of Musalaha, a nonprofit organization working for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East, said, “[P]art of seeking after the truth, and part of righteousness, is to take a closer look at some of the things we believe and assume, especially about history, and particularly our history, and examine more closely some of what we believe to be truth.”
Munayer added, “Some of what we are asserting could be very close and dear to our hearts, but if we discover that it is not the truth or that it is not the whole truth, we are obligated to admit it.”
“This can be a very painful process, but it is needed if reconciliation is to occur,” he said. “In conflict situations, people on both sides of the divide must seek after the truth, and challenge any assumptions made about the past or about the ‘enemy.'”
Munayer said, “If we do not challenge these assumptions, narratives or myths, we become enslaved by them, and will only be made free by embracing the truth (John 8:32).”
Jesse Wheeler is projects manager at the Institute of Middle East Studies based in Mansourieh, Lebanon, at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. A longer version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow IMES on Twitter @IMESLebanon.
Jesse Wheeler is MRel program administrator, support instructor for MENA history, politics and economics, and program support Instructor at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary’s Institute of Middle East Studies in Lebanon.