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How a Non-Arab Anthropologist Helped Me Understand the Arab World

posted on: Aug 2, 2017

Image result for LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist's Journey into the Middle East

LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East 
By John Mason 
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: NAP/VELLUM (January 25, 2017)
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By Colby Cyrus/Contributing Writer

The Arab world. To some, it is an enigma. To others yet, it is a place of danger. For myself, the Arab world’s culture and people remained in a sort of shadow, constantly evolving and not well understood.

While exposure to the Arab world often comes to us from media and politics (and normally only negatively), one man set out to understand the region from a new perspective. John Mason is a social anthropologist, and his new book Left-Handed in the Islamic World is a window into what he found, and thinks we should know, about the Arab world in the past as well as the present.

He was aware of the misconceptions in the west about the Middle East, and his efforts to mediate these misunderstandings accumulated into his newest work.

Mason’s journey through the region took place over a span of decades. This is a timeframe of turbulence, change, revolution, and even harmony in the area. Experiments lead Mason to the smallest of villages and the greatest metropolises, and everywhere in between. After being exposed to his book, I found myself left with innumerable questions, and I knew I had to get answers.

Expeditions took Mason to every type of life imaginable: quaint villages guided by the hand of Islam to major cities upended by violent conflict. I asked Mason specifically about this, and the differences in lifestyles that he perceived between conflict and post-conflict zones.

“In conflict zones, communities are often under siege, at risk of military attacks,” Mason explained, “post-conflict situations are totally different, since in conflict zones, residents are purposely deprived of normal services and resources and may even be held hostage by the occupiers, whereas in post-conflict zones, it is just the opposite: the people are served by government or humanitarian organizations with a certain level of support to get back on their feet following a conflict.”

Left Handed was my first discovery of the sheer differences in lifestyle between warzones and post-conflict areas. It left me with the revelation that, while this subject matter is usually looked at politically, it is actually a humanitarian matter. It is about people and their families before politicians and their interests.

Image result for Island of the Blest: Islam in a Libyan oasis community (Papers in international studies : Africa series)1977 by John P Mason
Image: John Mason

Mason’s findings about life in conflict zones speaks volumes to the true brutality in these areas, but I also took the opportunity to question him about the nature of conflict in what is often seen as an inherently violent region. When I asked him if he thought conflict was endemic to the Arab world, he declined but offered several reasons why this part of the world remains unable to avoid violence.

“Conflict is correlated with authoritarian governments, religious divisions, and high levels of poverty. Conflict is a matter of power of one people or grouping over another in situations where control is top-down,” Mason told me.

He also identified the role of religion in conflict when he explained that theological differences are often used to justify violence of one group against another. This is perhaps a divergence from normal media coverage of the events in the Middle East, where religion is often framed as the main culprit behind violence. Rather, as Mason suggests, it is just another piece of the puzzle.

In regards to the responsibility of foreign powers, Mason hinted that the inclusion of other powers into regional politics does not help the cause.

“This is not a “clash of civilizations,” as promulgated by Samuel Huntington,” Mason argued. “Rather, it is a case of one people or nation trying to use its power to control the other, including its resources. It is not a matter of Islam against the World; rather, it is of people trying to fill vacuums created by badly functioning governments.”

This explanation lead me to the classic contentions that those intervening in the Middle East are doing so out of their own benefit rather than in the interest of creating peace.

I left the discussion with one final question, the one which always gets asked yet rarely answered; what will it really take for Arabs and westerners to truly live in harmony? Mason’s answer was many sided.

“First, Arabs have to come to an agreement on their own to live in peace with one another.” However, Mason continued by saying, “Such a scenario is complicated… most Arab nations are authoritarian, they are poor and are often rife with ethnic and religious conflict.”

As far as the West’s role in the Middle East, Mason believes they “can help mediate these intra- and inter-Arab divisions,” adding that Western nations should be more “strategic” in deciding which countries to support to facilitate peace.

First, though, “the Arabs have to first try to resolve these on their own,” Mason interjected.

Mason applies the same philosophy to the Arab-Israeli conflict which needs “a full sincere effort” in order for “peace to exist in the region.”

Admittedly, I had always been guilty of a one-lined approach to understanding the Arab world. For me, everything could be explained through politics. Leaders wouldn’t give up their power, they wanted to benefit themselves, and someone else had a problem with it. To me, this was the root of all conflict.

My conversation with Dr. Mason changed that perspective. Never before had I considered the role of societal, cultural, or religious differences in the turmoil that engulfs the region. This begs the question: for those actively trying to fix the problem, is politics even the right place to start?