Shibley Telhami said the world has never before seen such upheaval and uncertainty in the Middle East than it does now, and never before has that conflict had such far-reaching international consequences.
“The security challenges facing the globe are centered in the Middle East,” said Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at this university, to a crowd of about 50 people at the Graduate School Forum for International Graduate Students.
The audience consisted of graduate students from countries, such as Russia, Israel and Palestine, along with faculty members from the graduate school.
The forum was the second piece in a two-part graduate student forum series. The goal of the talk was to give graduate students an overview of the conflict in the Middle East from Telhami’s point of view.
Telhami, a professor and political scientist, named two principal causes he believes are behind the conflict — the Iraq war of 2003 and the Arab uprisings in 2010. He then explained how this kind of environment will not be going away soon.
“I’ve always believed it was going to be a disastrous war since day one,” Telhami said.
There were conflicts in the Middle East before the war, but until 9/11, terrorism was declining, he said. The Middle East “wasn’t even the leading region for terrorism,” and Iraq’s strong, centralized government was keeping large-scale terrorist organizations away,cq he said.
However, the Iraq war changed that, and after the U.S. took down the Iraqi government, groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State were able to take hold of the country, Telhami said.
“[The Islamic State] was principally a product of the Iraq war,” Telhami explained. “No war, no ISIS.”
Sectarianism, a hateful division of a religious group, is more of an outcome of the war and an exacerbating factor in the Middle East, he said. The Sunni and Shia, while they’ve had conflicts, have other identities, such as being Iraqi or Arab, that they promote more than religious ones.
But once the war took away the Iraqi government that represented them, Telhami said, they were forced to choose other identities.
“When does [being Sunni or Shia] become the principal identity of dividing people?” Telhami said. “We are what we have to defend.”
The removal of Iraq’s powerful government, the insecurity of smaller Middle Eastern countries and the United States’ overall failure in the war have contributed to destabilization in the region, Telhami said.
On the other hand, the Arab uprisings a decade later seemed promising. Powered by access to the Internet and social media, citizens opposed to the government had an outlet to protest and could organize without a political party or leader, Telhami said.
“The information revolution is a revolutionary factor,” Telhami said. “It takes away the government’s monopoly over information. … It empowers the individual.”
For Telhami, though, he said he doesn’t see the U.S. as able to solve Middle Eastern problems. When Saúl Sosnowski, a Latin American literature and culture professor, suggested a decline of the world into a violent primal state, Telhami refuted.
“Conflict is declining internationally by some measures,” Telhami said. However, he said, there are “too many players” and violence is “too unpredictable.”
The U.S. isn’t going to move away from the Middle East anytime soon, especially with this country’s involvement with Israel and Europe, Telhami said.
Several international graduate students said they connected with the talk. Rotem Katzir, a computer science graduate student from Israel, said she found the speaker interesting.
“It made me think a lot more,” Katzir said.
Geology graduate student Iadviga Zhelenzinskaia said she enjoyed hearing Telhami’s take on the issue, as it is different from other media outlets she gets news from.
“It was very interesting for me to hear the American perspective, because usually I just watch Russian news and read Russian news,” she said. “I heard a little bit of a different opinion than American journalists and American politicians.”
While most of the talk leaned toward the development of long-term problems in the Middle East, Telhami said the future of these countries could start looking brighter.
“There are trends coming out of the information revolution that are extremely promising,” Telhami said. “The economy is improving; people are more plugged in. … There are some really exciting trends.”