Report from the AGM, 11 May 2002
Terry Bishop set out to answer the question of why Europe was better placed than the United States to understand the Middle East. The Middle East is on our doorstep: European countries have had a direct involvement in the Middle East throughout recent history. There is a strong view in the United States that Middle East region is a monolith, but it isn’t. Linguistically, religiously, economically, it is as diverse as Europe. Democracy exists on a spectrum. On one hand there is Iraq, but there are elements of democracy in Tunisia, Jordan, and Bahrain. Recently, in Bahrain, women have been able to vote. And of course there is the free TV station Al-Jazeera in Qatar.
Interestingly, there is a strain of Arab federalist thought. There have been a several attempts to create Arab federations, which have been unsuccessful, but the United Arab Emirates exists as a federation. And there are also transnational parties, such as the Baath Party, which has existed in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
So, why is Europe better placed than the United States? In Europe there is a greater understanding of the cultural diversity of the Arab world. In United States, people still suppose that the worst regimes typify them all. Palestine and Iraq are different issues.
Regarding Iraq, we are all guessing. He would be horrified but surprised if the United Kingdom was part of a major military action in Iraq. Having travelled in most Arab cultures in the last year, moderates throughout the Arab world are vehemently against the attack on Iraq. The same is true in the Gulf states. It would be extremely damaging to the UK’s economic and political interests if the UK were closely associated with an American attack.
Why wasn’t Saddam Hussein deposed in 1991? The answer is that there was nobody to put his place. We all agree that the Iraqi people are suffering, but it is not clear that an invasion would reduce the suffering. Unlike in Afghanistan, there is no obvious alternative government available.