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Middle East Matters: The Middle East: Beyond the headlines

Published: Monday, April 4 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

If I were looking for a prophet in the modern Middle East, I'd beat a path to Dr. Nader Fergany's door. Nine years ago the director of the Almishkat Centre for Research in Cairo co-authored a prescient report on the Arab world for the United Nations. According to the Arab Human Development Report, autocratic regimes in the region were stifling human development in three areas: governance, women's empowerment and access to knowledge. While these conclusions seem self-evident today, it took considerable courage for three Arab scholars to publish them for an international audience in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

When I was studying at the Foreign Service Institute in preparation for a diplomatic assignment in Israel, the director of Middle East studies was a German Arabist who maintained that the Israeli-Arab conflict was the root of all evil in the region. Until recent weeks, one heard similar views from pundits on TV and radio. Given that the most deadly conflicts in the modern Middle East — civil wars in the Sudan, Lebanon and Algeria, the Armenian Genocide, the Iran-Iraq War — have rarely involved Israelis or Palestinians, it's necessary to dig deeper for explanations that correspond more closely to reality. It's this desire to go beyond the headlines that has motivated me to create this column on the Middle East. I've lived in Israel and return as often as possible to the region, most recently as a guide for a group of high-tech executives looking for business opportunities.

The Middle East is a columnist's dream. Not only is there never a shortage of news material, but also there are multiple evolving narratives and histories in every country (or in the case of Jerusalem, within one city). Sunnis, Shiites, Alawis, Turks, Druze, Chaldeans, Jews, Berbers — they all have histories, accomplishments, grievances and demands. Although it is important to recognize and respect these narratives, it is also important to analyze events and trends objectively.

Useful analysis of the region may require the rejection of positions that are deeply held by members of tribes, peoples or nations. In some cases, you have to take sides in order to remain credible. It is not possible, for example, to believe that the Ottoman Empire launched a genocidal campaign against Armenians in its last years while also believing that it did not. (For the record, I believe there was an Armenian Genocide.) Whatever factors one considers when making this determination, fear of offending modern Turks or Armenians can't be one of them.

In political columns, as in life, honesty is the best policy. For example, one can try to predict Egypt's future the traditional way by analyzing party statements, interviews with politicians and the history of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, in order for readers to have a more complete picture of Egyptian society, it is necessary for them to know that 91 percent of Egyptian women aged 15-49 have undergone female genital mutilation (2008 UNICEF figure) and that a female CBS reporter was sexually assaulted while reporting from the main square of the country's capital. It is not always pleasant to read these things, but it makes no sense to ignore them. I intend to call 'em as I see 'em in the Middle East, in the spirit of Dr. Fergany & Co.

These are extraordinary times for the region: the U.S. military is rebuilding two nations and bombing a third, popular uprisings have already brought down two dictators and threaten several more, and Iran is attempting to become a nuclear power. I'm grateful to the Deseret News for the opportunity to provide a lens through which its readers can follow developments from Morocco to Pakistan. In doing so, I hope to add a unique voice to reportage on the Middle East. As the Arab proverb goes, "Make sure you have a different opinion and people will talk about you." I'll do my best to give them something to talk about.

Mark Paredes served as a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Mexico, blogs for the Jewish Journal, and will begin leading tours to Israel next year for Morris Murdock Travel. He can be reached at deverareligione@yahoo.com.

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