Why Americans have a tough time understanding the Middle East

Michael Totten interviewed Jeff Goldberg recently, and their conversation turned to the difficulties of understanding the Middle East.  I thought it was in interesting point, although I think Totten and Goldberg show their bias toward a Western view of development and progress in the interview.  Here’s what Goldberg had to say:

The reason American minds can’t really grasp the Middle East is because our minds are trained for concepts that are at variance with the mindset of Middle Eastern fundamentalists – and by that I mean both Muslims and Jews. The importance of today, the importance of pleasure, the importance of compromise, the importance of pragmatism, the relative unimportance of land. We have a house, we sell it, and then we move to another house. We don’t build our houses on top of our fathers’ houses.

As a sort of aside, you see how settlers talk about settlement freezes. There’s a kind of Middle Easterness to it. Part of it is manipulation. “If we aren’t allowed to add to our house, our children will have to move to Tel Aviv.” They’re telling me that it’s a punishment to have to move to Israel? It’s a tiny place. Their kids will be an hour away. Or a half hour.

But there’s also a sincere Middle Easterness to it. According to them, it really is a sin to force their children move a half hour away when they could live right next door or in the same house. It’s as if they have imbibed the Arab love for the place of their father and their father’s father. There are so many concepts we just can’t relate to because we’re Americans. It’s a barrier to understanding.

MJT: It is. Americans also believe there is a solution to every problem.

Goldberg: Yeah. Solutionism is an American religion. That’s the most dangerous one. The other aspects of this are the misunderstandings. We can’t understand why a Palestinian would want his son to become a suicide bomber.

It’s because his son is not an individual in the same way Americans are. He’s a valuable instrument in the deliverance of salvation for his people. His desires, dreams, and goals are all selfishness. That’s just Western selfishness. I don’t know. I’ve been trying to work these things through for years.

Update (10/15/09): I never provided the link for this, so I did today.



  1. Goldberg makes great points.

    Extended houses and inherited land certainly add inertia with its economic and historical meaning, but I suspect the underlying cohesion is actually family. Keeping family near. Thus, forced dissolution or distancing of the family is the problem with settlement freezes. Yes, even forcing them a mile away would change the dynamics, much less a half hour.

    Family subsuming land provides a different fundamental focus that is not only more understandable but more functional.

    I agree that “Solutionism is an American religion” and dangerous. Not in the sense of thinking that there is a solution for everything, but thinking that it is our (or the government’s) responsibility to find and impose a solution for everything. Sometimes the best solution is for us to do nothing, even if it appears less caring or more chaotic.

    His final point about American individualism as selfishness is also helpful and dovetails with the preeminence of family.

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