Seven Places You Didn't Know Were Part of the Middle East

by George R. Trumbull IV | published May 27, 2014 - 3:21pm

1) Guantánamo
Simultaneously the closest and most talked about disclosed site of the “war on terror,” the US detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba represents not just an artifact of security policies at home, but also a pattern of collaboration by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. No close US ally in the Middle East has roundly criticized the camp for the simple reason that the outsourcing of arbitrary punishment corresponds well to the political goals of unjust regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. These regimes are often happy to point to torture at Guantánamo as a factor in the radicalization of jihadis. Indeed, many “foreign fighters” captured in Iraq after the US invasion have cited Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib as the reason why they took up arms. But Middle Eastern regimes are not so keen to advertise their role as way stations (“black sites”) in the US torture network -- and their own decades-long record of severe abuse of prisoners in custody. The presumptive leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is but one jihadi notable who was tortured in Egyptian jails in the 1990s.

2) Marseille
2013’s European Capital of Culture, the vibrant, pulsating port looms more as an embodiment of a particularly Provençal Mediterraneanism than as part of the landscape of the Middle East. Its large community of North Africans (as well as Muslims from outside the region), however, has made it an entrepôt for the discussion of politics, the formation of immigrant culture expressions, and the articulation of an increasingly diverse diasporic identity that can transcend national or ethnic divisions. The emergence of self-consciously “Maghribi” forms of popular music and the interplay of explicitly post-colonial and non-national voices with French literature attest to a sense of North African-ness more present, and more possible, in Marseille than in the region itself. Moreover, authoritarian regimes in the region look with concern on the potential emergence of non-national transpolitical cultures, while the French extreme right offers worryingly popular messages, both coded and overt, of white supremacy.

3) Crimea
Not all sovereignties matter equally in the international political system. The 1991 US-led invasion of Iraq preserved Kuwait independence, but ushered in decades of regional instability. Meanwhile, even the mention of Palestinian sovereignty, however truncated, has ended countless rounds of fruitless “peace talks.” Iraqi Kurdistan has, in its push for autonomy and local control over day-to-day governance, pushed the boundaries of the very definition of national sovereignty, a process beginning now, too, in Syrian Kurdistan. The Russian-sponsored violence in Crimea, the sham referendum and the global vacillation between hand wringing and apathy in response rang far too familiar for many in the Middle East, and may have offered an alarming model for incipient regimes. From the perspective of the Middle East, Crimea was less an aberration than the extension of a familiar geopolitics in which not all sovereignties weigh the same.

4) Lampedusa
Italy’s (and Europe’s) doorstep, the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa has witnessed cycles of migration originating in, or departing from, North Africa. The migration politics of Lampedusa rely as much on unpredictable European Union policy. While Brussels sanctimoniously criticizes conditions in North Africa and further south, it scarcely attempted to ameliorate conditions for those who arrived in Lampedusa before its closure, or at other ports of arrival, at times forcibly sending them back or simply refusing entry. Italy’s clearance of the migrant camps in Lampedusa in 2013 did little to inaugurate a substantive conversation between the EU and North Africa about migration politics. Open or closed, the Lampedusa migrant camps reveal an EU profoundly uncomfortable with African and Middle Eastern migration.

5) Ethiopia and Eritrea
America’s and Western Europe’s close alliance with the oppressive regime in Ethiopia, pursued in the guise of regional security, resembles the apologetics and support for similar regimes in the Middle East -- some of them now toppled. Support for oppressive regimes in the Horn of Africa emerged first in the context of the Cold War, but now has reemerged as part of the “war on terror.” Addis Ababa coerces voters to the polls, tramples on minority rights, subjects citizens to surveillance and invokes anti-terrorism laws to stifle journalistic freedom. Indeed, it is precisely the rhetoric of combating terrorism that turned the gaze of Western powers back to Addis Ababa. Well-armed and militarily experienced, Ethiopia serves as a bulwark against the spread of Somali instability -- or so Washington hopes in the face of evidence that Ethiopia’s ham-handed intervention in Somalia may not prove salutary in the long term. Ethiopia’s 2006-2009 intervention largely worked not to quell violence in Somalia but to push it further south and, increasingly, into ethnic Somali communities in Kenya. Moreover, Ethiopia’s central location has proven irresistible to global interests intent on stanching the Somalia wound, launching drone attacks in Yemen, and keeping an eye on an increasingly erratic and opaque Eritrea.

6) Afghanistan
From its origins as an articulation of Orientalist political consciousness, the term “Middle East” has usually excluded Afghanistan -- and, to a large extent, with good reason. Whether the region does include Afghanistan may be beside the point; especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the history of Afghanistan indicates the failure of regionalism to generate a comprehensive understanding of specific parts of the world. In an America in which Central Asian studies remains rudimentary, and in which India dominates South Asian studies, foreign policy has perhaps overestimated the aspects of Afghanistan that most resonate with perceptions about the Middle East. Under President Barack Obama, Afghanistan is seen as little but a theater of drone warfare and a dumping ground for jihadi detainees. A more coherent and successful policy toward Afghanistan would have to acknowledge its imbrication in multiple, complicated regional politics.

7) China
The May 23 bombing in Urumqi notwithstanding, the restive Muslim Uighurs in Chinese-occupied East Turkestan have largely declined to borrow the tactics of Islamist insurgents in the Middle East. The extent to which Uighurs share a global “Islamist” ideology remains unclear. Nevertheless, the People’s Republic of China has adopted with alacrity the war-on-terror discourse to legitimate the continued suppression of Uighur particularism. To acknowledge Uighur separatism as genuinely historically constituted and locally specific risks creating space for an indictment of broader Chinese imperialism in Western Asia -- whether in Tibet or East Turkestan. Instead, Beijing has parroted the language of a vague, undifferentiated network of global terror to deflect attention from real Uighur complaints. The Middle East-ification of Uighur dissident movements provides efficient cover for attempts at extirpating them.

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