Secrets of the Muddled East

Too often, contemporary discussions of the Middle East are dominated by those with selective memories and limited understanding of the various factions and difficulties at play in the region. It is as if the only question up for discussion is the Palestinian Arab and Israeli struggle. But that difficulty is but one of many that have plagued the region and, as I demonstrated in a piece here last week, it’s not even the most significant or lethal. But there are other apparently secret or taboo troubles there that people seem to forget.

Rather amazingly, for example, it seems that even most Christians have ignored the persecution of Christians by Middle Eastern Muslims. A century ago, a fifth of the Middle East’s population was Christian. Persecution, flight, and the greater fertility of Muslims has reduced them to just 5 percentpossibly less. Occasionally, as demonstrated in these reports by the UN, the British government, and The Guardian, this little unpleasantness briefly surfaces. But usually it goes unmentioned, in accordance with two alternative dogmas: that Middle East problems really don’t have anything to do with religion, or, if they do, it is just a conflict between Jews and Muslims.

Christians are decently treated in Israel, though historically, Jews and the Christian minorities in the Middle East did not get along well. There have been minor incidents of hostility by Jewish religious fanatics, but the government has not tolerated such things.

An interesting recent development is the assimilation of Middle East problems to contemporary manias about race, through “discovering” that the people of the Middle East—other than Jews—aren’t “white.” Such ideas sometimes appeared in the 19th century to other purposes, but Arabs and Iranians were not assigned any other classification. Today, of course, an idea hardly heard in the 20th century has been revived for different purposes. Just what the people of the Middle East are now supposed to be isn’t clear, although occasionally they are described as “brown.” In reality, they average only a bit darker than southern Europeans; and many look like Europeans, sometimes even from farther north. (Even some Yemenites can be mistaken for Central Europeans.) A justification for ignoring common sense and the previous usage sometimes given is that Arabs are oppressed—so they can’t be white. It is hard to follow the logic of this. If there is any.

The flight or expulsion of Arabs from what became Israel is, of course, the great focus of emotion—and obsession—in discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obsession is not too strong a term as several refugee streams in the last century made the Palestinian Arab refugee problem seem petty in comparison. The expulsion of Germans from Eastern Germany and the rest of East-Central Europe during and right after World War II, and the flight of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs after the partition of India, each displaced millions and cost a million lives. By comparison, what happened in Israel was a minor tragedy and problem that could have been resolved with comparative ease.

Accurate statistics are hard to get, but Palestinian Arab deaths in the fighting between 1947-1949 were probably not over 15,000. While Israeli extremists massacred some Arabs, most notoriously at Deir Yassin, the deaths involved were too few to be compatible with claims of “genocide,” if that term now means anything at all. The existence of a decently treated Arab minority who are Israeli citizens also belies these claims.

The precise details of what occurred in 1948-1949 are bitterly contested. In some places, Jews deliberately chased out Arabs. Elsewhere, Arabs may have left “voluntarily,” expecting to return after their side won. The proportion of those expelled to those who just left is disputed. But the story did not end there. What happened was more an exchange of populations. There is a wide variety of estimates of the numbers involved, but the number of Arab and Jewish refugees over the next few years was about equal.

This exchange of people was much like that between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, though at least in its late stages, that Greek/Turkish exchange was registered in an agreement, unlike the exchange between Israel and the Arab states.

Jewish refugees from the Arab world and their descendants constitute half of Israel’s population—so much for Israel as just a specimen of Western “settler colonialism,” another recent mania. (Incidentally, it’s interesting that the “settler colonialism” which produced the nations of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, is never as broadly questioned as that which allegedly produced Israel.)

What is distinctive about Arab refugees is that they remain categorized as “refugees” after 75 years—and that most of the world accepts this insanity. That has been possible thanks to the incredible stupidity of the UN and the Western countries. They have, in effect, robbed their people, so the UN Relief and Works Agency can let Arab countries escape responsibility for their “fellow Arabs,” and keep the descendants of people who left in 1948 on the books as permanent “refugees.”

Except for Egypt, Arab countries would have had no difficulty in absorbing them. For one of the great ignored “secrets” of the Middle East is that a huge number of migrant workers—few of whom are Arabs of any sort, much less “Palestinian refugees”—are employed in the oil-rich states. They are often badly treated.

According to the UN’s International Labor Office, they numbered 24.1 million in 2019 (the numbers have increased at least in some countries since then), several times the number of Palestinian Arabs. Nearly 3 million are Filipinos, the rest mostly South Asians. Half the migrant workers reside in Saudi Arabia alone (whose nominal native population is 32 million.) In some Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, they outnumber the native populations by a considerable margin. One wonders why it was necessary or desirable to bring these people in rather than resettle Palestinian Arabs.

It is not improbable, given experience with “guest workers” and immigrants in Western Europe, sooner or later, many or most will stay. At least in parts of the Middle East, they may eventually reduce the native Arab populations, whom they have little reason to love, to a subjugated minority. The South Asians, in particular, may become beachheads for an Indian takeover of the region.

Of course, that might be a solution of sorts to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arabs might ponder the point that they might be better advised to be more worried about their future position in their own countries, than they are about what might or ought to be for Palestinian Arabs in Israel.

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