After four hundred years lying dormant, the Middle East has once again taken its place on the world scene. This ascendancy began with the long-awaited Ottoman demise, was spurred on by the region’s vast energy resources, and was strengthened by Cold War interests.
But it was the attacks on 9/11 that thrust the region front and center into the Western spotlight. The U.S. and its allies have since almost emptied state coffers, committed a vast military complex, and devoted much diplomatic capital to pursuing a policy of reforming the Middle East. The present-day West seeks engagement, and — like its ancestors before it — has failed to understand this enigmatic region it attempts to engage.
Much commentary over the centuries has attempted to solve the riddle of the Orient, to distill its properties and disturb its affinities. Some have romanticized it; others have remained aloof to the entire endeavor. As Kipling once quipped, “You’ll never plumb the oriental mind, and if you did, it isn’t worth the toil.” Whatever one’s sensibility on the topic, it remains true that few in the West have apprehended the basic mentality of the Middle Easterner, unable to capture his imagination, and so they remain forever foreigners within its midst.
Today, the needs of the West to penetrate this region and allow for the moderating influences within it to flourish demand that the West finally overcome its chronic Middle Eastern myopia. The cultural divide separating the West from the Orient can best be described by the differences one finds in the games of chess and backgammon.
When one looks at these two board games and compares them, one can immediately discern the biggest difference between these two games: the existence or lack of dice. In backgammon, as in the Middle East, the dice represent a common mystical and unpredictable quality: In the game, the dice set a seemingly arbitrary rhythm. In the region, it’s been the quantum of religious fervor that have dominated the Middle Eastern landscape.
The dice, like the supernal, are all-encompassing, and though their effects in backgammon can be mitigated by adept positioning, in the end, you rise and fall by the roll of the dice. Similarly, the legacy of Jerusalem adequately captures the Middle Easterner as first and foremost a believer, captivated by the metaphysical, which infuses its passions, politics, and heroes.
In the West’s beloved strategy game, chess, the governing force is mathematics. The battlefield is a set board with defined pieces which allow, in every alternating turn, for a determined number of outcomes. It is the opponent who can deduce the combination of variables furthest who will ultimately prevail.
The legacy of Athens explains the West’s penchant for rational interest, political equation, and ordered society. Like chess, Western logic brings with it a cool pragmatism, a belief that reason and human understanding go hand in hand. While this Western logic has a universal appeal, it is far from a universal predicate; but more than this, in the Middle East, its cold tones ring hollow.
Behind differences in the games, and the regional realities they symbolize, are two vastly different social structures shaped by differing worldviews. The West inhabits an organized and complex matrix, where roles are distinct and codified. Just as the pawn, the rook, and the king have definite values, so too were the social roles of Europe’s peasants, burghers, nobles, popes, and kings (and today, its citizens, senators, MPs, and prime ministers) rule-bound.
In the Middle East, and in backgammon, the opposite is the case. The game pieces are interchangeable, and so are the region’s social players. A tribal leader can become “king”; a man can gain or lose the honorific of sheikh in a way that a baron of Europe could not; and the status of citizen/subject is often altered by decree, not by law. But what remains permanently inviolate in Middle Eastern society is not the definition of the formal role, but the primacy of the bond: Community membership is nearly unconditional, loyalty paramount, and social position essential.
Like that left-behind piece in backgammon that proves the player’s undoing, the Middle East is tribal at its core. One cannot elect to sacrifice a piece (unlike a chess player who can sacrifice any piece except the king, and a Western country that can lose a province in the name of peace) because the sacrifice does not represent just a loss of the piece, as it does in the West, but a violation of the essential ties that bind its social compact.
The West simply does not grasp this and unconsciously demands that the Middle East bend itself to the logic of chess, insisting that wars of passion, morality, and subjugation get resolved with cool-headed swaps enforced by ceremonial signatures and diplomatic speech. That is, the West demands that Middle Easterners learn to tip their kings — without ever considering that there are no kings to tip.
For either Westerner or Middle Easterner to progress beyond this point of incompatibility — which has characterized the relationship from the time of medieval wars up until today’s period of chronically failing peace processes — we have to look not at the pieces, but at the boards.
With this view, we see that on the backgammon board of the Middle East, time is the critical parameter. In the game, the goal is to eliminate all of your pieces from the board before your opponent does. In the shifting landscape of the region, space in itself is meaningless: There is equally little access to bodies of water in the north as in the south; just as little ability to raise crops or harvest forests in the west as in the east.
In backgammon, as in Arabia, North Africa, and the Levant, the critical commodity is not tradable tracts of land, but transcendental priority. “Who comes first?” is the motivating question: In backgammon, “who comes first” to free himself (in the form of his pieces) from the board? In the region, “who comes first” to receive the blessing and bear primacy in the order of moral priority?
Finally, in both game and region, the most definitive difference is that backgammon requires a winner and a loser. It is, in fact, a zero-sum game. In chess, there is the possibility of a draw. After millennia of winning and losing, Western civilization has found that a negotiated draw is the most stable, loss-minimizing outcome. In backgammon, however, there is no such thing as a draw; the player who requests a draw is the player who admits defeat.
What this means in the Middle East is that no decision is absolutely preferred to an imperfect one, since to make an imperfect decision — what the West calls “compromise” — is to lose priority. It’s an admission, for the Middle Easterner, that his world view is slightly flawed and should be corrected by action.
But the Middle Easterner can make the gestures of compromise because he believes that the treaties, agreements, unions, and alliances that the formalistic West considers permanent are in truth fleeting. Such ceremony, to a region that has for too long experienced a zero-sum outcome, cannot simply replace the permanence of actual defeat and absolute victory so well-established in its history. This is the reason that when treaties are signed, hands shaken, and diplomatic pageantry indulged in, the Middle Easterner necessarily takes it all with a grain of sand.
The Middle East has understood that while the West is in power, it must play chess. So instead of interchangeable pieces of backgammon, it has carved out rooks and pawns. But what contemporary Western thought has failed to understand is that despite the display, the Middle East moves its “chess” pieces according to the rules and rhythm of backgammon.
This strategy might seem devious to a Westerner, but in fact, it’s derived from the prime lesson the Middle East understands but the West refuses to acknowledge: that you can bend the rules of a game without ultimately breaking them. Even more than this, the West has failed to understand that the player who changes the rules of the game without violating those rules is the player who advances the nature of the game, enriching it, adapting its play to new contexts and — critically — to new players.
Playing in the Middle East, the West has always emphasized actual power over perceived power — upheavals that are top-down rather than revolutions that are bottom-up. It’s a shortsighted view of domination that, like chess, factors out a serious notion of time and focuses all energies on space.
For the West, a long-term approach to the Middle East must focus on two areas: what it can offer and what it has to protect. It must offer what it excels at, which is education and its long tradition of the academy, focusing effort on establishing bastions of learning across the Middle East. Creating a league to protect these institutes’ intellectual and physical freedoms, upholding tolerance, and reinforcing Western modalities of analysis are all critical to the West’s ability to be able to make long-term progress with Middle Eastern partners. At the same time, Western governments and institutions must protect and support the individuals and associations willing to lead and moderate the public.
Lastly, to change its own rules, to orient itself towards time, the West must make clear the great importance attached to the spiritual and cultural artifacts in the region that establish the ancient connections between the West and East. The change is at first inward, an embrace of a Middle Eastern value that some things are sacred and beyond compromise. The West must assert the sanctity of its own tradition — instead of asserting the raw political and military power of the “realist.”
It must insist on the protection of values like human rights and religious freedom but must also protect physical edifices and artifacts like libraries, archeological sites, and religious shrines. In doing so, Western governments and institutions must make clear that these conditions will be part of any treaty, agreement, or relation and will be discussed in any summit between itself and a Middle Eastern partner.
For the West to interact successfully with the Middle East, it becomes crucial to understand, as the Middle East does, that rules are bendable — but values are not. If the West is to maintain its foundational principle that negotiation is preferable when possible, then it must work to sideline the players who violate this principle, leaving those who accept it. If the West is to show the Middle East the value of a negotiated draw, it must insist on its own values and abandon the relativism that says rules are sacred, but values are not.