Distinguished Speaker Series / Events

Do the Demonstrators in the Middle East Want Democracy?

The IDEA Society’s Distinguished Speaker Series hosted Dr. Peter Bechtold on March 24. Dr. Bechtold has studied in twenty five Middle East countries, from Egypt to Israel to Iraq to Kazakhstan to the Gulf. He has served as the director of Middle East Studies Center of Portland State University and chairman of Near East North Africa Area Studies in Department of State from 1976 to 2005. He is fluent in Arabic (several dialects), German and French.

It was the right time to host Dr. Bechtold, as the Arab Spring is spreading in Middle East. Effects of public uprising, shift of power, US reaction to these events were among the interesting topics discussed.

Dr. Bechtold’s engaging talk started with an overall perspective on the Middle East. He acknowledged that understanding this geography requires an extensive study and longer discussions. He emphasized the role of water, not oil, as the major factor within the region. It rains less than 3 inches a year in some regions of Middle East, about the same as a summer day in Athens.

Bechtold mentioned that

the world’s strategic region known as Eurasia, or “World Island”, includes the Middle East. This region, including Anatolia, is the heartland of the word island. It is the most strategic territory for super powers. Middle East has been the cradle

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of civilizations, and current civilizations emerged from these seeds in the Middle East. All monotheistic religions have emerged, developed and spread from the Middle East. In that sense, Middle East is the birthplace of monotheism. Many Americans believe that

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Christianity and Judaism are Western religions, which is not true. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are three branches of the same tree, the tree of Abrahamic religions.

Bechtold’s speech challenged stereotypes about the Middle East. “About the religion of Islam, role of women in Islam, what I have seen is very different from what is portrayed in the media. It is simply not true. American people don’t know any better unless they choose on their own to search outside what is commonly available.”

He also warned about the way media has served things up. Remember 2003 when the coalition allies have been to Baghdad, and the city has fallen. You will remember that Iraqis were climbing up the statues of Saddam Hussein to overthrow it. If the camera would move a little, you would see that the square was empty. If it was moved little bit further, you would see a couple of buses and trucks and the local Iraqis were bused in, and the Marines told them

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Demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya…they are not calling for democracy. You read the signs; it says “take a trip”, which means “get lost” in American. It is not same as democracy. It is our thinking that everybody wants democracy, or democracy of our style. In the Middle East, the identity is not by

individual, it is by tribe. You can’t do what you like; you have to conform to the group rules. The group is your family, and in the Middle

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Eastern context your extended family. If the identity is tribal as was case in the half of the Middle East, the largest tribe wins. So, one-person-one-vote democracy does not work.

Bechtold made some suggestions: “You need to know the context…Even when you are doing business, you need to know the context.” According to Bechtold, this is important because decisions made without considering the context will fail and create further troubles. Opinions of those who know the region are critical. He also said that decisions concerning Middle East do not reflect

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the opinions of the experts on Middle East.