Envisioning a science fictional Middle East
Ever been struck with an idea that won’t leave your head and the gift of time to muse over it? Well, with Hurricane Harvey keeping me home from my day-job today, I’ll take the opportunity to offer my thoughts on how to portray the Middle East in near-future science fiction.
First thought: the future may be a minor variation on the present. I know what you’re thinking—way to put yourself out there, Allan. Things will be a lot like they are now. Totally radical speculation!
However, no good science fiction can envision interesting futures without understanding both past and present, and I’m not talking to an audience of Middle East specialists here, for the most part, so establishing a bird’s-eye view of the present would probably be useful for most readers. At the risk of gross oversimplification, and as an overall generalization to ground more focused discussion, I’d like to invent a clunky-as-all-get-out phrase to contextualize the Middle East in 2017: multi-level, competing, client-state hierarchies with internal conflicts. To make it cooler, let’s go with an acronym that makes it look like I’m talking about a rap musician: MC-Chic. So, now for the schoolin’, no foolin’—let’s talk the Levant, cause you want … hmm … something about Kant or miscreant or whatever else I can get to rhyme…
There’s a reason, other than it hadn’t been invented yet, that my high school guidance counselor never suggested rap star as a career for me.
So, MC-Chic—let’s start with two major powers, Iran and the US. Iran is a rather large country, with oil, with nuclear weapons, ostensibly ruled by a religious leader, an ayatollah, in cooperation with a deferential Parliament, but in reality, with most people apolitical (which is convenient, because the average person is relatively powerless) and dependent upon a media controlled by the dominant interests for their information, the country overwhelmingly Shi’ite, most citizens not in any sense radicalized but with Islam providing an important role in community and family relations. The United States is a rather large country, with oil, with nuclear weapons, ruled by a leader who gives lip service to fundamentalist religious interests and often kowtows to their wishes, but not nearly to the extent as the leader two Presidents ago who was a dispensationalist Christian (one who felt he was going to be raptured up to heaven rather soon, with the rest of us left to fight the anti-Christ and lose), in cooperation with a dysfunctional bicameral legislature where each legislator owes his position to his/her plutocratic patrons, but in reality, with most people apolitical and dependent upon a media controlled by the dominant interests for their information, the country overwhelmingly Christian, but dominated by those with no understanding whatsoever of their own religion, who celebrate the birth of their Lord once per year by borrowing money on their credit cards to the point of financial ruin and buying Chinese crap at big box stores, most citizens not in any sense radicalized but with capitalism (and an often secularized version of Christianity where Santa Claus is more important than Jesus) providing an important role in community and family relations. In America, you are what you buy, and you must keep up with the Joneses. Or the Iravanis and Nuris if you happen to live in Bel-Air or Brentwood.
Despite the vast, vast differences between these competing empires, the one you don’t live in obviously being irredeemably evil, for the purpose of this post, let’s simplify things: two big countries, each with lots of weapons.
Each of these big empires depend for many of their actions in the Middle East upon primary clients, lesser but still significant powers, who align their policies in exchange for substantial foreign aid. In 2017, the most significant clients of the US are Saudi Arabia and Israel. Hezbollah is Iran’s most significant client. Saudi Arabia was not always an American client state. In the early 1970s, the Saudi-led OPEC punished the US with an oil embargo that led to a severe recession. The stated reason for the embargo was Nixon’s airlifting of military supplies to Israel during the 1973 war; however, the real reason was Johnson’s taking the US off the gold standard, so he could run an inflationary economy to pay for the Vietnam War. (Goods are worth more means dollars are worth less, means a good whose price is delimited in dollars—oil—is worth less, means countries dependent upon oil are less rich, means said countries get angry and vindictive.) However, in the Persian Gulf War, the despotic monarch in Saudi Arabia felt so threatened by an outside power, Iraq—how dare they depose a despotic monarch in neighboring Kuwait—that they allowed a foreign power, the US, to station troops in their country, even near the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. As a result, some of their incensed citizens (the infidels were even allowing female soldiers to drive cars!) pledged to overthrow the House of Sa’ud and flew planes into the World Trade Center, further pushing Saudi Arabia into the US camp to the point where they committed troops to fighting along with the US in Afghanistan.
Fast forward to 2017. The Saudis are fighting a war in neighboring Yemen to oust the Houthi rebel government (mostly Shi’ite but some Sunni, largely a political movement, but fundamentalist in their Islam) and restore the previous fundamentalist, mixed Sunni/Shi’ite government to power. You remember them—Obama gave them $1.4 billion in military aid right before they fell? Well, Trump is helping with the Saudi’s war by selling them lots and lots of weapons. You know, freedom and all. But mostly because they are a bulwark against Iran, another big army, lots of money, good customer for American weapons manufacturers, etc.
Israel is another country with a large and effective army. And they let the US station a very large naval presence in Haifa. This naval presence is the one remaining pillar of the original Kissinger Doctrine, which emerged after the OPEC oil embargo. To summarize: all oil is American oil. We will keep troops in the Middle East, and if oil stops flowing, we invade. Indeed, prior to 1973, the US was not a major ally of Israel, who got much of their weapons from Czechoslovakia in 1948 and from France in the 50s and 60s. American Jews have historically had some influence on Congress and have pushed a foreign policy that favored Israel.
However, since the 1980s, the much more effective American group pushing close relations with Israel (American Jews alone wouldn’t have done much) have been fundamentalist Christians. In dispensationalist Christian theology, good Christians cannot be raptured up to heaven until all the Jews are gathered in Israel. At that point, Jews will be allowed to convert to Christianity and get raptured up with the current Christians, but most will choose to stay, fight the forces of Satan, and lose in a battle in which they are exterminated. Jesus will then return with all of the Republicans. Most likely, there still won’t be single payer healthcare. But for this heaven on earth to happen, Israel must be defended!
As for Iran’s client, Hezbollah, they began as a Shi’ite militia movement fighting off the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. When the French left Lebanon, they bequeathed a confessional system of government, in which power was split between Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shi’ite Muslims. As the largest group was the Christians, they had most of the political power, which worked until differing birth rates adjusted the relative populations. Peace reigned until 1976. And hasn’t ever since. The situation became more and more chaotic, until the only group with the capacity to feed people and get the garbage picked up was Hezbollah.
Hezbollah went from the major power in Lebanon to a major regional power beginning in 2003, when the Iranians funneled money to them to organize Shi’ite militias in Iraq to fight against the Americans and their puppet government. And now they are doing the same in Syria. And in Yemen. And to some extent in numerous other countries in the region.
Two other levels in the hierarchies: local groups funded, trained, and controlled by either the client states or the major powers, and outside actors who exert control at all levels. The latter are of more concern for the present discussion. With regard to who controls the US actions, historically, it has been the oil companies. As far back as the British and French colonial period following World War I, American oil companies have had their hands in local politics, making money by extracting, refining, and selling Middle East oil. Gradually, the US replaced the British and French as the colonial power. The British suppressed a coup for one Shah of Iran; the Americans suppressed a coup in the 1950s for his grandson. Indeed, it was the translation of Countercoup, written by an ex-CIA operative, into Farsi that was the single biggest factor leading to the ouster of the Shah in 1979 and the taking of American hostages. And a similar story repeated over and over in various countries, because the US answered to the oil interests.
With Iran, the Russians have had influence at various points. Indeed, they were the principle reason why the Iran/Hezbollah client, Assad, remains in power today in much of Syria.
So, finally, back to science fiction. With this level of complexity (and I’ve barely scratched the surface), make a little tweak in the present situation, follow the various “feedback loops,” and you have the political background for a novel. Whether it’s a political thriller or another type of story set amidst political intrigue (Romeo and Juliet in Syria? Libya?), there are endless possibilities.
But that isn’t science fiction. It’s the schlocky, poorly written, political thriller sitting on the checkout aisle at Wall-mart along with the Snicker’s bars and the gossip magazines. It’s been done, it’s been overdone, and it’s no longer interesting.
Let me offer a few alternative possibilities to “Minor Tweak of the Status Quo.” I’ll call the first one, “Covert banding together of the non-Arabs and/or non-Muslims.” Israel and Iran are officially at odds, and often exchange barbed comments in the media, but are secretly colluding on military matters. Sounds implausible? That’s what was going on in the 1980s. Israel viewed Iraq as a bigger threat than Iran and tilted Iran’s way during the Iran-Iraq War. It’s certainly not happening now—Netanyahu has built his career on the “Iran is the next Hitler’s Germany” mantra—but with the level of corruption in Netanyahu’s government, his days as Israel’s Prime Minister are numbered. Israel had a de facto peace with Jordan long before signing a peace treaty. Israel disastrously backed the Christians in Lebanon in the early 1980s. The leader they installed lasted one bullet, and the country returned to chaos. Their clients, the Phalange Militia, carried out brutal massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. Israel had a very quiet border with Syria (whose leaders are and were Alawite, practicing a religion that diverged from Islam more than one thousand years ago) at points during the 80s and 90s, when the mutual interest was stability in Lebanon. And today, all parties are looking the other way as those fleeing ISIS are crossing the border into Israel from Syria to receive medical care. Collusion of those with a common enemy—it’s happened before, and it could happen again. Reasonable SF plot.
There’s always the official utopian future: Israel signs a peace treaty with the Palestinians; it grows into a loose, three-state confederation with Jordan; and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and numerous other Sunni Arab states join with them into something resembling the European Common Market of the 1970s. Israelis and Palestinians, being the most educated in the region, form many cross-border software and high tech companies. Capitalism crosses all borders and leads to peace as understanding increases. This vision has guided American-led peace efforts since the late 1970s.
Nobody in the region is holding their breath. The closest the world came to this utopia was the Oslo Accords in the early 90s. Rabin and Arafat truly did want to have peace, and 90% of each of their peoples were in support. Again, one bullet: a Jewish seminary student murdered Rabin. Governments on both sides retrenched, corruption reigned on both sides. The original peace teams, without the backing of the Israeli government, finished the negotiations and came up with a workable plan on all details, but it was never implemented.
Since then, the Palestinians have fragmented into two. In Gaza, a fundamentalist Sunni regime with the support of Iran—considered terrorists by Israel, the US and the European Union—rules Gaza, a population-dense and very poor region on the Mediterranean Sea, sandwiched between Israel and Egypt. On the West Bank (of the Jordan River—that was originally a British term, but as the international media has adopted it, I’ll use it), Fatah has created a functioning state all but in name. American-trained police suppress terrorism and control crime. The economy functions. The majority Muslims uphold full civil rights for the minority Christians. The ruling party in Gaza, Hamas, does not get along very well with Fatah.
The Israeli settlements are another problem. Originally only intended for the area directly around Jerusalem and on the international borders, they have ballooned to take over much of the best land in the West Bank. The unofficial peace agreement had most of that land returned to the Palestinians with mutually agreed upon border swaps. (At a minimum, a Palestinian state must have a road through the Negev connecting Gaza with the West Bank, so some ceding of currently Palestinian land in exchange has long been considered reasonable by both parties.) But there are now way more Israelis living there than in the early 90s. And some feel it is their religious duty to hold the land.
So why must the regional utopian peace start with peace between Israel and Palestine? That would be a good start to a political SF novel—some other way to get to the utopia every recent American president has thought possible. And I suppose there are ways in science fiction to make this utopia work, but quite frankly, the tense, lack of open hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and the periodic warfare between Israel and Hamas in Gaza looks like it’s going to persist for a long time, and no other nucleus of broader peace is emerging.
Nuclear war? Israel nukes Iran and Iran retaliates? Unlikely. US-Soviet détente was based on mutually assured destruction: neither wanted to fight the other openly, because either could destroy the other. And that’s exactly what Israel and Iran have right now. And like during the Cold War, the two sides will sometimes tacitly cooperate and sometimes fight through proxies.
Or, let’s look at the post-fossil fuel world. The power in the Middle East will shift from oil to money. Already the sovereign wealth funds of small principalities run by monarchs are some of the richest single entities in the world. Perhaps the Middle Eastern elite will run global finance? Pitfall warning: if you try this, make sure you avoid rewriting Protocols of the Elders of Zion with Arabs rather than Jews manipulating the world through finance. Your story won’t fly in today’s market if it sounds bigoted.
Hey, let’s imagine something really far-fetched. Grass-roots, egalitarian, participatory democracy develops in the Middle East that respects the civil rights, traditions and cultures of minority groups. And yeah, I like this game, let’s say there’s not only equality for women but absolute acceptance of LGBT folks. And let’s say that happens in a country where the majority is Muslim. We could at least get a satirical, humorous science fiction novel out of that, right?
Maybe. But it would also be present-day reality. That’s exactly what’s happening in Iraqi Kurdistan. And this is the first time since prior to the Spanish Civil War where anarchists (anarcha-feminists in this case) have held a large piece of territory. This is so completely unprecedented in the history of the Middle East that it deserves its own blog post, and I will indeed get to one, as soon as I have time to read and think through the Kurdish leader’s published manifesto.
I’ve run pretty long here and only scratched the surface. Catch me on Facebook and Twitter, where I’ll send this post, if you wish to add, amend, debate, critique, speculate. But one last thought with which to leave you: current SF treatment of the Middle East is remarkably uncreative. With this much complexity from which to draw, the canvas is nearly blank.
And that’s the fun part of being a writer. Sounds totally MC-Chic.