The dangers of the ill-informed hot take
Opinions on a region's affairs by people who do not understand its language, people or culture are rarely insightful or helpful
Following Washington’s recognition of the opposition leader Juan Guaido’s claim to the interim presidency of Venezuela, I was asked for my analytical position on the embattled president Nicolas Maduro and the nation’s deepening political crisis. The “hot take” I provided was simply this: I don’t have a stance on a country that I haven’t spent substantial time in, and Spanish, which Venezuelans speak, is a language I don’t understand. I think that was a wholly appropriate response. Commentary without in-depth knowledge is, frankly, not something that should be encouraged. Alas, it is common in analysis of the Arab world and the wider Middle Eastern region.
Take Senator Rand Paul’s tweet on the Syrian conflict, which suggested that America should withdraw all its troops from the country. Mr Paul is of course entitled to advocate a non-interventionist approach for US forces – he is an American politician, after all. But the reasoning behind his conclusion was intellectually bankrupt. He proclaimed that Shiites and Sunnis had been “killing each other” since the Battle of Karbala in 680AD.
That comment contains errors that no serious first-year student of Islamic history could make. There was no reified version of the Sunni and Shiite communities of Muslims at Karbala – the split had not solidified into different groups. Moreover, both Sunni and Shiite historians describe the victims of the Karbala massacre as heroic martyrs – the vast majority of neither would ever place themselves in the position of defending the ruler of the time, whose forces carried out the massacre. As such, Mr Paul’s message offered a policy recommendation based on a complete misreading and misunderstanding of history.
This phenomenon is, unfortunately, pervasive when it comes to international affairs. The Iraq War of 2003, for example, was underpinned by analysis that misled politicians and opinion-formers, often issued by people who had spent no time in Iraq, nor spoke any of its languages. How, then, could they really understand much about the country, let alone the effects of an invasion of it? Had policy-makers listened only to those who did know the country, the invasion would likely not have taken place.
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Many other such examples abound in our recent history and discussions of the Arab world. Talk of an “Islamic reformation” is just one. Many people to this day pontificate about the necessity for such an event – usually those who are virtually illiterate in the history of the European reformation, which was punctuated by great violence. Moreover, such analysis ignores that something similar to a reformation has already taken place in the Muslim community, and the result of it was the establishment of the Wahhabi movement. It is doubtful that they are urging the replication of such an effort – but if their recommendations were taken forward, that is the type of outcome that has historical precedent.
Years ago, I was at a conference at a well-known think tank in Washington DC. A presentation was given on Arab media and messaging by an American analyst. I walked up to him afterwards, and asked if he knew Arabic. He replied, “shwaya shwaya” – “little, little” – and yet, he felt empowered to offer opinions, in great detail, about a media ecosystem that depends on that language. Needless to say, his ideas were deeply flawed.
It should be clearly stated that in-depth knowledge is not a guarantee against bad choices. Today, there are many who know the language of the Arab world, who may even be from it, and yet lend their support to dictatorship and autocracy. Their reasoning is simple: that the people of the region are incapable and unworthy of anything akin to accountable and just government, and thus strongmen are the best option for stability. It is a pseudo-Orientalist argument, which denies the agency of Arabs, that was once deployed in support of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and is now heard from those who back Bashar Al Assad in present-day Syria. In both instances, it has led to untold suffering.
Yet, there can still be no comparison between those commentators who learn about the culture and language of a place, and those who do not. The former put vast amounts of time and resources into becoming intimately acquainted with the nuances of a country, a people and a religion. The latter are like drive-by shooters – aiming indiscriminately and scurrying away before the consequences of their actions can be seen.
My own country, the United Kingdom, is now undergoing its own crisis: the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. It would be troubling to rely on analysis of it by people who did not understand English, or had spent little to no time in the UK. Such figures would probably be – rightfully – ridiculed or ignored.
It is a curious and deeply disturbing reality that people of similar incompetence are frequently presented as experts on the Middle East. It should be pointed out, again and again that their ill-informed “hot takes” have real-life consequences that are seldom, if ever, beneficial for the people of this region.
Dr HA Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council
Updated: January 30, 2019 11:34 AM