A lot of Australians don’t know much about the Middle East and don’t know how to learn more. I think there’s something to be said for deeper reading on the subject, to make sense of what’s happening today. But there are also media outlets and analysts worth reading, which offer news and insight, and below I review some I’d recommend to readers.
As a general source on the Middle East, I have long been a fan of the UK’s Independent. I think its reporters show an unusual level of independence and intelligence. It’s home to Robert Fisk, who won international acclaim for his reporting on the Middle East, particularly his work on the Lebanon Civil War, Pity the Nation. Sadly, Fisk seems to have declined as a reporter in recent years.
However, the Independent does have another singularly brilliant journalist on the Middle East: Patrick Cockburn. Cockburn has been reporting on Iraq with distinction since before the invasion began in 2003, and has also done excellent – in my view, the best – reporting on Syria since the uprising broke out there.
Rather than reciting the propaganda interests of this side or that, Cockburn consistently offers his own shrewd and insightful analysis. He began writing a book on the rise of ISIS before the West noticed its victories, and wound up publishing the first study on them in August 2014. For those who want to understand the rise of ISIS, it is essential reading.
For more general news reporting on the Middle East, Al Monitor has reporters from a range of countries and backgrounds. The reporting quality can vary, but is a good resource, and has had some outstanding reporting and analysis.
For commentary and analysis on the Middle East for lay readers, Informed Comment is a great resource. Run by Middle East academic specialist Juan Cole, it often features guest commentary. It’s designed to be accessible to American readers who are not assumed to have a lot of background knowledge. Cole is a very intelligent and well informed analyst, with wide-ranging knowledge. He also speaks several languages, including Arabic and Persian. Politically, he is not a radical – he identifies as a liberal Democrat.
For knowledgeable readers, Jadaliyya is an excellent resource, with extended essays on the Middle East from scholars from various countries. The essays by academics sometimes suffer from the jargon and sophisticated theory that academics find so impressive. For expert, left-wing analysis, there is no comparable source. However, for lay readers, it is not very accessible. Even its lists of “Essential Readings” aren’t always very helpful. For example, this list on “State Building and Regime Security in Jordan” may not be of much use to lay readers.
My favourite source on the Middle East generally is The Angry Arab News Service. Run by Lebanese born political scientist As’ad AbuKhalil, now in the USA, it features his pithy and scathing analysis of news and current affairs in the Middle East. AbuKhalil is a fiercely independent analyst, who is also very funny. He assumes some knowledge, so some of his blog is probably inaccessible to general readers. He has a book on the War on Terror, and another on Saudi Arabia which are both written for lay readers, and are very good books.
When US journalist Richard Engel claimed that he was kidnapped by Assad’s forces in 2012, AbuKhalil immediately expressed scepticism on his blog – scepticism that was vindicated a few years later. Glenn Greenwald noted this in a blog on the issue, along with a glowing recommendation: “The truly brilliant political science professor and blogger As’ad AbuKhalil (who I cannot recommend enough be read every day)”. AbuKhalil was similarly vindicated in a dispute with Counterpunch over a fraudulent interview with Hassan Nasrallah.
I don’t share all of his views – for example, his particularly extreme form of boycotting all Israelis, or his vehement denunciations http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/3019 of an excellent book by Gilbert Achcar. Yet he is erudite and consistently insightful, and reading is rewarding, even when one disagrees with his opinions. He opposes every government in the region, and is harshly secular. He was an early critic of the Syrian armed rebels, carefully documenting signs of their fanaticism at a time when the US and its allies were still proclaiming their support of “moderate” insurgents.
A journalist in the Middle East I want to single out for praise is Esam Al-Amin. He writes articles occasionally for Counterpunch. His articles up to 2013 were collected in a book on the Arab uprisings, and exploring American foreign policy in the Middle East.
John Esposito is one of the US’s leading experts on Islam, and Islam in the world today. He observes that the book “offers the most comprehensive and insightful analysis to date of the causes, nature, development, major actors or players and issues of the Arab Revolution… Al- Amin's grasp of the history, politics, religion and political culture of the Arab world is extraordinary”.
After the book’s publication, Sisi launched his counter-revolutionary military coup. In my view, Al-Amin has been the best chronicler of the coup and the hideous repression that followed. I’d recommend anyone who wants to review what’s happened in Egypt since the uprising to binge on his Counterpunch articles.
As a country, Israel probably has the most English-language journalists covering it, as it draws the most Western attention. The leading Israeli newspaper is Ha’aretz, which operates under a partial paywall. It has a liberal Zionist slant, and features critical discussion of the occupation and recent anti-democratic laws and chauvinism that’s swept the country, in particular since 2009. Its most famed journalists are Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, who have spent a lot of time covering the occupation with courage and distinction.
Levy now travels with a bodyguard due to threats made against him for anti-war and anti-army comments he made during the war last year.
Another useful resource on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is +972. It is run by liberal Israeli journalists, most of whom write quite well. For analysts of the conflict, I am a great admirer of Norman Finkelstein. He hasn’t done original research into the Israeli archives, and couldn’t if he wanted to, as he’s been banned from Israel since 2008. With that proviso, he seems to have read just about everything in the English language on the conflict. Finkelstein has been wrong in the past – he thought an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel would “probably” be signed at the end of the Obama administration – a prediction that now appears almost certainly false.
Yet even when his analysis was wrong, he highlighted dynamics in the negotiations that warranted attention – the US coordinating European governments to boycott Israeli settlements to pressure it, for example. Or the PA capitulating and agreeing to Israel annexing the settlement blocs in a final deal. Finkelstein has become best known for his rhetorical excesses, but he is a meticulous scholar, whose analysis is always worth paying attention to.
Another young scholar http://jamiesternweiner.com/ who is just starting to write about the conflict is Jamie Stern-Weiner. Shrewd, well-informed, and often quite pithy, he is also one to watch.
In keeping up with the massacres Israel periodically inflicts on Gaza, it’s useful to know reliable human rights observers. This is the website for the United Nations observers, which has copious reports on the suffering inflicted by the attack on Gaza last year, as well as weekly reports on human rights violations in the Occupied Territories.
B’Tselem is perhaps Israel’s leading human rights organisation, and is an excellent resource on the occupation.
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