Being so far from conflict in the Middle East, there can be a sense of curious detachment from the violence there. Dr Leon Goldsmith explains why what’s happening matters in New Zealand. 

COMMENT: In recent days the seemingly irresolvable crises, tragedies and injustices of the Middle East once more penetrated the news cycle of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The latest major flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence was sadly predictable given the rising tensions both within and between societies in the region and the miscalculations (and/or cynical) policies of regional and global powers. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand the confronting images were met with a mixture of outrage, concern, calls to action, confusion or, in many cases, ambivalence.

New Zealand is 14,000 kilometres from the Middle East, which has meant a sense of curious detachment from its dramas.

Global refugee flows, environmental crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have, however, taught us that what happens in the rest of the world matters here. The pandemic has taught us something else: the importance of a consistent, evidence-based approach to decision-making, rather than short-term reactions to the forces of politics, ideology, or emotion.

The world is becoming ever more polarised and increasingly intolerant of the ‘other’ and it is more important than ever to pause and consider the origins of our own opinions and the perspectives of others before searching for solutions.

Rather than trying to discern “good guys” and “bad guys” in the Middle East, we should be hard-nosed, objective, evidence-based and consistent when calling out atrocities and violations of basic human rights, whether it is committed by the Israeli Defence Force or Hamas, the Saudi regime, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, Egypt, Russia the United States, or whoever.

The unfathomably cruel and openly proven crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian regime against its own people (see the Caesar files) should never be ignored or forgotten.

As some colleagues have suggested, Aotearoa New Zealand has an opportunity to show leadership on the global stage now. However, we must be cautious not to get dragged unprepared and naively into the region’s complex and overlapping arenas of partisanship, insecurity and hatred. We need to enhance our capacity to interpret the morass before stepping into the fray.

On May 3 this year, Middle East and Islamic Studies Aotearoa (MEISA) was officially launched at the University of Otago’s Wellington campus. Speakers at the event included Labour MP Ibrahim Omer, Otago Emeritus Professor of Middle East Politics, William Harris, and Tony Lynch from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (the lead official responsible for responding to the Royal Commission Report on the March 15 terrorist).

All spoke to the importance of enhancing our capacity to appreciate the Middle East and the wider Islamic world in terms of civilisational contributions, the need for academic, cultural and linguistic skills to do this (especially Arabic, which is entirely missing from tertiary education in New Zealand), and of the commendable way that Kiwis responded to the March 15 atrocity and the urgent need to do far more in terms of appreciating Aotearoa New Zealand’s multi-cultural society and our role in the world.

The MEISA initiative seeks to harness this country’s modest existing capacity for exploring, interpreting, and transmitting knowledge on the affairs of the Middle East and the Islamic world. It includes a diverse group of Aotearoa New Zealand-based academics and researchers with expertise and experience of many diverse aspects of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

In acknowledgment of the impossibility of comprehending, let alone explaining, all the myriad facets of the region and Islam through a singular lens, MEISA was established in a fully multidisciplinary structure – reflective of its subject. The network has conducted several research seminars in 2020 ahead of its launch and looks forward to further academic, community and policy collaboration in 2021.

Even if we do not know the Middle East and the Islamic world as well as we should, these populations increasingly know us. Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch massacre was noted with keen interest in the capitals, coffee shops and classrooms of the Middle East and in Muslim majority countries.

I was teaching a class of young Omani politics students in Muscat when the Christchurch terror attack happened. In the days that followed we watched the speech of the Prime Minster to Parliament together in class; when Jacinda Ardern sat down, all the students stood up and applauded her words. These sentiments were repeated among Muslim colleagues and friends. We should be careful, however, not to be impressed when autocrats, who share responsibility for the latest tragedies in Israel/Palestine, cast images of our PM onto skyscrapers (i.e., the Burj Khalifa), but we should listen to the voices of ordinary people struggling to escape the trap of insecurity and the disease of tyranny it breeds. The key is to try to better know what we are looking at and what we are looking for.

Dr Leon Goldsmith has conducted research and lived and worked in the Middle East since the late 2000s. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of MEISA or the University of Otago.

Dr Leon Goldsmith is co-founder of Middle East and Islamic Studies Aotearoa (MEISA) and a senior lecturer in Middle East and Comparative Politics in the Politics Programme at the University of Otago.

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