Asher Susser argues that Western observers, including presumed experts, have routinely underestimated the importance of religion in the Arab and Muslim world. This explains why they were surprised by such events as the Arab Spring, the rise of Islamic State, and the collapse of Syria, Libya, and Iraq. Moreover, writes Susser, religious cluelessness goes hand in hand with a failure to understand much else about the Middle East:
Western societies see themselves as societies of individuals. The rights of the individual are at the core of political debate, guaranteed by the state. People organize politically as individuals. . . .
[In the Middle East, you] belong to a group—that is, your family, your extended family, your tribe, and perhaps above all else, your religious denomination. So, you are first and foremost a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Christian—and some kind of Christian at that, either Maronite, or Greek Orthodox, or Greek Catholic; and these differences matter. . . .
Why do we keep getting this wrong? Well, in the West, one unfortunate by-product of Edward Said’s influence is the unwillingness to recognize the otherness of the “Other.” . . . [W]hen [someone] from the U.S. and other Western states looks at the Middle East, he or she explains Middle Easterners not as Other, but as [just like] us! That’s why we got this whole story about Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring. It was a way of saying, “They’re just like we are!”
Westerners saw Facebook and Twitter, but didn’t see the Muslim Brotherhood. . . . And then the commentators were shocked when the Muslim Brotherhood walked all over everybody. But they were obviously going to walk all over everybody! The only people who are going to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from walking all over everybody is the military—not the secular liberals. The secular liberals, to kick the Muslim Brotherhood out of power in Egypt, had to use the military—nobody else could do it.