Amidst the applause of two thousand people, acclaimed journalist, foreign correspondent, and Middle East expert Robin Wright strode onto the stage Boston’s Symphony Hall. Contrary to her small stature and her own assertion that she was a timid child, Wright has all the confidence of a bull moose, a trait certainly brought on by the more than 40 years she has spent as a journalist covering every war, power change, and terrorist attack in the Middle East. Wright, a contributor to such publications as The New Yorker, LA Times, TIME Magazine, and many more stood in the spotlight January 31, as part of the Lesley University Speakers Series, to discuss her views and observations on the area we call the Middle East.
Following the appreciative laugh from the audience regarding Wright’s favorable comments about the Patriots, she dove into a personal account of the destruction of Mosul by the terrorist group ISIS. Wright, a self proclaimed “contemporary historian,” recounted her heartbreaking experience of accompanying the U.S. Military into the crumbling and charred remains of the Mosul University Library, an institution that once held documents dating back hundreds of years and stood for education and society. The most important reaction to the wave of terror rolling over the Middle East is, according to Wright, “not only rebuilding four walls of a house or business but rebuilding institutions.”
Despite the vast destruction the area has witnessed over much of its history, Wright does have hope for the Middle East. In her words, “terror does end.” Wright gives the statistic that although ISIS has yet to be eradicated, the power they held only lasted 3 years, 3 months, and 3 weeks.
With the screen that served as Wright’s background filled with a map of the Middle East, she transitioned the talk to the whole of the region as it pertains to terrorism and strife. She pointed to each and every country, describing her experiences covering wars, dictators, protests, etc. With the overarching theme of beating terrorism, Wright discussed the ways a country can push back against the circumstances that bring them to a state of war. In countries such as Iran, she said, the majority of young people are more aware of the world than they have ever been before. Wright points out that most are, educated, literate, and connected to the wider world via the internet. This gives rise to the opportunity for organized protests and revolutions.
However, Wright warns that revolutions often create the very circumstances that challenge their own survival. Once a revolution has taken place the dissidents must deal with the very issues they were protesting such as unemployment, discrimination, etc. As a result Wright presented the statistic that 18% of terrorists end up negotiating with the current government.
Wright believes that terrorism’s greatest ally is unemployment; she gave the statistics for countries where fighting is rampant such as Syria, 60% unemployed; Iran, 29 – 40% unemployed; and significant income drops in Saudi Arabia. Syria in particular faces an overwhelmingly difficult task in facing terrorism and the ongoing war. At this moment Syria, the geostrategic center of the Middle East, is waging no less than four wars, civil and international. With its people fleeing not only their homes but the country itself, the government faces the question whether at this point, is Syria reconstructable? Wright is unsure but she does know, “if Syria fragments it will spill across the region.”
The situation in Syria, a country described by Wright as the melting pot of religions, has had major ramifications throughout the Middle East. With refugees pouring into the surrounding countries, populations in those countries have exploded. Wright gave the example of Lebanon whose native population is 4 million people, and recently received 1.2 million refugees. While the Middle East has rarely to never been a stable part of the world, the crisis in Syria has the potential to disrupt the whole region especially if Wright’s opinion that “there is no military solution” for any of the wars is considered.
Nearing the end of her time with the captivated audience, Wright spends her last few minutes describing events in Egypt and Israel and the fact that there is hope for the future. In discussing the Palestine, Israel tensions Wright asks, “do I believe peace is possible?” and answers, “very much.”
Wright has seen protests from women in Egypt, condemning the common practice of female genital mutilation. She attended a family planning class in Iran joking she actually learned a lot, proving change is possible. In Saudi Arabia, a country with a highly corrupt crown prince, has begun allowing women to obtain drivers licenses. Each are small steps forward and certainly not enough by western standards, but Wright points out that the Middle East is not as radical as people tend to think. She breaks the intensity with her anecdotes of seeing Huck Finn and Les Miserables and pointing out that, “diversity is ingrained in the young, educated population.” Wright says this is, “the beginning of something different, it will take a long time but for the first time in my 40 years covering the Middle East, I have hope.”
I had the good fortune to be in the audience because my brother won tickets to the event and asked if I wanted to come along. I am very glad I did because the talk was absolutely fascinating. Robin Wright definitely inspired me to look into the Middle East, as well as the journalism profession, a whole lot more!