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Society of Midland Authors Interview

[Originally published in the SMA's Literary License, November 1, 2012]

Gregory Harms, an independent scholar specializing in American foreign policy and the Middle East, will speak at the November Society of Midland Authors program. Here's what he tells Literary License:

Literary License: The title of your most recent book is It's Not About Religion. What are the chief factors people tend to overlook in the Middle East?

Gregory Harms: When Americans look at the Middle East, they see what they're shown on the news. Over the decades this has created a very narrow perspective, one devoid of historical context. As a result, when we see constant instability and violence, it is assumed that the region's woes are an expression of its cultures. This is not only an inappropriate generalization, but it also removes the enormous, manipulative role Western Europe and the United States have played in the Middle East for 90 years.

LL: You've written extensively about the Middle East. What sparked your interest in this region?

GH: I was initially just frustrated with my own ignorance on the subject. The Middle East was constantly in the news, but I had no sense of what was what. And I had heard so often that "those people have been at it forever" that I started to suspect that wasn't the case. I quickly learned the opposite was true, that the various conflicts were very much modern phenomena based on modern, nonreligious problems.

LL: The Middle East is the focus of numerous books and constant news reports. How does an author writing about this region keep from being drowned out by all the other voices?

GH: I probably am drowned out. There are people doing excellent work on the subject, and there are people doing not-so-excellent work on the subject. But even the more well-known people in the former group only reach so many Americans. Some people in the latter group, on the other hand, can have enormous reach, and their books sell extremely well. Doing work that examines these issues more honestly and precisely makes one less welcome in general, because the facts are uncomfortable. If instead you act as a cheerleader for power, or play on people's angers and fears, it is easier to gain exposure. So it isn't necessarily the volume of literature out there as much as it is what one is reporting. That said, I'm a smaller voice; but I try to make a contribution anyway. Those uncomfortable facts have staying power, and over time push aside the ideological rhetoric.

LL: Is America evolving toward a better understanding of the Middle East?

GH: That has been my observation. The country has evolved in a number of areas concerning race, gender, and so on, and I think views of the Middle East are improving. What has made a difference is better information. News programs like Democracy Now and foreign channels such as Al Jazeera are doing good journalism. I think independent films are helping. Also, the Arab Spring has made an impact on our perspective; here were people across North Africa and the Middle East demanding freedom and political change. The language was secular and liberal, and it was coming from the populations, not a handful of militants or extremists.

LL: What book are you working on next?

GH: At present, I have been promoting this new one as well as writing articles. So there's no fourth book in the works. However, watching the 2012 presidential campaign, I would like to produce a book titled America is Not Divided, or maybe We Need a Second Viable Party.

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