How To Sound Like You Know Things About the Middle East Without Actually Knowing Anything About the Middle East

So you’re having a chat with someone you just met at a party. Things are going well and you reckon there’s some serious potential for you guys to hit it off. Suddenly, disaster strikes.

“What’s your view on the creation of an autonomous state for the Kurds?”

They ask.

Ah, fuck. It’s happened again.

If, like me, you find yourself perpetually striking out in social situations because you simply can’t sustain a conversation on the complex politics of the Middle East, then this is the article for you! Here’s a handy guide to sounding like you know things about the Middle East without actually having a single clue what you’re talking about.

Actually learning things is for suckers and you’re not a sucker. You need a ready-made formula to whip out in order to survive the cold, cruel world of talking to people in social settings.

Let’s do it.

Step 1 – say something about Sunni v Shia Islam!

Just know the absolute basics – they disagree over who should have taken over things when Muhammad died. Shia Muslims are on Team Ali and Sunni Muslims are on Team Abu Bakr. Both of these dudes actually BOTH got to be in charge at some point anyway, but that’s not important. Let’s keep it simple.

There’s no need to actually spend time delving into the complex differences between these two different branches of Islam. By just spitting out a prepared sentence about how important it is that people understand the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam, you’re already demonstrating that you totally understand the nuance here. Remember the names of the dudes and which side they’re on.

Step 2 – oversimplify everything!

 Now that you’ve proven you’re totally clued up on what happened in 7th century Islamic politics, take out two birds with one stone and use this single piece of knowledge to explain everything in the Middle East in one sweep! Sunni v Shia Islam can explain away absolutely everything if you need it to. If someone asks you to give your view on any conflict or problem, this is your crutch and it will work pretty much all the time. Use it. Oh what’s happening in Syria? Yeah god just a bigger version of the Sunni-Shia divide mate. Lebanon? Let me tell you about these two lads, Ali and Abu Bakr.

 Step 3 – meet the sponsors!

 At this point, someone might say to you, “Hey people don’t just hate each other for religious reasons and nothing else, that’s dumb”. They’re probably right. They’ve called you out on your simplistic analysis. No worries! To counter this, you simply double down on your earlier knowledge and start naming specific countries that are Shia or Sunni dominated. When you said it was all about Sunni v Shia, you didn’t mean that people just hate each other for religious reasons! No, no, you’re far more nuanced than that. It’s simply that governments exploit these differences for their own gain. They just misunderstood you.

Then, to cover your bases, list the only two governments that matter here, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran = Shia

Saudi Arabia = Sunni

This is KEY INFORMATION. If you can get this far and not fuck up you’re pretty much at the home stretch. If you ever have to take a wild guess as to whether a country is Sunni or Shia dominated, just guess Sunni! Mention how they both fund extremist groups and fuel tensions across the region and you’re good as gold. You’ve explained everything ever.

Step 4 – pick a terrorist organisation, any one will do!

 Now in some situations you may have to go further than this. If you find yourself in too deep, you may need to be prepared to talk out of your arse a bit longer.

 They might ask you for an example of these groups. Stay calm! Arabic words are hard but you can get through this. Now, when picking your ideal militant group for sounding smart, don’t pick some basic shit like ISIS or Al Qaeda. You’re not basic, you’re a damn expert on the Middle East. Go for a safe but smart-sounding choice like Hezbollah in Lebanon (Iran-backed), or if you’re feeling brave, you could go for Tahrir al-Sham in Syria (Saudi-backed). Don’t overdo it here, stay vague as all hell and you’ll pull through it.

You’re well informed and you know that “despite what we often see in the media” these conflicts are essentially just “Iran-Saudi proxy wars” (use that exact phrase for bonus points). Then say, “Just look at *insert country here*, ykno?” and nod knowingly. They’ll know what you mean even if you don’t. If things start to get too crazy for you, jump immediately to step 5.

Step 5 – books and stuff!

A book recommendation functions as your emergency brake on this whole fiasco you’ve got going. The book suggestion implies that, gosh, there’s just so much more you could have said, but you don’t want to bore everyone! Instead of hearing you explain these things like someone who understands them, they should just read this great book that has imparted you with such wisdom. You read books and people should know it. If anyone pushes too hard on your knowledge, pull that recommendation right out and save face.

Importantly, you don’t need to actually have read a book on the region.

As mentioned, learning things is for suckers and these books are always way too long anyway. Just go to goodreads, type in ‘Middle East’, read 3 reviews on a highly rated book to the point where you could probably fake having read it with a 10 second description, and you’re set. Remember the name and author for mad legitimacy points and just describe it as “an incredible book that really gets to the heart of why these issues are so important”. What issues are you talking about? What does that sentence even mean? That doesn’t matter, you sound so smart and well-read and just, wow, look at you go!

The formula outlined above is the sole takeaway I have from a nearly four-year international relations degree. Keep it secret. Keep it safe.

Cormac Power | @cormac_power

Cormac doesn’t actually know anything about the Middle East but we let him be Politics Editor anyway.