why ‘game of thrones’ helps you understand the middle east

several months ago, a washington post article took up the delicate task to parallel the houses of westeros, the fictional entities of the game of thrones books and series, with the countries of the middle east. what started as a far stretched endeavor, resulted in an exceptionally well placed comparison. my heart as a fan of game of thrones was of course immediately taken by the writing. but more so, my mind as an analyst of the middle east was also impressed by how well the author made the shoe fit. it is, of course, foolish to believe that the situation in the middle east might ever continue according to the game of thrones script, but at this point in time and game of thrones season, the comparison succeeded surprisingly well.

more so than the comparison of houses in westeros and states in the middle east, however, the fiction of game of thrones does indeed hold a value for understanding the realities of the crisis-torn region: it provides a new perspective. in this article, i would like to highlight three important lessons learned from game of thrones: 1) when the central power disappears, instability and a multiplication of forces occur; 2) thinking in categories, such as ethnicity or religion, is too shortsighted to understand the situation on the ground; and 3) power is a shadow – it resides where people believe it to reside.

when the central power disappears…

it is hardly a new thought to contemplate that the downfall of a powerful center comes along with rising instability. be it the succession claims of hereditary monarchies, the formation of a new government out of the revolting forces, or the consolidation of a military take-over through a civilian cover – change comes with instability. the source of this instability arises from the opportunity structure that is created in the immediate power vacuum. different interest become (more) visible and all kinds of groups, organizations, clans and tribes will contemplate at least their own survival but if possible a bettering or maintaining of their situation in the new circumstances. when the rules of the game change, opportunities arise and insecurities skyrocket. having increased force show up as a result of these circumstances can hardly be surprising.

what game of thrones and the middle east have in common in this regard is the depth of division in interests, ethnicities, religions and tribes or “family-houses” as well as the wide availability of weapons. yet it was the fiction of westeros and not the analyses of reality that portrayed the right picture. as the “arab spring” was sweeping through several countries, joy and relief was the reaction of western scholars observing the region. already back then i wondered, whether they had not read what happened after the french revolution – to this day the scholarly pivot of democratization effort. have you heard of the jacobins? napoleon? instead, game of thrones painted a much more refined, and dare i say more realistic, picture. when the king died, questions were raised about his succession, new interests arose to challenge the authority, rumors were as much a force of alliance formation and violence as realities, and violence erupted among the different forces.

this is not to say that the correct conclusion or policy option then is to stabilize the center at all costs; but it is to point towards the likely consequences of the actions to support a weakening (syria) or downfall (libya, iraq) of a strong center.

why thinking in categories is misleading…

more importantly than the lessons learned about the dangers of removing a central power, however, is what game of thrones can teach about the invalidity of thinking in categories such as “religion”, “ethnicity” and “tribe”. even “alliances” are not a category worth counting on.

let me provide you with an example. listening to the popular media reporting and even some scholars, i am afraid to say, one gets the impression that the kurds are their own ethnicity, culture and interest group. and they are. but kurds are not kurds. the danger lies in considering the kurdish populations of turkey, syria, iraq and iran as one group. and i will now show why it is indeed outright dangerous: thinking in these terms will make you overlook the reality unfolding in front of you; or how else would you explain that a kurdish party in the north of iraq is cooperating with ankara, the well-known forefront of anti-kurdish measurements, against other kurds in turkey? or how would you explain shia and sunni cooperating against other shias or other sunnis respectively?

thinking in terms of “ethnicity”, “religion” or other clear cut categories denies the actual realities on the ground. and game of thrones shows exactly that: the show makes so valuably visible that allegiances are not necessarily permanent – even if they have existed for hundreds of years; they arise on the basis of common features, such as geography (the northern tribes), ethnicity (the houses) and religion (the old god’s or the fire god’s), but also on the basis of mere interests (tyrells and lannisters) or personal rationale (not to say ‘ego’) (house greyjoy). alliances form and break; sometimes out of calculation, sometimes out of irrational longings, sometimes out of rumors, and sometimes out of forces beyond anyone’s control. without recognizing at least the forces behind the fluctuation of alliances in the middle east – not just between states, but between all actors involved in a conflict – the region can not be understood.

power resides where people believe it to reside…

in one of the first seasons of game of thrones, the figure ‘varys’ posts a riddle to ‘lord tyrion’. It goes like this: in a room there are a king, a priest and a rich man. between them is a common sell-sword. each of them wants the others to die; who wins, who dies?

lord tyrion gives the answer that the sell-sword himself could kill all three of the others and keep the power to himself, but varys then asks why it is not soldiers ruling the lands but kings and queens instead. and the solution to the riddle is such that power is a shadow – it resides where people believe it to reside. if the sell-sword (“the people”) believe in religion, no money in the world could corrupt them. the same goes for money and religion, if the person has a true allegiance to the king. but the allegiance of the people depends on each person themselves.

it is in this riddle, that the different alliances become a new dimension. groups will form and dissolve on the basis of many factors. some are opportunity, others are deep loyalty. but in either case, people follow what they believe the power they believe to be rightfully powerful. and this is not always the one western observers might like to judge as “right”.

and it is with all these additional variables in mind, that suddenly the “mess” in the middle east becomes a little bit less messy. after all, if one can follow some ten or more fictional houses in a popular tv series, with all their intrigues, conflicts and shifting alliances, one can just as well follow the happenings in the middle east without being surprised about their dynamic character.

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