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A Podcast Like No Other

by Bob's picks about a year ago in review

'Conflicted' challenges everything we thought we knew about the Middle-East.

What Syria looked like before the conflict.

Why did the US assassinate Qasem Soleimani in early January this year? “Well”, explains Aimen Dean on the 'Conflicted' podcast, “because he never wrote anything down”. The military leader was so paranoid about espionage that he kept all of his plans, contacts and intel in his head. Killing him was not just a show of strength by America, but a tactical ploy. It essentially “re-formated the hard drive of the Quds force”.

This kind of insight – taking a well-known historical event and unpacking it’s deep and complicated backstory – is typical of the 'Conflicted' podcast. Over the course of two seasons, the hosts carefully unpick the seemingly intractable situation in the Middle-East by scrutinising, contextualising and challenging what we think we already know, and explaining, clarifying and demistifying what we don't.

But this is not your usual podcast and Aimen Dean is not your usual host. Dean is in fact an ex-Jihad who spent four years fighting with Al-Qaeda, before renouncing the cause and joining MI5 as an undercover agent. Since then, he has published two biographical books and worked as a security consultant in England, advising banks on ways to disrupt terrorist financing. His experiences have given him a profound and deeply personal understanding of the internal dynamics of the Middle-East.

Together with his co-host Thomas Small, Dean does not just re-tell the recent history of the Middle-East, but untangles the common threads, examines the key themes and spots the patterns of mistakes made by consecutive world leaders. It amounts to a dizzying piece of analysis that challenges almost every assumption and preconception about the region, leaving the listener with a broader understanding of not just what happened, but why it happened.

Despite the depth, breadth and significance of the conversations, the podcast is also surprisingly easy listening. Small and Dean are hugely affable characters, and clearly carry a lot of affection for each other. The tone is always easy and light-hearted, even when the content gets heavy. Sometimes you find yourself laughing at just how comfortable they seem when talking about such serious and sensitive content.

“Were clever people like you chosen to be chemical weapon engineers?” asks Small in one of the early episodes. “Guilty as charged!” chuckles Aimen.

The willingness to broach any issue ensures that no stone is left unturned. Small asks provocative questions that urge Aimen to recap details that may have been glossed over, as well as the subtleties that might have been overlooked. These questions prevent an information overload, but also help pre-empt what the listener might be thinking and move the debate onto more interesting ground.

Whilst discussing the reasons why young Muslims are attracted to Jihad, Small asks Dean specifically “is Islam just an inherently violent religion?" Dean’s response is characteristically nuanced: yes and no – the Qur’an outlines specific conditions when violence is necessary, but those conditions are cautiously high and practically ignored by modern Jihadi groups. All too often, the motivation behind violence in the Middle-East is political; the scriptual justification is reverse engineered.

In a few agile steps, Small and Dean take basic assumptions about the debate and reveal the hidden nuance. They avoid easy answers and never wrap things up in a neat bow, but confront the complexity and contradictions of the topic head-on.

This refusal to dumb down the debate is refreshing. All too often, ‘educational’ series prioritise sweeping narratives and grand lessons in an attempt to condense difficult issues into simple and digestible nuggets. This is deceptive: it implies that the only ‘lesson’ is to learn the information and move on. Knowledge is mistaken for the ability to recite facts about people and dates.

Episodes of 'Conflicted', by contrast, leave you with an overwhelming sense of what you still don’t know, but an equally strong drive to go and learn some more. The podcast does not act as a cheat-code whereby you become a Middle-East expert overnight, but a clear first step on a longer road of educating yourself.

In doing so, it encourages deep understanding, not just passing knowledge of what happened and when.

This is why I would recommend the podcast to anyone interested in geo-politics, but also to anyone interested in being a life long learner. The podcast is a prime example of how we can improve ourselves by challenging assumptions, confronting complexity and commiting to the process of education. It is a habit, not a skill.

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