This is an essay I wrote back at the time of Wikileaks, and it got rejected from two different journals. I got distracted by my book, and forgot about it. I just got a nice email from a fan who asked me where I wrote the following:
The problem with middle eastern studies in the USA (a fortiori in Europe) is that it’s been colonized by Muslim and Arab scholars who have politicized the field and intimidated western scholars into “respecting” Islam (which means giving it the honor that they feel it deserves). this hegemonic discourse makes it impossible to speak of honor-shame, the very hegemonic principle that has made Islamic studies such a retarded field.
If Western academics had done this with their own culture and religion, we’d have no academics. The appalling propaganda that passes for scholarship today — Finkelstein and abu el-Haj come immediately to mind — that would get tenured from faculty and administrators in thrall to a political correct discourse that is, to use the Marxist term, “objectively” a form of cowardice and dhimmitude, is what drives sound people to take extraordinary measures.
Today’s middle eastern studies more closely resembles the kind of atmosphere that dominated the late medieval university (inquisitorial) than a free and meritocratic culture commited to honesty. the only difference is that in pursuing this oppressive and ultimately dishonest form of “academic discourse” the people who admire “scholars” like F and e-H, actually betray the very culture they pretend to uphold.”)
It was in response to an article about tenure in Middle Eastern Studies in Inside Higher Ed. He also asked me if I’ve developed those thoughts, and I wrote back that in addition to my essay on Edward Said, there’s the following essay, which I post here.
Wikileaks, the Middle East and Edward’s Said’s Legacy
One of the most interesting revelations in the cache of recently released Wikileaks documents concerned Obama’s Middle East policy. Remarks from several and varied Arab countries confirmed in a rather dramatic way, what some experts had claimed earlier: that the Arabs wanted the US to “cut off the head of the snake,” and that for these Arab leaders the head was Iran.
On one level, this wasn’t groundbreaking news; anyone paying attention knew that Sunni Arab leaders were terrified of the power of Shiite Iran. But somehow this awareness had failed to penetrate Obama’s policy circle, which had consistently argued that in order to gain the support of the Arab world to move against Iran, the US had to “solve” the Palestinian problem. Obama explained this policy of linkage to Netanyahu in their April meeting of 2009: by swiftly reaching a “two-state solution” that gives the Palestinians a viable state, Obama could win the favor of the Arab world and the global community, enabling him to tackle problems like Iran.
Linkage had widespread approval not only in academic and policy circles, and among global “elders” like Jimmy Carter, but also among newspundits like Tom Friedman, who considers it “very logical.” A cynic might call this the narcissistic messianic approach: let’s make everyone love us, have peace prizes all around in Denmark, and then calmly and collectively tell the Iranians: “Oh, behave!”
Of course others have argued against this Rube Goldberg machine (Kramer, Shavit, Ceren, Rubin, Phillips, Weinthal). What strategy would hold urgent diplomacy (Iranian nuclear ambitions) hostage to solving a problem that has resisted the most energetic diplomatic efforts for generations? And just what kind of solution to the Palestinian problem could Obama come up with that would a) leave even a diminished Israel in peace and security and b) so enthuse the Arab world that they’d now rally around America’s banner? It’s one thing to think you can squeeze some kind of grudging truce out of that adamantine conflict; it’s quite another to think you can, in a couple of years, produce a peace that will inspire the Arab world to renounce its resentment of American hegemony.
And (predictably) as soon as Obama implemented linkage, it backfired; indeed the Palestinians saw linkage as a reason to become intransigent: no direct talks without total settlement freeze. Asked why they insisted on this, if the Palestinians had earlier negotiated peace agreements while settlement construction went on throughout the West Bank, Nabil Shaath didn’t claim they said yes (as the MSNM would have us believe), but rather responded, “We have to say ‘no’ sometime” (5:15).
And why just now? Because, as Shaath went on to explain, with linkage the Palestinians saw themselves in a position of strength and Israel in a position of alienating Obama:
Isn’t President Obama impatient with what the Israelis have done? …Wasn’t Mr. [sic] Obama’s strategy that, [by] starting with the Palestinian-Israeli peace, [he] will really get America a better image in our area, will help America achieve what it really wants to do, disentangling itself from Iraq, resolving problems in Pakistan and in Iran and in Lebanon? Isn’t that what he said? Doesn’t that make him impatient of what Mr. Netanyahu has done to him? (6:57-7:30).
Did Obama and his advisors really think that everyone in the Middle East was just waiting for the right gesture, the positive-sum magic that will make everyone happy? Have they contemplated the opposite possibility: that Arab leaders do not want an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and that our linkage may play right into their version of linkage: Blame Israel for the misery they themselves inflict. Our linkage – Israeli concessions before and in place of Palestinian concessions – enables and empowers Arab scape-goating; it aggravates the belligerent forces in the region.
Some accordingly argued that Obama should reverse the sequence: If he really wants peace (rather than a quick take-down of Israel) then taking care of the critical problem – Iran – will make it easier for Israel to make the highly risky concessions Obama wants from them. Put the pressure on the most radical and, by the standards of a community committed to peace, the least “rational” actor on the scene, undermine the culture of apocalyptic violence they encourage among their proxies in the region (Hamas, Hizbullah), so that Palestinian moderates, who want to put an end to their own people’s suffering can rally support for the difficult concessions necessary for peace.
So when the Wikileaks documents revealed no hint among the Arab leaders of a Palestinian state as a prerequisite for dealing with Iran, many noted how they undermined the rationale behind Obama’s insistence on a linkage that went, via Israeli concessions, to Arab and world cooperation against Iran. On the contrary, these cables give the impression that Obama had a strong hand to play against Arab intransigence: “if you want me to attack Iran, then these are the things I want from you.”
One might imagine that Obama had his strong hand in mind when, a day before his speech in Egypt, he visited King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, asking for a gesture towards Israel in response to their concession on settlements. Such a Saudi concession might have a powerful impact on the mood in the Arab and Muslim world; it certainly would have added dramatic luster to his Cairo speech. And yet, when King Abdullah went into a tirade at the mere suggestion, Obama played none of his strong cards. Instead he went to Cairo empty-handed and disgruntled. Tough cop is not a role Obama seems comfortable playing.
Those who follow the honor-shame dynamics here understand that the weaker the Israelis look to the Arabs, the more intransigent they become. One need not be an insider with access to high-level intelligence to understand the basic pattern that the last two decades of peace diplomacy have revealed: Israeli concessions elicit no hint of reciprocity towards a positive-sum solution. On the contrary…
And yet none of this had even a slightly sobering effect on the giddy optimism of the administration. Only two months after Abdulla’s tantrum, in August of 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a peace settlement within a year, and in January 2010, after four further fruitless months, Presidential envoy George Mitchell prognosticated “within two years.” Either these folks were pulling some clever feint (the predominant belief in the Arab world), or they are genuinely clueless (the most generous reading).
Others, more knowledgeable about the political players can try to figure out why neither Obama nor Clinton (who’s husband got burned by this Peace debacle in a most spectacular fashion in 2000) permitted any of these developments – the Arab urgency about Iran, the king’s temper tantrum about Israel, the backfiring of Israeli concessions – to disturb the main lines of their version of linkage.
Having just reread with students Edward Said’s Orientalism and some of his critics, I was struck by the role that his epigones have played in formulating this counter-intuitive strategy. In The Ivory Tower, Martin Kramer writes about the strong impact the book had on a generation of Western students, eager to dissociate themselves from any participation in American imperialistic hegemony, to empathize with, rather than “other” Arabs.
After all, had not Said, even as he illustrated the point, insisted that to “other” necessarily involves invidious comparison, “either in self congratulation (when one discusses one’s own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the “other”)…” Saïd appealed to our “common humanity” to do away with this us-them mentality to shift our attention from “cultural, religious and racial differences” towards “socio-economic categories [and] politico-historical ones (p. 325):
At all costs the, the goal of Orientalizing the Orient [what post-colonialists more generally call “othering” someone, RL] again and again is to be avoided, with consequences that cannot help but refine knowledge and reduce the scholar’s conceit. Without “the Orient” there would be scholars, critics, intellectuals, human beings, for whom the racial, ethnic, and national distinctions were less important than the common enterprise of promoting human community (328).
Never mind that most Oriental scholars had a passion for their subjects and extended far more empathic effort in understanding the objects of their study than did Saïd did in critiquing the Orientalists themselves. And never mind that Arabs tend to “other” on a scale the beggars Saïd’s complaints about Western tendencies. On the contrary, Saïd, demonstrating his asabiyya, his loyalty and solidarity with the Arab cause, had no problem “othering” those he accused of the sin:
It is therefore correct [sic] that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric (p.68).
But these flaws had no discernable effect on the enthusiasm with which the field of Middle Eastern studies embraced his critique of its forebears, and remade itself along post-colonial lines. A pervasively flawed book became canonical for a generation, inspiring a paradigm shift that shaped Middle Eastern Studies in the USA. As a result, the field virtually became committed to not seeing what was before them. They could thus see vibrant civil societies everywhere (Syria!), even in Islamist NGOs (Hamas!), that promised democracy soon. After all, if they were humans like us, why not?
It greatly assisted all these scholars who hailed the thriving proto-democratic, civil-society movements in the Middle East, men and women who could proudly claim they were not Orientalists, that they, like their mentor Saïd, detected few traces of the imperialism that so marks the first thirteen centuries of Islam. It made sense that those who could ignore or downplay the patriarchal ferocity so dominant in the Middle East, could also turn a blind eye the enduring culture of Muslim imperialism, and the strong odor of frustrated ressentiment in the Arab discontent with modernity. For the Saïd’s post-colonial epigones, the Arabs were the innocent subaltern victims of our imperialism; not exasperated failures at implementing their own. History may have gone wrong, but post-Orientalist scholars made a profession of believing that the wrong turn was when Western imperialism prevented Arab societies from being (naturally) free, not that the Arabs had failed to maintain and expand their empire.
This approach, divorced from reality even as it spoke of the “variegated” and “layered” phenomena it tried to represent, ended up anticipating developments and concocting strategies so fantastic, that just contemplating their spread and acceptance in policy circles gives insight into the dynamics of how a certain legendary emperor could parade before his people naked. As “I will make a lot of peace in the Middle East,” the spoof animation inspired by Wikileaks– has the US spokesman say in defense of linkage, “We have consulted with many foreign policy experts, they have many Ph.D.s about the Middle East.” Along with the spectacle of Europeans acclaiming Noam Chomsky as the great American intellectual, few things better illustrate the failings of this generation of Western intelligentsia than Orientalism’s profound impact on Middle Eastern studies and beyond.
Amongst the many noxious effects of Orientalism on our scholars’ ability to understand the Arab world, was the ban it put on discussing “honor-shame” culture, so strong an elective affinity in Arab culture that even Islam’s disapproval has failed to prune back the “honor-killings” of daughters and sisters by their family. Said’s moral scorn for the patent racism involved in this cultural approach made “honor-shame” itself a shameful discourse to hold in academic circles. As Jerrold Green noted “the mere recognition that cultural factors matter labels specialists as anti-scientific heretics by their more dogmatic colleagues.” According to a reliable source, this singularly successful political correctness has even invaded intelligence services, where one had to refrain from suggesting honor-shame motivations in analyzing the data!
The greatest irony of this accomplishment comes from the fact that Saïd himself illustrates the honor-shame dynamic. The second half of his career embodies the very “oriental” traits that he forbade us to discuss. On a very basic level, Orientalism represents an aggressive effort to “save face”: Westerners have no right to look critically at the Arab world. Noted Kramer:
Instead [of serious analysis], Said skimmed across its [Oriental scholarship’s] surface in search of the most offensive quotes, presented as the core or essence of orientalism, whose gravitational field no Westerner could hope to escape.
And the offenses were precisely those that were most wounding to Arab pride. On some level, Orientalism is a cri de coeur of someone whose amour propre has been wounded by the opinion outsiders have of his people. And the generation of scholars who adopted that book as the Bible (as one of my students described another professor’s attitude), considered their most important task not to upset those for whom honor and shame meant everything.
And yet, if we don’t understand that some cultures (not only Arabic or Islamic ones) accept, expect, even require that one shed someone’s blood for the sake of one’s honor, then we don’t understand how people in those cultures “reason.” Our initial (and abiding) response, coming from a culture that has fought a long hard battle with the tendency towards violent retaliation for insult, views this behavior as irrational, as self-destructive – “their own worst enemies.” But to think along these lines turns us into “the apogee of Orientalist confidence,” guilty of the “racism” Saïd so despised.
For Westerners aspiring to study the Arab world without becoming colonial collaborators, that meant an anti-Orientalism every bit as distorting as the Orientalism Saïd condemned among the scholars. The new, non-“othering” dogma insisted that Arabs can and would behave rationally (i.e., positive-sum), in roughly the same way the Europeans did in creating the European Union.
So why not “land for peace”? It makes sense. This conflict, the “very logical” argument goes, like all others, is about “rational” grievances. Presumably it will respond to the appeal of positive-sum solutions that call for mutual self-sacrifice in order to achieve mutual gain, and bury the hatchet. Israel gives land and the Arabs give recognition and an end to the state of war produces “peace.” Win-win.
In a Saidian conversation, one cannot, without heavy moral opprobrium, suggest that it’s not about boundaries but existence, not about rational grievances, but much more about honor and shame, about the humiliation of a tiny Israel fighting off the combined might of the Arab empire, about the blasphemy of a dhimmi people, throwing off their yoke and daring to be “a free people in our own land,” in the heart of Dar al Islam. I mean, how can you solve a problem like that?
It’s a lot easier to believe that poverty causes terror (rather than vice-versa): at least we know how to generate wealth… and we dare not think about the way some cultures generate poverty. And we certainly dare not ask the obvious question: If they will kill their daughters for shaming them in their communities, and they burn dozens of homes of dhimmi Copts when one of them dates a Muslim woman, imagine what they want to do to Israel for blackening their face and shaming their religion before the eyes of the world community and of history?
Thus we end up with a foreign policy based on fantasy, mired in denial, a community of experts that refuses to process feedback that contradicts cherished truths, people who cling to PC “grand” narratives with the ferocity of true believers. Of course, they might say off the public record, everyone knows about touchy Arab honor, especially when it comes to Israel! Arabs themselves admit that Israel is a psychological problem “in the genes of every Arab.” The very notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most fundamental issue in the Middle East, constitutes a acknowledgment of that massive Arab “hang-up” on an area that is a mere .002 of their own, deeply troubled portion of the globe.
Our experts and academics understand this, and even have policy solutions: do everything to avoid situations where it becomes a problem. That, of course, means leaving Israel out of as many situations as possible. In other words, whenever honor-shame dynamics rear their ugly head, back down. Like Yale University Press or the New York Met, don’t confront, don’t provoke violence.
Similarly, we never confront them on their double speak: When the positive-sum, peace oriented liberal cognitive egocentrists hear Palestinians complain about the occupation, they think “Green line,” while the zero-sum, honor-comes-from-revenge oriented Palestinian spokesmen think “shoreline.” (NB: I’m not essentializing, not talking about “the Arabs,” but specifically about those who are in thrall to an irredentist mind-set that we have difficulty imagining.) If we knew this, and worked around it without confronting it, that might make sense; but to ignore it, to make plans based on our projected understanding, to pressure Israel into concessions based on these fantasies, is either criminal negligence or malice.
Not surprisingly, with such anti-Orientalist flaws at the base of their thinking, the Obama administration’s Middle East foreign policy team got everything wrong. They expected long-term rationality in solving the Arab Israeli conflict (a quick positive-sum solution), and short-term irrationality (we won’t do anything about Iranian nuclear weapons until something is done about Israel). Instead we encountered the opposite: short-term rationality on Iran, long-term irrationality on Israel. Indeed, the take-home message of Arab behavior is that the Arab-Israeli lies at the heart of their most self-defeating behavior: it is the hardest and last thing we’ll resolve, not the first. And the idea that, if only Israel were gone, the self-destructive belligerence of Arab political culture would disappear is as loopy a messianic hope as being carried off by aliens on December 21, 2012 by hanging out in Bugarach, France.
Maybe the cultural relativists are right: Who says Westerners behave rationally?