Across the Bay

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Portrait of a Dragoman

I've used the term "dragoman" several times on this blog in reference to people like Juan Cole, Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Masaad and their ilk, and a friend asked me to elaborate a bit on what I mean by that term.

"Dragoman" was the title of interpreters in the Ottoman court whose job was to translate correspondence between the Ottoman court and its European counterparts. The word comes from the semitic root *rgm "to speak". It's a loan word in Turkish that found its way back into Arabic (tarjaman). Some readers might be familiar with the term from the word Targumim, which are Jewish Aramaic translations/interpretations of the Scriptures.

The thing about dragomans was they consciously and systematically manipulated their translations/interpretations, sugarcoating when necessary, and thus deliberately misleading. I've linked to an interview with Bernard Lewis where he discussed the Dragomans, which are part of the title of his latest book.

I've borrowed this term from Lewis and applied it to ME scholars who act similarly to their Ottoman predecessors. They consciously sugarcoat and selectively inform their Western audience of the ME about which they are writing.

A prime example is the following talk by Rashid Khalidi at UCLA. Just marvel at the way Khalidi selects and omits and manipulates information at will.

For instance, no one who has studied the ME can say the following with a straight face:

"It is a myth that the Middle East has no experience with democracy or constitutionalism. There were constitutions in the Middle East, in Turkey in 1876 and Iran in 1905. The French and British supported antidemocratic regimes. The United States did the same, with the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953. What this administration seems to mean by a democratic government in the Middle East is a government that does as it is told."

First of all, it wasn't "Turkey", it was the Ottoman empire. To say that the Ottoman empire was a constitutional democracy is ludicrous. But regardless, this doesn't say anything about the so-called Arab countries and indeed Khalidi doesn't mention even one. Similarly, the Mossadegh affair was in Iran, a non-Arab country! (In fact, if one wishes to be cute, what this suggests is that in their revolt against the Ottoman empire, Arab nationalists were revolting against a constitutional democracy, only to replace it with military dictatorships! Which brings us back to square one, the removal of such regimes!)

More importantly, it's a lie to obscure the fact that the 1876 instance that Khalidi mentions was in fact part of the Tanzimat, the reforms imposed on the Ottomans by the European powers! Let me quote a post-Orientalist historian, Leila Tarazi-Fawaz:

"The Ottoman government was in the midst of change which had begun to affect sectarian relations among its subject peoples. The change was a response to a general political, military, and economic decline which made it a prey to the ambitions of rival European powers and to the emerging aspirations to autonomy and independence by subject peoples of the empire, attracted to the European-inspired ideology of nationalism. Evidence of Ottoman decline was there for all to see, not least in Syria which the Ottomans could not even keep hold of in the 1830s and reconquered only with the help of Europe. To check Ottoman decline the government launched the Western-inspired reforms known as the tanzimat, or orderings, a series of laws promulgated between 1839 and 1876, which were intended to strengthen the Ottoman empire by centralizing its administration, the only effective avenue for change. The Tanzimat introduced a new principle of equality between the empire's Muslim and non-Muslim populations, and the Muslims began to lose ground to outsiders. Christians, who along with Jews and other dhimmis or protected people had been a separate class of citizens (they paid special taxes and did not serve in the army), gained privileges. The Tanzimat provided the legal basis for their growing influence by making all Ottoman subjects, regardless of religion, equal before the law." (An Occasion for War: civil conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860, p. 22. Emphasis added.)

So, there are two points that discredit Khalidi in this paragraph: 1- All the elements that he's boasting about were non-existent before the tanzimat, which were directly influenced by Europe. Equality before the law and minority rights were unheard of before the introduction of European-based ideas and reforms. 2- Ideas of secular nationalism, which have produced the intellectual matrix that gave birth to people like Khalidi, also owe their existence to Europe and its intervention, which makes Khalidi's statement doubly hypocritical! To negate European intervention is to negate the advent of the ideology that gave birth to Khalidi's intellectual predecessors. On second thought, that might not be such a bad idea!

Also worth mentioning is the fact that these new-found rights for minorities produced what remains one of the best systems the Christians have experienced in Lebanon, the mutasarrifiyya, which was a direct result of the tanzimat and it gave the Lebanese a form of autonomy that also translated to economic prosperity. Khalidi doesn't mention that these reforms, which brought rights to minorities, were met with great resentment by the Muslim population, a resentment that ironically Khalidi mirrors today when he expresses his views on Western interference, even when that same interference was the only reason the reforms ever took place in the Ottoman empire! Are we to think that because these reforms and these new-found rights came because of European pressure, they're somehow "bad"? Would it have been better to keep minorities oppressed as second class citizens so as to avoid European intervention? But that's the same logic Khalidi employs when dealing with Iraq. It would have been better to leave Saddam and his family to brutalize the Iraqis, for that is better than an American intervention! Do the Iraqis share that sentiment?!

I repeat that there were backlashes against minorities (the 1860 massacres for instance) after the European intervention. But is that reason enough to say that minority rights shouldn't have been sought?! Do you think any Christian or Jew believed that?! Do you think the Kurds believe it today?! Khalidi speaks of the ever-present memory of colonialism. There is another ever-present memory among minorities in the ME. The sound of "ishmil" (walk to your left!) still rings loud in many a Christian ear in the Levant. When the Ottomans were ruling (with their constitutional democracy!!!) non-Muslims were not allowed to walk on the right side of the road when there was a Muslim walking there. The Muslim would say "ishmil" (walk to your left!).

An autonomy similar to the mutasarrifiya is what the Kurds are asking for today, and the same resentment that the minorities faced in Ottoman times, the Iraqi non-Arab minorities are facing again today from Arab nationalists, and Arabist scholars.

Therefore, Khalidi has some nerve to say "[t]he experts were also right to warn about the impossibility of imposing democracy from the barrel of a gun" only to turn and give an example of supposed "native" reforms (a lie of course) that was the direct result of intervention of Western power!

The Mossadegh affair is one of those stories that get taken out of context and circulated as propaganda. Yes, the CIA was involved in the overthrow of Mossadegh. But there are two elements that are always left out in this story. First is the nature of the Mossadegh movement and its constituency. I.e., was it really a liberal democratic movement that had massive popular appeal, as the people who promulgate this story seem to suggest? Second, no one mentions the involvement of Iranians themselves in the overthrow of Mossadegh. Who was against the party in Iran itself? Why didn't anyone lift a finger to help him? Also, no one says anything about what happened to his movement aftewards, during the Khomeinist revolution.

Mossadegh's base was very limited, and did not have broad appeal among the population. Consider this statement by Mehrzad Boroujerdi, reviewing Mark Gasiorowski's book on the subject:

"The author's [Gasiorowski's] identification of the National Front (led by Mossadeq) as the main political organization of the modern middle class (p. 84) may be somewhat of an oversimplification, considering the eclectic constituency base of that party, which drew support from disgruntled bazaaris and the Qashqai tribe, in addition to the urban secular middle class." (Review of US Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building a Client State in Iran, in The American Political Science Review [1992], p. 1103. Emphasis added.)

The National Front was a coalition of contradictory ideologies. More importantly, it was first and foremost a nationalist movement, whose nationalism preceded its liberalism. That's why its "liberalism" was easily coopted by Bazargan who was religious (therefore, what would have prevented the movement from moving towards religion anyway? It certainly needed it to gain broad support, and that's proven by the appeal of the Khomeinists especially to the rural population.) Other competing parties did exist, and many of them were complicit in the overthrow. But all this doesn't matter to Khalidi. The transference of agency is common in the ME. No one takes responsibility for their actions, and everyone is a victim of foreign intervention. What the Iranians did in the Mossadegh coup is naturally left out of the picture. I thought only Orientalists were reductionists!

Lastly, like I said earlier, both of Khalidi's examples are from non-Arab nations! What does he have to say about Arab despots? Only the usual, that he and those like him "loathe" them. That's all cute but it amounts to nothing. Furthermore, there is nothing in there about the Arab nationalism that sustained/s Saddam and his peers, and about those academics who adhere to it were winking to the likes of Saddam, and keeping their mouths shut as he murdered on, just like they're keeping quiet today as another Arab regime is committing yet another holocaust in Sudan, not too long after the first one against non-Muslims came to somewhat of a rest (thanks again to international pressure and not native reform, and surely not to outcries by the likes of Khalidi!) In fact, if we want to be perfectly honest, the "experts" didn't really seem to loathe Saddam all that much when Edward Said doubted the veracity of his gassing of the Kurds, and de facto supported his invasion of Kuwait. Or take Rami Khoury for instance who hailed Saddam as the model of the "new Arab." Don't forget Fawwaz Trabulsi or the luminary Noam Chomsky. All their statements are nailed by Kanan Makiya in his Cruelty and Silence. You see, for every dragoman there is someone who tells it like it is.

But there is a kind of schizophrenia involved here as made clear by this statement:

"The stench of hypocrisy hovers over a regime claiming to support democracy that supports undemocratic regimes such as the Saudis and now Libya."

You can't say the US was wrong to go to war against a despotic regime and then criticize it for its support of the Saudis or Mubarak. But that shows how Khalidi misses the internal debate within the administration between the preservers of the status quo and those who want to topple it, and it shows the schizophrenia I once mentioned in reference to Shibley Telhami on this blog. Khalidi wants to simultaneously criticize the US' effort to remove the worst dictator since Stalin, and attack the proponents of that policy in the administration, calling them neo-imperialists (what? no Likudnik charge?)!

But in doing so, Khalidi exposes a couple more inconsistencies:

"The Baath regime in 2003 posed no threat to the United States, although it was deadly to its own people. In 1991 all of Iraq's neighbors feared Iraq and its weapons. This was not true in 2003. Not one neighbor of Iraq felt threatened enough by Iraq to support the U.S. war effort openly (Kuwait did so covertly)."

Khalidi should have said this to Edward Said before the late professor wrote his book on Iraq the US and Israel where he charged that the whole purpose of the war was to give strategic help to Israel and subdue the Arabs (as if Saddam was uplifting them!) Juan Cole has been echoing this sentiment on his blog. If Iraq was no threat to anyone, then why does Israel need a US intervention on its behalf!? Secondly, the reason why Arab neighbors didn't interfere was because they were frightened that the war would cause internal revolutions and the demise of their regimes.

Said's terrible thesis endorsed the worst pathologies of Arab nationalism and its warped vision of "power" and machismo. Khalidi echoed similar pathologies when he spoke of nationalizing the Iraqi economy! Yes, that's the real way forward, state-controlled economy. Look at Syria, it's flowing with milk and honey! In fact, Syria is slowly but surely seeking to privatize its economy. Lybia is begging foreign investors to move in. Economists there are even making room for that in Ghaddafi's little green book! The bankrupt systems of the ME -- bankrupt by such ideologies as Arab nationalism and the Baath -- have zero infrastructure and 100% (government) corruption (cf. this recent post by Joshua Landis for an example). They need foreign and private corporations to take over. You give a little to get a little. That's the way it goes. These corporations create jobs and make the economy run.

But overall, the paradox is clear. One moment Khalidi is upset that the US backs totalitarian regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt (which he doesn't mention, neither does he mention the Libyan WMDs!), but then simply glances over the fact that the Iraqi Baath was "deadly to its own people"! I.e., the US should not interfere to help Arabs, it should only interfere when its interests are in jeopardy. Wait! I thought that's why the Arabs hated the US according to Khalidi's logic! Never does it occur to Khalidi to take seriously the earlier position by Bush (before the preservers of the status quo, that Khalidi is so eager to bring back interfered) when he said that the US interests are tied in the long term to the freedom and prosperity of the peoples of the ME, and that the US was thus actively backing democratic change in the region. No, Khalidi prefers the useless paralyzed new approach adopted by the G8. He must feel so much better now! Oh, I forgot that he lives and teaches in NYC.

This is a 101 introduction to the workings of a modern day dragoman. Sugarcoating, misrepresenting, omitting, and falsifying.