Across the Bay

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Anti-Orientalists: What are They Good For?

For those who might find this interesting, I have been carrying a discussion with a reader, Bech, in the comments section of my "Matters of Reason" post.

I will only paste my latest reply to Bech here instead of the comments section. For his comments and my previous replies, please click on the link above.
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"I think Bernard Lewis has always made tendentious argument. I mean one of his papers is entitled "Muslim Rage", since when if you're a scholar do you lump-sum 'muslim' in a homogeneous entity that can feel 'rage'. this stinks propaganda as much as extreme anti-orientalist rethoric."

I believe the article you're referring to is "The Roots of Muslim Rage." Look, I'm not here to defend Lewis' work. Altough, statements such as the following from the article, put a dent in your characterization:

"We should not exaggerate the dimensions of the problem. The Muslim world is far from unanimous in its rejection of the West, nor have the Muslim regions of the Third World been the most passionate and the most extreme in their hostility. There are still significant numbers, in some quarters perhaps a majority, of Muslims with whom we share certain basic cultural and moral, social and political, beliefs and aspirations;"

The subtitle alone puts more qualification than you give it credit for. Furthermore, Lewis is hardly the only scholar with this view. See this interview with the late Maxime Rodinson (French). However, I will point out a couple of things:

1- The anti-Orientalists (as we've accidentally agreed on calling them!) have made, and continue to make, similar and more egregious statements. For instance, how many times have you heard how America's foreign policy doesn't sit well in "the Muslim world" or "the Arab world" or, (as pointed out by Martin Kramer) "the Arab street." Now can anyone tell me what the hell is the "Arab street"? Whatever points you want to make against Lewis for using the term "Muslim Rage," the "Arab street" rests on similar "lump-sum" (as you put it) and worse. It rests on a hegemonic political ideology (what they accuse the Orientalists of legitimizing) which is Arab Nationalism of course. Arab Nationalism allows you to group incredibly diverse groups into an "Arab" monolith, an "Arab street." In fact, I would argue that the term, especially with the addition of "street" to it validates a comment made by another reader, Matt Frost, that I quoted in the past. In response to a statement by Chirac, Matt wrote:

"Your quote from Chirac: "We must take measure of the resentments and frustrations from one end of the Arab world to the other..."

This summarizes, in a single phrase, the pernicious status quo approach to the Middle East -- the tendency to treat the Arab-Islamic population as but a bundle of fantasies, neuroses, and repressed desires to be analyzed and then accommodated. This perspective nourishes the Arab intellectuals' ideology of grievance, against which you argue so well.

It also nurtures the dangerous idea that in the West, ordinary people want things like good schools, good governments, and a safe life for their children, while in the Mideast, people want nothing more than to settle centuries-old disputes and affronts to collective honor.
"

Now, this kind of statement is hardly Chirac's invention. One hears it from Arabists and ME "experts" left and right. Just read some of the garbage by Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Masaad, Juan Cole, Hamid Dabashi, Rami Khouri, Patrick Seale, Jonathan Raban, et al. So, "Muslim Rage" is a no-no, but "Muslim grievances" or "Muslim humiliation" is ok? The funny thing is that effectively, these apologists end up acknowledging "Muslim Rage" but only if seen as a result of "American Policy."

This is not to mention the grandiose statements about a "Shiite International" and their rage in response to American policy in Iraq (this is courtesy of Iraq expert Juan Cole), or a "transcendent Shiite-Sunni unity" (Cole, and see imb├ęcile extraordinaire Patrick Seale's latest in the Daily Star. When the US says al-Qaeda and Iran, or Hizbullah and Sunni salafis are working together, Cole musters his expertise on Islamic sectarianism to patronizingly instruct us on how ignorant we are of Muslim complexities. But neither he nor Seale have a problem saying precisely that!), etc. So whenever they want, they lump them together, just as long as it's in the context of "resistance" to the US. Therefore, hypocrisy penetrates and permeates the Third-Worldist and Post-Colonial discourse.

2- I'll combine this one with your comment on Campus Watch, where you said: "I mean you just can't criticize Israel without being stamped on this site?! And this in the name of 'Academic Instegrity'."

I would hardly call that statement fair. I have my own reservations about Campus Watch, or perhaps some of their decisions. However, did you read that article by Dabashi in Al-Ahram? There is a whole bunch of this type of trash penned by Joseph Masaad and others. For instance, see my last post on Juan Cole. Now all these people claim that they're making legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. That's all bullshit. One can make legitimate criticism of Israeli policy, but this is a whole other beast. Cole claims to criticize Sharon but ends up casting suspicions on the Sephardic Jews! Dabashi, on his first ever visit to Israel, wrote a perfectly anti-semitic article. Masaad is little more than a rabid maniac who spits out the words "nazi" and "racist" like spasms. To expose these people for the frauds they are is perfectly legitimate as far as I'm concerned.

"Anyway, Bernard Lewis has worked in political spheres too and is famous for dangerous proposal (along with James Woolsey, the CSP/JINSA freak) such as restoring the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq in order to displace the rest of gaza and west bank palestinians to jordan. And this just one example."

Evidence, evidence, evidence??? I've heard Cole ejaculate prematurely quite often on the issue of the "neocons" being held together by a desire to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians. And he signed a letter before the Iraq war warning that Israel is going to take advantage of the Iraq war to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians out of the West Bank. Did any of that materialize?!

"In sum, maybe anti-orientalists went a bit too far in their stigmatizations but this does not mean that people like Bernard Lewis, guys working in MEMRI, Daniel Pipes, etc. aren't working with an ideological background (implicitly or explicitly)."

It's not whether they went too far or not. It's a matter of doing exactly what they claim to oppose. It's hypocrisy and fraud pure and simple. As for Pipes or Lewis, I don't think they deny that they have a particular ideology. We all do to one extent or another. One question is whether it's intellectually honest to attack their ideology while hypocritically presenting another one as "authentic" or "native" to their subjects under false pretense.

"These ideological elements are very dangerous for people in the Middle East. They create wars for one thing.
On the other hand I don't think that 'Anti-Orientalists' could ever contribute to drastic political restructuring, creating wars and killings.
"

Nonsense! The ideology of most Anti-Orientalists is Arab Nationalism: a bloody, belligerent, racist, and fascistic failed-ideology! The other is an apology for Islamism: an even more bloody, belligerent, racist, and fascist ideology. You want dangerous? Minimizing those two ideologies under the guise of such attacks on Lewis led to a complete failure and complacency before 9/11 and has maintained a horrendous status quo in the ME under the guise of "realism" (actually based on quasi-racist views on the region, from the anti-Orientalists themselves! Here's an interesting note. Clovis Maksoud, the senile Arab Nationalist at the American University, has called for lobbying against lifting the sanctions on Iraq in the aftermath of the recent Iraq war, in order not to convey legitimacy on the Coalition "occupation"!)

"Anyway, loving liberal values shouldn't make you drop into semi-fascistic propos."

In light of the above, I wonder who's "semi-fascistic."