Across the Bay

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Hairy MO

I've poked fun at As'ad AbuKhalil's pathetic intro to his Historical Dictionary, and I've recently come across his review (Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 26, no. 3 [Spring, 1997]: 102-103. Apparently, JPS is the only journal that publishes this guy!) of William Harris' very good book on Lebanon (Faces of Lebanon: Sects, Wars, and Global Extensions). It shows that his "academic" writing is just as bad as his blog.

Listen to this, and tell me that's not rich!

To write a book on Lebanon is always a challenge, requiring the author to be detached from highly charged emotional issues and to apply evenly critical standards of analysis. In that test, Harris mostly fails, clearly identifying with the Maronite-oriented groups and with Christians in general. His reference to Muslims is condescending. The Shi'a, for example, are depicted as a helpless flock manipulated by Syria or Iran (p. 54). He states that demands for equitable representation of Muslims and Christians in administrative posts is a threat to "bureaucratic efficiency" (p. 141), clearly implying that Muslims are inferior in qualifications. His preference for the prewar ruling class (p. 64) also could be seen as evidence of sectarian bias as it cannot be said that the current ruling class is in any way less unsavory or more undemocratic than that of the ancien regime. He sees Lebanon in no small measure due to the Christian presence, as special and different from its Arab surroundings (p. 59).

"Evidence" of bias? "Clearly implying that Muslims are inferior"!? You can't make up this stuff. Moreover, according to his own standards of scholarship on Lebanon, he should never be allowed to write a word on the subject ever again!

All the hypocrisy aside, Harris' characterization on said p. 59 is remarkably "fair and balanced":

The Lebanese people exhibit a commonality and identity like that of such cohesive "nationalities" as the English or French, and a fragmentation into mutually distrustful groups similar to such multicommunal conglomerates as the former Yugoslavia, Malaysia, or Sri Lanka. Arab countries can be placed at different points on a spectrum between the Egyptians, a people with a distinctive collective consciousness, and historically new creations of Western colonial intervention like Iraq or Syria. Even now, after 75 years of Iraqi and Syrian geographical existence, it is questionable whether one may refer to "Iraqi" and "Syrian" peoples, rather than simply to state apparatuses occupying certain Arab territories. Modern Lebanon, uniquely, can be located at both ends of the spectrum -- it is at once Egypt, Iraq, and neither. It is also at once firmly Arab and assertively separate in ways that transcend even the Egyptian case.

Also, needless to say, there's nothing on p. 54 that remotely resembles the characterization of a "helpless flock." And the issue of "demands for equitable representation" is typically dishonest, as Harris was talking about a particular historical circumstance, the Chamoun presidency, and was clearly assessing the politicking in a particular situation, not making a qualitative judgment on the abilities of Muslims to govern, as AAK implies.

Then As'ad accuses Harris of "downplaying the American and Israeli roles" in "episodes of violence," and attacks Harris for attributing "most episodes of violence, including clannish conflict and sectarian warfare, to the Syrian regime." Harris of course simply thinks that the "impact of the Israeli and American interventions of the early 80s has been exaggerated" while other more important elements were not properly analyzed.

Then, naturally, more charges of racism (yawn... there must be a Masaad-AbuKhalil competition on who can level the charge more frequently), based on his assessment of Harris' personal psychology which is at once rich, and incredibly ironic, as it once again reveals his own issues (e.g., replace "Syrian" with "Lebanese", and note the remark at the end, which appears in all his commentaries on Lebanon, like this incredibly pathetic, but telling, article on Francophonie and Lebanon [PDF]):

The author has a very strong personal distaste for things Syrian, and his attitude is outright prejudicial at times. He expresses contempt for "Alawi lower-middle class personnel" (p. 90), whom he sees as qualitatively different from the Lebanese.

This is simply not true. Here's what Harris actually said on p. 90:

Second, the trend toward a rigid autocratic regime in Damascus contrasted with Lebanon's semidemocratic political tradition, which managed to survive into the 1990s. The rise of 'Alawi lower-middle class personnel, via the armed forces and Ba'thist ideology, to dominate the Syrian state and overturn the old upper class, created a modern Syrian history as removed of that of Lebanon as Russian history is from French history. The underlying Sunni-'Alawi theme of contemporary Syrian affairs -- the story of two-thirds watching one-eighth, a small minority, moving from subordination to paramountcy -- simply cannot be related to Lebanon's own multisectarian experience.

But wait, there's more, always incredibly rich coming from AAK (in that it fits him like a glove! Just replace "Syria" with "Lebanon"):

His tone toward Syria is polemical and vindictive, and he blames Syria for the assassination of its own clients in Lebanon, men like Rashid Karami (p. 218), Mufti Hassan Khalid (p. 255), and Rene Mu'awwad (p. 265). Karami was known as a most loyal ally of Syria in Lebanon, while the author's source for Khalid's assassination is Gen. Michel 'Awn (p. 336), hardly an objective "informant." However, it is important for Harris to portray Syria as the villain, to the point of reminding the reader constantly about the Hama uprising and its brutal crushing by the regime in 1982. Syria, of course, is responsible for some of the violent events in the civil war, and it has compromised Lebanese sovereignty, but so has Israel, which receives reverential treatment in this book.

Harris never bases the conclusion that Syria killed Hasan Khalid on Aoun. In fact, he never actually says that Syria did it. He said that Khalid tried to secretly contact Aoun, and this is where he quotes a conversation with Aoun, to the extent that Aoun told him that he received emissaries from Khalid two days before the latter's death. Harris then says that no other Sunni dared bother the Syrians after that. He never comes out and directly says Syria did it (it's implied), but more importantly, he doesn't base that on Aoun! AAK simply reads what he wants.

Then he chastizes Harris for supposedly "bizzarely" blaming Amal for the attempt on Mustapha Sa'd, which the Hair asserts "was widely known to be planned and executed by the Israeli government." But the funny thing is that Harris visited Sa'd in 1987, and wrote that "Sa'd suspected Amal as having been responsible for a bomb attack in which he was injured." (Emphasis mine.)

Then the brilliant conclusion:

In sum, this book suffers from blatant political and ideological bias. [ed.'s note: now that's rich!] The author clearly put effort and time in its preperation but failed to produce a balanced account of this important period of contemporary Lebanese history. In the absence of alternative accounts, this book can be used for its chronology. In addition, although Harris portrays Rafiq Hariri, whom he sees -- as he sees everybody else in Lebanon -- as a mere Syrian puppet, his criticism of his regime seems justified. Finally, his pessimistic conclusion about Lebanon's future is warranted given the inadequacies of the Ta'if Agreement.

Needless to say, Harris made no such conclusion about Lebanon's future (and I suspect that the Hair's reference to Taif and Harris' have nothing to do with each other, as I think the Hair is concerned with the sectarian formula and nothing else). Harris lamented Syria's intervention, and its role in the Taif accord, which Harris said wouldn't have been necessary (neither was Syria's participation in the Gulf war, Harris points out). Unfortunately for Lebanon things didn't play out the way they could've, and that was largely because of the Syrian intervention: "Subordination to the Syrian interior contradicted the whole direction of Lebanon's modern history." (p. 325). He rightly concludes that Lebanon "received a raw deal in the post-Cold War world." (p. 326). That was his conclusion!

There's clearly a disconnect between what Harris actually wrote and what AbuKhalil read. Ironically, it is because AbuKhalil fails to meet the standards of scholarship that he himself set at the outset. He ends up deeply tangled in ideological bias, and highly charged emotional issues.