Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
They Said It:
That Said spoke truth to power is the legacy many of his followers seek to construct. It was the theme of many of his obituaries. “He spoke truth to power” read his obituary in The Times Higher Education Supplement. “Speaking truth to Power” was the title of another tribute in Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s foremost English language paper, which long carried a Said column. “Truth to Power” is also the name of one of the comprehensive online bibliographies of Said’s work. Said’s nephew Saree Makdisi, a professor of English literature like his uncle, established a “Speaking Truth to Power” website where he posts his own “archive of interventions” on the Palestinian issue….
Said’s description of his childhood years in Mandatory Palestine, on which he staked personal, and by extension, national claim to victimhood and dispossession, was more imaginary than real. Said, a U.S. citizen by birth, grew up in Egypt and made only periodic visits to family in Jerusalem (or for that matter in other Arab countries). Mona Anis, an Egyptian journalist and admirer of Said, recalled her shock and surprise when, in her first personal encounter with Said at a conference at Essex University in 1984, she heard him speak Arabic in “perfect Egyptian dialect.” She recalled, “I remember being so taken aback by his unexpected Egyptiannness that I hardly spoke. When Said left I burst out with the question that had been perplexing me: ‘How come he sounds as Egyptian as you and me?’”…
Said [did not] see any irony in condemning the Mubarak regime’s show-trial imprisonment of Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim while continuing his relationship with the regime’s newspaper, Al-Ahram, and accepting that regime’s felicitations. He became such an important presence on the Egyptian cultural scene that following his death, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture dedicated a conference to his memory. There, Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim refused to accept a £10,000 Egyptian (US $1,750) prize because it was “awarded by a government that in my view lacks [the] credibility that would make this award worth receiving.” Other novelists and literary figures refused to make the moral comprises which Said, in his desire to revel in the powerful’s plaudits, would make.
Efraim Karsh and Rory Miller, “Did Edward Said Really Speak Truth to Power,” Middle East Quarterly, Winter, 2008.
WHO LOST EGYPT?
Who cares who lost Egypt, you ask. After all, Egypt is just one more disaster, a basket case, the next in a long line of Middle Eastern and North African failed states. Moreover, it doesn’t have any oil. And it doesn’t have any natural gas either. In fact, come to think of it, it doesn’t have much of anything really – anything, that is, besides people. And they appear to be a rather unfriendly, scruffy lot.
Of course, it is the homeland of al Qaeda’s current boss, who is also its longtime intellectual and spiritual leader and a man who, by the way, has an affinity for causing trouble and training terrorists in failed states. But, as the saying goes, he has to be somewhere. Why not Egypt? So, once again, who cares who lost Egypt?
Well, the short answer is that a lot of people do. At least a lot of people are asking the question. The problem is that most of these people view it as a rhetorical one; that is, one that is posed for the sole purpose of introducing their answer. And most of the answers they are giving are simply wrong. Shallow, uninformed, if you will.
To give them their due, they are correct about the question being a pertinent one. After all, the current chaos in that nation is a threat not just to Egyptians, but to the entire region, which is already on edge and already engulfed in one large-scale civil war. They are also right when they maintain that the “international community” has an obligation to try to bring some stability to Egypt and thereby to forestall any of a dozen horrifying ends to the current turmoil, including but not limited to: mass starvation; a collapse into political chaos, similar to that which reigns in Somalia; a collapse into anarchy and the attraction of terrorist outposts, including perhaps the rebirth of al Qaeda; civil war; a breaking of the three-decades old peace with Israel; and so on.
Moreover, they understand that the first step in achieving this end is to identify the cause of the current turmoil. How, pray tell, did Egypt wind up in this condition in the first place? Who or what is responsible for this massive failure of the country’s political and civic institutions? Or, to put it another way, “Who lost Egypt?” It is here that they get confused.
Right now, the conventional wisdom – on the Right, on the Left, and most places in between – has it that at least one of two culprits is to blame for Egypt’s present woes, Barack Obama and/or the Muslim Brotherhood. But, as so often is the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. For the fact is that while both of these prospective malefactors will undoubtedly play important roles in what happens next, they were peripheral players in its origins. More on that in a minute. In the meantime, consider the following.
The basic knock against our fearless leader, i.e. President “Leadfrombehind,” is that he was too willing to meddle in Egyptian affairs in the first place and then too eager to support a vicious, totalitarian, and anti-Western regime in the second place. He sold out Mubarak, a longtime American ally, and then supported and provided legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammed Morsi, longtime allies of America’s avowed enemies. He helped destabilize an already unstable country. And in so doing, he made the United States an enemy of the Egyptian people and of the cause of freedom and liberty more broadly. Professor Barry Rubin, the Director of the Global Research for International Affairs Center (GLORIA) and the editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, makes the case against Obama as follows:
Let us remember that four years ago Obama gave his Cairo speech sitting the Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the front row. President Husni Mubarak was insulted and it was the first hint that the Obama Administration would support Islamist regimes in the Arab world. Then Obama vetoed the State Department plan for a continuation of the old regime without Mubarak. Then Obama publicly announced – before anyone asked him – that the United States would not mind if the Brotherhood was in government. Then Obama did not give disproportionate help to the moderates. Then Obama pressed the army to get out of power quickly, which the moderates opposed since they needed more time than the Islamists to organize.
Many will say that the president of the United States cannot of course control events in Egypt. That’s true. But he did everything possible to lead to this crisis.
Of course, Rubin is right. Obama did all of the things with which he has been charged. Indeed, he did everything in his power to precipitate this crisis. Pointing this out is not only fair but sensible, given that this same damn fool who made these poor choices will continue to make other, similar foolish choices and poor decisions as this crisis proceeds. And there is a good chance that, as he does so, he will continue to make a bad situation worse. But that’s not to say that he’s to blame for the broader collapse of Egyptian society.
Indeed, for now it is probably impossible not to give Obama a pass. Yes, he is a bumbling boob. And yes he may have altered the timing and the specifics of the conflict somewhat. But again, he did not cause Egypt’s troubles. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that he could have changed the present outcome even if he had done everything right.
The other usual suspect in the case of Egypt’s collapse is the Muslim Brotherhood. Yes, they are bad guys. They are Islamists. They’re anti-Western. They hate America no matter what they say to the contrary. And they hate Israel as proved by what they say both in private and in public. They jailed dissidents. They ran roughshod over the electoral process and the constitutional assembly. They broke all of their promises about moderation. They shut down unfriendly media, encouraged anti-Israeli sentiment, and looked the other way at the slaughter of non-Muslim Egyptians. They are, as we said, exactly what their critics warned they would be. And Morsi was an awful president, a tyrant-in-the-making. And his government was viciously repressive.
But that doesn’t mean that the Muslim Brotherhood is any more responsible for Egypt’s current mess than Barack Obama is. Sometimes, things are a little more complicated than they appear.
Writing on his blog for National Review Online, the celebrated conservative author David Pryce-Jones declared that “The military coup in Egypt is a stand against Islamism.” Would that he were right. In truth, the coup and the protests that preceded and provoked it are nothing of the sort.
The fact of the matter is that the Egyptian people kind of like Islamism. One might even say that they really like Islamism. In a recent blog post, David Bostom, a physician, professor of medicine at Brown University, and a writer on matters Islamic, recounted the sad but all too unsurprising data that supports this dismal charge.
Clearly, however, the most valid – and irrefragable – evidence of Egypt’s overwhelming vox populi sharia supremacist views derives from the published findings of independent polls based on face-to-face interviews with large, population-based samples of Egyptians. These data reveal that 74% of Egyptian Muslims supported making sharia the official state law of their society; 70% favored sharia-based mandatory (“hadd“) punishments “like whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery”; 80% supported the hadd punishment of stoning for adultery; 88% favored the hadd punishment of execution for “apostasy,” while 67% desired to re-create the transnational caliphate — whose goal is the universal application of sharia via bellicose jihad conquests. Lastly, at present, as opposed to a merely “aspirational” goal of sharia supremacim, female genital mutilation (FGM) is sanctioned by the predominant Shafiite school of Islamic law in Egypt, leading to current rates of this misogynistic barbarity among Egyptian women of 95%.
In short, what sent the people of Egypt to the streets and brought them out to protest Morsi and to demand change was hardly the desire to be “free” FROM Sha’ria. Rather, it was the desire to be free from starvation. The Egyptian government is, as we have noted before, in dire financial straits. And it has been for a long, long time. The Egyptian people rose up and deposed Morsi for much the same reason they rose up and deposed Hosni Mubarak before him. They are hungry. More than 50% of the country subsists on less than $2 a day. And the government has had no choice of late but to cut food subsidies, cooking oil rations, and many of the other state-provided necessities that forestall mass starvation. The rebellion against the Muslim Brotherhood was both inevitable and perfectly practical. Egypt is a full-blown economic disaster. More to the point, Egypt has been a full-blown economic disaster for many years and will be for many years to come. The inimitable David P. Goldman (aka “Spengler) put it this way in a recent column for the Asia Times:
It was obvious to anyone who troubled to examine the data that Egypt could not maintain a bottomless pit in its balance of payments, created by a 50% dependency on imported food, not to mention an energy bill fed by subsidies that consumed a quarter of the national budget . . . These facts were in evidence early in 2011 when Hosni Mubarak fell . . .
No-one has proposed a way to find the more than US$20 billion a year that Egypt requires to stay afloat. In June 2011, then French president Nicholas Sarkozy talked about a Group of Eight support program of that order of magnitude. No Western (or Gulf State) government, though, is willing to pour that sort of money down an Egyptian sinkhole.
Egypt remains a pre-modern society, with nearly 50% illiteracy, a 30% rate of consanguineal marriage, a 90% rate of female genital mutilation, and an un – or underemployment rate over 40% . . .
As malnutrition afflicts roughly a quarter of Egyptians in the World Health Organization’s estimate, and the Muslim Brotherhood government waits for a bumper wheat crop that never will come, Egypt is slowly dying. Emergency loans from Qatar and Libya slowed the national necrosis but did not stop it.
In short, then, there is nothing particularly surprising about the Egyptian people’s revolt and the army’s coup. Moreover, it could have – and likely would have – happened to anyone in Morsi’s position. The fact that he is an Islamist running a party dedicated to Sha’ria is, for the most part, a coincidence rather than a cause. None of this, of course, is to say that the Muslim Brotherhood is anything other than a vile, hateful gang of would-be tyrants. It is merely to say that their vileness, hatefulness, and tyranny were not the proximate causes of their overthrow.
That leaves us with bit of a mystery, though. If Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were not directly responsible for the events preceding last week’s coup; and if Barack Obama and his manifestly deranged foreign policy were not at fault, then who or what was?
Obviously, this is a complicated question and one that probably cannot be answered in the time and space available to us in this format. Still, if asked, we’d answer with the names of two men: Gamal Abdel Nassar and Edward Said. Let us explain.
Nasser, as you may know, was, for all intents and purposes, the “father” of modern-day Egypt. As a colonel in the Egyptian army, Nasser planned the coup against King Farouk in 1952. As part of the Revolutionary Command Council, Nasser governed through puppet president Muhammad Naguib for two years and then had Naguib arrested. Nasser then placed his own name into nomination for the presidency, which he assumed two years later and held for nearly 15 years.
Nasser was also the face of Arab Nationalism – or Pan-Arabism, if you prefer – which makes him one of the most important men in the 20th century Middle East, and one of the most destructive men in the Cold War-era.
Arab Nationalism was an early 20th century identity movement that surfaced amidst the dying of the Ottoman Empire and which was patterned in many ways on the German nationalist undertaking. The early thinkers and founders of Arab Nationalism looked to define themselves and their people and to build an independent pan-Arab state that stretched, essentially, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea. The identity the Arab Nationalists created for themselves and for the Arab people was defined principally in terms of who the Arabs are not, rather than who they are. And who they are not is “European colonialists.”
In this sense, the Arab Nationalist movement was quintessentially post-modern. It arose in opposition to the “truth” of Western cultural hegemony and obsessed over the sins and perceived slights of the colonial powers, including the Zionists. It fashioned for itself a majestic yet “lost” past of the Arab people. And it sought to restore that past through little more than opposition to the prevalent ideas of Western liberalism. In an article published just over ten years ago in the Middle East Quarterly, Adeed Dawisha, a native of Iraq and a professor of political science at Miami University, Ohio, described the intellectual foundations of the movement as follows:
The tenets of Arab nationalism, as formulated by Sati’ al-Husri, reflected the ideas of nineteenth-century German cultural nationalism. To German nationalist thinkers, unifying the nation was the supreme goal and a sacred act, which necessitated the subordination of individual will to the national will. Notions of liberty or freedom were distractions, and when they contradicted the national will, they had to be repressed. How else would the eminent German historian, Heinrich von Trietschke, justify the annexation in 1871 of the German-speaking population of Alsace, the majority of whom wanted to remain politically within France? “We desire,” Trietschke writes in a chilling tone, “even against their will, to restore them to themselves.”
English and French nationalisms were the ideological responses to indigenous efforts to liberalize the absolutist state and create a liberal and virtuous society. German nationalism, in contrast, sought not to:
secure better government, individual liberty, and due process of law, but . . . to drive out a foreign ruler and to secure national independence. The word liberty did not mean primarily, as it did for the western peoples the assertion of the rights of the individual against his government, but of the independence of the nation against foreign rule . . . When the western peoples strove for regeneration, they were primarily concerned with individual liberty; in central and eastern Europe the demand for regeneration often centered on the unity and power of the group.
This was the intellectual legacy upon which Husri built his theory of the Arab nation. Arab nationalism, until its final decline late in the twentieth century, continued to embody the tenets of German cultural nationalism. Arab nationalists advocated the rejuvenation of the Arab nation, its political unity, its secularism, and its sovereignty. Yet Arab nationalists, infused with the illiberal ideas of cultural nationalism, had almost nothing to say about personal liberty and freedom. Husri once said that:
the form of government was of no great interest to him . . . public attention should focus on the problem of unity: it [was] the national duty of every Arab to support the leader who is capable of achieving Arab unity.
On the rare occasions when advocates of Arab nationalism mentioned personal liberty, it was to make it conditional upon the nation’s well being. In the words of Husri himself: “patriotism and nationalism before and above all . . . even above and before freedom.” Husri aimed this message especially at those Arabic-speaking people who did not share his views, and who might have been less than ablaze with exuberance at the prospect of being called Arabs. Husri’s response is uncompromising:
Under no circumstances should we say: “As long as [an Arab] does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabism, then he is not an Arab.” He is an Arab whether he wishes to be one or not. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without feelings or consciousness, and perhaps even without conscience.
Husri did not offer remedies – specific methods by which “Arabs without conscience” would be, in Trietschke’s words, “restored to themselves.” Michel Aflaq [the founder of the nationalist Ba’ath party] was not so coy. Aflaq, whose writings bear the unmistakable influence of Husri’s ideas, candidly identified “cruelty” as the most reliable instrument to effect the desired transformation: “When we are cruel to others, we know that our cruelty is in order to bring them back to their true selves, of which they are ignorant.” Indeed, Aflaq defined cruelty as a facet of the nationalist’s love for his people.
Husri’s nationalist beliefs were carried over into the 1950s and 1960s, becoming the slogans of the nationalist avalanche. By then, Arab cultural nationalism had emerged triumphant over other competing ideologies and identities, capturing the hearts and minds of that quintessentially nationalist generation, a generation that fervently believed in Arab nationalism as the elixir by which a glittering past would be transformed into a glorious future.
After the 1952 Egyptian coup and then especially after 1956, when he officially took control of the government, Gamal Abdel Nasser was the embodiment of the Arab Nationalist ideal. He was the consummate anti-imperialist. He railed against the West and its alleged depredations. He allied his country with the Soviet Union. He took on the colonial powers – the so-called “tripartite aggressors” – in the Suez Crisis and managed to project the illusion of victory. Most important of all, he pushed Arab unity, going so far as to sign a unification pact with Syria in 1958, creating the single sovereign state known as the United Arab Republic.
Nasser was also an iron-fisted totalitarian. He destroyed what political and economic liberalism existed in Egypt prior to the coup, shuttering the independent press and seizing total control of the nation’s institutions. Obviously, he persecuted and jailed any potential opponents, notable the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Again, Adeed Dawisha provides the details:
[Nasser] vilified the West as the perfidious “other,” the undying nemesis of the Arabs, the determined obstacle to their progress. In fiery speeches, Abdel Nasser reminded Arabs continuously of their glorious history and of their military and intellectual superiority over the West. All the catch phrases of Husri’s cultural nationalism were there: the glory of the Arabs’ heritage, the excellence and originality of their forefathers, the overwhelming power of the Arabs when they were united, their ensuing weakness as they quarreled and dissolved into many small entities, and the necessity to unite now in order to be free and strong again.
In promising the Arabs freedom, Abdel Nasser echoed Husri’s conception; it was not personal freedom and liberty, rather, it was freedom from Western domination. Liberal democracy had no place in this new order. Abdel Nasser did not offer it; he disdained it. “The separation of powers,” he once said, “is nothing but a big deception, because there really is no such thing as the separation of powers.” But neither did the nationalist multitude in those heady days ask for democracy, let alone demand it. The illiberal intellectual tradition of cultural nationalism, combined with the anti-Western struggle, which reached a crescendo in the 1950s and 1960s, justified the centralization of power in the minds of most Arabs, and contributed to the emergence of Abdel Nasser’s popular, populist, and authoritarian rule.
As so many Third World tyrants of his generation, Nasser was also a socialist. Among the first “reforms” introduced by the Revolutionary Command Council after it took power was a “land reform,” which was, more or less, an excuse for the government to seize huge chunks of land in the name of “the people.” As president, Nasser nationalized the country’s banks, insurance companies, and a great many of its manufacturers. Nasser, as an anti-colonial Soviet stooge, purged his country of foreign nationals – Greeks, Italians, and other Europeans, many of whom were integral to the pre-revolutionary economy. Egypt’s economy grew rather prolifically throughout Nasser’s tenure, but by and large, the majority of that growth took place in the public sector. Nasser’s government expanded exponentially and, as often happens is such cases, the state and its oligarchic operatives were the principal beneficiaries.
In short, then, Gamal Abdel Nasser was the ideal post-war, post-modern ruler. He was radically anti-colonial, radically anti-Western, radically anti-free-enterprise, and radically pro-state. As a result, he irreparably damaged Egypt’s liberal heritage, irreparably destroyed his nation’s institutions, and irreparably demolished the economic well-being of his people.
Nasser and his project of Arab Nationalism were badly damaged after 1967’s Six-Day War. And though he held onto power until his death in 1970, neither he nor his movement ever again had intellectual or political force. Indeed, throughout the decade after his death, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat purged the Egyptian government of Nasserite forces, broke firmly with the Soviet Union, and conducted what he called the “Corrective Revolution,” meant to disinfect Egypt from the scourge of Nasserite Arab Nationalism.
Of course, we all know what happened to Sadat. He made his – and his country’s – peace with Israel and then paid the ultimate price for doing so.
It would be incredibly unfair of us to blame Sadat’s assassination on anyone other than his assassins, and, of course, the “blind sheik” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was not only convicted in the U.S. of terrorism surrounding the 1993 plot to blow up the World Trade Center, but also issued the fatwa that sanctioned Sadat’s murder. That said, the cultural milieu in both the Middle East and the West had been aggressively agitated just two years before with the publication of one of the most important and insidious books of the late 20th century, Edward Said’s Orientalism.
For those of you who may not know, Edward Said was a “literary theorist” and a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. He was also the man most responsible for the current Western-liberal view of the Middle East and especially of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In a 2005 piece for World Affairs Journal, Joshua Muravchik, an American Enterprise Institute Scholar and a fellow at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies, described Said’s influence as follows:
Columbia University’s English Department may seem a surprising place from which to move the world, but this is what Professor Edward Said accomplished. He not only transformed the West’s perception of the Israel-Arab conflict, he also led the way toward a new, post-socialist life for leftism in which the proletariat was replaced by “people of color” as the redeemers of humankind. During the ten years that have passed since his death there have been no signs that his extraordinary influence is diminishing. According to a 2005 search on the utility “Syllabus finder,” Said’s books were assigned as reading in eight hundred and sixty-eight courses in American colleges and universities (counting only courses whose syllabi were available online). These ranged across literary criticism, politics, anthropology, Middle East studies, and other disciplines including postcolonial studies, a field widely credited with having grown out of Said’s work. More than forty books have been published about him, including even a few critical ones, but mostly adulatory, such as The Cambridge Introduction to Edward Said, published seven years after his death of leukemia in 2003. Georgetown University, UCLA, and other schools offer courses about him. A 2001 review for the Guardian called him “arguably the most influential intellectual of our time.”
The book that made Edward Said famous was Orientalism, published in 1978 when he was forty-three. Said’s objective was to expose the worm at the core of Western civilization, namely, its inability to define itself except over and against an imagined “other.” That “other” was the Oriental, a figure “to be feared . . . or to be controlled.” Ergo, Said claimed that “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was . . . a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” Elsewhere in the text he made clear that what was true for Europeans held equally for Americans.
This echoed a theme of 1960s radicalism that was forged in the movements against Jim Crow and against America’s war in Vietnam, namely that the Caucasian race was the scourge of humanity. Rather than shout this accusation from a soapbox, as others had done, Said delivered it in tones that awed readers with erudition. The names of abstruse contemporary theoreticians and obscure bygone academicians rolled off pages strewn with words that sent readers scurrying to their dictionaries. Never mind that some of these words could not be found in dictionaries (“paradeutic”) or that some were misused (“eschatological” where “scatological” was the intended meaning); never mind that some of the citations were pretentious (“the names of Levi-Strauss, Gramsci, and Michel Foucault drop with a dull thud,” commented historian J. H. Plumb, reviewing the book for the New York Times”) – – never mind any of this, the important point that evoked frissons of pleasure and excitement was that here was a “person of color” delivering a withering condemnation of the white man and, so to speak, beating him at his own game of intellectual elegance.
Edward Said was, in many ways, the perfect successor to the Arab Nationalists of a generation previous. Like many of them, he was raised in privilege and thoroughly benefitted from the fruits of European colonialism. Still, like the Nationalists before him, he raged against the West, against the West’s Middle Eastern proxy, namely Israel, and against all things connected to the Western traditions of philosophy, education, and metaphysics. Said too was a post-modernist.
Specifically, he was a “critical theorist,” which is to say that he interpreted everything – history, literature, politics – from the perspective of the world’s “oppressed” peoples. He was, intellectually, a fine successor to the theorists of the Frankfurt School, that is the neo-Marxist German intellectuals led by the likes of Max Horkheimer, Ericc Fromm, and, of course, Jurgen Habermas. As the aforementioned David Pryce-Jones described in an article published in 2008 by the New Criterion, the intellectual tradition that produced Said was both a “who’s who” of Western Leftist-intellectual thought and, at the same time, a “who’s who” of anti-Western self-loathing Marxist fools:
Intellectuals in Europe went much further, pleading guilty to all the accusations leveled against them by Third World nationalists. They and their predecessors had always been constant and enthusiastic critics of empire, and now were thrilled to have their diatribes against their own countries thrown back at them, as it were by clever students and disciples. Violence committed by the ruled against the rulers won their applause. This attitude of opposition starts with the delight so widely expressed in Britain over the loss of the American colonies—even the conservative-minded Edmund Burke supported the colonists. Innumerable nineteenth-and twentieth-century writers treated whatever reflected badly on the imperial power as a running scandal – – the Indian mutiny, the Governor Eyre episode in Jamaica, Denshawi in Egypt, Amritsar, the Arab revolts in Mesopotamia and Palestine, partition in India, and so on. Following Marxism-Leninism, leftists everywhere took it for granted that imperialism was the ultimate by-product of capitalism, to be extirpated accordingly in the glorious and imminent world revolution. Bernard Shaw and the Fabians, Sir Roger Casement, J. A. Hobson, Bloomsbury and the New Statesman, Arnold Toynbee, and other opinion-makers all over Europe acquired reputations as they savaged not just the British but the Belgians in the Congo, the Dutch in Indonesia, the French in the Maghreb or Indochina. Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon recommended the murdering of Frenchmen as a measure that Arabs owed themselves if they were to be free.
The outcome of this long-drawn anti-imperial campaigning has worked its way into today’s truism — taught in classrooms everywhere — that Europeans were exclusively vicious oppressors while those they ruled are exclusively virtuous victims. This incarnation of the myth of the Noble Savage overlooks, or carefully ignores, that imperialism brought far-flung peoples into contact with European languages, law, and culture, a necessary prerequisite if East and West were to meet on equal terms . . .
Edward Said was an outstanding example of an intellectual who condemned the West root and branch while taking every advantage of the privileges and rewards it has to offer. In its dishonesty and exercise of double standards, his was truly a cautionary tale of our times. Born in Jerusalem in 1935, he laid claims to be a Palestinian, dispossessed by Zionist Jews, and therefore an archetypal Third World victim. In sober fact, he was the son of an American father, a member of a prosperous Christian family with extensive business interests in Egypt. Undoubtedly an intelligent and civilized man with one side of his personality, he became a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. Yet with his other side, he wrote speeches for Yasser Arafat in the 1970s, and was far and away the most vociferous advocate for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Although he knew the history of persecution that lay behind Zionism, he could not accept Israel as anything but an injustice that had to be put right in bloodshed. On the pretext of victimhood, but from the safety of New York, he urged others to kill and be killed. When Arafat professed (falsely as it turned out) to be willing to make peace with Israel, Said broke with him, insisting on armed struggle. At the end of his life, this professor of a subject within the humanities was photographed throwing a stone from Lebanese soil against the boundary with Israel.
The contradictory aspects of the man came together in Orientalism, a book Said published in 1978. The thesis was that every Westerner who had ever studied or written about the Middle East had done so in bad faith. From ancient Greece through the medieval era to the present, the work of historians, grammarians, linguists, and even epigraphists had been “a rationalization of colonial rule.” There was no colonial rule in the lifetimes of the majority of these scholars, so they must have been “projecting” what was to come. For Said, these highly eclectic individuals were all engaged in a long-drawn conspiracy, international but invisible, to establish the supremacy of the West by depicting an East not only inferior but static and incapable of change. At bottom, here was the vulgar Marxist concept that knowledge serves only the interest of the ruling class. Said had also latched on to Michel Foucault, with his proposition — modishly avant-garde at the time — that there is no such thing as truth, but only “narratives” whose inventor is putting across his point of view. This reduces facts to whatever anyone wishes to make of them.
Edward Said’s impact on the Western intellectual and political environments cannot and should not be underestimated. Both with Orientalism and with its successor, The Question of Palestine, Said altered the debate and much of the sentiment in the West with respect to the “Arab question.” Said’s influence on the Middle East and the West’s approach to it can be seen in two specific developments, the first of which is the turning of the Western intellectual and political classes against the Israeli cause. Whereas the Israelis were, once upon a time, plucky, bold, collectivist farmers fighting desperately for freedom, Said largely succeeded in transforming them, in the eyes of the Western ruling classes, into interlopers, imperialists, and neo-fascists. Again, Joshua Muravchik provides the particulars:
Although Said’s assault on the Jewish state was thus initially camouflaged, it was devastatingly effective, as his stance on Arab/Israel questions came to dominate Middle East studies. The UCLA historian of the Middle East Nikki Keddie, whose sympathetic work on revolutionary Iran had won Said’s praise in his book Covering Islam, commented:
There has been a tendency in the Middle East field to adopt the word “Orientalism” as a generalized swear-word essentially referring to people who take the “wrong” position on the Arab-Israeli dispute or to people who are judged too “conservative.” It has nothing to do with whether they are good or not good in their disciplines.
His reputation made by the success of Orientalism, Said devoted much of the rest of his career to more direct advocacy of the Arab/Muslim/Palestinian cause, starting with the publication of The Question of Palestine in 1979, by which time he was already a member of the PLO’s top official body, the Palestinian National Council. The book was a full-throated polemic. The Jews were the aggressors; and the Palestinians their victims – on all counts and with little nuance. Even on the matter of terrorism, Said asserted, “There is nothing in Palestinian history, absolutely nothing at all to rival the record of Zionist terror.”
Over the last three-plus decades, the Middle East has been beset by all forms of political and ideological calamity. There was the Islamist/Khomeinist Revolution in Iran; the Iranian and Syrian annexation of erstwhile democratic Lebanon; the rise of Sunni Islamism; Saddam Hussein’s power grabs (not, coincidentally, unrelated to his own conception of Arab Nationalism); the attacks of 9/11; and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq – just to name a few. And yet, the Western political classes – and American presidents from Carter to Reagan, Bush to Clinton, Bush to Obama – continue to believe that the most pressing question for the region is a “just peace” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Even today, while Egypt tears itself apart and Syria is the setting for a regional, sectarian war, the American Secretary of State spends most of his time either yachting or insisting on the renewal of the peace process. All of this is largely the result of the impact of Edward Said.
What this has meant for Egypt is that its leaders, and especially Hosni Mubarak, were given a free hand to do just about whatever they wanted to do, as long as they remained cooperative with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace” process. As brutal and despotic as Nasser was, Mubarak was arguably far worse. And yet he benefitted both from American friendship and generosity.
This has been disastrous for Egypt – economically, physically, and spiritually. The Mubarak regime was a full-blown kleptocracy, in which the wealth of the people was stolen by the military and ruling classes. Today, despite decades of oppression and theft, these classes are back in power, proving in many ways to be the lesser of two evils. The institutions of liberal governance were established in Egypt under the British. But they were destroyed by Nasser and have remained all but non-existent ever since, with no one in the West ever batting an eyelash, much less threatening to stop up the foreign aid spigot. And yet we wonder why various liberal “springs” and purportedly democratic revolutions fail and quickly devolve into chaos, violence, and authoritarian rule?
A second crucial effect of Edward Said’s postmodern rant against the West was that it provided a certain amount of legitimacy among Western intellectuals for the “oppressed” Islamists. It is ironic, we suppose, that Nasser and his nationalists spent so much time waging an ideological war against the Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, since, as it turns out, they were on the same side in the struggle against the West. Said was a tireless defender both of the Palestinian cause and of the Palestinians’ “pioneering” terrorist tactics. Moreover, his work legitimized any resistance movement that fought to “free” the people of the Middle East from Western influence. Take a look, if you will, at the Al Qaeda declaration of war against the United States, the bin Laden/Zawahiri fatwa against the infidels. Among other things, it includes the passages:
The people of Islam awakened and realised that they are the main target for the aggression of the Zionist-Crusaders alliance. All false claims and propaganda about “Human Rights” were hammered down and exposed by the massacres that took place against the Muslims in every part of the world . . .
If there are more than one duty to be carried out, then the most important one should receive priority. Clearly after Belief (Imaan) there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land.
This would, of course, be one thing if it were merely the ranting of a handful of madmen in the mountains of Afghanistan. But it was not. In many ways it was deemed, by Western intellectuals, as a legitimate bill of particulars against the imperial West. This is, to no small extent, a byproduct of Said’s “critical theory” on the Orientalist West.
Among those who have been influenced by this postmodern rot are both the Islamists of the Middle East and the intellectual classes of the West, the most notable aspiring member of which is the President of the United States.
Above, we argued that neither Barack Obama nor the Muslim Brotherhood is directly responsible for the current crisis in Egypt. And while that may be true, both are nonetheless part of the cultural environment that has fostered and legitimized dependency, bitterness, and especially anti-Western and anti-Israeli resentment throughout the Middle East. The effects of this self-defeating and wretched environment are visible not just in Egypt today, but throughout the region, where nearly all Muslim nations and all Muslim peoples – Arabs, Persians, and Turks – are actively striving to improve their lot merely by raising their voices in their denunciations of the Western oppressors, be they American, European, or Israeli.
What this means, then, is that any resolution to the region’s problems in the near future is a pipe dream. If the Egyptian army holds elections and turns over power to a civilian government, it will not matter one whit. Egypt will still be a broken, angry, and resentful land. If the Syrian rebels defeat Bashar Assad and establish a “free” Syrian republic, it will not matter one whit. Syria will still be a broken, angry, and resentful land. If the Iranians stop building bombs and pledge to work with their neighbors in the region, it will not matter one whit. Iran will still be a broken, angry, and resentful land. And on and on it goes.
The Middle East is a political, cultural, and religious disaster. And while a great deal of the blame for this can be pinned on the politicized Islam of the last century or more, another large chunk can and should be placed at the feet of the Western postmodernists, who have themselves encouraged anger, resentment, and a rejection of Western institutions for the better part of century.
This, we’re afraid is the legacy of postmodernism in the Middle East. This is the legacy of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Edward Said.
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