Teaching the Truth about the Middle East

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Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, author of Black Tents of Baluchistan, and a member of the Board of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Last fall (2003), after a long lapse, in a senior seminar of fifteen students, I started teaching again about the Middle East. One of my motivations was to counter what appeared to me widespread and grave misrepresentations about the Middle East, in particular about the Israel-Arab conflict (commonly misconceived as the Israel-Palestinian conflict).

In North American universities, the dominant approach to the Middle East has been defined by the “post-colonial” discourse launched by Edward Said’s famous/notorious Orientalism. “Post-colonialism” is the latest version of Leninist theory, which explains the conditions of non-capitalist societies as a consequence of imperialism. With the repudiation of “scientific Marxist-Leninism” in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and increasingly in Asian and other outliers, academic marxists in North America have gravitated to Leninist “post­colonialism,” which, heavy on moralizing and jargon, and light on systematic theory, has also attracted post-modernists. The central theme of post-colonialism is that Middle Easterners and other inhabitants of the “Third World” have been and are victims of Euro-American oppression, and all of their troubles stem from their victimization. Israel is, in this perspective, the hob-nailed boot of Euro-American colonialism grinding the Palestinians into the sand.

I was encouraged to return to teaching about the Middle East by the appearance of two recent comprehensive academic studies that could serve as alternatives or counters to the dominant “post-colonial” discourse. These were The Islamic Middle East by the anthropologist Charles Lindholm (2nd revised edition, 2002, Blackwell), and The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel

P. Huntington (1996, Simon and Shuster).

Contrasting The Islamic Middle East and The Clash of Civilizations These two works appear at first glance to be quite different and markedly contrasting:

(1) Lindholm is an anthropologist, while Huntington is a political scientist.

(2) The Islamic Middle East (hereafter: IME) reports only on the Middle East, so he is able to review Middle Eastern culture and history in some detail. In contrast, The Clash of Civilizations (hereafter: CC) is a world survey discussing a number of civilizations of which Islamic Civilization is one, so his account is more cursory.

(3) Most important, the central analyses of the Middle East appear to be in opposition. Lindholm emphasizes the commonalities between Middle Eastern, especially Arab culture, and American culture. He (13) says:

[T]he Middle East has at its core many of the values that are presently believed to be essential characteristics of the modern western world: egalitarianism, individualism, pluralism, competitiveness, calculating rationality, personal initiative, social mobility, freedom….

Lindholm (13) also grants some distinguishing, specifically Middle Eastern characteristics: “chivalric honor, female seclusion, and patrilineality… that… favored invidious distinctions between men and women, whites and blacks, tribesmen and peasants, nobles and commoners, free men and slaves.”

In contrast, Huntington (305) argues: Historically American national identity has been defined culturally by the heritage of Western civilization and politically by the principles of… liberty, democracy, individualism, equality before the law, constitutionalism, private property.

Huntington (311) further endorses the view and quotes the words of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., stating that Europe is “the unique source” of the “ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom….These are European ideas, not Asian, nor African, nor Middle Eastern Ideas, except by adoption.” He (70, 210) further distinguishes Western civilization from Islamic civilization in terms of state/church relations, with Western civilization cleaving church from state and maintaining their separation, and Islamic civilization ever striving to unite church and state.

Thus Lindholm argues that Middle Easterners and Westerners share basic values, while Hutchinson argues that American values are drawn from the unique Western heritage.

(4) Finally, Lindholm appears in his presentation to be highly sympathetic to the Arab and other peoples he describes, while Huntington presents in case in a matter-of-fact fashion, and for the purpose of advancing the interests of the United States.

Common Understandings of the Middle East in The Islamic Middle East and The Clash of Civilizations

These differences between IME and CC resulted in contrasting responses by my students, who were senior anthropology students. They liked IME and disliked CC. Some disliked CC almost violently. Their explanation focused on the “feeling tone”: Lindholm was sympathetic to the Arabs and other Islamic Middle Easterners, while Huntington was cold, culture-centric, and nationalistic. However, students also realized that, in spite of apparent differences between IME and CC, at a profound level they were very similar:

(1) In both books the approach is strongly cultural. Lindholm (10) defines his approach:

I believe we should look for… the manner in which Middle Eastern people face the existential problems involved in constructing their ethical choices and self-identities through what Muhammad Arkoun calls the “cultural imaginary”; that is, the deeply-held indigenous values that provide the most salient and strongly motivating bases for action, feeling and thought among Middle Easterners themselves, inspiring them in their ordinary lives, in their symbolic and religious experiences, and in their dialectical interaction with the rest of the world.

Huntington (20-21) states:

The central theme of this book is that culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identitities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world…. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations.

Elaborating, he (41) continues:

Civilization and culture both refer to the overall way of life of a people, and a civilization is a culture writ large. They both involve the “values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking to which successive generations in a given society have attached primary importance.”

(2) Both Lindholm and Huntington demonstrate convincingly by reference to both history and contemporary events the violent, expansionist tendencies of Islam. Lindholm (Part III) describes the military expansion of the Arab empire and its colonial occupation of lands beyond Arabia. He then describes the sanguinary internal conflicts among Muslims throughout history. Huntington (254-258) focuses more on contemporary events, arguing in “Islam’s Bloody Borders” that:

The overwheming majority of fault line conflicts, however, have taken place along the boundary looping across Eurasia and Africa that separates Muslims from non-Muslims…. Intense antagonisms and violent conflicts are pervasive betweeen local Muslim and non-Muslim peoples…. There were, in short, three times as many intercivilizational conflicts involving Muslims as there were conflicts between all non-Muslim civilizations…..Two-thirds to three-quarters of intercivilizational wars were between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islam’s borders are bloody, and are its innards….Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-twentieth-century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny.

(3) Both identify the internally conflictful nature of Middle Eastern society. Lindholm (271) argues, with sadness and regret, that in the Middle East states are always weak and/or oppressive. The reason is that secular regimes will always be regarded as illegitimate, because they are not Islamic, while Islamic sacred regimes will always be discredited due to their involvement in everyday politics and governance. For Huntington (174, 268), this weakness of societal and state level organization in the Arab world is illustrated by the “U shaped” identity, strong at the familial and tribal level, weak at the societal level, and strong at the more extensive religious and civilizational level. The most important result of this for Huntington (176-178, 264) is that there is no civilizational core state in Islamic civilization to discipline the unruly elements and control the volatile borders, and thus no civilizational actor with whom other civilizations can negotiate workable agreements. As he (264) says, “Islam is a source of instability in the world because it lacks a dominant center.”

(4) Thus, It is agreed by both authors -implicitly by Lindholm and explicitly by Huntington ­that notwithstanding the Arab propensity for equality and freedom, individuality and competition, values and institutions important for modern society, particularly the rule of law, political democracy, constitutionalism, and equality before the law, are Western but not Middle Eastern characteristics.

(5) Finally, both Lindholm and Huntington are pessimistic about the likelihood of peace and prosperity in Arab and Islamic societies and the likelihood of cordial, cooperative relations with non-Arab and non-Islamic societies. Although the general orientation of Lindholm’s book appears optimistic, emphasizing common values as a basis for communication and mutual sympathy, he ends on a pessimistic note, arguing (271), as mentioned, that in the Middle East societal organization will likely remain unstable, and weak or oppresssive. In contrast, the general orientation of Huntington appears pessimistic, emphasizing the unbridgeable gap and inevitable hostility between civilizations, he ends on an optimistic note, outlining policies of restraint for minimizing conflict and a cleaving to abstract commonalities for maximizing mutual sympathy (316, 320). However, without a core Islamic civilizational state to order its own civilizational house and to treat with other civilizations, continuing

conflict and violence at the margins are inevitable, as documented in Huntington’s (254-258) section, “Islam’s Bloody Borders.”

Ethnographic illustration

In addition to the general surveys in IME and CC, I assigned my students ethnographic accounts of particular peoples in the Arab world. All of the students read E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s brilliant The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, about the Bedouin of eastern Libya, their interminable tribal wars, their self-definition as warriors of Islam, their relations with Ottoman officials, their increasing integration with the Sanusi sufi order, and their defensive war against the Italian invaders during the first half of the 20th century. As well, each student read either The Rwala Bedouoin Today, by Wm. Lancaster, or Mobile Nomads: Development Planning and Social Change in Oman, by Dawn Chatty.

These readings tended to confirm in the minds of the students the understandings presented in IME and CC. Granted that these readings focused on Bedouin, but I believe that most ethnographies would have been consistent with IME and CC.

Future teaching about the Middle East

Rather than addressing the Israel-Arab conflict directly, I have taken a more indirect route to teaching the truth about the Middle East. I have aimed to give a more accurate picture of the Arab world, grounded in historical and ethnographic research, than is common in the simplistic news accounts or biased partisan accounts of the Middle East. While my students were not entirely comfortable with the new model of the Middle East presented in the readings, they did, at least by their own reports, come to accept it.

In my next Middle East seminar, and in the larger Middle East course that will follow it in a year, I plan to assign The Islamic Middle East, which appears to me to present Middle Eastern realities in a sympathetic and sufficiently tough-minded way, but not The Clash of Civilizations, as it is easier to swallow difficult news in a sympathetic medium, i.e. IME. As well, I shall assign once again the great anthropological classic The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, which illustrates so well the picture presented in IME. And I shall experiment by assigning Bat Ye’or’s new book, Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide, which should show a different side of the Middle East than students are accustomed to hear.

Let us teach the truth, and amaze our friends and confound our enemies.

Teaching the Truth about the Middle East

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Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman served as professor of anthropology at McGill University from 1968 to 2018. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.

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