This is a guest post contributed by Philip Carl Salzman, professor of anthropology at McGill University.
The greatest Middle Eastern success in public relations opinion-shaping in the last forty years has been the Palestinian self-definition of themselves as a separate people and as victims of Israel and the West. The entire world, it appears, has been convinced. Europeans and many Americans, not to mention members of the Muslim umma, trip over each other offering sympathy and buckets of money to the Palestinians. The United Nations makes unique arrangements for the Palestinians, and numerous UN bodies devote themselves solely to the needs of the Palestinians. And those same Europeans and Americans, and the members of those UN organs, risk apoplexy in their violent denunciations of Israel-Israel the bully, the oppressor, the colonialist, the racist-for thwarting the Palestinians.
Palestinians and their partisans, such as those who will meet at the “Edward Said Conference ” at Columbia University on November 7-8, explain their unfortunate situation as a result of Western imperialism and colonialism, which, they explain in terms of “postcolonial theory,” are rationalized and encouraged by disparaging “orientalist” stereotypes of Arabs and Middle Easterners. The responsibility for any and all current disabilities of the Middle East, according to postcolonial theory, rests with Europe and America, whose interventions have only victimized and destroyed Middle Eastern society and culture.
There is a certain inconsistency in the Arab and Muslim narrative about imperialism and colonialism. About the period of the 7th to the 18th centuries, when the Arab Muslim Empire spread by the sword from Arabia across all of the Middle East and North Africa to Morocco in the west, to Sicily, Portugal, Spain, and France in the north, and to Central Asia and India in the East, followed by Ottoman conquests in Europe, the narrative of imperialism and colonialism is triumphalist. Endless slaughter, forced conversion, slavery, and wholesale expropriation of property were all for the glory to God,, and all good. But the rise of the West, and its relatively brief and limited interventions in the Middle East, are viewed as the height of evil. Why? Because God choose Muslims as his True Followers, and as such, they have a right-no, a duty-to dominate.
The stagnation of the Muslim world in the 19th and 20th centuries, and its relative weakness in relation to the rising West, are today blamed by Palestinian and Arab partisans on Western intrusion in the region. But those directly facing the rising West at the time, the Ottomans and later the Persian Crown, knew that they had fallen behind, and sought Western civil and military technology and goods, and Western administrative and legal systems, in order to modernize and better face the challenge. This response is more consistent with our understanding of human life than the “postcolonial” argument that all is the fault of someone else, in this case, the West. One of the great Marxist students of imperialism, the anthropologist Eric Wolf, demonstrated that local peoples, at least those not murdered or enslaved, are not passive receivers of imperial and colonial culture, but shape their response according to their own culture and vision.
Narratives of victimization, such as the Palestinian one, neglect to account for the active Arab response to the Jews and to Jewish immigration. Explaining all by Western imposition robs the Arabs of Palestine of their agency, and infantalizes them. In reality, Palestinians responded actively: Elite landowners sold the Jews land, while the populace in general closed ranks against the Jews. Following the tribally-based principle of those closer uniting against those more distant, the opposition to the Jews was both organizational and religious. Jews were not kinsmen and, worse, were infidels.
Arab opposition to the Jews, expressed in riots and pogroms, was ratchetted up in the face of Jewish desires for national autonomy and independence. After all, it was believed that any part of the Dar al-Islam must remain under Muslim dominance forevermore. And for a thousand years, Jews under Islam had been a subservient and despised minority, cowering under the power of their Muslim masters. The Arabs in Palestine thought that the Jews could not and would not stand up to them, and they acted on that well established cultural principle. Honor would allow nothing less.
The Arabs acted according to their tradition, according to their lights. They refused compromise with inferiors; they refused to divide and share, rejecting a UN settlement. Instead, they strove for complete victory, as their ancestors had. However, the thousand-year-old conditions did not obtain. The Jews they faced were not dhimma, and they did not cower; against the odds, and with little outside help, they fought and won. The Arab states answered the call, but were ineffectual, and failed. The “Nakba” was self-induced by the Arabs. They demanded all or nothing, and got nothing. But they have continued to hold to the rejectionist position, taking an annihilationist stance toward Israel and the Jews. So in reality the self-induced “Nakba” is self-perpetuating. The successful agitprop that obscures this both to the world and to themselves is also a result of Arab agency. The Edward Said Conference will carry on in the same tradition.