My entry into Middle East studies was innocent of politics. I was drawn to the Middle East by my academic interest in nomadic tribes, including, ironically, the politics of nomadic tribes. My M.A. thesis was a comparison of tribes from the literature. But as a cultural anthropologist, Ph.D. research involved ethnographic field research, living for a period among the people I was studying. Inspired in part by Fredrik Barth’s Nomads of South Persia, I determined to do my field research in Iran, then under the relatively friendly control of the Shah. I knew that, as a Jewish boy, I might not be fully welcome in Arab countries, in any case increasingly unfriendly to America. And not being too clever at languages, I thought that Indo-European Persian language would be easier for me than Semitic Arabic. Furthermore, Iran provided a variety of nomadic peoples; I chose to study the desert people of Baluchistan, to contrast with Barth’s mountain nomads. From 1968 to 1976, I spent 27 months living in the Yarahmadzai tribe. My findings are summed up in Black Tents of Baluchistan (Smithsonian, 2000). More general and comparative analyses appeared under the title, Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State (Westview, 2004).
Notwithstanding my research immersion in Middle Eastern life, international, ethnic, and religious politics were not very much on my radar. But I was concerned about the fate of Israel as it was repeatedly attacked, and was glued to my television during the 1967 and 1973 wars, hoping for the best. However, as my family had no close ties with Israel, and I had no personal religious attachment, my interest was distant and rather abstract. I recognized that the Palestinians had claims, and hoped for some kind of compromise between Israel and the Palestinians. The belligerent hostility of the Arab states appeared to be based on some greater antipathy. The Oslo accords and the establishment of the Palestinian authority appeared to promise the settling of conflicting demands and a peaceful future for Israelis and Arabs. Such optimism, unfortunately, proved unrealistic. The attempts and failures were repeated in subsequent American-led peace negotiations, apparently the result of Palestinian rejectionism. I began to wonder what really was the goal of the Palestinians.
The anti-Shah revolution in Iran, which led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, was a blow to my professional ambition to return to Baluchistan for further research. Iranian pro-Americanism had morphed into militant anti-Americanism, and cooperation with Israel was rejected in favour of hostility, annihilationist hostility. I did not share the view of some academic colleagues and other observers that the Islamic Republic would prove to be a benign influence on Iran and the Middle East. In fact, the regime’s triumphalist and imperialist Shiism has been received with no more enthusiasm in Iran’s minority regions, such as Sunni Baluchistan, than in Sunni Arabia and Egypt. Some Baluch have answered with a terrorist insurgency directed at the Islamic Republic security services. But in recent years, culminating with the 2009 national elections, the regime has shifted somewhat away from theocratic rule to more of a police state, while at the same time maintaining adherence to the most fanatical interpretation of Shiism. In so doing, it has turned on its own Shiite citizens violating them in ways typical of brutal dictatorships. The regime has lost its legitimacy, but appears ready to use total coercion to maintain its control.
Even my blinkered, academic view of the Middle East could not survive the attacks on America on 11 September 2001. Cultural relativity, anthropology’s great gift to public discourse, seemed oddly inappropriate to the event. The attack caught our attention in a way that Osama bin Laden’s earlier proclamations had not. And jihad, it turned out, was not some new idea by a fanatical fringe, but a central tenet of Islam, which divides the world into believers, who for the sake of God must dominate, and infidels, who must be dominated and humiliated. In this light, the return to Islam as a political movement, following the failure of nationalism, socialism, and modernization in the Middle East, is an ominous development. But it is also an indication of a substratum of ideology that undoubtedly shaped the earlier movements.
Increasingly after 9/11 problems in the Middle East were blamed on Israel. This was convenient for European countries with large Muslim populations. It was consistent with postcolonial frameworks, however inappropriately applied, of those, including many American academics, who saw imperialism and colonialism as the cause of all problems. In the Middle East, even while there was public celebration in Arab streets, it was denied that 9/11 was the work of Arabs; rather, it was asserted, Israel’s Mossad was behind it, perhaps in collaboration with President Bush.
Struggling with understanding all of this, I discovered Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a network of academics with similar concerns, led by Ed Beck. SPME exposed me to a variety of relevant ideas, and allowed me to exchange views with others. I started to read more widely, and to develop a broader and deeper framework for understanding the Middle East and its past and current processes. I wrote a few short essays for SPME’s Faculty Forum that helped to crystalize my point of view and that provided a stimulus for my next book.
You will not be surprised to hear that my new framework incorporated the basic principle of cultural anthropology: culture matters! It appears to me that many of the problems in the Middle East arise from local cultures, an argument developed in Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Humanity, 2008). In particular, Arab culture, which is founded on Bedouin tribal culture, has retained features such as particularistic group loyalty, opposition to groups of the same order, commitment to dominate, and honour that must be upheld. Furthermore, Islam, arising from a Bedouin constituency, incorporated identification, opposition, and domination at a higher level of integration. These characteristics tend to impede legitimate governance, feed communal conflict, and encourage external aggression. To the extent that I am correct in this understanding, placing the blame for problems in the Middle East on outsiders is a projection, in the psychological sense. More specifically, despotism, underdevelopment, and communal conflict in the Arab world cannot with justification be blamed on Israel, which is used as a scapegoat by Middle Easterners and many Europeans and North American academics.
As a specialist in Middle East studies, I can speak directly to these issues through my publications and teaching. Classes in Middle Eastern ethnography are opportunities to address a variety of issues, and to refute false arguments. One way to teach, highly regarded my many whom I respect, is to present all sides, alternative narratives, and multiple interpretations. This approach has the advantage of putting all cards on the table, and giving students agency for deciding their view. Another way to teach is to present the view that one thinks is correct, that one professes. In some classes I teach the first way, but in my Middle East courses I teach the second way. One reason is that views contrary to mine are presented very widely throughout the university and in the media, so students do have exposure to a variety of views, and the opportunity to choose among them.
Most members of SPME are not Middle East studies specialists, but in many cases are able to bring their expertise-in law or medicine or history or urban planning-to bear on disputes about the Middle East. Some have developed an expertise in aspects of Middle Eastern studies, and especially in the Arab-Israel conflict. A few have, in addition to their day jobs, become full Middle Eastern studies experts and have made major contributions to the literature and to ongoing discourse on Middle Eastern matters. All have provided stimulation and support in our collective SPME quest for understanding and for the diffusion of balanced knowledge.
As SPME is oriented toward “promoting academic integrity and honest debate,” we must continue to generate academic knowledge and discourse, following our successful conferences on postcolonialism and Iran, and publication of proceedings, with further conferences. There is great potential if local chapters undertake similar initiatives, drawing on local academic talent. Some of SPME’s specialized committees, e.g. on medicine and on law, have provided expert interventions in academic journals to refute biased accounts; these effective responses are valuable and must continue. Our impressive petitions appear to have influenced important decisions in various bodies around the world. Finally, encouraging and supporting original and pertinent research is a potential area of development for SPME, and would support our other functions.
Finally, I must end on a practical note. All of our SPME activities are made possible by the availability of financial resources. Administrative and program costs must be covered, even with the volunteer efforts of members. How many programs we can support, whether we can put up petitions, put on conferences, support local chapters, and initiate research, depends upon funds. SPME has many supporters, but many of them have not so far paid membership dues. Please do so; we rely on you. And if you know potential donors, let us try to make a case to them for support of SPME. Our adversaries are very well supported; why, you would think they had oil wells at their disposal. If we all pitch in, we shall have the strength to counter them, by promoting academic integrity and honest debate.