Michael Totten

Arabists vs. the Middle East

Posted by Mary Madigan

In his TNR (registration required) piece, Juan Cole’s Bad Blog Efraim Karsh describes the prejudices that influence Cole’s Informed Comment:

Cole suffers from many other common Arabist misconceptions that deeply prejudice and compromise his writing. Having done hardly any independent research on the twentieth-century Middle East, Cole’s analysis of this era is essentially derivative, echoing the conventional wisdom among Arabists and Orientalists regarding Islamic and Arab history.. Worse, Cole’s discussion of U.S. foreign policy frequently veers toward conspiratorial anti-Semitism. This is hardly the “informed” commentary Cole claims it to be.

Orientalism is defined by Edward Said as “the western belief that there could be such a thing as an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche. According to Said, no one “would dare talk about blacks or Jews using such essentialist cliché.”

Said’s works are popular, for the most part, among Islamic fundamentalists and Western academics, whose agree with his views on the “violation of Islam and the Arabs by a predatory West.”

To Said’s fans, Orientalism is synonymous with colonialism and racism. To them, any criticism of Arabs or Islam is racism and aggression. Which is why they can, with a straight face, call critics of the Arab/Islamic tradition of enslaving blacks “racists”.

Cole responded to Karsh’s piece by calling the staff of TNR “colonialists”. Reactionaries are so predicable.

What is an Arabist? Lebanese blogger Tony of Across the Bay defines the term:

It’s replaying that tired Arab nationalist myth that Arabism protects Christians by providing a secular Arab identity. The flip side of course is that only Arab nationalism is a legitimate narrative in the region. Everything. Everything else is a fitna in the heart of the umma. (Both terms by the way are thoroughly Islamic, not that the stupid Christian Arab nationalists ever noticed!) That’s why it’s no coincidence that in every case of Arab/Muslim – “ethnic minority” tension, Israel and the West/US is brought in. Why? In the case of Israel, it’s because it is the only other nationalism that managed to carve for itself a niche in the dominant Arab surrounding. That’s why any other ethnic movement is seen as another potential Israel, and thus is painted with the same brush..

…This move, that lent credence to the historic lie that the region is exclusively “Arab”, is at the heart of the problem. It not only led Edward Said, in his critique of reductionism, to reduce the entire Middle East to mean “the Arab world,” it also led to an incredibly hostile and condescending attitude towards all non-Arab ethnicities and identities in the region, not only by the Arab nationalist regimes, but by sympathetic Western scholars, among whom Cole is but an example.

When describing Cole’s bias, Karsh of TNR notes the similarities between The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’s obsession with the imagined influence of “world Zionism” (and its corresponding ruthless Zionist cabal) and Cole’s similar obsession with the Jewish/Neocon/Likudnik cabal.

Although Cole claims to provide informed comment on the Middle East, it’s obvious that he does not express the views of the Jews who live there. He also does not express the views of pro-Independence Lebanese, Iraqis, Kurds, Jews, Arab Christians, liberal Arabs or moderate Muslims. Cole, the Arabist, expresses the views of Arab nationalists and their Islamist allies.

Cole expresses his Arabist views through words. Arab nationalists express their views through the use of terrorism, financial incentives and ethnic cleansing.

As Tony from Across the Bay says, Cole is but an example.