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Saree Makdisi: Secrets of intellectual warfare
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 05 - 2007

In its 59th anniversary, the memory and repercussions of the Palestinian Nakba continue to haunt this troubled region. But so does neo-Orientalism, which dictates much of American foreign policy
Interview by Amira Howeidy
Few if any of the tens of thousands of Egyptians flocking to theatres in the last month to see the epic movie 300 are aware of what the scriptwriter, Frank Miller, told American national radio about Arab-Muslim culture in January. Had they known, his movie would have likely had a different reception.
In what was supposed to be a critique of President George W Bush's State of the Union Speech which included references to the "global war on terror", Miller warned Americans of what they're "up against" -- "the sixth-century barbarism that these people actually represent". In fact, he said, "the contention that all cultures are equal and that every belief system is as good as the next, is utterly reprehensible. We have to understand that some cultures are superior and some cultures are inferior. Our culture in the West is superior than their culture".
While American media and foreign policy alike are rife with such ridiculously misinformed racism, back in this part of the world little attention is paid to the neo-con world view; even the energetic critique of the US media in the wake of 9/11 has all but completely died down. Arab-Muslims are in fact required not only to pay attention to such discourse and the damage in which it results, but equally to wage intellectual war in self-defence.
Such, at least, was the view of Saree Makdisi, University of California, Los Angles professor of English and comparative literature, during a series of lectures he delivered in Cairo this week.
Asked if the three subjects are connected, Makdisi immediately answered, "no"; then he paused, evidently registering the fact that, in many ways, they are. Zionism, the direct cause of the 1948 Nakba and the subsequent establishment of the state of Israel in the same year, "always had a degree of Orientalism written into it", not only with regard to Arabs but also with Israel's own Arab Jewish population: "Both Orientalism and Zionism are founded on an opposition between the self and other. And it is this that is underlying the very structure that defines both," he told Al-Ahram Weekly following the last lecture on Monday.
Makdisi lectured on the Revival of Orientalism, explaining how politically catastrophic it is to think of the world in such binary terms, which is precisely what the current US administration is doing. Although the Arab and Muslim world remains the primary victim of the neo-Orientalist influence on US foreign policy, the countless examples that Makdisi cited during his talk of how "they" perceive "us" only served to illustrate how oblivious Arabs and Muslims have become of policies that affect their present and future.
"I think it's a mistake to imagine that US foreign policy these days is driven strictly by national interests or realpolitik," he warned. "It is increasingly driven by certain cultural predispositions, certain ways of imagining the world that US policy-makers have thought themselves in possession of. And it's these cultural predeterminations that I think are driving a lot of what's going on in American foreign policy rather than America's actual material interest, particularly in the Middle East." So, for example, when Miller "critiques" Bush's State of the Union speech, Makdisi notes, he actually replicates what the president says.
"There's no question that US policy- makers and far too many intellectuals, filmmakers, artists and so forth, are gripped by a view of the world that takes for granted the idea that there's a clash of civilisations between the East and West and that there's a titanic struggle that we're now witnessing between the secular, rational, modern freedom of the West and the religiously crazed, irrational and backward 'totalitarianism' of the East." Even those who disagree with the Bush administration's policy in the Middle East, such as John Kerry during his presidential campaign, Makdisi pointed out, are arguing that what's happening in Iraq is a distraction from the real war on terror, which they want to go back to.
Observing this from within the US, the worrying development for Makdisi isn't simply that the US is making flawed assumptions about the nature of its supposed opponents in the world, but rather that, "it's chasing after an opponent that doesn't really exist. This spectre that they created in their own minds of what they call Islamic fascism that is taking over the entire world and wants to subject the entire world to their totalitarian ideology and so on, that doesn't exist".
So what American policy is expressing are "America's own fears, internally, the products of its own unconscious, and it is chasing after those ghosts and spectres rather than its actual, real opponents and enemies." And while this is being translated into "destructive and self- destructive policies", it is important for Arabs to realise that US policy-makers and their ideologues can only understand reactions to their policies by falling back on cultural terms.
In other words, "there's a tendency for Americans to come up with their own imagination of what it is that Arabs and Muslims think". So, for example, when the Al-Jazeera news network launched its English station to reach out to English-speaking viewers, not one single US satellite or cable company wanted to touch them. "Here is a channel deliberately made for an American audience to provide an Arab perspective and what's the reaction? No thank you. We don't want to know what you have to say, we'd rather tell you what we think you say and think. And we listen to ourselves talk to you, rather than listen to you tell us what you think."
Meanwhile, Hollywood continues to produce one film and TV series after another in which Arabs and Muslims play central roles -- as the bad guys. To mention just a few, Makdisi listed movies like United 93, World Trade Centre, and TV series like 24 and Sleeper Cell. As more and more Americans -- both inside and outside the US administration -- embrace the clash-of-civilisations worldview, Makdisi points an accusing finger at one of this vision's proponents: Bernard Lewis. Currently America's leading "expert" on the Middle East, Lewis, Makdisi says, has "zero credibility in the university system". And yet the work of this 91-year-old professor emeritus at Princeton University has tremendous appeal outside the academy and especially within US policy- making circles. In fact, Makdisi points out, Samuel Huntington's famous Clash of Civilizations was based on an article by Lewis titled "The roots of Muslim rage". (Makdisi quotes Lewis: "in confronting Islam we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is a clash of civilizations, the irrational reaction of an ancient historic rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present and the worldwide expansion of both".)
As the US failure in Iraq continues to provoke reactions back home, more and more evidence is surfacing in the media on the ideological or cultural influences that contributed to the decision to invade and the manner in which the invasion was undertaken. Makdisi points out how former national security adviser Brent Scocroft recently stirred up a storm when he pointed out Lewis in particular among those who led to the disastrous American invasion of Iraq. Scocroft, said Makdisi, told an interviewer in the New Yorker, "this idea that we've got to hit somebody hard comes from Bernard Lewis". And what does Lewis say? Makdisi quotes him again: "I believe that one of the things you have to do to Arabs is to hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power." It is also no coincidence that, when American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh exposed the Abu Ghreib prisoners scandal, experts pointed to a book, The Arab Mind which they said is "the bible" of the neo-cons on Arab behaviour. It is no coincidence either that its author, Raphael Patai, is an Israeli Orientalist.
(Page 35 of the book reads: "A crying boy quickly receives attention while a crying girl is often ignored. This expectation is further enforced by another childhood experience of which many male infants partake in the first year of their lives... This comforting and soothing of the baby boy often takes the form of handling his genitals. Mother, grandmother, other relatives and visitors, will play with the penis of the boy, not only to soothe him, but also to make him smile.")
Although the military defeat of the US in Iraq has turned the tide against the neo-cons as calls to end the war gain momentum in America, this is not enough; it does not sufficiently counter the effect of neo-con on the Arab and Muslim world. "There is not enough of a reaction against this way of thinking in the US," Makdisi argued, referring to the revolutionary 18th-century English poet and artist William Blake's concept of an "intellectual warfare". There need to be more English- speaking Arabs, scholars and intellectuals to counter these damaging misconceptions about us, he urged. "The great lesson is," he said, "we have to convey our ideas, articulate our point of view and get our point of view across to an American audience. If people in the US administration think of us in neo-Orientalist terms, to a certain extent they are to blame because it's wrong to think that way. But we're to blame for letting them think that way about us."
Makdisi's bold views and prolific writings have earned him respect but also, unsurprisingly, enemies. In January 2006 he published an article in the LA Times entitled "Witch hunt at UCLA", which explains how he and other "targeted professors" were the subject of an offer made by a UCLA graduate website encouraging students to "expose" professors who talk about Bush or the war on Iraq in return for money. Makdisi's articles which appear in various American newspapers often generate positive feedback from "normal Americans" who, he says, have thanked him for speaking up and presenting a critical point of view. But he also gets hate mail by America's Israel defenders accusing him of "vicious lying" and "hate". Still, he says, "I'm holding up to what I know objectively to be a humanist argument. These guys see this and recognise -- subconsciously because they can't really process it -- their own inhumanity in what they represent. So in their twisted minds, they turn it around and project it onto me. They accuse me of talking about hate, when I'm talking about peace and justice. They're the ones talking about hate. It's like you press a button and hate comes out of it like a volcano."
In his calmness and low-pitched voice, Makdisi easily sounds sarcastic. He also bears a resemblance to Edward Said, who happens to be his uncle. When I asked him how the witch hunt in UCLA or Zionist criticism of his views has affected him, he said it didn't. "I'm an intellectual, somebody who uses his brain to think and write. So it's utterly offensive that somebody articulating a point of view is received not with counter arguments but rather with hate, blind derision, anger and viciousness." Personally, he adds, he doesn't "give a damn". Nor should he, he explains: "the kind of things they say are utterly stupid and the reason why Israel's America defenders resort to these tactics is because they have nothing else to say. They have no arguments, reason, justification, they have no legal basis."
In his talk on the Nakba, Makdisi described Zionism in soft- and hard-core terms of his own forging. "New" Israeli historians such as Benny Morris, who openly admit that ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians was a necessity for the creation of Israel in and after 1948 are hard- core Zionists, says Makdisi, because they are "honest" about vicious racism, whereas men like Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz or novelist Amos Oz, who "want to defend what Israel does by inventing their alternate history, their counter reality", stand for soft-core Zionism. "It always struck me that there's something problematic with [Oz's] view of the conflict, something missing. And it seems to me that a lot of what's missing is honesty. Honesty to himself. The mantra that little Israel declared its independence and the next day armies of Arabs attacked it -- this was dismissed as a myth 40 years ago, so for him to say it again in a book published two or three years ago is pathetic."
Such Israeli narratives of 1948 -- which insist that there was always a Jewish land, that the Arabs were a minority, and Palestinians were killed by accident, not because of systematic Zionist massacres -- contrasts sharply with the Palestinian narrative of the Nakba, which Makdisi describes as "raw". It is personal, spontaneous and in the case of Ghassan Kanafani, for example, "intimate". And this might be the difference, he explained, between "myth" -- propagated by Zionist and Israeli narrative, and "reality" -- expressed in the Palestinian narrative.
In a comment during Makdisi's lecture on the Nakba, Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour suggested that 1948 "hasn't in fact been written" by the Arabs or Palestinians. "After 60 years, it's still very painful to handle the whole experience."
Makdisi agrees.
But today, he believes, things have changed and Americans are interested in reading about Palestine and the Palestinians. It's ironic perhaps that former US president Jimmy Carter, who sponsored the first Israeli-Arab peace agreement, unpopular among Arabs to this day, has contributed to this state of mind. Makdisi believes that the attack on Carter's book Palestine, Peace not Apartheid by America's Jews only paved the way for the publishing of more books on Palestine.
photo: Sherif Sonbol

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