Tikkun Magazine, January/February 2006
The Real Middle East
By Joe Lockard
Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil
by Mark LeVine. One World Publications, 2005.
The Modern Middle East
by Ilan Pappé. Routledge, 2005.
As U.S. universities grapple with the forces of globalization, Middle East studies has become a leading site for contested scholarship. Due to the discipline's location at the confluence of critical state interests, global corporations, religious conflicts, and political sensibilities (particularly towards criticism of Israel), studies of the region are both eminently useful and consistently charged. Driven by public demand for objective reporting and analysis on the one hand, and by a requirement for "useful" facts justifying the foreign policy endeavors of the Bush administration on the other, it's safe to say that Middle East studies is the single most politicized area of academic research in American universities today.
That is to say, there is a political and administrative demand to control knowledge, to make it productive by integrating it into broader systems of power. The Bush administration's Middle East policy legitimates itself by using a rhetoric of false democracy, factual disinformation, and neo-religious moral authority. Cultural knowledge and counter-information generated by scholars that lie outside these parameters contradict the notion—widespread in the United States—of a disinterested national benevolence, the sort of social self-congratulation that supports American exceptionalism. Middle Eastern societies might not, after all, not be entirely about brutality and domination.
At its best, Middle East studies benefits from a rich pool of scholars who understand the role of historic colonialism and oil-driven neo-colonialism in creating the contemporary Middle East. Such scholars appreciate the complex imbrication of religion and politics in nations as distinct as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and view the U.S. role in the region with skepticism at best. In short, an intellectually exciting Middle East studies department is an academic "perfect storm" waiting to happen, the sort of public relations nightmare that makes university deans wonder why they did not choose a safe career like repairing Gulf Coast flood levees during hurricanes.
The issue for scholars, teachers and educational institutions at this juncture must lie in how to create new knowledge and promote free discussions about the Middle East that will resist what Henry Giroux correctly terms "the new authoritarianism." It is the twin specters of Islamic terrorism and oil shortages that have supplied rightwing authoritarianism in the United States with organizing impetus and themes. Progressive counter-education against the use of the Middle East as a political and military stomping-ground for the American Empire needs new ideas, new texts, and new pedagogies. Where might they be? Two recent studies, Mark LeVine's trade book, Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil, and Ilan Pappé's textbook, The Modern Middle East, exemplify both the advantages and pitfalls of available critiques of social transformation in the Middle East.
Anti-Globalist Culture Jamming
LeVine's study is long, sinuous, and twisting, like an 'Um Kalthoum song. He accompanies his academic career with a musical one, so readers can come away from Why They Don't Hate Us with as much musical knowledge as political insight. LeVine uses the idea of "culture jamming" to discuss the cultural cross-inspiration and oppositional connection between rap, blues, heavy metal, and music from the Islamic world. This is not culture jamming in the Negativland sense of appropriating pop music samples in order to criticize power, but rather jamming as a strategy for solidarity and resistance among groups that share massive youth consumer cultures and political marginalization. So, it becomes possible to read Shiite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr and 50 Cent as street wise gangsta rappers up against the same metaphorical Man. That Man's precise identity changes from Europe to the Middle East to the United States, but there is a global jam happening against this authority figure who is always a stand-in for neoliberalism.
LeVine argues that neoliberal economics involve communicative pathologies no less than terrorism does, and that cross-cultural jamming provides a means of building the political trust needed to overcome global antagonisms and build an "axis of empathy." Different versions of this argument on the political utility of popular culture have appeared in the past, made by artists as different as Louis Armstrong and 1970s Czechoslovakian rockers Plastic People of the Universe. LeVine's innovation lies in his belief that the multicultural combinations of scholars, activists, and artists can produce and articulate community-based radical politics that will have mass appeal and thus impact politics. Scholarship needs to find a new voice in order to bring its knowledge of world cultures and ideology to bear effectively on the world. Progressive scholarship might as well learn to carry a tune if it wants to achieve its goals.
What is most fascinating about the cultural front LeVine envisions is not his high estimation of the political vanguardism of left-wing Middle Eastern intellectuals, but his remarkable faith in the capacity of regional youth to assume the same political agency that Western college students had during the 1960s. For LeVine, young people in the Middle East have, through the experience of neoliberal globalization, become quasi-revolutionary subjects much like postwar European and American youth. Are Middle Eastern youth really so ripe for radicalization? The author believes they truly are.
The next step of LeVine's argument is similarly Gramscian, with some serious qualifications. He proposes to bridge the divide between the Islamic world and the West by employing progressive religion to transform the new public political space created by culture jamming into something palatable to the masses. If popular music culture can be a leading means of mobilization, LeVine reasons, why not also use popular religion? "Only by helping people to hear God's voice," LeVine writes "can Christians transcend Bush and his dreams of apocalyptic rapture. Jews transcend Sharon and his "settler Judaism," Muslims transcend bin Laden and his nihilistic utopianism...." In short, the new philosophy of praxis, which Gramsci conceived of as worldly, material, and humanist, will now be divinely inspired, even for secularists who do not claim specific religious commitments.
The problem with using Gramsci in this fashion is not that Gramsci's philosophy was itself inherently secular. Clearly, for any progressive religious purpose, left-wing theory, even in its most non-religious forms, has much to offer persons of all cultural persuasions. Yet problems begin when LeVine asks secularists to play the religion card, as if faith itself does not matter. Nor does he consider if it makes sense to ask both the Western and Middle Eastern left to transcend religious nationalisms without interrogating the role of religion in creating and perpetuating the so-called clash between their civilizations. This creates some serious problems for LeVine. Even leaving aside the more clearly nationalistic forms of religiosity ascribed to by both Bush and bin Laden, the author's approach offers uncritical support for what all must acknowledge has been a critical factor causing Middle East violence.
It is at moments like these, despite LeVine's brilliant comparative observations on culture in Islamic countries and the West, or his persuasive case concerning the effects of globalization on the Middle East, that one feels that we are endlessly revisiting the lessons of the Enlightenment. Refusal to distinguish between state and religious authority represents an illegitimate invasion against private conscience—even in the Middle East. As many Arabs and Israelis will both tell you, there is nothing progressive about the religious colonization of the public sphere when everyday life is so heavily over-determined by the most oppressive of religious ideologies.
Middle East Modernism and Exclusion
If LeVine is a hip-hop anti-globalist writing a book-length culture jam, then Ilan Pappé is an older-style theorist of regional modernization who perhaps owes more to Eugene Rostow than he thinks. There is a strong modernist vs. postmodernist generational difference between the intellectual styles of Pappé and LeVine.
Pappé's milieu is the old school of Israeli leftism, one characterized by decisive certainty on the correctness of its historical knowledge; more frequent recourse to "I was there" narratives or rhetorical histrionics than to solid analysis; and condescension towards "outsiders" for their supposed ignorance. This is a problem that extends across the right-to-left spectrum of Israel's political society, where there is a pronounced conversational tendency to assume that an interlocutor is an ignorant tam in desperate need of education by monologue. The late twentieth-century's emphasis on the relativism of knowledge has had little if any discern-able impact upon the Left in Israel and Palestine; cultural attitudes employing unchallengeable victimization and self-righteousness as political platforms remain common.
Pappé adopts this well-tried and tired pose in the opening paragraphs of his twentieth-century history survey text, The Modern Middle East. He writes "I have devoted my struggle within Israeli academia against my own state's and society's wish to be excluded from the Middle East and thus remain—as [Israel] has been since its inception in 1948—an alien state within the region. I paid dearly for this struggle ... I was nearly expelled from Haifa University in April 2002."
This is nonsense twice over. Against the background of a public controversy involving Pappé's support for a master's thesis alleging mass killing of Palestinian villagers in 1948 by the Alexandroni Brigade in the coastal village of Tantara, a faculty colleague filed a complaint against Pappé for slandering faculty and staff, damaging their professional reputations. An academic disciplinary court summarily dismissed the complaint, without hearing, two weeks later. Pappé's academic freedom was at risk only in his own imagination. In an environment where there are so many real victims, false claims of victimization have a special distastefulness.
The Association of University Teachers in Great Britain nonetheless seized on Pappé's claim in 2005 as grounds to call for a boycott against Haifa University, a boycott that Pappé supported in the Guardian and other public fora and which the AUT rescinded after a re-vote. Belying his claim to struggle against Israel's supposed cultural self-exclusion from the Middle East, Pappé's political history is that of a participant in efforts to ghettoize Israeli academia. Sharing an all-too-common escape tactic in Jewish intellectual history, Pappé's history counters Israel's proclaimed distinctiveness among its neighbors by substituting a distinction of a different kind—the negation of Israel as an authentic neighbor and player in the Middle Eastern world. In the relatively few allusions to Israel that appear in this volume, a clear pattern emerges: Israel and its Zionists are colonial infiltrators, nation-destroyers, regional troublemakers, labor exploiters, and cultural thieves. For the most part, to read Pappé, Israel is a nation-state that exists in an ahistorical lacuna created by the events of 1948. A reader would never know that Israel functions within the same set of social and political contradictions as other states throughout the Middle East, including the introduction of neo-liberal economics, mass impoverishment, militarization, labor migration, male supremacist culture, and oppressive religious orthodoxies and bureaucracies. Israel possesses far more in common with the Palestinian territories, Jordan, or Lebanon than any of them have with European societies; it requires mutual xenophobia to ignore that commonality.
Condensed treatment hardly explains some of the historical ellipses that characterize Pappé's text. In a chapter on Middle Eastern media, radio disappears in a paragraph and a half, although it was an immensely influential popular medium from the establishment of colonial broadcasting networks until the 1960s. It is surprising to learn that, according to Pappé, Ibrahim Hasan Sirhan began Palestine's film industry in 1935 with a twenty-minute documentary. Yaakov Ben Dov, a student of Sergei Eisenstein, and Joseph Gal-Ezer filmed in Palestine throughout the teens and 1920s. Natan Axelrod began releasing Carmel newsreels in 1935, and Helmar Lerski directed Avodah in the same year.
These Jewish immigrant filmmakers inconvenience Pappé's inherently exclusivist definition of who counts as a "Palestinian." Imagine if an American cultural historian categorized Anzia Yezierska as a Polish rather than an American silent film script-writer in 1920s Hollywood because she was an immigrant. That is precisely the sort of categorization Pappé performs here. Such denial of identity leads to a denial of history. Other forms of denial appear here. An otherwise competent chapter reviewing rural history in the Middle East is marred by counterfactual assertion, based on one secondary source, that the Palestinian countryside during the Mandate witnessed "unprecedented devastation" and impoverishment. Issa Khalaf's "collapse thesis" points out stunning changes in the Palestinian Arab world during the years of the Mandate, including the consolidation of elite-notable class power and land ownership, dispossession of peasants, growth of the wage labor sector, and the rupture of older social institutions. But does modernization equate with devastation? During much of the interwar period, for example, the Arab-owned citrus sector paced the growth of the Jewish-owned sector despite the latter's advantage of foreign capital investment, and by World War II was larger than the Jewish sector, While this benefited land-owning Arab families—and citrus monoculture contributed to rural proletarianization—Palestine's rural peasantry remained resilient and as or even more adaptive towards modernization than the peasantries of other Middle Eastern societies.
What is most striking about this chapter, however, is how nuanced Pappé's treatment is of early twentieth-century Egyptian cotton agriculture, Nasser's land reforms, and the rural sociology of the region. How can such strength in one area be reconciled with weakness in another? The strength of Pappé's writing emerges in his knowledgeable ability to summarize and integrate social movements within a problematically over-broad regional category called the 'Middle East' stretching from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea, with the exception of Israel. History-writing in general is far more successful where it aims towards inclusion rather than exclusion, and Pappé's failures occur where he chooses exclusion of people or contradictory facts.
There is a manifest hunger that emerges at moments in Pappé's writings for an immersion within Arab cultures that has been denied to him by circumstances of birth and history. In a February 2005 interview, Pappé mentions reading and writing increasingly in Arabic; in this book he mentions in passing an observation from a Yemenite newspaper. Ilan Pappé is taking one of the intellectual directions that can most benefit Israeli Jewish society: learning the neighbors' language and its cultures. This critically necessary educational process in support of peaceful co-existence does not, however, need to entail the internalized self-negation of Jewish national subjectivity, the anti-modern road that Pappé has chosen for himself.
Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University, where he teaches early American and African American literature. His book, Brave New Classrooms: Democratic Education and the Internet, co-edited with Mark Pegrum, is forthcoming from Peter Lang.
Lockard, Joe. 2006. The real Middle East. Tikkun 21(1):65.