Most of us do not have time to read a great deal about the Middle East, or any other subject, and so we put our faith in experts. We have to. Scientists tell us that electrons and muons and other such things exist, but we can't see them. Biologists tell us there are viruses and most of us have never seen those either. We have to trust the experts.
Middle East and Islam experts tell us different things. Which ones can be trusted? A man wrote to me that John Bagot Glubb explained that Islam did not conquer and convert people by force. If Glubb says so it must be right? Right? Wrong. Glubb was a British Arab sympathizer. We can easily show from numerous examples in history that Muslims did conquer and convert people, sometimes using force, or sometimes because of the expediency of converting to the religion of the conquerer and being a first class citizen. Christians did that too.
The answer to the question "whom to trust?" is "trust nobody completely." There is no way of getting an "unbiased jury" about the Middle East, Islam or Israel, especially not from "experts" who are all biased in one way or another. As a rule of thumb, trust what "experts" write in articles in popular newspapers or in popular books much less than what they write in peer-reviewed journals. Never accept any important pronouncement just because it comes from an "expert." If at least two really independent sources, preferably with generally opposing views, agree on a fact, then it has a reasonable chance of being true: if it is written in Al-Jazeera, Jerusalem Post and New York Times, or if both Edward Said and Efraim Karsh agree on a fact, then probably it is true. If you catch an "expert" telling you one or two or three major facts that you know are not true, then you probably can disregard the rest of what the "expert" has to say about the topic. All of the above would appear to be common sense, but too many people disregard it when forming their opinions.
The fragile nature of "expertise" is illustrated by the recent misadventures of Bernard Lewis and Baruch Kimmerling. Bernard Lewis enjoys a great and justified reputation as a scholar of the Middle East. He recently made a prediction about an apocalyptic happening to be scheduled on August 22
by the rulers of Iran. The prediction proved false. Lewis has also made some dubious pronouncements about Islam in various journals. This becomes a problem, because once someone like Lewis says something is true, it is very hard to convince people otherwise, regardless of the facts. For example, Lewis's study of anti-Semitism in Arab and Muslim countries leaves the impression that Jews were treated as equals in Muslim society before the 19th century, and that anti-Semitism is almost entirely the result of modern Western influence and the Soviet anti-Zionism campaign. This ignores quaint and ancient customs such as stoning of Jews in Yemen and Morocco, considered a great sport by children, as well as forced conversions and occassional pogroms. However, since Lewis of Princeton said it is so, it must be so. Baruch Kimmerling,
another scholar in his own right, attacks Lewis for his predictiion about an August 22 Muslim apocalypse, and uses that as a base to launch a general attack on Lewis. Anyone can get a prediction wrong of course. Kimmerling, begins by getting the date of the prediction wrong. He wrote:
On September 22, 2006, Iran was supposed to attack Israel and perhaps the entire Western world. And why precisely on this specific day? Because it is the 27th day of the month of Rajab (in the year 1427, according to the Muslim calendar), the same day Mohammed ascended to heaven on his legendary horse Buraq. And why attack on this day? Because this is what the well-known Orientalist Bernard Lewis said.
I added the emphasis. Oh well, anyone can get a date wrong. But Kimmerling gets a lot more wrong than the date. Actually Lewis gave some very good reasons for choosing that date, including the fact that Iranian President Ahmadinejad had alluded to something that would happen on that day. Expatiating on his error, Kimmerling does a critique of "orientalism" that takes off where Edward Said left off. Said, a Palestinian professor of English literature, boosted himself to infamy by becoming the father of Orientalism bashing, with his now generally discedited thesis about "Orientalism." For Said, an "Orientatlist" was anyone who disagreed with his views of Arabs and Islam, and an "Orientalist" was inherently Bad.
Lewis, 90, "the prophet from Princeton," is considered the founding father of the scientific field that engaged in the study of Islam and the Arab world, and most Orientalists, their students and their students' students are in one way or another considered the bearers of his legacy.
Actually Orientalism has had multiple paternity, and I have never seen anyone claim that Lewis was the father. Robert Irwin selected Guillaume Postel (16th Century) or Athanasius Kircher (17th Century) as the father of Orientalism. Another source identifies Sir William Jones (1746-1794) as the father of orientalism. Most Middle East scholars in the USA do not follow Lewis, because most of them are more sympathetic to Islam and the Arabs. Recognized "authorities" such as Joel Beinin, John Esposito, Juan Cole, Nikkie Keddie and Graham Fuller do not follow Bernard Lewis. Moreover, Edward Said himself made it clear that Orientalism was a European discipline:
Unlike the Americans, the French and British--less so the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Portugese, Italians, and Swiss--have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western Experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.
Therefore, Kimmerling's pronouncements about Lewis being the father of Orientalism and leader of Orientalists seem to have no basis. Kimmerling goes on to make the following statements, which have no foundation in reality.
Another assumption characterizing the approach of these experts is that they ignore the lack of uniformity in the Muslim world. The Orientalists know very well that among the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world, there are hundreds of sects and streams that disagree on almost everything and wage cultural wars. But these experts guard this like a secret within the fraternity. There are at most Sunnis and Shi'ites, and Islam is otherwise portrayed as a homogenous entity wholly interested in wiping out the West, and especially the Jews.
Kimmerling must be confusing Bernard Lewis with Pat Robertson and similar people. Actually, even Lewis's pronouncements about the August 22 apocalyptic event was specifically related to Shi'a theology, and not the result of some general ignorant homogenation of all Muslims. Neither Lewis nor even Daniel Pipes, who takes an even dimmer view of Islam, insists that all Muslims or even most Muslims are out to wipe out the West. A reasonable summary of Lewis's view in his own words is given here.
Whatever you read, remember, Caveat Lector (let the reader beware).
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Replies: 2 Comments
Did Lewis actually predict that Ahmadinejad would do something on Aug 22/06? My recollection is that he merely explained that Ahamdinejad adheres to the belief that the "Hidden 12th Imam" is destined reveal himself on that particular date in the Islamic calendar, which happened to coincide with Aug. 22 this year and that's what Ahamdinejad was babbling about when he speculated that the skies over Jerusalem were going to be "lit up" that night.
Lynne T, Wednesday, October 11th
Great article, including Professor Lewis' interview at Pew Forum.
It appears to me that the Iraq problem is trying to be solved by the same old standards. We have to try something new.
I have suggestion that changes the way their oil wealth is divided. The West, namely the U.S. has private property rights. This is one of the main differences between the two civilizatons. I suggest the Iraq's be given the oil to the individuals, instead of the government. I would set up a Limited Partnership with every Iraqi being a partner and the General Partner being the operator. The money would flow to the individuals equally via a bank account.
This would be a major civilization change in that part of the world.
I would like to email you this Trend Discontinuity, if somebody cares.
Have a good day. I really did enjoy the article and Professor Lewis interview.
Dale Steffes, Thursday, September 28th
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