Mark LeVine Replies to Robert Spencer
Mark LeVine, Middle East historian at UC Irvine, writes
AN OPEN REPLY TO ROBERT SPENCER.
Dear Mr. Spencer
First of all, thanks so much for titling a piece you did about me “Noam Chomsky as Rock Star”:
This is the best blurb I’ve gotten yet for my forthcoming book!
For the record, while at one time I would have liked to have been a rock star, that sad truth is that marriage and children have made constant touring out of the question for the foreseeable future. And while I admire Noam Chomsky, I have never to my knowledge wanted to be Noam Chomsky. Linguistics is just way beyond me; just knowing a few languages is hard enough. Also, I have heard he drinks a lot of coffee. My stomach tolerate take more than a cup a day.
More seriously, however, it seems that you did not read most of what I have written before writing your critique of my work. I say this because I have discussed in detail most every thing you have accused me of not discussing–the origins of Hamas, the immorality and futility of suicide bombings, hatred for Israel and the like. It would be nice to be accused of something that I didn’t do, instead of being accused of not doing something I have in fact done. Then at least I could learn from the criticism, which is always a good thing. Perhaps you just googled a few recent articles of mine and made your judgements from those? It wouldn’t be the first time a conservative has done that. Once the right-wing talk show host Dennis Prager called me a liar on national radio when I told him on his show that I’d witnessed Palestinian marches against suicide bombings. He did so after doing a google search during a commercial break. Unfortunately, the evidence was not googlable because the articles were too old, but was findable on Lexus-Nexus, as I explained to him after the show. He promised to have me on his show again to apologize but has yet to make good on this offer (I have written about the dangers of Google history in war time, if you’re interested:
You could also have checked my CV, which is online, and found articles in Le Monde, the Christian Science Monitor and Tikkun magazine dealing with these issues. May I suggest that it might be time for you to hire a new research assistant?
Your main issue with me, beside my taste in music and linguists, seems to be that I naively argue for a “hudna” or truce between Americans and Muslims, especially radical Muslims. This is certainly debatable advice on my part. In fact, I offered it precisely so it would be debated. However you, your criticism sadly does not contribute to a much-needed debate; instead it falls into the orientalist trap of trying to use Islamic legal compendiums dating back well over 600 years (Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, the author of the source you cite for your analysis of “hudna,” ‘Umdat as-Salik, died in 1386) to define for all times what Muslims think about a particular issue. This is probably not the best way to understand what Muslims think about various issues today; just as basing the opinions of Jews solely on the writings of Maimonedes or even Americans based solely on the views of the authors of the Declaration of Independence (or better, the Magna Carta) would likely produce a distorted understanding of contemporary views. But such thinking is among the primary ideological moves in Orientalism and the larger discourse of imperialism (if saying this makes me a “Saidist”–a term I’ve never encountered before. Shouldn’t it be “Saidian”?–then so be it), as evidenced so well in James Mill’s 1817 primer for British imperial rule of India, the History of India, which argued with great fanfare, and just as great error, that the thousands year old “Laws of Manu” were a primary basis for understanding, and so governing, Hindu society.
This doesn’t mean that some, or many Muslims, might want to use a truce to regroup or grow stronger in order to better attack “us” later. Nor does it mean that some extremist Muslims use medieval texts to justify terrorism or violating agreements (what the US Government uses to justify these things is an equally interesting matter, but it seems not to interest you). But if I were you I’d be a lot more worried about a billion plus Chinese with the fastest growing economy in the world, a huge percentage of America’s debt, burgeoning high-tech sector and a lot of nuclear weapons, than a billion plus Muslims, if you’re looking for the main strategic threat to whoever it is you think the “West” is in the near future.
Moreover, you seem to think that all you need to do to understand Muslims is read religious texts and look at extremists. The 99.9% of Muslims who don’t engage in violence against the West, the vast majority of whom don’t base their life of the ‘Umdat as-Salik (however important it might be for religious scholars), whose lives are incredibly diverse, complex and conflicted, and whose dreams for their futures and those of their children and their societies are in fact quite close to ours, just don’t seem to count much to you. That’s too bad–and if you don’t believe me, believe the report by the Defense Science Board released last week
that warns President Bush that Muslims don’t hate our freedom and ideology but rather our support for all those supposedly “moderate” regimes which are in fact incredibly repressive and corrupt governments whose continued existence is owed to US backing.
But let’s get back to your arguments about the untrustworthiness of Muslims when it comes to honoring any hudna “they” might “sign” with “us.” Let’s leave aside the fact that Muslims might have some pretty good reasons not to trust us–in fact, a lot more reasons than we have not to trust them. Let’s just take the example of Hamas, since you seem so knowledgeable, or at least interested, in this group. I have interviewed Hamas people who’ve discussed the truce issue and I have called them on it too. In fact, last time I met with a senior leader in Gaza I asked him whether the death of Oslo meant Hamas would join the calls for a one or binational solution being increasingly advocated by Palestinian and Israeli academics, or even push harder for an explicit Islamic state solution, as mentioned in various core documents of the movement. He looked at me like I was crazy, and actually said, “Are you crazy? We want a divorce, not to live closer to Jews.” You can interpret it however you want. His interpretation, offered in his next sentence with a lot of exasperation, was “Just give us a state and leave us alone already.”
However you want to interpret it, though, the reality is that Muslims have as little ability to “destroy the west” as Hamas has to destroy Israel. In fact, the Asian avian flu that Sec. of Health and Human Services Thompson is suddenly worried about after resigning could easily kill exponentially more people in the next year than Muslims could kill westerners in a hundred years of jihad. Sorry, i know that the threat of jihad to what you call “the West” is your big thing… If you’re worried about loss of life, though, better to change your group’s name from “Jihad Watch” to “Asia Avian Flu Watch”. You’d save a lot more lives that way.
On a few other notes, who exactly do you mean by “aging rock glitteratti” that I supposedly hang “hobnob” with? And what exactly is “hobnobbing”? And since when has Noam Chomsky’s star “faded.” Please correct me if I’m wrong, but last I saw he had lot more bestsellers in the last three years than you and all your friends put together have had in your entire careers. As for Edward Said, didn’t your mother tell you not to speak ill of the dead? And while I would love to take credit for making Chomsky and Said “cool again,” can you show me when they went out of style? You also accuse me of making “no mention of the fact that Chomskyites and Saidists have placed Middle East Studies departments in American universities into an ideological straitjacket that would have made Stalin blush.” That’s because they have done more to open the field from the “ideological straitjacket” of the first three decades of its life as a Cold War invention than almost anyone else. Your argument that they’ve put it in a straitjacket is one made by someone who never has actually read them in any detail and in fact knows absolutely nothing about the field of Middle Eastern studies, most of whose practitioners predicted exactly the terrorism that happened with 9/11 when our Government and spy agencies were busy elsewhere, and who rightly predicted exactly what would happen when the US invaded Iraq (so far that makes it Middle East Studies 2, Bush/Neocons 0 by my count).
In the same way you clearly haven’t read my work in any detail. In fact, this may come as news to you, but Opeds do not the sum total of a scholar’s intellectual production make. We also write articles in journals and even edit and write books, of which mine deal with the very issues you accuse me of not dealing with. How can I accuse you of this? Well, you write “LeVine owes his status [as wunderkind] to his willingness to place the responsibility for the strife between the West and the Islamic world squarely on the shoulders of the West.” And where exactly did I write that I “place responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the West”? Can you please show me where I’ve written that? I’m not saying I haven’t, but I sure don’t remember doing so (perhaps all those years on the road have taken their toll). If I did write that somewhere, then that was not very smart of me and I appreciate your calling it to my attention.
But one think I do know is that almost everything I write I make sure to discuss exactly how and why blame has to be shared, and Muslims like Americans (or Israelis and Palestinians) need to take responsibility for their actions. In my chapter in the book Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation
that I co-edited, I specifically argue this. But now that I think about it, I say that in the very “Truce with the Muslim World” article that clearly got you upset enough to spend 10 minutes or so writing your article about me!
Perhaps you should have read it to the end. Here’s the link: http://www.tomdispatch.com/
What I did write was, among other things, “Clearly, a different kind of truce is needed; one that signals the first step in a genuine reappraisal of US (and to a lesser extent European) core positions and interests as well as those of Muslims, so that genuine peace and reconciliation become conceivable.” More to the point, I wrote, “Beyond the criminal minority, the 9-11 report was right to demand that Muslims worldwide confront the violent and intolerant version of their religion that is poisoning their societies and threatening the world at large. Religious leaders and ordinary citizens alike must engage in soul-searching about the toxic tendencies within their own cultures similar to the one they demand of Americans and the West more broadly… Muslim political leaders should begin a process of rapid development of participatory civil societies and hold internationally monitored elections within specified (short) time periods or their regimes will face censure and sanctions by the international community. This is the surest way to build a foundation for defeating terrorism. ”
I dunno, but I think that this is pretty much what you accused me of not writing, isn’t it? And you didn’t have to look any farther than the very article you read. Is it inappropriate for me to suggest that you get some tutoring in effective reading strategies before your next expose?
And while we’re at it, you quoted but never answered or rebutted the following argument of mine: “Not just Palestinian activists, but foreign peace activists and even Israelis are routinely beaten, arrested, deported, or even killed by the IDF, with little fear that the Government of Israel would pay a political price for crushing non-violent resistance with violent means…. Not surprisingly considering this dynamic, a poll I helped direct earlier this year revealed that Hamas has now surpassed the PLO as the most popular Palestinian political movement.” I think it’s a good argument, so thanks for publicizing it. But can you rebut it? I don’t think so…
It’s getting late and my wife is kicking me to stop typing and go to sleep already–I wonder if rock stars and Noam Chomsky have to worry about this when they want to work late. Let me close, Mr. Spencer, by saying that I would be happy to debate you publicly if you’ll take the time actually to read what I write rather than going off about what you wish I’d have written. You have a standing invitation to come to UC Irvine anytime. I’ll get a nice big room and some bottled water. You make arrangements with C-SPAN, as I assume you have better connections there than do I. Not being a rock star, and considering the budget cuts at the University of California, I can’t offer you a free dinner, sorry. However, since you seem to need help thinking straight how about inviting Daniel Pipes and Bernard Lewis along to help you? I’d love to get the three of you on a stage. For that, I’ll spring for dinner.
I assume you know how to reach me, although I’m not sure why you didn’t bother to do so before writing your wonderfully titled expose.
Best and peace,
Mark LeVine — That’s LeVine with a capital V, not Levine.
University of California, Irvine