Friedman’s Slander of Middle East Studies and How it is Wrong and Ignorant
On April 7, 2005, in his New York Times op-ed piece, Thomas Friedman wrote:
‘ Until the recent elections in Iraq and among the Palestinians, the modern Arab world was largely immune to the winds of democracy that have blown everywhere else in the world. Why? That’s a pretty important question. For years, though, it was avoided in both the East and the West.
In the West, it was avoided because a toxic political correctness infected the academic field of Middle Eastern studies — to such a degree that anyone focusing on the absence of freedom in the Arab world ran the risk of being labeled an “Orientalist” or an “essentialist.” ‘
I don’t know Tom Friedman well. I once had dinner with him and Lee Bollinger, just after September 11, at the university president’s house here at the University of Michigan, so I can say I’ve met him. I remember some of our conversation at that time. I argued, at a time when it seemed clear that the US would go to war with Afghanistan, that simply bombing the Taliban and al-Qaeda would not be enough. I said that the US had a responsibility to do nation-building in Afghanistan. Not only did we owe the country for helping devastate it by using it in as a proxy in our war with the Soviets, but if we did not help it out, it might well fall back into chaos and generate forces that might hit us again. Tom absolutely disagreed and, on free market grounds, argued that no attempt at government state building should ever be undertaken. I explained why I thought it was not only desirable but inevitable. He said, “Well, someone would have to show me how it could be done.” I am glad to say that I clearly won this argument after the fact, and Tom seemed rather more enthusiastic about US nation-building a year later, when considering Iraq. Indeed, he now seems to want the US government to engage in vast social-engineering projects throughout the Middle East. Tom, I was just talking about Afghanistan. Even if I convinced you, I didn’t mean you to go quite this far.
In the friendliest of ways, I would now like to address the two paragraphs above, in which Tom rather surprisingly lashed out at the field to which he himself belongs. (He has a master’s degree in Middle East studies from St. Anthony’s at Oxford University, and surely that training– with some of the same people who trained or influenced the rest of us in the field– is part of the secret of Tom’s success as a journalist of the area).
He begins by wondering why the winds of democracy have not blown in “the Arab world” except recently “in Iraq and among Palestinians” (sic) (why not “and in Palestine”?). He says it is an important question that has been avoided by the academic Middle East studies field in the West, because that field was “infected” with a “political correctness” that made it impossible to speak of the problem of authoritarianism in the Middle East without risking being branded an “essentialist.”
Now, there are at least four things wrong with these assertions.
First, it is not true that the recent elections in Palestine and Iraq were so unique. Lebanon had regular elections from 1943 until the civil war of the mid-1970s, which resumed in the 1990s. The Palestinians had what were widely regarded as relatively free and fair elections in 1996. And, important steps toward democratization were begun in Jordan in 1989, in Yemen after unification, in Morocco in 2002, and in Bahrain in 2002. Tom himself praised some of these developments at the time. These parliamentary elections were all flawed in important ways, and marred by continued aspects of authoritarianism, but they can’t be dismissed as insignificant. And, the elections in Palestine and Iraq, both held under conditions of foreign military occupation with substantial portions of the electorate engaged in a boycott and poor security conditions, were also deeply flawed. (In Iraq, where the very names of the candidates were largely kept secret for fear they would be assassinated, the election was anonymous and therefore in some real sense not a democratic election at all, but a sort of national referendum on a set of party lists.)
So Tom’s premises here are, well, downright weird, and contradict other things he has said in the past.
Then there is the inconvenient fact that political scientists such as Michael Hudson and others have in fact attempted to understand why the Arab world was an exception to the “third wave” of democratization. There is a fair literature on the subject by political scientists, of which Friedman seems, to my astonishment, completely unaware. Tom might enjoy reading Michael Hudson’s “Obstacles to democratization in the Middle East,” Contention, vol. 5, no. ii, pp. 81-105, 1995, which took up the subject he says has been absent, and did it ten years ago! Then there is Tim Niblock, “Democratization: a theoretical and practical debate,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 25, no. ii, pp. 221-233, 1998. Or how about Fred Lawson’s “Syria resists the end of history,” Middle East and North Africa: governance, democratization, human rights. Ed. P.J.Magnarella. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999, pp. 67-82. Then there is Raymond Hinnebusch, “Liberalization without democratization in “post-populist” authoritarian states: evidence from Syria and Egypt,” in Citizenship and the state in the Middle East: approaches and applications. Ed. N.A.Butenschon, Uri Davis, & M.Hassassian. Syracuse (USA): Syracuse University Press, 2000, pp. 123-145. Try Curtis Ryan and Jillian Schwedler’s “Return to democratization or new hybrid regime? The 2003 elections in Jordan,” Middle East Policy, vol. 11, no. ii, pp. 138-151, 2004. This is just a small sample of an enormous scholarly literature. Is it really true that Tom has departed so far from his earlier training that he can’t even look articles up in Index Islamicus online, much less bother to read them?
Third, the way you would get accused of essentialism is to engage in it. This fancy word just means that you say things that depend on there being eternal essences of things. So, for instance, if you said, “Palestinians are now and always have been a violent, fanatical, and duplicitous race.” — that would be essentialism (also racism). You would be assuming that Palestinians have a shared and unvarying essence. If you said, “Arabs are incapable of democracy because their political instincts are always authoritarian”– that would be essentialism. If you said that most Arab governments are authoritarian, and tried to explain why that was with reference to changing political, social or economic factors, then that would not be essentialist. It would be social science.
The fourth problem is that what Friedman has alleged about lack of critiques of authoritarianism in the region is completely untrue. I am going to be charitable and attribute his lapse of judgment to ignorance, or to listening to the wrong people and not reading enough in the field.
But I just did a few keyword searches in Lexis Nexis and on google, putting in the names of a few random major American scholars of Middle East studies. I tried to go back in time a bit, before the most recent controversies stemming from 9/11, so as to show that critiques have been being offered all along. I’ll let readers judge if “political correctness” deterred the persons below, who are central to the field, from critiquing authoritarian governance in the Middle East. Most academics mainly write journal articles and books, rather than op-eds, and relatively few get quoted in the press. So if I could keyword search the books written by Middle East studies scholars, I could give many more examples. But even what is below is enough to show that Tom is dead wrong.
Michael Hudson, Political Science, Georgetown University, and a past president of the Middle East Studies Association, quoted in The Toronto Star May 12, 1994, “Killing an Arabic dream The civil war in Yemen is destroying the region’s experiment in democracy and unity”
“Basically what you have in Yemen that’s causing it to fall apart are two regimes that never really were able to shake off their exclusivist, dictatorial mentality even though unity was, and still is, something that on the popular level Yemenis wanted and still want,” Michael Hudson, professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, told The Star.
Along with thousands of other foreigners, including Canadian oil company workers, Hudson was evacuated from San’a just a few days ago.”
Rashid Khalidi (a past president of the Middle East Studies Association and professor of history at Columbia University) et al., The New York Times, January 20, 1994, Thursday, Late Edition – Final
Human Rights Activist Disappears in Cairo
To the Editor:
Last Dec. 10, Mansour Kikhia, former Libyan Foreign Minister and twice Libya’s United Nations representative, disappeared while in Cairo for the annual meeting of the Arab Organization of Human Rights, of which he was a founder and director. The evidence suggests he was abducted and is alive but detained in Libya.
Since he left his United Nations post in 1980, Mr. Kikhia, a distinguished jurist and human rights activist, has been a prominent member of the Libyan opposition. In 1984 he joined other well-known Arab opponents of despots and oligarchies to establish the human rights organization, placing himself on the front line of the battle for democracy and decent government in the Middle East.
Now his enemies have struck back at him in a lawless and cowardly fashion. We call on the Egyptian authorities — from whose territory Mr. Kikhia disappeared — to mount a vigorous investigation of this breach of human decency. We call on the Libyan Government to cooperate fully in the search for him.
As friends and colleagues of Mansour Kikhia, whose bravery and principles we have long admired, we urge Arabs, Americans with an interest in the Arab world and human rights organizations not to rest until he regains his freedom. Nothing could be worse than to let the governments concerned think he will be forgotten.
EDWARD W. SAID, CLOVIS MAKSOUD
RASHID KHALIDI, SAMIH FARSOUN”
New York, Jan. 12, 1994
Joel Beinin, Professor of History, Stanford, former president of the Middle East Studies Association, from his 2002 MESA Presidential Address:
‘ The holders of state power have always tried to impose an intellectual agenda compatible with their interests, as students of Middle East history know from the attempts of the `Abbasid Caliphs al-Ma’mun (813-33) and al-Mu`tasim (833-42) to impose the rationalist mu`tazili doctrine on their subjects. And there have always been those who have struggled against the imposition of doctrines associated with state power, as we know from the ardent resistance of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) to the mu`tazili doctrine. As some would have it, the victory of ibn Hanbal in this confrontation is part of “what went wrong” in Islamic societies. We could just as easily draw a different lesson: that when states attempt to impose an intellectual orthodoxy – even an “enlightened” one such as rationalism, secularism, modernization, Arab socialism, Marxism-Leninism, or neo-liberal economics and “freedom” – they inevitably generate a resistance, which may or may not itself be enlightened. And in combating that resistance they may very likely adopt cruel and authoritarian measures that will undermine the legitimacy of whatever “enlightened” ideas they espoused. The recent histories of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, and Turkey offer volumes of evidence for this proposition. ‘
Andrew J. Pierre and William B. Quandt, “The ‘Contract’ With Algeria; One Last Chance for the West to Help Stop the Civil War” The Washington Post, January 22, 1995, Sunday.
Quandt is a Vice Provost for International Affairs and professor of government at the University of Virginia, and long-time member of the Middle East Studies Association.
. . . leverage exists precisely because any Algerian regime will depend on solid relations with France and Europe, and to a lesser extent with the United States. Thus, a coordinated policy among all these external parties could help to strengthen the chance of Algerian democracy.
As the United States stakes out its position, several points are of particular importance:
A high-level American official should convey to Paris, the Algerian regime and opposition groups the United States’ strong support for the end of violence through political dialogue between the military government and opposition forces. Algerians should be urged to begin a transitional process designed to create a legitimate government through free presidential and parliamentary elections. The Sant’Egidio document represents one step in this direction, and the regime’s own commitment to early elections is another potentially positive element. One may doubt the sincerity of some in the opposition and some in the regime who have spoken of democratic processes, but each side should now put the other to the test by engaging in serious talks.”
Lisa Anderson, Dean and Political Scientist, Columbia University and a past president of the Middle East Studies Association, in Jane Perlez, “A Middle East Choice: Peace or Democracy,” The New York Times, November 28, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition – Final
(- on the rise of a new generation of Arab leaders:)
‘ One common thread runs through the process: the new leaders are likely to emerge for reasons of bloodline rather than merit, and it gives some analysts pause, no matter how pro-Western or pro-peace these leaders are.
“These people are not being chosen for competence in modern society but for loyalty and kinship,” said Lisa Anderson, the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. “There is not a layer of technocrats who appear to be poised to take the reins of power.” ‘
That should be enough to show that Friedman’s statement is not only wrong but bizarre. Let me just add two other documents. Although Edward Said was trained in literary criticism and mainly taught and wrote about literature, and was not trained as or employed as a Middle East studies academic, he is clearly one of Friedman’s targets in the quote above, since he wrote against “Orientalism.” But Said himself was a consistent and harsh critic of the lack of democracy in the Arab world.
Edward Said in The Guardian (London), January 12, 1991
“Because of this lopsided state of affairs militarism asumed far too privileged a place in the Arab world’s moral economy. Much of it goes back to the sense of being unjustly treated, for which Palestine was not only a metaphor but a reality. But, I ask myself, was the only answer military force of one sort of another: huge armies, brassy slogans, bloody promises, and, alas, a massive series of concrete instances, starting with wars at the top and working down to such things as physical punishment and menacing gestures at the bottom? I speak superficially and even irresponsibly
here, since I cannot have all the facts at my command, and I perhaps have no right to be passing judgments such as these.
BUT I do not know a single Arab who would disagree with these impressions in private, or who would not readily agree that the monopoly on coercion given the state and its army and police have almost completely eliminated democracy in the Arab world, introduced immense hostility between rulers and ruled, placed a much higher value on conformity, opportunism, flattery and getting along than on risking new ideas, criticism or dissent.
Taken far enough this produces exterminism, a notion that if you don’t get your way or something displeases you it is possible simply to blot it out. I do not doubt that that notion is behind Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait. What sort of muddled and anachronistic idea of Bismarckian ‘integration’ is this, that wipes out an entire country and smashes its society with ‘Arab unity’ as its goal? The most disheartening thing is that so many people, many of them victims of exactly the same brutal logic, appear to have identified with Iraq and not Kuwait. Even if one grants that Kuwaitis were unpopular (does one have to be popular not to be exterminated?) and even if Iraq claims to champion Palestine in standing up to Israel and the US, surely the very idea that a nation should be obliterated along the way is a murderous proposition, unfit for a great civilisation like ours. It is a measure of the dreadful state of political culture in the Arab world today that such exterminism is current, maybe even prevalent.”
Although Iran is not an Arab country, you never know what the unit of analysis is in American journalism. So here’s something I wrote about Iran fully 15 years ago for a wide-circulation popular magazine.
Juan Cole writing in History Today, Mar., 1990:
“As measured by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Islamic Republic of
Iran has for the past decade achieved one of the worst human rights records of any country in the world. Of course, many of the government-sponsored summary arrests and executions carried out have targeted political groupings that posed an alternative to the clerical state. But the Khomeini regime has also persecuted communities that posed no particular threat to the Islamic Republic’s stability, most prominently the Baha’is.”