Middle East studies in the News
Columbia University Honors Edward Said With Conference on Orientalism [incl. Rashid Khalidi]
by Jane Adas
ON NOV. 7 and 8, in remembrance of its late professor Edward Said, Columbia University hosted a conference on "Orientalism from the Standpoint of its Victims." In her welcoming remarks, Mariam Said recalled her husband saying toward the end of his life that the most important thing he had done was co-found with Israeli-born pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, with the vision of bringing together Arabs and Israelis using music as a bridge between two irreconcilable narratives.
In his opening lecture, Professor Rashid Khalidi built on the late Palestinian-American intellectual's concern throughout his work with the relationship between power and knowledge—how power operates to limit or create knowledge and subvert truth. U.S. involvement in the Middle East has greatly intensified since the end of the Cold War, Khalidi observed. Since 1991, he noted, the region and adjacent areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan have become the focal point for the projection of American power. This is why "energy" and "terrorism," although global problems, now invoke the Middle East, Khalidi explained, and why Islam has an increasingly negative image. As a further example of power attempting to distort knowledge, he pointed to what he described as the McCain-Palin campaign's "swarthy othering" of Barack Hussein Obama as a secret Muslim who has sinister associations with those having Middle Eastern names.
Khalidi identified several generalities that underlie how U.S. power relates to the production of knowledge about the Middle East, leading to powerful stereotypes that limit the range of American discourse. First is the assumption of the benign nature of U.S. power: Washington may make mistakes, as in Iraq, but always from the best of motives. Americans rarely examine the negative responses of those on the receiving end of U.S. power, Khalidi noted, and treat any resistance as unmotivated terrorism. For example, the U.S. used the Cold War to justify its role in the 1953 coup in Iran that put the despotic Shah into power, then was shocked when that led to the hostage-taking in 1979. Since then, according to Khalidi, America's increasingly virulent stance toward Iran served to increase Iranian nationalism. Moreover, he argued, the effects of U.S. power are increasingly censored. Americans are unaware of or scorn studies of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the U.S. uses conventional weapons in counterinsurgency operations, as in bombing attacks in Afghanistan, we pay no attention to the "collateral damage"; there are no more images of "burning little girls," he pointed out.
In discussing the way power limits discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Khalidi pointed to Americans' unawareness of "the huge thumb" on the Israeli side of the scale. The rest of the world, he asserted, is baffled by how blind Americans are to the reality for Palestinians of their 1948 expulsion and 1967 occupation.
In contrast to Great Britain at the height of its empire, Khalidi stated, the U.S. has no people at the highest levels of government with direct experience in the Middle East. In fact, he added, the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq while trying to discredit area specialists and attacking Middle East Studies programs on campuses. In the long build-up to the invasion from Sept. 11, 2001 until March 2003, few who actually knew anything about Iraq were in the media. Instead, commentators came from think tanks designed to lobby political campaigns. Rarely, Khalidi said, has raw naked power been so linked with bureaucratic apparatus and media as it was in 2003. However, he concluded, the growing skepticism toward Cheney and the war party shows that military power cannot necessarily control knowledge.
"Remember (Forget) Semitism!" was the title of Professor Joseph Massad's keynote address. Citing Said's observation that anti-Semitism and Orientalism resemble each other, Massad addressed the issue of how Semites became a question for Europe and how the term changed over time. The construction of Semitic identity, he argued, which for Europeans from the 18th century onward applied both to Jews living among them and to peoples of the Ottoman empire at their borders, was a ruse for Europeans to define themselves as Indo-Aryans. When in Vienna in 1879 the term "anti-Semitism" was coined to denote racial distinction from Aryans, as opposed to traditional Christian hatred of Jews, Massad explained, many Jews embraced the concept of Semitism as evidence of their historical contributions to the ethical foundations of the Western world.
Massad described Zionism as predicated on remembering Hebrew ancestors and the Palestinian homeland, while forgetting that Palestine had a continuous non-Jewish population to the present. Zionism's greatest achievement, he asserted, was the creation of the new Europeanized Kibbutznik Jew and the transformation of the Palestinian into the "old Jew." For the first half of the 20th century, Massad explained, European anti-Semitism had focused on Jews and colonial Orientalism on Arabs and Muslims. Since the 1967 and 1973 wars and Arab oil embargo, anti-Semitic caricatures have been of Arabs as the Semites responsible for the disruption of Western and Jewish progress. Thus, Massad concluded, while according to the Orientalist historian Bernard Lewis the term "anti-Semitic" is always and only about Jews, the figure of the Semite with its negative connotation is preserved, but applied solely to Arabs—and especially to Palestinians.
Ambassador Barbara Bodine Discusses U.S.-Gulf Relations
Barbara Bodine spent most of her 30-year Foreign Service career in the Middle East. She was deputy chief of mission in Kuwait during Iraq's 1990 Iraq invasion and occupation, during which she spent 137 days as a hostage in the U.S. Embassy, and was ambassador to the Republic of Yemen when the USS Cole was bombed in a terrorist attack in 2000. Immediately after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, she was in charge of reconstruction in Baghdad until Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority took over. Bodine, who now is a professor of public policy at Princeton University, spoke at Raritan Valley Community College on Oct. 21st on "Diplomacy and Stability in the Persian Gulf post-Iraq."
A key challenge to the Gulf states, according to Bodine, is demographic. The majority of the population is under 25 and has come to expect housing, education, universal health care and employment. Tens of millions of jobs need to be created, but the government can absorb only a limited number of new workers; agriculture is not an option; and the Gulf's high-tech economies are not labor-intensive. Bodine described the young generation as a youth time bomb who will be politically frustrated if they feel their elders, through corruption or mismanagement, have squandered their patrimony.
Although the Gulf States represent to Americans "that foreign oil from which we must be independent," Bodine emphasized that they are much more aware than is this country of the finite nature of oil resources and are actively looking for other sources of power. It was embarrassing, she added, when Washington asked the Gulf states to "please turn up the spigot so we can fill our SUVs." Their response was "show us your energy policy."
What, Bodine asked, would America's reduced dependence on foreign oil do to our influence in the region? It may lead, she suggested, to a reduced tolerance for the greatly increased U.S. military presence, given that our security cooperation in the Gulf on a per capita basis now exceeds that with NATO or Japan. The countries in the region may prefer that India replace the U.S. as their major partner, Bodine continued, since many in the Gulf view India as a better model for a non-Western democracy and more neutral than the U.S. vis-à-vis Israel and Iran.
Bodine concluded by advising that the U.S. recognize that the Gulf states are not there simply to support us, but are mature states and societies who are our partners rather than our surrogates. Washington must correct its militarized policy and rhetoric in the Gulf and develop less negative relationships—in other words, stop exporting our fears instead of our hopes.
Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.
Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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