These days the mainstream media in the US generally thinks twice before publishing crude slurs against entire ethnic or racial groups. But there remain those whom it is still apparently respectable to denigrate, foremost among them Arabs and Iranians.

Daniel Pipes graced the pages of The Atlantic magazine (May 1989) with an essay asserting that &lduqo;belief in the existence of malevolent conspiracies suffuses Middle Eastern discourse.” According to Pipes, director of the right-wing Foreign Policy Research Institute and editor of its journal Orbis, Middle Easterners routinely attribute political setbacks and defeats to the influence of unseen sinister forces rather than to actual circumstances. Unlike the West, where “conspiracy theories are the hallmark of the fringe, in the Middle East they are espoused by the foremost politicians, religious leaders, intellectuals, and journalists.” Hence the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics.

Pipes is certainly on to something: no one who reads the Arab or Iranian press or follows official discourse can miss the frequent appearance of the term “conspiracy” and the attribution of all sorts of phenomena to the actions of foreign intelligence agencies. Oppressive regimes anxious to discredit their opponents by depicting them as agents of a foreign power find this idiom particularly useful. What is entirely missing from Pipes’ essay, however, is any acknowledgement that this attitude has some basis in reality. Middle Eastern governments have in fact frequently been the targets both of covert operations by regional and extraregional intelligence agencies and of pressure by foreign governments.

It is rather disingenuous of Pipes to ignore, for example, US and British machinations in Syria in the late 1940s, the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq of Iran in 1953, Israeli operations against Egypt in 1953-54 (the “Lavon Affair”), the secret US funding of the 1957 Lebanese elections, efforts at mutual subversion among Arab regimes, evidence of covert US support for Israel during the June 1967 war, and so on — not to mention the Iran/contra affair. Pipes gets a good laugh out of the fact that the constitution of the Islamic Republic describes the Shah’s “White Revolution” of the early 1960s as a US “plot” to strengthen its client regime. “Plot” may not be the best word in this case, but the Kennedy administration did pressure the Shah to carry out social reforms so as to broaden his bases of support and pre-empt revolutionary change.

So it would not seem to be simply a matter of what Pipes depicts as an irrational “mentality of intrigue.” Although it lends itself to abuse by authoritarian regimes and can cross the line into paranoia, the widespread feeling in the Middle East that outside powers and neighboring regimes are not above throwing their weight around and employing whatever surreptitious tricks they deem necessary to achieve their goals has some grounding in reality.

In any event, it ill behooves Pipes to make fun of conspiracy theorists. Only seven years ago, Pipes was arguing that Islamist activism in the Arab world was stirred up largely by Saudi and Libyan oil money. Demonstrating the formidable powers of analysis and prediction apparently required for his elevation from a minor role in Reagan’s Lebanon fiasco to a year’s stint at Harvard, a teaching post at the Naval War College and then to his present job marketing Saddam Hussain as the “next Sadat,” Pipes wrote: “Current waves of Islamic activism will die along with the OPEC boom. More than any other single factor, the oil market will determine how long the Islamic resurgence lasts.” [1]

An even more egregious example can be found in the February 1989 issue of Omni, published by Bob Guccione of Penthouse fame. Howard Bloom’s “The Importance of Hugging” begins by asking, “Why are some cultures bloodier than others? Why do some societies seem to revel in violence?” The reader soon discovers that Bloom is referring not to contemporary American society but to “Islamic cultures” in which, he claims, lack of physical affection during childhood produces violent and brutal adults. (“Islamic” means primarily “Arab,” — the US media is not into trashing the heroic Afghani mujahidin). The Arab adult, Bloom writes, “stripped of intimacy and thrust into a life of cold isolation, has become a walking time bomb. An entire people may have turned barbaric for the simple lack of a hug.”

As evidence for this crude generalization Bloom cites two books. The first is Leon Uris’ trash novel, The Haj, which attained bestseller status largely by virtue of its racist depiction of Arabs. Bloom also claims to rely on Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (University of California Press, 1986). In fact, this study, which has won critical acclaim for its sensitivity and insightfulness, totally refutes Bloom’s claims. In a letter of protest, Abu-Lughod documented Bloom’s crude and tendentious distortion of her research, noting that in fact Bedouin children grow up in a loving and physically affectionate environment. Members of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee demonstrated outside Guccione’s office in New York, demanding that Omni apologize for publishing racist trash. So far, no apology has been forthcoming; Omni insists that it was “a fair piece.” We’re likely to see a lot more of this kind of thing, until public protest compels publishers to understand that even Middle Easterners are no longer fair game for racist treatment.


[1] See “Oil Wealth and Islamic Resurgence,” in Ali Dessouki, ed., Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World (New York: Praeger, 1982), especially pp.50-51, and In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (New York: Basic Books, 1983), ch. 10.

How to cite this article:

Al Miskin "Column," Middle East Report 159 (July/August 1989).

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