Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

During the first seven months of this year, for the first time since the Cold War began, the position of “official enemy” of the United States went unfilled, the Soviets having resigned the role. That deplorable deficiency, which threw the White House and the Pentagon into a panic, has now been remedied. The fact that the new designee is short, dark and Muslim has made him much easier to demonize, an essential ingredient of the Bush administration’s campaign to win popular support for its military adventure in the Persian Gulf.

The fact that there are “good” Arabs on “our” side this time has not prevented the recrudescence of crude anti-Arab racism: harassment of Arabs and Arab-Americans, the ugly cartoons, “Bomb Iraq” (to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”) on radio stations. In official Washington, we have noticed, everyone simultaneously began pronouncing the Iraqi president’s name as “Sodom,” so that every mention evokes unholy things.

More sophisticated intellectual rationales for official policy have not been lacking. Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton, has done his share with a fortuitously timed and widely cited article in the September issue of The Atlantic, whose cover presents the perfect stereotype of a nasty-looking Muslim, complete with turban and beard. In “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” Lewis proclaims that Islam and the West have been in conflict for 14 centuries, a veritable “clash of civilizations” in which “the Muslim [sic] has suffered successive stages of defeat” over the past century or so. The humiliation this causes, and Muslims’ fear of secularism and modernity, create the circumstances in which Islamic culture’s traditional “dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred.” Lewis breezily dismisses the idea that Muslims may have genuine and specific grievances; no, what we are seeing is the “perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expression of both,” and for Westerners to suggest otherwise is to succumb to self-hating Third Worldism.

Once again Lewis has displayed what Orientalism is all about, and how useful it can be to policymakers: an ahistorical, generalized “Islam” and the “instincts” it arouses in the minds of the “Muslim masses” is made to explain everything, from Iran to “the current troubles in such diverse places as Ethiopian Eritrea, Indian Kashmir, Chinese Sinkiang and Yugoslav Kosovo, in all of which Muslim populations are ruled by non-Muslim governments.” There’s not much “we of the West” can do about Islam’s problems, Lewis concludes, except to acquire “a better appreciation of other religious and political cultures.” All very nice, and of course Saddam Hussein is not exactly a devout Muslim, but in current circumstances Lewis’ tract will no doubt be read as absolving the United States of any responsibility whatsoever for the problems of the Middle East, thereby providing additional ammunition to those in Washington who are already convinced that the only language overexcited and unruly Muslims understand is that of force.

Abe Rosenthal, who is to the Gulf crisis what William Randolph Hearst was to the Spanish-American war, has for months been relentlessly beating the drums in his New York Times column about the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to Israel, and demanding US action to bring the Iraqi dictator down. You’d think Abe would be a pretty happy man right now. Sure, Saddam Hussein moved against Kuwait rather than Israel, but no matter: Massive US military forces have been dispatched to dispose of Saddam Hussein, while Israel is off the hook, with the Palestine issue consigned to the back burner. But Rosenthal cannot enjoy his moment of triumph. Even as US forces poured into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, it dawned on him that US intervention against Iraq may have negative long-term consequences for Israel. His worst nightmare? That once the Gulf crisis is resolved, the very same Arab regimes that have lined up with the US against Iraq will demand of Washington their quid pro quo, in the form of a tougher line against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. After all, America’s Arab client states may ask, if Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait violates the principle of self-determination and requires strong international action, how can Israel’s 23-year-long rule over 2 million Palestinians be tolerated?

So Rosenthal, ever the alert watchdog for Israel’s hardliners, has updated the “we must support Israel because it’s the only democracy in the Middle East and our only dependable ally there” line. Now the target of Rosenthal’s wrath, and of his notoriously selective concern for human rights, are the very Arab regimes which have backed US intervention. Even if the US needs Saudi Arabia and Egypt in order to deal with Saddam Hussein, he writes in his column of August 26, they should not be coddled or trusted because they are repressive and authoritarian, indeed not much better than Iraq. All these regimes, Rosenthal proclaims, still secretly subscribe to the instinctual Arab drive to exterminate Israel. Just as in World War II we were exhorted to “know your enemy,” the US should now “know its allies.”

It’s sad, in a way. Is there no way to make this man happy?

How to cite this article:

Al Miskin "Al Miskin," Middle East Report 167 (November/December 1990).
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