Said’s War on The Intellectuals

Edward Said’s interview with Barbara Harlow (MER 171) is an attempt to “dislodge” an array of opponents, ranging from “scholar-combatants” and “instant experts” to “native informants.” An important focus of the interview is the war’s repercussions on “the intellectual and cultural topography of the Arab world.” One such repercussion is the debate between Edward Said and Samir al-Khalil. This debate, in my view, is not about who has a more accurate reading of reality. It concerns what political consequences flow from each position and how we choose between them.

Said’s charges are mainly directed against oppositional intellectuals whom he accuses of failure to deal with the Middle East and to “feel responsible for the behavior of the United States internationally,” in contrast to “a powerful and vocal group in the universities that challenged the administration” during the Vietnam war. This is a remarkable case of forgetfulness. It took years of slow work in very hostile circumstances before the first anti-war teach-ins and rallies of the 1960s could claim a significant audience.

By contrast, even before the very rapid buildup of US troops on Iraqi borders took place, there was a vocal anti-war movement on US campuses. From the first days of the crisis, before the American-led war had started, most critical intellectuals on university campuses threw themselves into an anti-war movement that focused on opposing US intervention. Indeed, it was this singular focus that was problematic: The anti-war movement attempted to replay a Vietnam scenario — Bring the Troops Home Now — as if there was clearly only one aggressor: the US government. In many meetings, there was a silence about Saddam Hussein’s policy and politics, a reluctance to condemn Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, as if such condemnations could only be read as approval of US military buildup. (There were at least two other wars, both launched by Saddam Hussein’s regime, first on August 2 against Kuwait, and then against the popular uprisings against his regime. The usage of “war” only to refer to the January 17 war acts as a mechanism of forgetfulness about these other wars. Eric Hooglund’s article, “The Other Face of War,” was one of few in Middle East Report that gave prominent coverage to the sufferings from these other wars, although adding up the counts into single accumulative figures — “100,000 deaths, 5 million displaced persons and over $200 billion in property damage” — tends to obliterate the distinct responsibilities of the different wars.) In those anti-war coalitions that took an explicit position against the invasion and occupation of Kuwait, that position was of little consequence in daily practices. In the period leading up to the January 15 deadline, the failure of various peace initiatives and plans were invariable and solely blamed on US government intransigence, rather than on Saddam’s refusal to withdraw from Kuwait.

This allowed the US administration to assume the moral high ground, and put the anti-war movement in the tragic position of being silent once the US-led war had stopped and Hussein had begun to savagely repress the uprising of Iraqi people — who themselves had little doubt where to place the responsibility for the war and its catastrophic destruction of their own country. When Arab Iraqis in the south and the Kurds in the north were begging the allied armies to move into Iraq and protect them against the Republican Guards, what could a US anti-war voice that had remained at best hesitant, if not silent, on the responsibility of the Iraqi government say? How could it support the further march of those very armies requested by many Iraqis, Arab and Kurd, into Iraq? Had the anti-war movement supported the demand by Iraqis for US intervention, that presence would have acquired a different meaning: Instead of serving only US interests, it would have become, at least in part, of Iraqis’ making: an intervention to serve their cause rather than the new world order imagined by the US administration.

Said holds the post-modernism of American intellectuals responsible for their having internalized the US imperial role. If post-modernism deserves criticism for its role in the anti-war movement, it is because it may have fostered a reluctance on the part of many anti-war activists to criticize the Iraqi regime for the fear of being labeled “internalizers of imperial rule.” Said’s castigations act to create an atmosphere of intellectual fear, fear of being accused of imperialistic tendencies, if you happen to criticize a Third World murderer that the US government also happens to call a murderer for the moment. It silences critical thinking, and produces a bipolar world of transparently good and bad sides. To the extent that one can see some credible connection between the presumed dominance of post-modernism in American intellectual life and the political positions taken during this critical period, it would be that the post-modern emphasis on multiplicity of identities, cultures and subject positions made many reluctant to take a political stand against a government of the Other!

In Said’s world, instead of engaged intellectuals (meaning intellectuals who agree with his politics), we had instant experts (journalists such as Thomas Friedman whose journalism Said does not like), scholar-combatants (such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, whose politics Said disdains) and the native informant (Samir al-Khalil, whose concern for Iraqis distracts from Said’s concern for Palestinians). Friedman is dismissed simply and plainly as a journalist. Friedman is not a university teacher. Not being anchored “in the process of intellectual work or in institutions of intellectual production,” he is not worth Said’s serious consideration. Are only Ivy League universities and university professors engaged in intellectual production? If so, is not Fouad Ajami as embedded in these institutions as Edward Said himself? Here Said raises a different charge: Ajami “is a mediocre scholar.” Al-Khalil, neither a journalist nor a professor, is dismissed as a “media celebrity,” “a creature of the moment.” It is the case that Republic of Fear and its author came to public attention after August 2. The book, however, was completed in 1986 and published in 1989, two years before “the moment.” Why use its later prominence to dismiss its scholarship? Perhaps because such dismissals serve Said’s project of dislodging Arab intellectuals who offer interpretations of the Arab world different from his own.

Said’s charge, that the books of these authors “are generally unsympathetic to the Arabs and advance the thesis that the feuds and the violence in the Middle East are due to, relatively speaking, prehistoric causes, inscribed in the very genes of these people,” is nothing but outrageous. Ajami’s book is about Arab political thought since 1967; al-Khalil’s is about the construction of the Baathist state in post-1968 Iraq. Both are concerned with contemporary political changes in the Arab world and Iraq. Has Said become so much a “creature of the moment” that the twentieth century has become prehistory to him? These books can be construed as hostile to Arabs only if, for Said, hostility to the Baath or to particular ideologies and states in the Arab world means hostility to Arabs. Nowhere does their analysis come close to attributing anything to Arab genes, nor do they call Arab identity and history fraudulent.

To accuse these books and their authors of anti-Arab racism may be useful for Said’s dislodgement project, but it does little to clarify the debates now engulfing Arab intellectuals and is itself a form of racism, for it assumes a unified and undifferentiated Arab. It is, in fact, the diversity of the Arab voices that has angered Said. Whereas Ajami and al-Khalil focus on the political and cultural crisis of the Arab world from the inside, Said argues that such self-criticism “exonerates the United States and its policymakers, and of course Israel, from any role in this appalling mess we’re living through today.” One can imagine that the Kurds and the Arabs of southern Iraq may think that Said, by holding Israel and the US responsible for the appalling hell they are living through, is exonerating the Baathist regime, as indeed he has come close to doing with regards to the Halabja massacre in the London Review of Books (March 7, 1991):

The claim that Iraq gassed its own citizens has often been repeated. At best, this is uncertain. There is at least one War College report, done while Iraq was a US ally, which claims that the gassings of the Kurds in Halabja was done by Iran.

For Said, Israel and the US are the unproblematic authors of the region’s problems. If Ajami thinks these are “self-inflicted wounds,” or if al-Khalil makes a case that the Baathist regime is a product of the contemporary history of Iraq itself, for which Iraqis need to take responsibility, Said cannot accept these as alternative perspectives on Arab politics and history. Drawing on a popular tradition of conspiratorialism, he needs to find out “who is this person really speaking for. As they say in Arabic, min warrah? Who’s behind it?” It is in fact this kind of conspiratorial view of politics and allocation of responsibilities to outside forces that both authors challenge. Said’s failure to appreciate that these alternative perspectives may be as sympathetic to Arabs as his own comes out most evidently in his patronizing remarks about al-Khalil:

What struck me as extraordinarily sad, not to say desolate, was his [al-Khalil’s] appeal to the United States, which had just devastated his country militarily, to enter further into Iraq and unseat Saddam Hussein. For him the only issue is the one that he as an Iraqi, genuinely in pain, feels. That seems to me to be part of the misery of this whole story. He is intelligent, fluent, but unable to attach himself to anything but an issue of the moment, with no realism in his perspective. He’s suddenly discovered he’s got to do something, and what does he do? He appeals to the United States, which has just destroyed his country, to come and rescue him! It’s astonishing.

…Al-Khalil appeals to the very same people who are responsible for a large part of the present tragedy of his country. They collaborated with Saddam and now they’re propping him up after destroying the infrastructure.

Despite Said’s consternation, the relevant issue is not al-Khalil’s activism, his fluency, pain or intelligence. Rather, whereas al-Khalil, like most Iraqis, Arab or Kurd, holds Saddam Hussein and his regime responsible for the cruelties perpetrated in his country, Said thinks he should point his finger at the US. When al-Khalil made his plea for the US forces to take responsibility for the disastrous situation their war had created and help the Iraqi intifada to oust Saddam Hussein and to set up provisional governmental structures in post-war Iraq, the suppression of the uprisings in the south and the north of that country had just begun. If that appeal had a chance in a million to have averted the cruelties we have witnessed since, it was worth making. That it was not so void of “realism” as Said thinks is evident in the similar pleas by Iraqis in the south and the Kurds in the north. Does Said find the pleas to the same US forces by Palestinians, now suffering from Kuwaiti vengeance, astonishing and void of realism?

The debate between Said and al-Khalil goes back to August 1990. In an article that appeared in The Sunday Independent (August 12, 1990), Said had connected the crisis to “the cultural abyss that exists between the Arabs and the West.” In response, al-Khalil suggested that the Gulf crisis above all “reveals the deep-seated crisis inside Arab culture itself” (The Independent, August 25, 1990). Said, instead of welcoming this diversity of opinion among Arab intellectuals, is threatened by it: “There’s a seismic shift in the intellectual and cultural topography of the Arab world, which is very hard to assess but which can’t be good.” The reason for his concern is that in “an Arab world divided between victors and vanquished,” “the Palestinians are losers.” If the crisis has placed the Palestinians in a losing position, surely this has something to do with the Palestinian support for Saddam — a support that Said regrets at one point in the interview but later minimizes by suggesting that “the really popular position in the Arab world…is a rejection of what Saddam stands for, and the disastrous results which he brought to his own country and people, and a rejection of the American military solution.”

Having maligned everyone he disagrees with, Said piously proclaims, “What we really need is a critical language and a full-scale critical culture, not name-calling or the rhetorical equivalent of political murder.” Do Ajami and al-Khalil’s books not assess and critique power in the Arab world? How can a critical language and new discourses be constructed when a critical Arab intellectual such as Said engages in “the rhetorical equivalent of political murder” of those who dare critique Arab culture and politics?

The stakes in this debate are high. On the one side, Said and many Palestinians and their supporters think their opponents exonerate Israel and the US. On the other, al-Khalil and other Iraqi oppositionists are appalled by what they see as the silence of their critics on the cruelties perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the Arab world, these deep suspicions and divisions find their toll in the untold suffering of Kuwaitis, Palestinians, Iraqis and Kurds, in killing and counter-killing. Said in this interview has done nothing to facilitate the conditions for creating a dialogue. He has aimed to fix one side as the good and the other as the bad, and close off the changes for a debate by “dislodging” those he disagrees with.

One final point. When he criticizes “the representations of the conflict in the West,” Said equates personalization of the crisis and demonization of Saddam with “eliminating Iraq as a nation, a people, a culture, a history.” However, this can also be read as an indication of the remarkable reluctance/difficulty of the US government on the verge of war to produce “an enemy.” Clearly “the Arab” could not be cast as “the enemy,” for two reasons: 1) the anti-Vietnam war, the civil rights and the women’s movements have produced a climate which better appreciates diversity and resists stereotypes; and 2) because the US had been invited to intervene by a number of Arab governments in the area. Nor could “the Iraqi” be cast as “the enemy,” since the administration’s discourse gave prominence to the unpopularity and illegitimacy of Saddam’s rule, and even called for the overthrow of his regime. The personalization of the war had a profoundly negative consequence. If there were no categorical enemy, it became imperative to deny that anyone but Saddarn Hussein and the Republican Guards were targeted or suffered in this war. Bombing targets were described as if they were buildings empty of people. There were no named casualties, no human body counts, only “collateral” damage. The human tragedies produced by pulverizing the infrastructure of the country and the impact of that destruction on the people of Iraq were obliterated.

Yet the difficulty of producing “an enemy” also worked against mass anti-Arab, or even anti-Iraqi, racism in the US. While many Iraqis and Arabs were targets of racist attacks in this period, nonetheless, it was remarkable that schools would invite parents of students from Arab backgrounds to come to class and talk about their perspectives on the war. My daughter — who like many children of her generation has connections to several countries and cultures — when asked where she was from, felt impelled, for the first time in her life, to say that she was from Iraq and felt safe saying so. The rupture between Hussein and anything else Iraqi opened up a space for being an Iraqi without being “an enemy.” This atmosphere was in striking contrast to the vicious anti-Iranian racism of the time of the hostage crisis. The possibility of such an alternative experience is something to be remembered and cherished, not ignored and erased.

Afsaneh Najmabadi
Cambridge, MA

Edward Said Responds

Afsaneh Najmabadi’s wacky and rather obtuse political views, which are there to dress up her defense of Fouad Ajami and Samir al-Khalil, deserve only a few lines of response. She seems unable to distinguish between the criticism I was advancing of these intellectuals, and — a very different thing — instilling fear and trying to stamp them out, something I never would (or could) do. Both of her preferred intellectual heroes incidentally, have no shortage of outlets: Ajami is the resident anti-Arab Arab of The New Republic, US News and World Report and CBS. Samir al-Khalil was an obscure London-based Iraqi architect who shot to prominence because Republic of Fear suddenly became relevant to the US government and media propaganda campaign to demonize Saddam. He, too, has been taken up by the establishment. Republic is by no means a contribution to scholarship nor, to its author’s credit, does he pretend it is. Nevertheless my point was that knowledge about the Middle East is in fact political, and the divisions between intellectuals in this field are principally related to differences in politics, not in abstract theory.

Yet Najmabadi never mentions the role in the buildup to the war of pro-Israeli interests in the US. This is a major omission, as is her failure to understand that the US did not fight mainly to liberate Kuwait or Iraq but to serve its own imperial designs. Most US intellectuals are either ignorant about Iraq or hostile to the Arab and Islamic worlds (and sometimes both); hence the striking shortcomings of the anti-war movement which in the main certainly did condemn Saddam (as did I, unequivocally) but failed to make a case for the Iraqi people, as opposed to Saddam. That people still suffer because of Saddam and the US. Anyone who believes that the US was ever capable of helping the Kurds to achieve self-determination, promoting democracy or installing a liberal regime in Baghdad is either a fool or a knave. The US record is there for all to scrutinize, and I challenge Najmabadi to show me one pro-democracy struggle in the Middle East encouraged by the US. A look at its shameless subsidization of Israel’s horrendous occupation policies would be enough to dispel any such illusions. In everything I said or wrote since August 1990 my point was to denounce the occupation of Kuwait, but also to connect events with their contexts and not, as in Najmabadi’s case, to separate them from each other. The rest of her political argument is puerile, particularly the notions that no one condemned Saddam, and that I hold a conspiratorial view of events. Coming from a fan of Samir al-Khalil the latter view is galling.

I come finally to her personal accusations, the essence of which is: that I want to herd people under “good” and “bad” rubrics and that in doing so I oppose dialogue, especially with people like Samir al-Khalil. What is there to dialogue with him about? Aside from hysterical and only occasionally informative polemics against Saddam, he seems quite incapable of argument, scholarship or rational exchange. I do, in fact, welcome diversity of opinion, when it is opinion and discourse, and not abuse or self-promoting opportunism carried out exclusively in the US, as opposed to the Arab world. Ajami’s even less useful views are known to all and deserve no further discussion here.

But there is something else at work in Najmabadi, especially since she suggests that I have a particularly rich history with Samir al-Khalil. A few words that will allay this rather silly illusion might be of interest. In late 1969 or 1970 I became acquainted with a young Iraqi militant active in Palestinian politics. After a few months he seemed to disappear from the scene, although I gather he remained at MIT for a while thereafter. In February 1990 I was sent an unsolicited manuscript by one “Samir al-Khalil” for publication in a series of cultural studies that I edit at Harvard University Press. Its author informed me he was using a pseudonym, that he was the author of Republic of Fear, that in the submitted book he was proposing a politico-cultural analysis of “the Monument.” Frankly, I thought it was ill-suited to my series, and not a distinguished piece of work (although many of its reviewers now celebrate its brilliance, for often transparent political reasons). Samir al-Khalil made no allusion to our earlier acquaintance.

All of a sudden in late August 1990 I was the object of a nasty and unprovoked attack in London’s The Independent by the very same Samir al-Khalil. In a long and maundering piece of self-pity and rant (his all too characteristic tone) he attacked me for deconstructionism, for my theory of Orientalism and, most preposterously of all, for my alleged support of Saddam. Virtually nothing he said about me had any truth to it, but quixotically perhaps I responded anyway, drawing attention to his errors and to his pseudonymous scurrility which, I said, was the mark of a coward (he had of course protested that a nom de plume was necessary to protect his family in Iraq). It took me all of a handful of minutes on the phone from New York to London to discover that Samir al-Khalil was in fact the ex-student from MIT, a revelation that doubtless could have been made by the Iraqi authorities with even less trouble. So much for the drama of “Samir al-Khalil” aka Kanan Makiya, who remains nevertheless an item in what has come to be known as “second thoughts,” i.e. political recantation and self reinvention. As to whether so clearly peculiar a personality is interested in (or suitable for) dialogue, or whether he is about other things, I shall leave for Middle East Report’s readers to determine.

In that strange conjuncture of half-truth, demagoguery and pure and cruel fantasy which is the US-Iraqi relationship now, Fouad Ajami, Samir al-Khalil and Afsaneh Najmabadi are not critical intellectuals at all. They are careerists who do not hesitate to echo each other while either trashing or falsifying the words of people they feel have offended them. In addition, their work on the Arab world is filled with easy, and easily marketable, cliches; as scholars, therefore, they are hardly in the forefront of methodology, archival research or insight. Najmabadi’s notion that there was no anti-Arab racism in the US flies so completely in the face of the reality — what with the FBI campaign and the horrible caricatures in the media — as to make one wonder whether along with an inability to reason clearly she has any common sense at all.

Chemical Attacks and the Kurds

In MER 171 Eric Hooglund writes matter-of-factly that “Saddam Hussein ordered [the northern Iraqi town of Halabja] bombed with chemical weapons in March 1988 during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war.” An estimated 5,000 Kurds died in that attack, he says, and this explains why Kurds fled northern Iraq following the collapse of the Kurdish rebellion in the spring of 1991.

An April 28, 1991 story in the New York Times says US government analysts believe that both Iran and Iraq used “chemical arms” in the fight for territory around Halabja but that there was no attempt by either side to kill Kurds and that, in any case, there were hundreds, not thousands, of “civilians” killed in the fighting. The story goes on to cite a 1990 US Army War College report that disputed the contention that Iraq was responsible for the Halabja killings. The War College report, according to the Times, said it was “the Iranian bombardment that had actually killed the Kurds.”

In early March, six weeks before the Times story, the Mexico City English-language News reported the same story. The News story, however, added that the War College’s conclusions were based on the fact that Iraq did not possess the kind of chemical agent responsible for the deaths in Halabja, while Iran did.

In “The Intellectuals and the War” (MER 171), Edward Said observes that the demonization of Saddam Hussein was part of the US government’s racist strategy of “eliminating Iraq as a nation, a people, a culture, a history” in the minds of Americans and the government’s allies. That accomplished, the bombing could commence with little opposition. Was the story of the 1988 gassing of the Kurds manufactured as part of this strategy?

At about the time the enclosed Times story appeared, the Times also began adding qualifiers such as “alleged” and “as claimed by the Kurds” to its references to the gassing of the Kurds. I would like to know what Middle East Report’s certainty is based upon and I would like to have Middle East Report’s perspective on the War College Report referred to by the Times. If the 1988 gassing of the Kurds (and the fear that it might happen again) does not explain their rapid departure from Iraq, then what does?

Jerry Lembcke
Worcester, Massachusetts

Eric Hooglund Responds

I have seen the War College report by Stephen Pelletiere, Douglas Johnson and Leif Rosenberger. None of its authors were in Halabja, although scores of international journalists and official representatives of international organizations did enter the town within 24 hours of the chemical attack. Their well-documented accounts are the sources which verify that at least 5,000 people died of chemical poisoning. The three identified chemicals were subsequently found by UN investigators in Iraq after the Gulf war. The Pelletiere report was written to advance a specific political agenda, i.e., to reinforce a de facto alliance between the US and Iraq which the Reagan administration promoted. Supporters of the tilt toward Iraq were reluctant to accept evidence that Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq war. The US, for political reasons, refused to condemn Iraq and took the position that both sides were using chemical weapons, even though there was never evidence that Iran possessed any. When evidence came in 1988 that Iraq had used chemical weapons against its own Kurdish population in Halabja, the State Department and the intelligence community were divided over the response. The split among analysts and officials prevented the publication of an official report. Some of the pro-Iraq faction eventually succeeded in getting their report published by the US Army War College. Regardless of the merit of this report, every Kurd believes that Saddam Hussein was responsible for Halabja. And the strength of that belief is what compelled more than a million Kurds to flee toward Iran to escape Saddam Hussein.

Iraq Set Up?

I am writing to express my disappointment with your coverage of the Gulf crisis. Granted, you did come out against the war, and you have published some very good articles on the devastating effects of the war in the Middle East, but what I don’t understand is your lack of coverage of any of the evidence which makes a very good case for the set-up of Iraq (and Kuwait) by the Bush administration. After all, even Time reported some very suspicious events as early as October 1, 1990.

Many of your readers must be of Arab descent, and would surely appreciate knowing that someone of Ramsey Clark’s stature is bringing international war crimes charges against George Bush, on the basis of a set-up of Iraq (and Kuwait) by the US administration. I heard Clark speak in Toronto in mid-May, and was not altogether surprised to see no coverage of this momentous event in the mainstream media. However, I am dismayed at finding no mention of it in your magazine.

I am at a loss in understanding this lack of extremely important information. Are you uninformed? Are you being muzzled by the US administration? Do you not want people to have this information?

I hope I am not insulting your intelligence by assuming that you are not familiar with this information, all of which has been reported in Time, The Village Voice, Harper’s and the Toronto Star. However, if I have insulted your intelligence, then I have overestimated your integrity.

Lorna Gayle Almaini
Toronto, Canada

Joe Stork Responds

The chief reason that this magazine has not featured the case for a Washington “set-up” of Iraq is that we have not found the case to be very convincing. There were differences in the Bush administration over policy toward Iraq, but until the eve of Iraq’s invasion, the momentum still lay with those who saw Saddam Hussein as a key US ally in preserving the status quo in the Persian Gulf. There were persons like Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz who appear to have differed with this agenda, and their efforts to shift Washington toward a more confrontational posture with Iraq account for at least some of the inconsistencies in the administration’s approach.

If a convincing case could be made that Washington had set up Baghdad, it would still be necessary to account for the Iraqi regime’s decision to invade, pillage and torture in Kuwait, activities which I don’t believe Clark’s tribunal is planning to take up. Nor does the “set-up” notion explain why Baghdad as much as Washington refused to countenance third-party efforts at a negotiated withdrawal linked to Palestine issues. The political thrust of the “set-up” explanation is to efface the responsibility of the Iraqi regime, and its partisans, for the catastrophe of this war and its aftermath.

How to cite this article:

"Letters," Middle East Report 173 (November/December 1991).

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