Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (W. W. Norton, 1993).

The absence of basic human rights and democratic freedoms in the Arab world for most of the post-colonial era, and the failure of the region’s inhabitants to successfully contest this deficit, has appropriately come to be known as a crisis of Arab political culture. That this crisis is not an abstraction but is excruciatingly real was amply demonstrated during the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis. It is this important theme that Kanan Makiya attempts to address.

Cruelty and Silence is broadly divided into two sections. The first explores the brutality of the Iraqi Baathist regime, particularly its repression of the 1991 popular uprisings. The second part considers the responses of Arab intellectuals to the Gulf crisis, and goes on to indict them for alleged complicity in perpetuating the regimes responsible. The book has received generally favorable reviews in Western journals. [1] In the opinion of this reader, however, both sections of the book are replete with flaws and contradictions serious and numerous enough to vitiate Makiya’s entire enterprise.

As Makiya turns his attention to human rights in Iraq and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, the problem is primarily one of incompetence in the use and interpretation of evidence. The most telling example of his rush to judgment is his assertion that the Iraqi state employs civil servants for the specific purpose of raping Iraqi women. His sole evidence in this regard consists of a single index card for ‘Aziz Salih Ahmad from the files of the Central Security Headquarters Building of Suleimaniya. As Eqbal Ahmad demonstrated in his discussion of the book, it seems incontrovertible that Makiya’s ‘Aziz had been accused of rape by the Iraqi authorities rather than employed by them to perpetrate it. Makiya has thus far refused to budge from his original interpretation. Instead, he has accused his critics of questioning the authenticity of his index card rather than his amateurish interpretation of it. (A recent report by Middle East Watch, which has conducted an exhaustive inventory of many thousands of Iraqi government documents captured by Kurdish forces in 1991, concludes that documents corroborating Makiya’s rape charge are “notably missing,” and that, based on an examination of “hundreds of identical cards in the Iraqi state files,” there is not “a shred of evidence of the use of rape as a matter of state policy in Iraq.”) [2]

Other examples of carelessness abound, such as neglecting to document specific violations; excessive reliance on hearsay; accepting at face value human rights reports which may have been produced by organizations with factional political affiliations (whether such affiliations exist is never asked); reproducing numerical estimates made by individuals in circumstances where accuracy cannot be assumed; asking leading questions of his informants, including one case in which he fails to convince a young Kurdish survivor of mass murder that he, the survivor, harbors hostile attitudes toward Arabs. Makiya’s initial disclaimer that he is “not a human rights worker” and does “not claim to have done justice to the terrible things that have happened” is well taken; his editors should have insisted he repeat it at regular intervals.

Makiya is equally out of his depth when discussing Arab poetics and culture. Of Nizar Qabbani, a leading Arab poet, Makiya makes a rather startling leap, writing that Qabbani’s poems “work through [traditional] codes of honor and shame…and through nostalgia, extreme lyricism, romanticism and rejectionism. This was the style of the young [Ba‘thist theoretician] Michel ‘Afiaq… [Qabbani’s] flowery romantic style is that of early Baathism,” Makiya similarly reduces the entire corpus of Arab poetry to the tradition hija’, which virtually all experts on Arabic literature translate as “satire” and none as “invective diatribe,” as does Makiya. In this fashion, one poem by Qabbani is made to stand for a bigotry which allegedly permeates Arab identity. Completely lacking is a discussion of the historical diversity, cultural specificities, social differences and political conflicts between and among Arabs. They are simply lumped together and essentialized.

Few reviewers have bothered to note Makiya’s capacity for getting easily verifiable historical facts wrong (e.g., the Battle of Badr was in 624 not 653 CE; the Ottoman sultan in 1634 was Murat IV not Murat I). Fewer still would criticize him for drawing attention to the miserable plight of Iraqi Kurds, but when he does so by belittling Palestinian suffering he leaves sincerity and integrity far behind. In total, Makiya states, “around 3,500 [Kurdish] villages have been destroyed since 1968 (roughly 80 percent of all the rural villages in Iraqi Kurdistan)…. Israel, inside its pre-1967 borders, was built upon the suffering of 369 ‘eliminated’ villages. So, how much collective pain is there when the numbers grow by a factor of 10?”

One can accept his disclaimer in the next sentence that suffering is “not relative” and “unquantifiable,” but then why does he attempt to do just that? What he fails to note is that in Israel there were only some 520 Palestinian villages to be destroyed, of which 418 were entirely depopulated (an identical percentage within one twentieth of the time frame, if numbers are of such interest). [3]

This display of superficiality, though, pales by comparison with Makiya’s second section. As befits an author who declares that he “no longer ha[s] the stomach for scholarship” on precisely those questions he addresses, the purpose and target of his “polemic” are neither consistent nor clear. The intellectuals whom Makiya indicts for a silence which not only tolerates Arab regimes but has indeed “created” them are, almost without exception, those who advocated a peaceful resolution of the Gulf crisis and who have no formal association with any Arab state. Despite the absence of such associations, and simply because they advocated a peaceful resolution, they are all guilty of aiding Saddam Hussein and “covering up for the Iraqi regime’s cruelty.”

In Makiya’s scheme of things, the most morally bankrupt intellectual of all and, as such, the collaborator par excellence, is Edward Said. In Said’s shadow stands a veritable who’s who of critical Arab writers and dissident intellectuals. Makiya also limits himself to this group when addressing the question of intellectual complicity with Arab repression. He does not discuss that larger mass of intellectuals who may have, like Makiya, supported the Gulf war, but who also openly supported Iraq during its war with Iran; who have favored continued dictatorship in Iraq as the preferred post-war scenario; and who have associated themselves with the anti-democratic Arab regimes which joined the US-led coalition. Concerning them, Makiya observes a veritable vow of silence.

Crucially in this respect, Makiya also ignores those Iraqi dissidents who publicly opposed both Saddam Hussein and the Gulf war. I have before me, for example, an appeal signed by 28 Iraqi artists and writers, including Faleh ‘Abd al-Jabbar, Jamal Haydar, Ahmad al-Muhanna and Yusuf Nasir, and circulated at the end of the war. They write that they have been “forced to leave our homeland through the pressures of oppression and wars,” yet they believe that the crisis “could and should have been resolved by peaceful means within the Arab and international community.” They condemn “the destruction of Iraq” during the war, censure those who “placed Iraq between two flames, that of the Allie[s] and that of an unmerciful oppressor,” explicitly oppose “any attempts to substitute Saddam Hussein with another oppressor or with an imported government,” and conclude with an urgent plea for democracy, peace and rapid reconstruction. [4] Makiya, by ignoring these critics whose existence undermines his case, betrays at best a woeful ignorance.

An examination of his use of citations purporting to represent the views of those he criticizes forces this reviewer to conclude that Makiya’s polemic is based in very large part on an amateurish, if not fraudulent, use of sources. As‘ad AbuKhalil took the simple precaution of consulting Makiya’s original Arabic sources. Readers interested in hard evidence of Makiya’s penchant for distortion would do well to compare, for instance, AbuKhalil’s unedited translation of Kamal Abu Deeb’s essay, “A Cry While Led Astray,” with Makiya’s edited version and commentary. [5]

Most Western readers and reviewers, of course, are neither equipped nor inclined to pursue original Arabic sources. Consider, then, Makiya’s attack on Noam Chomsky, who, according to Makiya, “came down in support of a ‘plebiscite or other expression of popular will inside Kuwait’.” (“But,” he adds, “he omitted to recommend the same for Iraq. Why?”). Chomsky is a prolific writer and routinely publishes in international newspapers and in accessible journals; Makiya, though, turns to a transcript of a talk at Harvard University. It turns out that, in the course of describing various peace proposals then on the table, Chomsky simply stated, “Fourth, some of the proposals also call for a plebiscite or other expression of popular will inside Kuwait.” [6] In every other instance where Makiya resorts to ellipses, or to citing an obscure or unverifiable source or an unfamiliar language, the reader should beware of assuming that the source cited actually meant what Makiya claims, unless it is verified by reference to the original.

As for Edward Said, no one is the object of more willful misrepresentation. Makiya, in effect, dismisses Said’s intellectual accomplishments and claims them as his own. For example, Makiya charges Said with “inventing and reinventing a discourse…indifferent to and irresponsible toward the real problem of Palestinians under occupation.” Yet he is silent about Said’s frequent and explicit statements that any Palestinian or Arab political agenda confined to opposing Israel and the West is doomed to failure. He ignores as well Said’s oft-stated position that the Palestinian struggle will not be vindicated if it does not result in a democratic state. In an interview in this magazine immediately after the Gulf war, Said observes, with a tone of regret, that the Gulf war has aggravated paranoia among Arab intellectuals and a collapse of Arab cultural institutions; Makiya has him “[speaking] approvingly of a popular source of conspiratorialism in the Arab world.” Makiya passes over the fact that Said, in the same interview, sets forth a critical agenda for Arab intellectuals which, in many respects, resembles what Makiya himself claims to be doing. [7]

The point is not that Edward Said or Noam Chomsky is above criticism. The point is simply that Makiya attacks precisely those individuals who have long practiced self-criticism with a sincerity and sophistication utterly beyond him, a self-criticism he now conceitedly claims to be singlehandedly pioneering. When Makiya excavates a “cosmopolitan intellectual” who really did support the Iraqi regime during the Gulf crisis (e.g., Hisham Dja‘it), he then presents this person as an authentic spokesman for everyone he dislikes. One of Makiya’s targets is ‘Abd al-Rahman Munif, the novelist and committed social critic. Munif, who had earlier been stripped of his Saudi nationality, left his exile in Baghdad in 1979 to protest the abuses of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Makiya, then living in London where he had nothing if not choice, was managing his father’s architectural firm, Makiya Associates, and accepted work on a major Iraqi government project. In 1982, after Saddam had embroiled his country in a war with Iran which was to take hundreds of thousands of lives, “the Makiya Associates office began pouring its creative energies into projects for Baathist Baghdad.” These included “victory in an architectural competition to design the Baath Party headquarters.” Makiya claims he was “dead-set against the firm’s having anything to do with the project,” but it was not until 1983 that Makiya disengaged from his day-to-day managing role at the firm, only after, in his words, he had “organized the whole thing.” [8]

Makiya’s self-image as a brave and solitary critic of the Iraqi regime, in light of the above record, lends an element of unintended humor to some passages of Cruelty and Silence. In the introduction, Makiya writes of the difficulties he encountered publishing the earlier Republic of Fear, which he wrote as Samir al-Khalil. The thought that scholarly merit or readability might have influenced publishers is never entertained. Makiya claims instead that, at a time when Iraq was in favor with the West, “very few people were willing to believe things were that bad inside Iraq.” [9] In fact, the pages of Middle East Report were consistently open to severe critics of the Iraqi regime. During this period, Kegan Paul published Peter Sluglett and Marion Farouk-Sluglett’s Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship, and a book of essays by the Committee Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq also appeared. [10]

Samir al-Khalil was not Makiya’s only resort to pseudonymity. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, Makiya, under the pseudonym of Muhammad Ja‘far, sat on the collective of Khamsin, a London-based journal whose masthead advocated “the revolutionary overthrow of…all the existing regimes in the region, and the establishment of a united socialist Arab world.” As Ja‘far, Makiya participated in public fora, and it seems fair to assume that Iraqi intelligence, along with numerous other persons, was aware of his identity. The concluding chapter of Makiya/al-Khalil’s Republic of Fear is virtually identical with Makiya/Ja‘far’s “The Gulf War as Extinction of Politics,” given as a lecture at Columbia University in September 1984 and published in Khamsin in 1986. [11] At an earlier point, Makiya/Ja‘far condemned Palestinian rejectionists for not being sufficiently rejectionist, previewing the undisguised animus for Palestinian intelligentsia so apparent in Cruelty and Silence. [12] Cruelty and Silence, in the end, is important not for what it asserts but for what it represents. It is common knowledge that Iraq is ruled by a thoroughly repressive regime, one which compulsively violates the human rights of its citizens. Such practices are indefensible, and the regimes which perpetrate them even more so. But these facts do not absolve those who would document such abuses from observing standard rules of evidence.

It is also a fact that the intelligentsia and intellectuals of any society by and large serve as the handmaidens of power in that society. Dissidents are everywhere a minority. In this unfortunate reality, Arab societies are no different. Makiya argues, unconvincingly, that the ratio of Arab critics to panderers is exceptionally low at the moment. Certainly there are specificities to Arab political and social dynamics that deserve critical airing, even in a polemical format. But Makiya’s criticism is based on false premises, and it is selective rather than comprehensive. He goes after the wrong people and is himself silent concerning those who have allied themselves with one or another regime. One cannot help but notice how neatly this complements the agenda of Western policymakers and opinion shapers. Given the real need for drastic changes in Arab political culture, and the need to account for the failings of Arab intellectuals across the spectrum, this is most unfortunate.


[1] The two notable exceptions are Eqbal Ahmad, “The Question of Iraq,” The Nation, August 9-16, 1993, and As‘ad AbuKhalil, “Arab Intellectuals on Trial,” Middle East Journal 47/4 (Autumn 1993). A revealing exchange generated by Ahmad’s review is in The Nation, November 8, 1993.
[2] Bureaucracy of Repression: The Iraqi Government in Its Own Words (New York, February 1994), pp. 14-15. The rape victims and prison room Makiya produces demonstrate that rape occurs and that it occurs on government premises. These well-known facts have no bearing on his qualitatively different judgment that the Iraqi state employs salaried rapists. Given the awesome scale of human rights abuses in Iraq, including torture, rape and mass murder, such irresponsible exaggeration is deeply regrettable.
[3] Walid Khalidi, ed., All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992). For further discussion of this tactic by Makiya see AbuKhalil, pp. 698-699.
[4] A copy of this document is on file with the editors of this magazine. See also Faleh ‘Abd al-Jabbar, “Saddam’s Spoils of War,” Guardian in January 1991, and similar opinion essays in al-Hayat during this period.
[5] AbuKhalil, p. 703.
[6] The transcript of Chomsky’s November 1990 lecture later appeared as On US Gulf Policy (Westfield, NJ: Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, 1991).
[7] “The Intellectuals and the War,” Middle East Report 171 (July-August 1991). See also Said’s New York Times opinion piece on the eve of the war, “A Tragic Convergence” (January 11, 1991). Makiya’s inclination toward unattributed intellectual appropriation has brought comment even from The New Republic (January 3, 1994), which noticed an uncanny resemblance between Makiya’s phrasings and those of Fouad Ajami.
[8] Lawrence Wechsler, “Architects Amid the Ruins,” New Yorker, January 6, 1992.
[9] In his introduction to Cruelty, Makiya states that “the most eminent Arab scholar of Iraq in the United States reported that the book ‘insults’ the people of Iraq.” Makiya has since confirmed (in a public debate with this reviewer in Amsterdam on February 6, 1994) that the reference is to Hanna Batatu, author of The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq and a contributing editor of Middle East Report. When I questioned Batatu about this, he stated categorically that he had never seen the manuscript of Republic, was never asked to review it and had never said any such thing.
[10] The Slugletts’ book appeared in 1987. The CARDRI title is Saddam’s Iraq: Revolution or Reaction? (London: Zed Press, 1986).
[11] Khamsin 12 (1986), pp. 8-18.
[12] Muhammad Ja‘far, “The Ideological Divide in the Palestinian Resistance Movement,” Khamsin 5 (1978); “National Formation in the Arab Region: A Critique of Samir Amin,” Khamsin 6 (1978); “The Arab Ruling Classes in the 1970s,” Khamsin 7 (1980). A contemporary rebuttal by Salim Tamari to the first of these conveys the absolutist flavor of Makiya’s analysis: “To act as a class force, as Ja‘far demands…[Palestinians] have two options: either to subordinate their struggle to the overall strategy of each particular revolutionary movement in each ‘host’ country…or to act as a surrogate proletariat (a vanguard) on behalf of the Arab left. It seems that Ja‘far’s disappointment with Palestinian failures…betrays a preference for this second option…. One consequence of this vanguardist conception of the PLO is to hold it responsible for the stagnation of the Arab left in general, and accountable for the failure of the left in each confrontation with the Arab regimes.” Khamsin 6 (1978), p. 127. Ja‘far, in response, provides a digest of “the theory of permanent revolution,” which, he claims, underlies his original article. Insisting that “the establishment of a PLO regime on the West Bank is a step backward,” he goes on to accuse Palestinian scholar Walid Khalidi (whom he misidentifies as “R. Al-Khalidi”) of being “Herzlian” for publishing “in the American journal Foreign Affairs.” Khamsin 7 (1980), pp. 150-155. In Cruelty and Silence, this Ja‘farian period is reformulated as “a record of activism on the Palestinian question.”

How to cite this article:

Mouin Rabbani "Makiya, Cruelty and Silence," Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

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