Wednesday, May 28, 2014

'The Middle East is not so particular': Fred Halliday and his Critique of Orientalism

May, 2014

The study of the Middle East, the Arab world and Islam owe much to a group of historians who call themselves ‘Orientalists’ and no study of these subjects would be complete without considering the critique of these historians by another group of Postmodernist thinkers who follow the writings of Edward Said, especially his 1978 book Orientalism. Together their views have formed two academic camps within the study of the Islam, the Middle East and its peoples. In his 2003 book Islam & the Myth of Confrontation, Fred Halliday criticises both camps for their lack of useful analysis and building a ‘particularist’ view of the Middle East in which the region is treated as peculiar from the rest of the world, with conditions there only being explicable through a unique regional prism or by a particular Western program of domination of the region. This essay will explore Halliday’s critique of Orientalism in support of his view that ‘the Middle East is not so particular’ as the Orientalists or Postmodernists would have it.

‘If [Bernard] Lewis is arguing that for Muslims history is about the production and maintenance of a legitimizing set of historical myths, then Muslims are hardly unique. The same could surely be said of the Irish, the Serbs, the Hindus, the Boers, the Americans, the Japanese, and indeed almost anyone. What appears as a specific, defining characteristic turns out to be something shared with many others. The Middle East is not so particular’ (Halliday, 2003:205) [emphasis added].

Here Fred Halliday criticizes an assertion by Bernard Lewis, intellectual and personal arch-enemy of Edward Said, in the New York Review of Books which begins ‘For Muslims, history is important’ (Lewis, 1991). Halliday cites Lewis’ views in the article as an example of Edward Said’s concept of ‘Orientalism’ and explains what Lewis actually means is ‘history in the sense of an accurate assessment of the past does not actually matter for them [Muslims]’ (Halliday, 2003:205). Halliday argues that the ‘production and maintenance of a legitimizing set of historical myths’ (ibid.) is not unique or particular to the Middle East as Lewis would have it and cites other non-Muslim peoples who maintain their own self-regarding historical myths.

Abizadeh (2004:292), writing on nationalism particularly in the context of Western liberal democracies, holds that ‘the national memory must be a wilfully selective memory. This mythical element in its shared memories is what enables the nation’s common history to provide it with a motivating power, so much so that the academic study of history poses a threat to the capacity of the nation to hold together’. The common memory of this manufactured history unites people and ties them together and the unsentimental, objective study of history threatens that narrative. Negative reaction to histories, such as many Americans’ reaction to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), which seek to counter such sanitised, nationalised histories by telling the bad along with the good are labelled as revisionist (Greenberg, 2013) by those who do not wish to hear them. Russians, Chinese and Britons for example—all non-Middle Eastern societies—each have just as strong national or origin myths, often historically inaccurate, about their nations and ethnic origins as people of the Middle East. ‘American exceptionalism’ provides a particularly strong example of a non-Middle Eastern society with a selective attitude toward its own history. As Tyrrell (1991:1031) puts it, ‘nowhere has a nation-centred historical tradition been more resilient than in the United States. There, modern historicism, with its emphasis on the uniqueness of all national traditions, was grafted onto an existing tradition of exceptionalism. The pre-historicist idea of the United States as a special case "outside" the normal patterns and laws of history runs deep in American experience.’ Halliday is correct that a selective, oft-inaccurate view of origin and history is not particular to the Middle East as asserted by Bernard Lewis and other Orientalists; it is common throughout humanity.

It is these and similar assertions of the particularity or uniqueness of the Middle East and its people and culture that Halliday’s criticisms are aimed at. He believes ‘In approaching the analysis of the Middle East the element of particularism, uniqueness or impenetrability has been greatly overrated’ and argues that ‘particularism’ by both Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis and Postmodernists such as Edward Said has prevented better academic analysis of Middle Eastern society (Halliday, 2003:215). He holds Orientalists have ‘asserted that the only way to understand the behaviour of Middle Eastern societies is through analysis of “Islam”: that class politics, or revolutions, or even social consciousness do not arise there, or that democracy, in either its literal or socialist sense, is not possible in such countries’ (ibid.:13). Nonetheless, he also points out that Islamists, Arab Nationalists and Arab intellectuals are just as guilty of ‘vaunting the uniqueness and specificity of the “Arabs”, and arguing that forms of oppression found elsewhere—based on class, gender or ethnicity—do not operate in the Arab world’ (ibid.). Al-Azm, among others, calls this approach of extolling the superiority or the contrasting of these specific ‘oriental’, Islamic or Arab values in contrast to Western values, in its most distilled form, ‘Occidentalism’ (Al-Azm, 2011:6). Halliday argues that Postmodernist Saidists are guilty of claiming a ‘special European animosity towards Arabs, let alone towards Palestinians or Muslims, [which] does not bear historical comparison’ (ibid.:210). Though the Islamic world certainly has legitimate grievances against the West, it is not historically accurate to declare, as Said does, the Middle East occupies a special place as a Western target.

Halliday (ibid.:215) explains that there are many issues in the Middle East which can be analysed or explained in either a ‘particularist’ context through concepts such as the prism of the ‘Middle East’, the ‘Arab mind’ or ‘Islam’, but offers that they can also be equally or better analysed or explained using the social sciences in the same way as studying phenomena common and present in other regions and societies elsewhere throughout the world. The issues and problems of the Middle East are also issues and problems in the rest world. They are not particular to the Middle East.

The issue of the structure of Middle Eastern states provides an excellent opportunity to explore Halliday’s criticism of particularism in studying the Middle East. One of the main issues in Middle Eastern society today is that the majority of its constituent states are run by despots who repress political opposition, free expression and political participation, many of which have been or are supported by Western governments, some of which installed these very governments during their rule or as or after the colonial era drew to a close.

The United States, United Kingdom and France, as well as the Soviet Union/Russia and China, have been influential in Middle East politics throughout the Cold War era and after. For example, between 1946 and 2011, the United States provided over $118 billion in aid to the Egyptian government, the majority of which was directed toward military spending, Egypt receiving fully a quarter of all US foreign military aid (Sowa, 2013). The tanks this money bought are on display in Cairo at places like Tahrir Square today. The Soviet Union and then Russia also poured comparable amounts of money into the coffers of Middle Eastern dictators, such as Syria’s al-Assad regime (Hopwood, 1988:72-77), also a continuing relationship. Some Middle Eastern dictators, such as Egypt’s Nasser, were as wily as to receive money from both the US and USSR at times during the Cold War (Goldschmidt, 2008:167). Beyond solely economic or military support, there are also personal relationships between Western and Middle Eastern elites. The special, decades-long business and political relationship between the Bush family and the royal family of Saudi Arabia (Unger, 2007) is an example. That the West ‘props up’ repressive Middle Eastern governments is a valid criticism.

However this state of affairs is not unique to the Middle East. Western states, especially throughout the Cold War era, ‘propped up’ many unsavoury, repressive, non-democratic dictatorships throughout the world. At alternating times, the United States and the Soviet Union provided economic, political and/or military support to oppressive regimes throughout the world. In Southeast Asia, they supported opposing sides: Ngo Dinh Diem or Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam (Immerman, 2011:120-143), Sukarno and then Suharto in Indonesia (Brands, 1989:785-808; Evans, 1989:25-48), and King Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (Kiernan, 1985). In Sub-Saharan Africa, the two superpowers funded competing regimes in Angola, Mozambique and Uganda, among others (Friedman, 2011:247-272; Westad, 1996:21-32). In the Americas, the USSR devoted great attention to the Castro regime in Cuba (Fursenko & Naftali, 1997) while the United States continues to work with friendly dictatorships throughout Latin America (Livingstone, 2014). Moscow devoted its greatest efforts to building and supporting oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe, in places like East Germany (Harrison, 2000:53-74), Hungary and Poland (Kramer, 1998:358-384). No matter which side the people of these particular nations were on, they were abused, oppressed and threatened by their own governments. The Middle East has not been a particular victim in the political power games of Western or European states as Edward Said claimed.

Additionally, if one looks at the grievances that Middle Easterners aired during the recent ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, it is easy to see that for many their complaints are the same as other peoples throughout the world. As Zubaida (2011:1) explains, ‘the "revolutions" in Tunisia and then Egypt seemed to eschew religion and nationalism in favour of classic political demands of liberty, democracy and economic justice.’ The signs protestors carried and their complaints to media of the corruption and lack of justice and representation in their governments in places like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria were mirrored by those voiced by the ‘Occupy’ movement in Western cities such as New York, Washington, London and Berlin. This solidarity and recognition of common goals between East and West was understood and embraced by the protestors themselves (Shanker & Gabbatt, 2011).

Many Orientalists generally argue, with some variation, that the prevalence of despotic regimes in the Middle East today exists because there is a basic historical and/or social incompatibility or conflict between Islamic society and modern notions of liberal democratic government that has created or aided in creating this state of affairs. For example, William Montgomery Watt (1988:3-8) argues that Muslims see the world and society as ‘unchanging’ and therefore people can live today just as they did in the time of the Prophet and Islam is the ‘final’ religion, living any other way being against God’s will . New, modern concepts such as equality, democracy, and tolerance for different lifestyles do not enter easily into their thinking. Bernard Lewis explains that the history of Islam is different from Christianity or Judaism (and by inference, Buddhism and Confucianism as well), where the central figures of Jesus and Moses were spiritual leaders whose people finally triumphed, but who were never actual heads of a state. Lewis writes that ‘from the days of the Prophet, the Islamic society had a dual character. On the one hand, it was a polity—a chieftaincy that successively became a state and an empire. At the same time, on the other hand, it was a religious community, founded by a Prophet’ (Lewis, 2003:9). He also points out that as the head of a state, Muhammad was also a military leader (ibid.:23). He goes on to explain that Islam conferred the authority on the Prophet and his successors and for Muslims Islam is the only real source of legitimacy, with all forms of secular government incurring ‘reserve, even mistrust’ (ibid.:10). Not all Orientalists see the Islamic world in this way, of course.

Edward Said would argue that these Orientalist views are the result and part and parcel of the process of Orientalism: ‘the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it; in short Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’ (Said, 1995:3). Said continues: ‘To speak of Orientalism therefore is to speak mainly, although not exclusively, of a British and French cultural enterprise’ and ‘since World War II America has dominated the Orient, and approaches it as France and Britain once did’ (ibid.: 4).

Nonetheless, oppressive, despotic states restricting civil liberties and avenues of political input from the population they rule are just as common in Africa, Asia and South America and are not particular to the Middle East. North Korea, the Central African Republic, Venezuela or China and Russia can be seen as equally as despotic, repressive and non-representative as any Middle Eastern state. According to the Freedom House report Freedom in the World 2014 (2014), the Middle East and North Africa have the worst civil liberties protections in the world, but there are more people in the world living without freedom outside of the Middle East than in it. While the report shows five of the ten least free countries in the world are Muslim-majority societies, the other half are not. 25% of the world’s states are classified as ‘not free’. The report shows declines in political freedom, stability and civil rights in every region of the world outside of Europe (ibid.).

However, the Postmodernists would reject Freedom House’s criticisms of the Middle East and North Africa as imposing a Western measuring stick onto a non-Western region, with Saidists pointing to Freedom House, a Western-based ‘think tank’, as an example of Foucauldian ‘knowledge as power’ and part of the Western, Orientalist government-corporation-academia nexus which Said discusses at length in Covering Islam (2007:135-161). That the Freedom House report shows declines in freedom throughout the world except Europe could arguably show that the measuring stick is rather Eurocentric.

Orientalists are surely wrong in asserting that the prevalence of despotic regimes is an issue caused by the particular society, history or conditions of the Middle East. Clearly comparable regimes exist in similar circumstances throughout the rest of the world and generally the academics who study these other regions refrain from making sweeping statements about regional incompatibility of freedom, civil rights or democracy there. However, Postmodernist Saidists are also wrong in asserting that Western criticisms of Middle Eastern despotism are particularly aimed against them when, especially in the case of organisations such as Freedom House, they are applied equally or universally to the rest of the world. Postmodernists harm their own case by criticising Western support for oppressive Middle Eastern regimes but then also rejecting Western criticisms and sources which support that argument. Ibn Warraq points out this dilemma between having to utterly reject Orientalist knowledge or selectively accept it as evidence when necessary as a problem in Said’s Orientalism (Warraq, 2007:22-3), where Said alternately rejects Orientalist assertions, but accepts some of them as authentic at other times. As Halliday (2003:211) puts it, ‘Said implies that because ideas are produced in a context of domination, or directly in the service of domination, they are therefore invalid.’ Anything the West asserts about the Middle East is invalid because of its dominant position over it. In that light, anything regarding the Middle East that emanates from the West is unacceptable to Postmodernists.

Postmodernists, if they are true to Said’s thought, cannot even accept Eastern-generated knowledge. For Edward Said, there is really no such thing as the objective ‘truth’, there are simply ‘representations’ which cannot be separated from the interests of the ‘representer’ (Said, 1995:272). By that logic, if Western criticisms of the East are representations of Western interest, then Eastern rejections of these criticisms are also representations of Eastern interest. This creates a circular logic in which nothing anyone says can be considered ‘true’. There is only discourse without truth or talk without substance.

This is another of Fred Halliday’s criticisms. He professes to believe in the ‘now supposedly outmoded and pre-modernist view that there is such a thing as reality, and that it is the task of concepts and theories to analyse it, and that their efficacy and values are above all to be judged in terms of how much they explain it’ (Halliday, 2003:196). Said’s Orientalism and its Postmodernist adherents criticise the theories and discourse of those it calls Orientalists as agents of a cultural process of Western--especially British, French and American--domination of the East (Said, 1995:3). They seek to counteract the Orientalist narrative by questioning the truth and motives behind its representations. Yet Postmodernists do not offer an alternative version of the facts. They pose questions, but give no answers. Edward Said seems to deny that the ‘Orient’ exists at all other than as a concept the West has created (Warraq, 2007:22). This begs the question: If the Middle East is not that way, then how is it?

Said has no answer. In fact, he admits ‘no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are’ (Said, 1995:331). Yet, though admittedly lacking the ‘interest’ or ‘capacity’ to say what the Orient and Islam are, he has no trouble saying they are not as the Orientalists would have them. According to Fred Halliday, the value of concepts and theories should be judged on how well they explain the region (Halliday, 2003:196). Edward Said and his Postmodernist adherents fail woefully in this category because they do not—and in fact refuse—to explain the Middle East or Islam at all. One would be ill served in turning to Edward Said or Postmodernists when trying to understand the Middle East.

Halliday also points out that the Middle East is not alone in struggling to deal with or overcome a Western-dominated imperial or colonial past. Regions as diverse as Ireland, Scotland and the Basque region to the former colonial states of Indochina to virtually the whole of Africa (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2012:71-89) and South America have a history of imperialist and colonial domination by Western states. This treatment was not solely reserved for the Arab world. Though European Christians launched multiple ‘crusader’ armies into the Middle East supposedly to liberate the holy land over a period of centuries (Davies, 1997:358), it also launched similar centuries of ‘crusades’ afterwards into South America and Africa to convert the native populations to Christianity and exploit their labour and resources, wiping out entire nations of indigenous peoples and sending countless thousands back as slaves. Between 1490 and 1890, the native population of North and South America declined 96% as a result of contact with the West (Taylor, 2002:40). Ward Churchill compares Christopher Columbus--formerly considered one of the great European explorers--to Hitler’s executioner Heinrich Himmler due to the deaths of millions of indigenous South and North Americans following his ‘voyages of discovery’ (Churchill, 1993:12).

This does not place the West in a better light, but it does show that the exercise of the West’s expansionist, colonial, imperial drive was not particular to the Middle East alone. Native North and South Americans and Africans by this measure have a stronger claim to being the victims of a particular European animus. Their attempts at resistance were quickly overcome and those peoples who survived the onslaught were unable to regain control of their own lands or cultures until decolonisation in the 20th century. The major indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa were either enslaved or driven to virtual extinction within a few centuries. Tens of thousands of Africans were transplanted into the Americas, losing all connection with their ancestral land and culture. Their stories are utterly lost to history.

In fact, because of the strength of Middle Eastern kingdoms during the period of the Crusades they were able to resist and finally force out the Christian European invaders, eventually themselves returning the favour by invading and occupying European Christian lands as far north as Tours, France (Lewis, 2003: 47). Peoples of the Middle East were able to preserve their own kingdoms, religion and culture and were able to invade, colonise and dominate Western lands for centuries before being turned back themselves. The Middle East still retains its broad geographic, ethnic, religious and political identity today. Other peoples who were the target of Western expansion are gone. There is no one to speak for them. The Sioux, Comanche and Zulu do not have their own Edward Said.

Both Saidian Postmodernists who attempt to explain the prevalence of despotic government and lack of freedom in politics and society in the Middle East as occurring as the result of particular Orientalist imperial crimes and the Orientalists they criticise for creating the false idea that modern, free, democratic governments are incompatible with Islamic society are leaving out a large part of the story of the rest of the world.

In conclusion, Fred Halliday is correct that the Middle East is not so particular. The Orientalist assertion that Middle Easterners are more susceptible to nationalised, religious or ethnic foundation myths as opposed to objective historical truth is clearly false--the rest of the world suffers from this problem as well. The fact most Middle Eastern states are despotic dictatorships in which its people are not represented is not a particular feature of the Middle East either. The Orientalist assertion that this occurs because there is a basic incompatibility between Islamic society and modern democracy ignores the fact that the West has built and supported these regimes in support of their own interests. They are not indigenous. However, the Middle East is not the only region where Western states have and do support oppressive regimes. The Islamic World was not singled out.

The Postmodernist view of Orientalism criticises and rejects these Western views of the Middle East as part of this domination of the East by the West, but refuses to offer any alternative explanation of the ‘truth’ because, to Postmodernist Saidists, there is no such thing, only subjective representations of it. Halliday believes there is a ‘truth’ and concepts and theories are judged on how well they explain that truth. Said’s Orientalism offers a one-sided critique of the West, but no analysis of the Middle East. It does not explain it at all. The peoples of the Middle East are not the particular victims of Western, imperialist, colonial crimes or hatred and historically fared better in many ways than other peoples who were targets of European expansion. Fred Halliday is correct in his critique that ‘both [Orientalists and Postmodernists] fail us in what I have defined as the central intellectual task, namely the analysis of the societies in question’ (Halliday, 2003:201) [original emphasis]. The Middle East is not so particular.


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