A Devil Theory of Islam
Judith Miller is a New York Times reporter much in evidence on talk shows and seminars on the Middle East. She trades in "the Islamic threat" -- her particular mission has been to advance the millennial thesis that militant Islam is a danger to the West. The search for a post-Soviet foreign devil has come to rest, as it did beginning in the eighth century for European Christendom, on Islam, a religion whose physical proximity and unstilled challenge to the West seem as diabolical and violent now as they did then. Never mind that most Islamic countries today are too poverty-stricken, tyrannical and hopelessly inept militarily as well as scientifically to be much of a threat to anyone except their own citizens; and never mind that the most powerful of them -- like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Pa kistan -- are totally within the U.S. orbit. What matters to "experts" like Miller, Samuel Huntington, Martin Kramer, Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson and Barry Rubin, plus a whole battery of Israeli academics, is to make sure that the "threat" is kept before our eyes, the better to excoriate Islam for terror, despotism and violence, while assuring themselves profitable consultancies, frequent TV appearances and book contracts. The Islamic threat is made to seem disproportionately fearsome, lending support to the thesis (which is an interesting parallel to anti-Semitic paranoia) that there is a worldwide conspiracy behind every explosion.
Political Islam has generally been a failure wherever it has tried to take state power. Iran is a possible exception, but neither Sudan, already an Islamic state, nor Algeria, riven by the contest between Islamic groups and a brutal soldiery, has done anything but make itself poorer and more marginal on the world stage. Lurking beneath the discourse of Islamic peril in the West is, however, some measure of truth, which is that appeals to Islam among Muslims have fueled resistance (in the style of what Eric Hobsbawm has called primitive, pre-industrial rebellion) to the Pax Americana-Israelica throughout the Middle East. Yet neither Hezbollah nor Hamas has presented a serious obstacle to the ongoing steamroller of the anything-but-peace process. Most Arab Muslims today are too discouraged and humiliated, and also too anesthetized by uncertainty and their incompetent and crude dictatorships, to support anything like a vast Islamic campaign against the West. Besides, the elites are for the most part in cahoots with the regimes, supporting martial law and other extralegal measures against "extremists." So why, then, the accents of alarm and fear in most discussions of Islam? Of course there have been suicide bombings and outrageous acts of terrorism, but have they accomplished anything except to strengthen the hand of Israel and the United States and their client regimes in the Muslim world?
The answer, I think, is that books like Miller's are symptomatic because they are weapons in the contest to subordinate, beat down, compel and defeat any Arab or Muslim resistance to U.S.-Israeli dominance. Moreover, by surreptitiously justifying a policy of single-minded obduracy that links Islamism to a strategically important, oil-rich part of the world, the anti-Islam campaign virtually eliminates the possibility of equal dialogue between Islam and the Arabs, and the West or Israel. To demonize and dehumanize a whole culture on the ground that it is (in Lewis's sneering phrase) enraged at modernity is to turn Muslims into the objects of a therapeutic, punitive attention. I do not want to be misunderstood here: The manipulation of Islam, or for that matter Christianity or Judaism, for retrograde political purposes is catastrophically bad and must be opposed, not just in Saudi Arabia, the West Bank and Gaza, Pakistan, Sudan, Algeria and Tunisia but also in Israel, among the right-wing Christians in Lebanon (for whom Miller shows an unseemly sympathy) and wherever theocratic tendencies appear. And I do not at all believe that all the ills of Muslim countries are due to Zionism and imperialism. But this is very far from saying that Israel and the United States, and their intellectual flacks, have not played a combative, even incendiary role in stigmatizing and heaping invidious abuse on an abstraction called "Islam," deliberately in order to stir up feelings of anger and fear about Islam among Americans and Europeans, who are also enjoined to see in Israel a secular, liberal alternative. Miller says unctuously at the beginning of her book that right-wing Judaism in Israel is "the subject of another book." It is actually very much part of the book that she has written, except that she has willfully suppressed it in order to go after "Islam."
Writing about any other part of the world, Miller would be considered woefully unqualified. She tells us that she has been involved with the Middle East for twenty-five years, yet she has little knowledge of either Arabic or Persian. It would be impossible to be taken seriously as a reporter or expert on Russia, France, Germany or Latin America, perhaps even China or Japan, without knowing the requisite languages, but for "Islam," linguistic knowledge is unnecessary since what one is dealing with is considered to be a psychological deformation, not a "real" culture or religion.
What of her political and historical information? Each of the ten country chapters (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan) begins with an anecdote and moves immediately to a potted history that reflects not much more than the work of a name-dropping college sophomore. Cobbled up out of various, not always reliable authorities (her pages of footnotes are tainted by her ignorance, whether because she can only cite the sources she already knows she wants in English, or because she quotes only authorities whose views correspond to hers, thereby closing out an entire library by Muslims, Arabs and non-Orientalist scholars), these histories are meant principally to display her command of the material, but actually expose her lamentable prejudices and failures of comprehension. In the Saudi Arabia chapter, for instance, she informs us in a note that her "favorite" source on the Prophet Mohammed is the French Orientalist Maxime Rodinson, a redoubtable Marxist scholar whose biography of the Prophet is written with a bracing combination of anti-clerical irony and enormous erudition. What Miller gets from this in her short summary of Mohammed's life and ideas is that there is something inherently risible, if not contemptible, about the man whom Rodinson says was a combination of Charlemagne and Jesus Christ; for whereas Rodinson understands what that means, Miller tells us (irrelevantly) that she is not convinced. For her, Mohammed is the begetter of an anti-Jewish religion, one laced with violence and paranoia. She does not directly quote one Muslim source on Mohammed; just imagine a book published in the United States on Jesus or Moses that makes no use of a single Christian or Judaic authority.
Most of Miller's book is made up not of argument and ideas but of endless interviews with what seems to be a slew of pathetic, unconvincing, self-serving scoundrels and their occasional critics. Once past her little histories we are adrift in boring, unstructured meanderings. Here's a typical sentence of insubstantial generalization: "And Syrians, mindful of their country's chaotic history" (of what country on earth is this not also true?) "found the prospect of a return to anarchy or yet another prolonged, bloody power struggle -- " (is this uniquely true of Syria as a postcolonial state, or is it true of a hundred others in Asia, Africa, Latin America?) "and perhaps even the triumph of militant Islam in the most secular" (with what thermometer did she get that reading?) "of all Arab states -- alarming." Leave aside the abominable diction and jaw-shattering jargon of the writing. What you have is not an idea at all but a series of clichés mixed with unverifiable assertions that reflect the "thought" of "Syrians" much less than they do Miller's.
Miller gilds her paper-thin descriptions with the phrase "my friend," which she uses to convince her reader that she really knows the people and consequently what she is talking about. I counted 247 uses of the phrase before I stopped about halfway through the book. This technique produces extraordinary distortions in the form of long digressions that testify to an Islamic mindset, even as they obscure or ignore more or at least equally relevant material like local politics, the functioning of secular institutions and the active intellectual contest taking place between Islamists and nationalist opponents. She seems never to have heard of Arkoun, or Jabri, or Tarabishi, or Adonis, or Hanafi or Djeit, whose theses are hotly debated all over the Islamic world.