A Devil Theory of Islam | The Nation


A Devil Theory of Islam

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

This appalling failure of analysis is especially true in the chapter on Israel (mistitled, since it is all about Palestine), where she ignores the changes caused by the intifada and the prolonged effect of the three-decade Israeli occupation, and conveys no sense of the abominations wrought on the lives of ordinary Palestinians by the Oslo accords and Yasir Arafat's one-man rule. Although Miller is obsessed with Hamas, she is clearly unable to connect it with the sorry state of affairs in territories run brutally by Israel for all these years. She never mentions, for instance, that the only Palestinian university not established with Palestinian funds is Gaza's Islamic (Hamas) University, started by Israel to undermine the P.L.O. during the intifada. She records Mohammed's depredations against the Jews but has little to say about Israeli beliefs, statements and laws against "non-Jews," often rabbinically sanctioned practices of deportation, killing, house demolition, land confiscation, annexation and what Sara Roy has called systematic economic de-development. If in her breathlessly excitable way Miller sprinkles around a few of these facts, nowhere does she accord them the weight and influence as causes of Islamist passion that they undoubtedly have.

About the Author

Edward W. Said
We mourn the loss of Edward Said, who passed away on the morning of Thursday, September 25, 2003. Edward W. Said, the...

Also by the Author

There is a racist premise underpinning the “peace process” that Arab lives aren’t worth as much as Jewish lives.

With the "war on terror" now official nomenclature, the
problematic conflating of ethnic, religious and "terrorist" identities
is now a matter of policy as well as media distortion. In a 1986 book
review, Edward Said argues presciently against the
dangerous "terrorism craze"--"dangerous because it consolidates the
immense, unrestrained pseudopatriotic narcissism we are nourishing."

Maddeningly, she informs us of everyone's religion -- such and so is Christian, or Muslim Sunni, Muslim Shiite, etc. Even so, she is not always accurate, managing to produce some howlers. She speaks of Hisham Sharabi as a friend but misidentifies him as a Christian; he is Sunni Muslim. Badr el Haj is described as Muslim whereas he is Maronite Christian. These lapses wouldn't be so bad were she not bent on revealing her intimacy with so many people. And then there is her bad faith in not identifying her own religious background or political predilections. Are we meant to assume that her religion (which I don't think is Islam or Hinduism) is irrelevant?

She is embarrassingly forthcoming, however, about her reactions to people and power and certain events. She is "grief-stricken" when King Hussein of Jordan is diagnosed with cancer, although she scarcely seems to mind that he runs a police state whose many victims have been tortured, unfairly imprisoned, done away with. One realizes of course that what counts here is her hobnobbing with the little King, but some accurate sense of the "modern" kingdom he rules would have been in order. Her eyes "filled with tears -- of rage" as she espies evidence of desecration of a Lebanese Christian mosaic, but she doesn't bother to mention other desecrations in Israel -- for example, of Muslim graveyards -- and hundreds of exterminated villages in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine. Her real contempt and disdain come out in passages like the following, in which she imputes thoughts and wishes to a middle-class Syrian woman whose daughter has just become an Islamist:

She would never have any of the things a middle-class Syrian mother yearned for: no grand wedding party and traditional white dress with diamond tiara for her daughter, no silver-framed photos of the happy wedding couple in tuxedo and bridal gown on the coffee table and fireplace mantel, no belly dancers wriggling on a stage and champagne that flowed till dawn. Perhaps Nadine's friends, too, had daughters or sons who had rejected them, who secretly despised them for the compromises they had made to win the favor of Assad's cruel and soulless regime. For if the daughter of such pillars of the Damascene bourgeoisie could succumb to the power of Islam, who was immune?

Such snide accounts trivialize and cheapen the people whose houses and privacy she has invaded.

Given her willingness to undercut even her friendly sources, the most interesting question about Miller's book is why she wrote it at all. Certainly not out of affection. Consider, for instance, that she admits she fears and dislikes Lebanon, hates Syria, laughs at Libya, dismisses Sudan, feels sorry for and a little alarmed by Egypt and is repulsed by Saudi Arabia. She is relentlessly concerned only with the dangers of organized Islamic militancy, which I would hazard a guess accounts for less than 5 percent of the billion-strong Islamic world. She supports the violent suppression of Islamists (but not torture and other "illegal means" used in that suppression; she misses the contradiction in her position), has no qualms about the absence of democratic practices or legal procedures in Palestine, Egypt or Jordan so long as Islamists are the target and, in one especially nauseating scene, she actually participates in the prison interrogation of an alleged Muslim terrorist by Israeli policemen, whose systematic use of torture and other questionable procedures (undercover assassinations, middle-of-the-night arrests, house demolitions) she politely overlooks as she gets to ask the handcuffed man a few questions of her own.

Perhaps Miller's most consistent failing as a journalist is that she only makes connections and offers analyses of matters that suit her thesis about the militant, hateful quality of the Arab world. I have little quarrel with the general view that the Arab world is in a dreadful state, and have said so repeatedly for the past three decades. But she barely registers the existence of a determined anti-Arab and anti-Islamic U.S. policy. She plays fast and loose with fact. Take Lebanon: She refers to Bashir Gemayel's assassination in 1982 and gives the impression that he was elected by a popular landslide. She does not even allude to the fact that he was brought to power while the Israeli army was in West Beirut, just before the Sabra and Shatila camp massacres, and that for years, according to Israeli sources like Uri Lubrani, Gemayel was the Mossad's man in Lebanon. That he was a self-proclaimed killer and a thug is also finessed, as is the fact that Lebanon's current power structure is chock-full of people like Elie Hobeika, who was charged directly for the camp massacres. Miller cites instances of Arab anti-Semitism but doesn't even touch on the matter of Israeli leaders like Begin, Shamir, Eitan and, more recently, Ehud Barak (idolized by Amy Wilentz in The New Yorker) referring to Palestinians as two-legged beasts, grasshoppers, cockroaches and mosquitoes. These leaders have used planes and tanks to treat Palestinians accordingly. As for the facts of Israel's wars against civilians -- the protracted, consistent and systematic campaign against prisoners of war and refugee camp dwellers, the village destructions and bombings of hospitals and schools, the deliberate creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees -- all these are buried in reams of prattle. Miller disdains facts; she prefers quoting interminable talk as a way of turning Arabs into deserving victims of Israeli terror and U.S. support of it. She perfectly exemplifies The New York Times's current Middle East coverage, now at its lowest ebb.

In her lame conclusion Miller admits that her scolding may have been a little too harsh. She then puts it all down to her "love" of the region and its people. I cannot honestly think of a thing that she loves: not the conformism of Arab society she talks about, or the ostentatious culinary display she says that the Arabs confuse with hospitality, or the languages she hasn't learned, or the people she makes fun of or the history and culture of a place that to her is one long tale of unintelligible sound and fury. She cannot enter into the life of the place, listen to its conversations directly, read its novels and plays on her own (as opposed to making friends with their authors), enjoy the energy and refinements of its social life or see its landscapes. But this is the price of being a Times reporter in an age of sullen "expertise" and instant position-taking. You wouldn't know from Miller's book that there is any inter-Arab conflict in interpretations and representations of the Middle East and Islam and that, given her choice of sources, she is deeply partisan: an enemy of Arab nationalism, which she declares dead numerous times in the book; a supporter of U.S. policy; and a committed foe of any Palestinian nationalism that doesn't conform to the bantustans being set up according to the Oslo accords. Miller, in short, is a shallow, opinionated journalist whose gigantic book is too long for what it ends up saying, and far too short on reflection, considered analysis, structure and facts. Poor Muslims and Arabs who may have trusted her; they should have known better than to mistake an insinuated guest for a friend.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.