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.
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.
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.