Kanan Makiya, the Arab world’s most ardent and vocal supporter of America’s projected intervention in Iraq, the hammer of liberal Arab intelligentsia, the arch anti-Orientalist, has just published a new book. The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem is a beautifully crafted fictionalized account of the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, related by Ishaq, the architect of the Dome under which the Rock of Foundation now lies. To call it a novel, however, is misleading. It’s more a performance, and a highly political one too. The Rock is a chapter in Makiya’s complex political program.
Kanan Makiya is America’s favorite dissident. For a start, he’s the Iraqi intellectual whose descriptions of life under Saddam Hussein provided the first Bush Administration with peripheral justification for the first war in the Persian Gulf. But he’s gone further and taken up America’s battered cause against the legions of fashionable intellectuals–Arab and other–who blame the United States for the ills of the Middle East, the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine and the general misfortunes of the Third World.
Makiya’s Republic of Fear, first published under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil in 1989, described a dystopia the likes of which were hardly imagined by such fearmongers as Huxley and Orwell. The hells of Brave New World and 1984 were founded on the wholesale indoctrination of a people, and the insidious bureaucratized destruction of individuality. Iraq under Saddam Hussein, as described by Makiya, made claims to no such subtlety or totalitarian sophistication. There, the system’s survival rested quite simply on its subjects’ physical pain, and fear of it. Violence, first used as a carefully prescribed political medicine, became the instrument of state control.
Iraq in the 1960s and ’70s saw the frenetic invention of domestic pariahs–Kurds and Shiite radicals, but also those political undesirables who threatened to undermine the all-conquering Baathist revolution. (The Baath Party was founded in the 1940s in Damascus along populist, socialist and nationalist principles, based in large part on the belief that Arabs had a special mission to end Western colonization. It swept to power in Iraq in 1968.) Their violent destruction legitimized a movement that, much like Slobodan Milosevic’s ultranationalism, could only unify negatively–against an other. The society Baathist politics created, founded on violence, bred a populace “to whom strength of character is invariably associated with the ability to both sustain and inflict pain,” wrote Makiya. Violence directed outward quickly proved itself to be the most effective sedative for a restless population. It took little time to turn it inward to the same effect: It bred fear and made power. In Makiya’s descriptions of the punishments of first-time thieves (brandings on the forehead, amputation of limbs), the horrific tortures and endless disappearances of suspected dissenters, the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, even the executions of military deserters, lies an anatomy of political evil.
Edward Said and other luminaries of the exiled Arab intellectual community virtually accused Makiya of being an American agent, of showing hatred toward his fellow Iraqis and of providing ammunition for Islamiphobes and Arab-haters across the West. The faintest justification for such a condemnation does exist. In Republic of Fear, Makiya avoids detailing all the reasons for the Iraqi hatred and massacre of the Assyrians in the 1930s, explaining it away as a political machination intended to unify a divided people by inventing a common enemy. He fails to mention that the Assyrians had played an important role in the British persecution of this divided Iraqi people in the previous decade, creating huge resentment at what was perceived as treachery. But his own betrayal of the Arab cause as represented by his critics goes only so far–omission in the footnotes.
Principally, Makiya causes concern to his fellow Arab exiles because he has turned their most powerful conceptual tool on its head, and against them. The notion that the West has unconsciously condescended to the Muslim world since first encountering it in the early modern period, and willfully exploited it ever since, has formed the basis of every indictment of US (and British) policy toward the Middle East: It is superior, self-interested imperialism. Ten days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Said wrote in the London Independent: “Is it too much to connect the stark political and military polarisation [building up in the Gulf] with the cultural abyss that exists between the Arabs and the West?” Makiya’s response to American intervention in the area was wholehearted support. He claimed that the Arab world was failing itself; he let himself imagine a scenario that turned Said into the condescending Orientalist: Makiya dared imagine that the Arabs themselves might have fought Iraq, in defense of Muslim values and an Arab people, in this case the Kuwaitis. Arab intellectuals, he claimed, were conniving in the cataclysm befalling the Arab world by blaming the West rather than attacking the virus within.
Of course, both Said and Makiya provide vital weapons against the troubles of the Middle East, and Said is just as Saddamophobic as Makiya. Said’s tireless attacks on Western neo-imperialism in the region are hugely important correctives to what is undoubtedly a tendency in the powerful West, eager for low oil prices. And Makiya’s emphasis on Arab responsibility represents perhaps the bravest and most immediate proposal for change in the Middle East. Said and Makiya may talk at opposite ends of the spectrum, but the solutions they envisage to the problems of their areas of interest both focus on the crucial role of US involvement: Said argues that Palestinians have everything to gain from curtailed US intervention in support of Israel, while Makiya contends that Iraqis can only gain from full-fledged US involvement.
Although Makiya is best known for his politics, specifically vis-à-vis Iraq, in his political program there is another striking difference from most Arab intellectuals known in the West: his engagement with Islam. Islam is, of course, a core coefficient of the Arab worldview and subsequently of its politics. In what many perceive as the Arab world’s struggle with and into modernity, it is also the hardest element to include, in large part because most Arab efforts to upgrade their political and societal structures have imitated a specifically Protestant West, where, in addition, church and state are divided. But very few secular Arab thinkers venture to write about Islam or consider it as a component of their political thinking. Doing so involves pitching headlong into the vipers’ nest that is doctrinal competition in Islamic theology today–it is much easier to avoid it.
Makiya’s first response to September 11 was to analyze the Islam that justified it. In his first major piece of journalism after the attacks, he wrote in the Observer of bin Laden’s theology: “This is not Islam any more than the Ku Klux Klan is Christianity.” He picked up this theme again in a detailed piece for the New York Review of Books in January, where he provided an intricate exegesis of the form of Islam propounded by the terrorists, as laid out in a document found by the FBI after the event. His concluding paragraph for that piece read:
The uses and distortions of Muslim sources in the hijackers’ document deserve careful consideration. If arbitrary constructions of seventh-century texts and events have inflamed the imagination of such men, we should ask whether the ideas in the document will become part of the tradition that they misrepresent…. To contend with such an ideology [that of the hijackers] effectively it is not enough to go back to the original core of the tradition…. Bold and imaginative thinking must come from within the Muslim tradition in order to present social and political ideas that Muslims will find workable and persuasive. The tragic events of the past months have shown all the more clearly how urgently such ideas are needed.
The Rock was written before the horrors of September 11, but it must be read with all the above in mind. Makiya’s first crusade was directed against the horrors of Baathism in Iraq–a secular, nationalist totalitarianism with universalist pan-Arab overtones. That crusade has now been extended to include what at first glance appears to be Baathism’s nemesis but that lays an identical claim to absolute truth, justice and good: political Islamism.
In Republic of Fear, Makiya made the point that Baathism had failed to yoke the social to the political: It had failed to include the basic yearnings and ideals of its populace within its political program. Religion, such a vital component of Iraq’s social fabric, had only been excluded. Khomeini’s Iran, on the other hand, turned religion into politics at the immense cost of its political openness.
There is a middle ground. The Arab world has yet to produce a political system that is capable of incorporating its ethical and moral heritage (Islamic) within a social context that allows for freedom, individuality and those other values typical of “modern” (Western) society but so highly prized by a majority of the Arab world. To do so, the notions of both modernity and Islam must be addressed. Makiya looked at the practical politics of the Middle East and its foremost “modern” thinkers in Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence. In The Rock, he tackles Islam.
This, Makiya’s first novel, tells the story of Ka’b al-Ahbar, a Jewish Yemeni convert to Islam, who accompanies Umar ibn al-Khattab, second of the Rashidun (or Rightly Guided) Caliphs of Islam, in his conquest of Jerusalem. Tired of the desolation of life in Yemen, Ka’b sets off to make his fortune in the booming renaissance of northern Arabia, where a Prophet has blessed the people of Mecca and Medina. By his knowledge of the stories of Genesis and the cosmology of Abraham, he is quickly included into the elite Muslim fold, in which he converts, before setting off for the Holy City with the Arabian army. There, after battling with Sophronius the Christian Patriarch, he and Umar discover the Rock under a mountain of refuse on the Temple Mount. Here, on the site of Solomon’s Temple, Ka’b finds home. If he kneels in the right place, he can pray facing both Mecca and the holy stone on which the father of mankind descended in his fall from Eden: the Precious Stone, the Rock of Atonement, the Rock of Sacrifice, the Rock of the Ages, the Rock of Judgment. He founds a family. His son recounts the story.
While it does spin a tale–and well–the novel is really a skeleton upon which to drape a patchwork cloak of stories. Ka’b hails from a family of rabbis, and his role in the book, just as it was in history (such a Ka’b appears periodically in the annals of early Islam), is as a sourcebook of traditions.
The first Muslims of Arabia, Caliph Umar included, for all their beautiful epic poetry, were not a cultured people. They inherited through the Koran an immense and complicated cosmology that, for all its strength and beauty, left much unexplained. As a Jewish convert to Islam who met the Prophet, deeply versed in the Abrahamic tradition that all monotheists share, Ka’b acted as the exegete of meaning for a people with profound conviction and colossal, newfound power but almost no epistemological context. In history, as in the novel, Ka’b was the one who could advise on the traditions; he was the jurist of myth.
The Rock is a historical novel with a difference. While it traces the lives and developments of people who did exist and events that did happen, its real sources and ultimate focus are the traditions of monotheism. These center on the rock that now sits under the Dome on the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, in divided Jerusalem. In chronological order, these traditions describe the rock as that upon which Adam landed when he was banished from Paradise, the rock upon which Abraham was called to sacrifice his firstborn, the site of Solomon’s Temple, where Jesus preached and from which Mohammed ascended on his tour of the seven heavens. These and countless other stories–all sourced in one or the other of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts–are delicately brought to life by Ka’b to help the first Muslims make Jerusalem theirs, physically and spiritually.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the first effect of the novel, achieved by going so deep into the competing and complementary myths about the place, is to remind its reader of the great arbitrariness that designated this rock to be the focal point of worship for half the world. It is, after all, just a rock. That some have seen it as a kind of warp-zone to heaven, others as being suspended between the two worlds of God and Man, and yet more as the launch pad of History (and Apocalypse) is testament to man’s unflinching search for meaning, of which Makiya seems proud.
The second act of Makiya’s performance, achieved via the endless interplay of the stories related by Ka’b, suggests an interpretation of how meaning works. Just as some literary critics argue that books owe more to those that precede them than to the historical context in which they were written, so Makiya insinuates that religious truth is dependent on and develops out of the canon of truth that precedes it. In his long appendix on the sources he has used, Makiya writes: “It is not always easy for readers to discern from the narrative whether a given story, or a particular detail within a story, or even a passage of scripture is Jewish, Muslim or Christian in origin. This was the way things were in Ka’b’s time and place, if not in ours.”
In providing an anatomy of the context out of which Muslim truth was articulated, Makiya has provided the foundations for an inquiry into the nature of religious ideas, particularly as they relate to Muslim society. That inquiry will stand on two pillars. The first is the profound acceptance of the fact that truth is always relative, that it must be looked at contextually and that it perpetuates itself. For when these things are forgotten, the letter will always overcome the spirit of religion. And the second is a hyper-self-conscious sense of symbolism that takes itself for what it is: an expression of meaning, not a truth in itself.
The Rock is a compendium of the monotheistic myths, the ultimate guide to the city of Jerusalem and a narrative history of the Muslim conquest as factually correct (or ambiguous) as any we might expect. But it is also a profoundly sensitive proposal for the basis of a new Islamic theology.
For the past few decades a virulent debate has been raging across the Muslim world, pitching Islam against modernity. It has been brought to a head by the events of September 11. In that context, Kanan Makiya’s novel is as important a piece of political writing as any of his work to date.