That Old Orientalism…

That Old Orientalism…


That Old Orientalism…

New York City

The only true characterization of Kanan Makiya in Turi Munthe’s review of The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem [“Muslim Jerusalem: A Story,” April 1] is Munthe’s claim that Makiya is the “Arab world’s most ardent and vocal supporter of America’s projected intervention in Iraq.” Munthe could have added that Makiya was also the most ardent Arab voice calling on the Americans to continue to bomb Iraq all the way to Baghdad after they had decided to stop their bombing campaigns and end the Gulf War. As for Makiya being, in Munthe’s words, “the hammer of liberal Arab intelligentsia, [and] the arch anti-Orientalist,” there is no basis of truth to these astonishing claims. Not only is Makiya not known anywhere in the Arab world, whether in liberal or illiberal intellectual, academic or journalistic circles (except perhaps among the Iraqi expatriate community in London and among some of the Arab journalists working in that city), indeed, he is not known among the Arab reading public at large, as only selections of his book Republic of Fear were translated into Arabic and published in 1990 by an obscure Egyptian publisher during the heyday of the gulf crisis. Makiya, however, seems to be better known in the West, celebrated by the mainstream American media as a native informant who reproduces views about the Arab world that accord with official US policy. Now, it seems, The Nation is also celebrating him through Munthe’s ill-informed review. The main irony, however, is in portraying Makiya as a major Arab intellectual, which he neither was nor is, whether in the Arab world or in the West.

Contrary to the claim that he is an “arch anti-Orientalist,” Makiya’s own words reveal him to be a deeply Orientalist thinker. Not only did he never take on Orientalists and their anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racist claims, in his own writings he reproduces Orientalist opinion: In his Republic of Fear, a slapdash account of Iraqi politics in which an amateurish pseudopsychological analysis substitutes for social, economic or political analysis and in which facts are selectively chosen to suit the argument (see my review in Against the Current (March/April 1991), he writes, for example, that “conspiratorial thinking has broad roots in the extreme fatalism and hostility to individualism that may be characteristic of Islamic culture generally.” Makiya’s views in his other book, Cruelty and Silence, are reminiscent of the Israeli Orientalist Raphael Patai’s racist book The Arab Mind. Makiya tells us in Cruelty and Silence that unlike in English culture, which considers it rude, “belching” is allegedly an “Arab custom of hospitality” to be practiced at the dinner table in appreciation of one’s hosts. In fact, this “arch anti-Orientalist” goes to some pains to excuse anti-Arab racism in the West by affirming that “racism exists everywhere else in the world” (see As ad Abukhalil’s excellent review of this book in the Middle East Journal, Autumn 1993).

It is relevant to note that Makiya and his father, Mohamed, ran an architectural firm in London in the 1980s making much of their money doing business with, yes, Saddam Hussein, who had commissioned the firm to rebuild Baghdad, among other projects. The irony of Republic of Fear itself, as a sympathetic profile of Makiya and his father uncovers in The New Yorker (“Architects Amid the Ruins,” by Lawrence Weschler, January 6, 1992), is that the book was funded by money paid by Saddam to the firm owned by Makiya’s father, which paid the salary of Kanan himself. It should also be added that in the early 1990s, Makiya was affiliated (and may still be) with the discredited and corrupt Iraqi National Congress, whose funding comes from the CIA.

Adding to Makiya’s contrived mystique is his choice of pseudonyms for himself throughout his career. While most Iraqi and other Arab dissidents write under their own names, Makiya wrote in his youth under the name Muhammad Ja’far and later under the name Samir al-Khalil. He claimed that the latter name was used to protect himself against assassination by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen. It is ironic, however, that he revealed his name only after his father’s firm no longer had ongoing business with Saddam’s Iraq (see the New Yorker profile).

It is disheartening that The Nation would publish such an ignorant review of a minor pamphleteer whose recent book The Rock is hardly more than a disguised attempt to rob the Palestinians of their own Islamic national heritage and strengthen Israeli Zionist claims not only to archeological finds that Israel (mis)identifies as “Jewish,” but to Muslim monuments that have not hitherto been claimed by the most ardent of Zionist fanatics as “Jewish” at all–namely, the Dome of the Rock. The undeclared aim of the book is to convince readers that the Dome of the Rock was built by a Jewish convert. It is only a matter of time before Zionist fanatics will follow Makiya’s lead and lay claim to the dome as they have laid claim to everything else in the land of the Palestinians.




Joseph Massad makes five points. He tells us (1) that Makiya is not an intellectual (and certainly not an intellectual with any clout in the Arab world); (2) that Makiya is an Orientalist; (3) that Makiya is a fraud who made money from Saddam Hussein; (4) that Makiya is a Zionist agent trying to “rob the Palestinians of their own Islamic national heritage” by proving in his book The Rock “that the Dome of the Rock was built by a Jewish convert”; and (5) (less important) that I am ill informed.

(1) Very briefly: Who knows what Massad considers “intellectual,” but a professorship at Brandeis, the directorship of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard and (most important) a commitment to unfashionable causes would satisfy me. As for his recognition in the Arab world, al-Hayat (one of the most respected Arabic-language broadsheets, with a daily readership approaching half a million) has already been in touch to ask about translation rights to my Nation review.

(2) That Makiya is an Orientalist is a very old argument, one that first greeted the publication of Republic of Fear in the late 1980s and that Makiya himself tackled head-on in Cruelty and Silence. My review tried to show how, if listened to, Makiya’s voice might sharpen Western Arab intellectuals’ critique of the problems facing the Arab world. He suggested that blaming the West for its ills was high condescension and a flagrant form of Orientalism in itself, since it assumed no solution could come from within the Arab world. For the last twenty-odd years, taking on “Orientalists and their anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racist claims” has been the staple crusade of the intellectual brigade that Massad follows. Their work has been vital in reshaping the West’s conception of its most immediate cultural neighbor, and as an intellectual posture, it has gained widespread and well-deserved currency. In recent years, however, its very currency has made bullies of some of its practitioners. Much as the Jerusalem Post dismisses any criticism of Israeli policy with the cover-all charge of anti-Semitism, so the charge of “Orientalism” works for criticism of the Arab world. In this particular case, it is almost criminally irresponsible. Makiya’s Republic of Fear, hailed by many of the leading analysts of the region (from Fred Halliday to Peter Sluglett) as uniquely brilliant, details some of the most horrendous atrocities being committed by any regime in the world. The book was attacked as violently as it was because in justifying America’s campaign against Iraq, it weakened criticism of US Middle East policy. That criticism, conceived around the notion of Orientalism, attacked US policy as universally mistaken. For those like Massad principally concerned with Palestine, Makiya seemed to dilute the force of their case. He doesn’t. It is deeply disheartening, to say the least, that Massad should try to discredit factual evidence of the suffering of millions of fellow Arabs because it doesn’t serve his interests. Dismissing the evidence of that suffering because of its allegedly “Orientalist” tone can only be seen as gross intellectual dishonesty.

(3) A piece of writing should be judged on its own merits: T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite and the father of modern poetry. But facts: Kanan Makiya never worked for Saddam Hussein, nor was Republic of Fear funded by Saddam. For the record, it was in 1980 that Makiya and his father argued over whether their company should work for Iraq. Kanan refused, left the company and began working on Republic of Fear before his father began work there. As for the “contrived mystique” of a pseudonym, Makiya went public at Harvard (at the explicit request of Roy Mottahedeh and Edward Mortimer) at the time of the Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein following the Gulf War, not when his father stopped working in Baghdad. Mohamed Makiya’s business with Iraq ceased in 1986; Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

(4) My review of The Rock tried to show how Makiya’s delicate treatment of the historical places of Abrahamic tradition suggests that any absolute territorial claim to the spiritual geography of Jerusalem is idiotic, not simply because of the inextricable links among the three religions but because it confuses symbol with truth. Massad seems to be making the same mistake as his Zionist arch-enemies.

(5) Massad would have opinion different from his own stifled: He criticizes The Nation for giving Makiya the credibility of a review as well as for choosing such an ill-informed reviewer. Massad, an assistant professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia (with, I assume, teaching functions), should not be ill-informed. Nor should he be advancing two-bit conspiracy theories in the national press–he cannot seriously believe that Kanan Makiya is trying to pave the ground for a Zionist take-over of Jerusalem. Makiya’s ideas hark back to that old ideal of Arab political thinking that saw the Arab world as a community with a shared sense of purpose and responsibility. It is the shallow (and in this case deceitful) self-interest of men like Joseph Massad that has consistently turned a possibility into a utopia.


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