A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 1, 2009

More Thoughts on Eric Davis' "10 Sins": Sin No. 1: "Presentism"

Yesterday I noted the important essay by Professor Eric Davis of Rutgers, "'10 Conceptual Sins in Analyzing Middle East Politics." I think it's a seminal article, well-thought-through and a major contribution. If you haven't read it yet, please go do so now before you read my riffs on it, either in the original, or if it's easier for you, in the Arabic translation.

I wanted to second the motion and cheer on a few of the points in particular. In this post I want to discuss his:

1. "Sin Number One: Presentism." If you've been paying attention to this blog (and there will be pop quizzes), you'll know that my training is as a historian. I am often puzzled by the lack of historical perspective of many political scientists (and yes, I know Eric Davis is a political scientist, but he's obviously an exception) is so short of historical depth. This is a favorite hobbyhorse of mine, and you've probably noticed if you read this blog regularly that I will start reciting the historical background of some issue. One doesn't want to overemphasize historical consciousness, but one also doesn't want to ignore the memories of a people, as remembered by the elderly and transmitted to the young through the educational system.

A prime example: Iraq. Many of the debates about whether or not to invade Iraq and how to handle the occupation drew on a variety of models: the 1991 war, the occupation of Germany and Japan (Iraqis are not Germans, and as for Japan, for a MacArthur-style regency you need both a MacArthur and an Emperor Hirohito, whose cooperation and Japanese veneration of the Emperor guaranteed its success), but I almost never heard parallels to previous instances of Iraqi history.

I do not claim to be an Iraq expert, since it's one Middle Eastern country where I can tell you precisely how long I've spent there — five days in 1989 — and I realize even the rawest journalist covering the war has spent more time there. But I've known quite a few historians of modern Iraq, read their works, studied the military histories of the revolt (Iraqis call it the thawra or Revolution) of 1920-21, and the history of the 1941 British intervention, and I've also known plenty of Iraqis through the years. The British Mandate period is an open sore, the brutal British response to the thawra is well-remembered: it was the first use of mass aerial bombing of civilian populations, using punitive bombings of whole villages, and Iraqis know it. Everyone no doubt remembers the pictures of Saddam Hussein, in the runup to the war, standing on a balcony firing a rifle into the air. Did you know that the rifle he was firing was a British Enfield captured during the thawra of 1920-21? Iraqis did.

True story: at a Middle East Institute Annual Conference early in the war (I'm going to guess the fall of 2003 but wouldn't swear to it) I was talking with an old friend and one of the key historians of modern Iraq, Phebe Marr, and she introduced me to, I believe, a military man (maybe a civilian) who worked for J-5, the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Plans Division (he gave me his card: it was definitely J-5). He and I continued to talk by ourselves for a while and I said something like, "I just hope it isn't going to be 1921 all over again." The man from the Joint Chiefs' Plans Division, several months into our invasion of Iraq, said to me, "what happened in 1921?" I noted yesterday the British "last post" in Basra, but did we really enter Iraq with no understanding of the Iraqi experience of military occupation and the British aerial campaigns? I fear that we did.

I could come up with plenty of other stories along these lines. The Middle East has more history than the rest of the world — and as the old joke line goes, produces more history than it can consume locally — and is fully aware of its history. I remember my first trip to Lebanon, back in the early 1970s, before the civil war. The friends traveling with me and I went to lots of historic sites (most of us were history grad students at the time) and at many of them the tour guide's spiel (in Arabic: we went with the cheap guides) would start with, "this is Turkish, and then the next level is Ayyubid; the next is Crusader, those rocks under the Crusader rampart are Arab, the lower stones are Roman, and the foundation is Phoenician." I have no idea if this was an accurate archaeological description, but we heard something similar so many times that we began using "wa'l-assas Feniki," (and the foundation is Phoenician) as a tagline for a while. And I don't even want to start about Egyptians and Israelis, especially the latter, where every cab driver seems to be a BronzeAge archaeologist (and some Cabinet officials really have been), not to mention a Biblical exegete. History is there to Middle Easterners, even those with little education. Tabsir's choice of an illustration for Prof. Davis' article, Saddam receiving a palm tree from (or giving one to) some Babylonian or Assyrian King (I'm guessing this illustration is at Saddam's rebuilt and re-imagined Babylon, but I'm not certain) is just right, I think. And Anwar Sadat, in his last, most self-absorbed years, took to holding a marshal's baton that was shaped like the ancient lotus/papyrus symbol of Egyptian royalty. (At least he never used the Pharaoh's crook.)

So I'm fully on board with the "Presentism" complaint. I could multiply the examples: Iranians of all political stripes still think about 1953 a lot, and held a lot of conferences on Operation Ajax back in 2003, but Americans often analyze Iran without acknowledging our interventions there. Suez 1956 is still a sore point for many Egyptians who weren't even born then, and as we learned in Kossovo, in the Balkans 1389 was pretty much a week ago. I'll be posting on some of Eric Davis' other "sins" later today or when I have the time, but I thought his first sin was one that is a particular hobbyhorse for me as well.

Americans never had an empire in the Middle East, and we therefore think that we come to the region with pure intentions. But we first ventured into the region as missionaries: and in recent years our old evangelism has shifted from religion to democracy, and we still think we will be seen as bringing blessings to the ignorant. Middle Easterners are aware of and proud of their history, and well aware of the paternalism they suffered from in the period of European colonialism (short as it was in the Middle East compared to, say, India). Americans are "Europeans" to most Middle Easterners, not through geographical confusion but because most of us look, and recently have been acting, like their old colonial masters. (Having Barack Obama as President may slowly dissipate that sense.) A common word for foreigner down to modern times has been Faranji or Farangi, which is an old Arabic word for "Frank," in the sense of Crusader. We don't usually think about the Crusades very much, but they aren't forgotten in the Middle East.

That's enough for now, I think. I'll post on some of Eric Davis' other "10 Sins" soon.

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