Not So Different After All?

On more than a few occasions in the last decade, I have been the recipient of lectures—almost always by people with no discernible hands-on experience with foreign cultures in general, nor the Arab world in particular—about just how different and unlike us “those Arab people” in the Mideast really are.

“You know, for them, life is cheap…” “In those places, people will do whatever their religious leaders will tell them to do; there is no independent thought as we know it…” “Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy…” “The best we can hope for is to try and get them before they get us. And don’t kid yourself, they are very much out to get us!” Etc.

Though they are largely unaware of it, these people are suffering from what I have come to call Patai-Lewis Syndrome. It is named after two supposedly learned scholars of the Arab world, Rafael Patai and Bernard Lewis.

The first, an accomplished anthropologist who died in 1996, is the author of a 1973 book called The Arab Mind.

Let’s just stop for a moment and contemplate that title.

As a student of national identities myself, I have read countless books whose titles make similarly ambitious claims about their ability to “explain” the mindset of one or another of the Iberian Peninsula’s national communities. These texts generally have a couple of things of things in common.

One is that most of them were produced either in the years between 1870 and 1930, which is to say, before pseudo-scientific concepts of race and national spirit were fully debunked, or somewhat later, by writers of an overtly backward-looking cast who were, more often than not, sympathetic to the authoritarian regimes of Salazar (1926-1970) in Portugal and Franco (1939-1975) in Spain.

The other is that no scholar in their right mind would ever, ever dare cite them today as an authoritative guide to understanding national identity or national behaviors.

The reason is clear. We have learned far too much too in the last several decades about the layered and fundamentally dynamic nature of identity formation to ever believe that the “mind” of any single national group, never mind the breathtakingly diverse transnational agglomeration of peoples that is the object of Patai’s concerns, could be summarized in so facile a manner.

Despite this overarching methodological problem, Patai, who was by most reports a very careful and conscientious scholar with a genuine affection for Arab culture, manages to provide the reader with a wealth of seemingly well-grounded anthropological information.

However, his mask of disinterested informer slips off in his chapter on “The Question of Arab Stagnation.” Here, Patai, the European-born settler of a state, Israel, created out of forcefully depopulated Arab lands, explains the “the Arabs’” inability to claim their rightful place in the contemporary world—and the ensuing frustration and anger this failure engenders—in terms of their inability to “measure up” favorably to Western culture, especially its relatively new Israeli “branch office” in their midst. In his analysis, the history of European colonialism in the region is relevant only insofar as it offers Arab leaders a dishonest excuse for not confronting the legacy of their own stunted development.

Just imagine for a moment what the reaction would be if a contemporary German were to explain the collective angst of the modern “Jewish Mind” not primarily in terms of German aggression but rather on the decision of “the Jews,” symbolized by the often superstitious and, at times, misogynist inhabitants of the shtetls, to turn their backs on the brighter paths of development offered them by the surrounding national cultures of Europe?

Rightfully, no one would stand for such a thing. Yet when the victim being blamed is an Arab, it goes largely unnoticed.

The silken-tongued Lewis, who formerly taught at Princeton, is a “renowned” scholar of the Ottoman and Arab worlds. But to read his work is to be told, again and again, variations on the same simple story. It goes something like this: “The Arabs” are underdeveloped socially and politically in contemporary times because of their own penchant for administering self-inflicted wounds. Their inability to face honestly the cost of their Islam-induced failure to embrace modernity (and its child, secularism) has made them pathologically rageful, especially against the Jews and the state of Israel, an entity that merely wishes to live at peace with its neighbors.

For Lewis, the issues of past colonialism, present Israeli land grabs, and intimate U.S. and Israeli connivance with Arab dictators don’t really exist as true causal factors for “Arab anger” and underdevelopment.

In contrast to the fate of writings by most professors, the ideas of Patai and Lewis have enjoyed considerable resonance outside the walls of academe. For example, Patai’s book is, I have been told, still widely prescribed and read within the U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic communities. Lewis remains, at age 95, a frequent commentator on Middle East affairs whose views are often invoked by think-tankers on C-Span and by well-known syndicated columnists.

This is probably one of the main reasons your otherwise internationally uninterested neighbor feels so comfortable about lecturing both you and me on the implacably violent and uncivilized nature of “those people.”

Some might argue that the prominence of the ideas of Patai and Lewis is simply a matter of conspicuous brilliance being duly rewarded in the “free” marketplace of ideas. And perhaps this is true.

But a far more compelling explanation for the wide currency of their main theses, one that takes into account the always considerable influence of state institutions and their political needs on the creation of “popular tastes,” is that they provide the U.S. and its very close ally Israel—an entity of which both writers are/were passionate supporters—with something both nations badly need and badly desire: an intellectual justification for their ongoing attempts to invade, seize, or otherwise control the resources of territories inhabited by Arabs.

You see, if Arabs are congenitally backward, which is to say, among other things, preternaturally violent and undemocratic, then it is only fitting that the U.S. and Israel treat them differently—more violently, more autocratically, and more paternalistically—than the other, more civilized peoples of the world.

We’ve all heard those who explain away police violence and brutality on the basis that, unlike you and me, “those poor guys are faced with dealing lots of ‘crazy’ people every day.” For Israel and the U.S., the arguments of Patai, Lewis, and their many popularizers at think-tanks and in the media have much the same effect. If Arabs are, as the great scholars suggest, effectively incorrigible, then decidedly illiberal measures (starting with unprovoked invasions and bombing at will) against them are more than warranted. Right?

But what if it is not really true? What if, as recent events seem to suggest, Arabs merely want most of the same things we want—freedom, prosperity, and dignity—but in configurations consistent with their own unique collective histories?

What if, owing to our media’s deep attachment to the erudite but not necessarily insightful ideas of people like Patai and Lewis—and its simultaneous blockage of entities such as of Al Jazeera that allow a modicum of Arab first-person expression—we have lost the ability to hear, never mind register and respond to, the voices and aspirations of millions of basically peaceful and freedom-seeking people? Now that would be a tragedy of truly biblical proportions.

Author: Thomas Harrington

Thomas Harrington teaches Iberian studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.