By Kathy G.
Well, what can I say? Henry has provided me with such a truly awesome intro that I can’t possibly hope to live up to it. But it does give me an additional incentive to do my best, which is what I’ll attempt to do.
It’s really bizarre how, in the context of war, totally normal attributes of human behavior become transformed into into mysterious cultural quirks of the elusive Arab. I recall having read in the past that because Arabs are horrified of shame, it’s not a good idea to humiliate an innocent man by breaking down his door at night and handcuffing him in front of his wife and children before hauling him off to jail. Now it seems that Arabs are also so invested in honor that they don’t like it when mercenaries kill their relatives.
I completely agree, and this gives me an excuse to bust out an argument that has long been marinating in the recesses of the ol’ cranium. It’s this: that America, the Mideast, and the world would have been better off if “the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the US military,” Raphael Patai’s racist tract The Arab Mind, had been taken off Pentagon reading lists, and been replaced with Edward Said’s Orientalism* instead.
As Seymour Hersh and others have reported, the Patai book, which is almost universally held in contempt by academics as “a thoroughly discredited form of scholarship” and “an example of bad, biased social science,” was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior” and also “the bible on Arab behavior for the U.S. military.” Hersh reported that:
The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, “or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.” . . .In their [the neocons’] discussions, he said, two themes emerged-”one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”
The book was used as a kind of guide book for the torturers of Abu Ghraib. Because Arabs were believed to be especially vulnerable to sexualized humiliation, that is the form the torture took.
I am not arguing that, had Patai’s book never been published, the Iraq War would never have started, or that an official policy supporting torture that was, and is, sanctioned at the highest levels of the U.S. government, would not have happened. But a book like Patai’s gave something indispensable to the neocon project: intellectual respectability. The fact that a credentialed academic like Patai was saying these things gave the neocons cover. And since his book was on Pentagon reading lists and assigned at U.S. military colleges, its racist, dehumanizing caricature of what “the true nature of the Arab” really is became accepted in elite policymaking circles. Patai’s book didn’t create the United States’ imperialist project in the Middle East, but you can be damn sure it strengthened it.
In fact, The Arab Mind is the perfect illustration of the main thesis of Said’s Orientalism:
that when it came to “the East” scholarship itself had become a means of serving and legitimating imperial dominance over the Oriental “other.”
What would have happened had those military and foreign policy intellectuals been assigned Orientalism instead? Probably nothing. For many reasons, the Bush administration was hellbent on going into Iraq and they weren’t going to let anything stop them. And for reasons I honestly don’t understand, they seem to have always been big fans of torture as well. As Foucault has pointed out, power produces knowledge, and yes, given the political climate of this country over the past several decades, it’s difficult to imagine that Edward Said would have been received with a warm welcome by our foreign policy elites.
Yet at the same time, as Foucault noted, knowledge itself constitutes power relations. Books and ideas can have a profound impact. I don’t think it would have been quite as easy for the Bush administration to do what they did if racist, imperialist attitudes were not so prevalent amongst the military and foreign policy elites. And if those same elites had read Orientalism instead of The Arab Mind, I’m not so sure that said elites would have been quite so comfortable in their racism and imperialism. A powerful book, which Orientalism (which I have read) certainly is, and which The Arab Mind (which I haven’t read) apparently is as well, can change minds. It can persuade readers who have no fixed views on the subject, and strengthen the views of those who are already inclined to agree with the author.
If Orientalism had been widely read among the military and foreign affairs folks, perhaps the attitudes of some highly influential people would not have been quite so smug. Perhaps they would have entertained a few more doubts. Perhaps the thought of torturing their fellow human beings might have made them a bit queasy.
And perhaps—probably?—I’m just spinning out some sentimental humanist fantasy here. Who knows? But had The Arab Mind been trashed and sent to the dustbin of history where it belongs, and Orientalism taken its place on reading lists, it’s hard to believe things could have been worse.
Policymaking elites crave the approval of academics. They love it when “independent,” credentialed experts and scholars sign off on, or give ammunition to, their ideas and projects, because they know that such approval influences other powerful elites. Which is exactly why academics, scholars, and others with specialized knowledge bear such a heavy responsibility to be guided both by humane values and the highest standards of intellectual rigor and integrity. Ideas have consequences.
*And yes, I know that Orientalism has been harshly criticized, especially in recent years, and some of those criticisms are legitimate. But for the most part I think the critics miss the forest for the trees. The book’s central argument still stands, and there is ample evidence to back it up.