‘Labyrinthine’ Assumptions

Every day, I tell myself I won’t read the NYT, and, everyday, I succumb to the temptation. In the Books section for example, critic Edward Rothstein delivers a justification for the mass killing of civilians in Lebanon by invoking a “newer form of warfare” that makes it impossible to achieve “separation of army and populace” or “clarity about ultimate responsibility.” It is this type of “terror warfare,” he claims, that has gotten America in a quagmire in Iraq (and not, as reason or logic would indicate, the invasion itself, which was based on lies and fabrications.)

“Terror warfare,” he says, “with its deliberate confusion of categories and identities, is now the rule rather than the exception.” And in case you might wonder about the reasoning here, he offers this orientalist explanation:

This may have something to do with the nature of the Middle East itself. The historian Bernard Lewis has pointed out that in Europe nearly every state has a name that is associated with a particular ethnic group and a particular language, a longstanding conjunction of “ethnic, territorial and linguistic nomenclature.” This way of thinking about the state was imposed on the Middle East through imperial power, but as Mr. Lewis points out in his book “The Multiple Identities of the Middle East,” only three countries there — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran — bear any resemblance to the European model. (Israel, with the diverse origins of its Jewish populations, is a more complicated case.)

But, like most orientalist thinking, this is simply not borne out by facts on the ground. The people of Morocco and Algeria (who are, ethnically, a mix of Arab and Berber) have little in common with those of Jordan (a touch of Circassian) or those of Yemen (Afro-Arab and South Asian). The types of Islam practiced are not the same. In Morocco and Algeria, it’s Sunni, specifically the Maliki persuasion. In Jordan, it’s Sunni, of the Hanafi persuasion. And in Yemen, there are both Sunnis and Shiites. Then you have different religious minorities as well: Jewish in Morocco and Yemen, Christian in Jordan. Lastly, the vernacular forms of Arabic spoken in these countries can sometimes differ so much as to be mutually unintelligible. Now, how is that different from variations one sees in Europe between, say, Scandinavian countries, Balkan countries, and those that border the Mediterranean? But, no, the reader must be told, over and over, that “those people” are different. I don’t know why I even bother. After all, it’s the Arab/Muslim world. You only need to read some Bernard Lewis and Tom Friedman and you’re good to go.


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