August 22, 2005
Critiquing the Arab World (update link)
A small note of reflection on critiques of the Arab world, Daniel Drenzer’s blog, the weaknesses of the commentary and other points raised.
[An interjection, on reading this AM’s comments and in particular Britt’s mendacious reply, I have to say I was too generous, the fellow is in fact a political hack interested in talking points, not getting up to speed, pity that, but more below.]
Well, I was planning on working on a profile of investment climate but Microsoft’s wonderfully buggy piece of garbage office suite has decided to have a crisis and helpfully fuck over my Excel suite as well as my beautiful file analysing comparative investment environments. Good fucking month of work lost, and fucking Excel is bloody fucking fucked. Knowing my incompetent firm, it will take months for this to be fixed. Well, at least I have my perso laptop as a backup.
Thanks to this small disaster I had the occasion to read and comment on some commentary on the Arab world and issues at Daniel Drenzer’s blog by a guest commentator, “Zathras” or Joseph Britt.
Moderately interesting, but also disappointing in the sense that the author, despite raising some interesting and valid issues, fell into the all too typical stereotypes and posturing based on fairly thin information on the region.
The comments specifically were on the influence of Soviet style police state apparatus and Arab world inaction on Dar Fur. Both good subjects, and in both cases the commentary was spoiled by an ill-founded arrogance and over-drawing of the argument. Now, I am the last person to reproach someone for arrogance, even overweening arrogance. A bit of arrogance is needed now and again. However, it should be well founded and bounded with a critical sense of one’s real knowledge.
Getting to the meat, first regarding the influence of Soviet style police state apparatus on the Arab regimes and its contribution to the nasty authoritarian regime habits we find in the region, there was a decent core to the argument. The author’s argument at its base was that it was not the US that created the police state apparatus in the region; rather it was the Soviet influence that was the model. His overarching point, that US responsibility for the state of the region is overdone is a valid one, however he pushed it further to something of a whitewash of any responsibility (and whitewashing where it was admitted). A pity, since the moderate argument had much merit and utility in connexion with the United States at once stepping up and admitting the error of backing bankrupt regimes like Mubarek’s (well, if only it would), while at the same time underlining Arab responsibility for their own sins as well. Indeed it is not hard to make the case of generally the US being a marginal player in supporting MENA repressive regimes, except for Egypt and its 70 odd million Egyptians (a million new ones a year!). Of course relative marginality does not mean in innocence in terms of formulating the policy.
The overdrawn argument – not our fault because of the tendentiously narrow point that the systems themselves were Sov modelled – is nothing more than playing domestic politics pretending to be foreign policy commentary. A rather tedious habit that does not tell one much nor is it terribly useful. The US owns some responsibility for the regimes it has backed, fully or covertly, and it is highly unconvincing (and not useful in any case) to play the zero dirty hands game. Egypt, of course, is the prime example.
Overall, as I said in comments on the site, there is more utility and effectiveness in simply taking responsibility for having supported undemocratic regimes out of expedience (and I note that expedience has many uses, and is not of necessity a mistake. What is a mistake is to cling to a move made for momentary expedience long after the moment passed), and changing tack where necessary.
Another item to note in the context of this subject was the author’s rather overdone condescending commentary in regards to the issue and replies (the long and rather silly lecture to me about Egyptian history in particular annoyed), above all in the context of elementary errors of fact – e.g. claiming the Shah deterred Sadaam when in fact Sadaam only took power in the very year the Shah was toppled. It rather undermines one when one advances ludicrously unfactual arguments, and the reflexive defending of any given US policy, as in backing the corrupt and in the end incompetent Shah, is rather unenlightening. It rather strikes one that the Shah was clearly a mistake – a horse backed one race too far, but again recall my comment supra about not sticking to decisions of expedience too far.
The second subject and post, on Arab inaction and (claimed) silence on Dar Fur again had a decent kernel of a good argument, spoiled once again by the author pushing it too far and by him being terribly poorly informed (in effect I would say merely parroting party political talking points flouting around the US right bolshy talking sphere). Again a pity as there was promise in the writing.
First, the writer, in ignorance, asserted Arab silence on the issue of Dar Fur. Anyone who actually follows al-Jazeerah or al-Arabiyah, more so the former than the later, knows this to be a falsehood. Now, one might reasonably make the argument that there is relative neglect and inattention to the issue of ethnic cleansing (not genocide) in Dar Fur in the Arab world as in the West, and that the relative neglect is more morally odious given crime of Arab Muslim on non-Arab Muslim ethnic cleansing. However, to advance that argument, one needs to have some real sense of what the Arab medias have said, what coverage has occurred, etc. By his comments, the author clearly had no clue that the Arab Sats had actually begun talking about this issue rather before the Western media and in many ways led the way. It is a bit rich then to pretend to lecture the Arabs about the attention paid to the issue when in fact, one doesn’t really know….. Rather reminds me of the same kind of commentary that pretends there have not been denunciations of terror by Muslim scholars (rather than making the more on point and supportable argument about scope, etc. – but again this requires knowing Arabic and following the main medias – especially not being informed by the MEMRI Israeli intel spin machine). In both instances it becomes easy to dismiss the core point because of ignorant overdrawing of the situation.
What is really being said when authors who are not actual consumers of Arabic media advance such claims is what they think of Arabs, not what they know of the situation. Rather as if I were to start writing about say the Russian media and what it says about the West, although I at best can spell out words in Cyrillic and have not the slightest clue as to what is generally being said. I, of course, can presume certain things, but would be embarrassed to assert my presumptions as facts – above all in an overweening, sweeping manner.
Yet, oddly, it strikes me that this is fairly typical with regards to commentary on the Middle East. One rather supposes it has to do with the rather poor and limited interface between the Arabic and English speaking worlds, especially the United States (by virtue of geography combined with new found interest really). And of course the fact pundits do not get published by being moderate in their expression I would suppose.
But returning to the underlying issue of the level of commentary, I think one can make a case that the issue is (relatively) shamefully neglected, relative to the horror of the ethnic cleansing. It is surely the case that while al-Jazeerah and al-Arabiyah have done a fairly decent job of covering the conflict they could do more and more attention could be paid to the issue (although in making that case, if one is a Westerner, one should do so with some degree of modesty and without misplaced overweening supercilious posturing given how Dar Fur ended up being a 5 minute problem that slipped off the radar once its political novelty value faded). I certainly would agree with the case that the pan-Arab medias should pay attention to the ‘fringes’ rather more – be the fringe the Sudan or Mauretania or even the Maghreb in general which in the Eastern focused pan Arab medias one might be forgiven for forgetting it even exits. Indeed, one sometimes has the sense from the pan-Arab medias the Arab world consists of Lebanon, the Gulf, Palestine, and Egypt (and now Iraq). No doubt there is no small role played by the predominance of Lebs, Palestinians and Egyptians in the staffing, and Gulf money in the financing. But that is another issue.
Moving on, the second item of interest in this commentary was the assertion of racism in regards to the events in Dar Fur and lack of Arab intervention/action – as well as the assertion of racism in regards to the actual conflict.
Here again limited knowledge, and rather severe lack of a sense of his own limited knowledge led the author to overstate and blow up what would be a solid observation and criticism into exaggerated and distorted posturing.
First, of course, as I have noted many times, the so-called “Arab” militias (the Janjaweed, hardly an Arab term) and the non-Arab Fur are both ‘Black African’ in any meaningful sense of the term. Both being black, and both being African. Arab is merely the adopted language and ethnicity of the camel nomads – and I may add given what I have heard on Arab Sats of their ‘Arabic’ it’s more than slightly patoisish. The Fur of course being simply non-Arabic speakers, and largely settled people, rather than nomads.
However, the easy formulation and false dichotomy of “Arab” versus “Black African” is pimped by a variety of political groups (both Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and non-Muslim) and if one doesn’t know the region and the people involved it becomes easy to falsely assume that this is some ‘white on black’ sort of event.
But I have discussed this before. So rather than going into any details, I will simply note the author rather disappointingly if predictably fell into that trap and put this in terms of “Arab racism.” Certainly an ethnic conflict and ethnic cleansing, but hardly Arab racism per se.
Except in an another context, that being the vague racism or ethnocentrism of the “Arab core” in regards to the darker skinned “Arab fringes” like the Sudan – which again almost doesn’t exist in the Arab media. There is surely an influence of contempt for (sub-Saharanish) Africans or disregard that has fed into the lack of interest in the issue – not perhaps dissimilar, if one is to be honest, from the same kind of influence that has fed into Western neglect of the issue (or of Rwanda, etc).
Indeed, “core Arab” disregard for non-Arab Muslims, their darker Arabo-African confreres, and especially darker non-Arab Muslims is not something that has escaped the notice of their fellow Muslims. I certainly notice it myself, although it rarely rises to the level of active racism in the manner of the hard Right racism of Europe and the white Anglo world. Rather more similar to the quiet and polite sort of racism of the moderate, say the Boston Brahmin.
That, however, is rather harder to criticise from a tone of real superiority insofar as it remains an issue in the West – however again moderation gives one stronger ground to tackle the issue on, for I would reasonably advance the case that in my lifetime racism in the West has vastly receded due to the very fact it was openly confronted and has become intolerable in polite circles (although the polite kind dressed up in other skin or pretexts certainly continues). The Arab world would benefit mightily from an honest conversation on this issue, rather than hiding behind (as is usually the case) the fact of Islam not permitting racism – true enough theoretically, but theory and practice, theory and practice.
My final word on this would be the following then, while the author replied, sneeringly really, that ‘respect had to be earned’ and he was not going to engage in ‘political correctness’ that kind of foolishness is irrelevant. Respect is of course a two way street if it means anything and it is not political correctness to note that one needs to get basic facts right before pretending to lecture if one really wants to effect change in the region.
Of course, it may equally be the case that the real purpose of such notes is merely to engage in self-congratulation and enjoy an overdone sense of superiority over the bloody wogs and other brown scum….. with really intending genuinely useful comment or criticism.
[Update 23 Aug 05]
As Eerie helpfully reminded me I once expended some effort in discussing this issue in the past (note even then I had to preface my remarks to avoided simple minded misreading) an old commentary which I perhaps should republish either here or on Lounsbury:
Darfur - On Racism, On Ignorance, On Laziness and just plain stupidity (and Arab responses)
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this is [not] some ‘white on black’ sort of event
news to me. then again, i haven't followed very closely aside from the periodic western "shock" headline. can you suggest some sources with which to better inform myself on this issue?
also, RE: the arab fringes, i never really thought about it before a few days ago when i listened to an interesting story on BBC radio about Mauretania (relating to womens rights or somesuch thing) when a woman kept reinterating over and over that she was Mauretanian which, the reporter so kindly explained, was a way of letting everyone in earshot know that she was NOT a black person from the south but rather an arab, a more "respectable" race in Mauretania evidently. after listening to this story i realized that my perceptions of the bounds "arab world" are rather confused. just where are the boundaries? according to my first MSA book, it stopped at Morocco (Western Sahara having been swallowed up by Morocco in this paticular book) and at Egypt even though the TA for the class was from The Sudan and had beautiful arabic.
so what criteria do we use to define the "arab world" and MENA? and where are those boundaries?
also, i should note that my almost complete lack of capitolization and absolute lack of proper spelling in no way dictates some preference to certain countries or languages or whatever. i'm simply lazy and only equipped with a German spellchecker at the moment.
Posted by: drdougfir at August 22, 2005 08:17 AM
Ages ago, in his old journal, Lounsbury made a long entry on Darfur. It's archived here, but not published.
Posted by: eerie at August 22, 2005 09:05 AM
On Dar Fur, well this website is well-informed, non-hysterical and gives a thorough overview of the conflict: Middle East Information, Disaster in Dar Fur
On Arab fringes, Arabness and the like....
Well, that really depends on who you ask. I tend to go with the standard of "those who speak Arabic as mother tongue or near mother tongue and self-identify as Arabs, are."
Gets one away from the true Scotsmen arguments. But on the other hand, the Saharan contact zone then its part of the Arab world, but is not very much like the "core."
There is certainly a racialist if not outright racist view that "black" Arabs are not real Arabs in some quarters (both Arab and non-Arab).
Regarding Mauretania, well, no. What the woman was saying by saying she was Mauretanian was she belonged to the 'Bidane' elite (the Whites) who are both Arab and Berber (Taureq, Sanhaja, etc.). Of course most 'Bidane' are anything but, although they are usually much lighter and more Mediterannean in features than either the Toucouleur of the Senegal valley or the former (and sometimes present) slave class, the Haratine.
In Mauretania the Maure, the Arabo-Berber elite, have a nasty and frankly pretty close to racialist sense of superiority to their black confreres. Unpleasant country, rather despicable.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 22, 2005 09:30 AM
I saw that exchange over at Drezner's. He just kept getting more pissy and high-handed every time he was shown to be wrong. It baffles me when I see people behave like that.
Posted by: Jackmormon at August 22, 2005 07:55 PM
Just read the whole exchange at Drezner's site. Pretty disturbing, needless to say....
As Aristotle (I think) is alleged to have said: the difference between the Greeks and the Barbarians is that all the Barbarians are the same. Well, some things never change, I guess.
Posted by: kao_hsien_chih at August 22, 2005 09:59 PM
Yes, indeed. Oddly I was not really "disagreeing" on a fundamental basis, but began with the thought his argument would be stronger if it were more solidly based.
However, many prefer cheap outrage and get annoyed with real facts.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 23, 2005 06:27 AM
Re: the Lounsbury
"Regarding Mauretania, well, no. What the woman was saying by saying she was Mauretanian was she belonged to the 'Bidane' elite (the Whites) who are both Arab and Berber (Taureq, Sanhaja, etc.). Of course most 'Bidane' are anything but, although they are usually much lighter and more Mediterannean in features than either the Toucouleur of the Senegal valley or the former (and sometimes present) slave class, the Haratine.
In Mauretania the Maure, the Arabo-Berber elite, have a nasty and frankly pretty close to racialist sense of superiority to their black confreres. Unpleasant country, rather despicable."
A comment solicited from an American (not me) who spent considerable time (over one year) in Mauretania rejoinds:
"[Mr. Lounsbury's] first para is perfectly true. The second is the author's opinion, one I do not share. It is true that there is a defined (and discomfiting from an American point of view) social hierarchy in Mauritania, but it is only superficial observation that leads to the conclusion that it is based primarily on race. True, the Haratines (former slaves) are considered a lower social class, but they are not the lowest. Bidane metalworkers and musicians have that distinction. And personally, I find it a poor but delightful country in which there is probably less true racism than in the West."
Moi, Je n'ai auncune d'idee, comme on dit en francais plutot mauvais.
Posted by: matthew hogan at August 23, 2005 02:02 PM
Well to miserable git who thinks Mauretania is a delightful country, I can only reply that ... well I suppose someone has to love the backwards ass waste of geography.
That aside, I note I said 'pretty close to racialist' sense of superiority. It's pretty bloody clear that skin tone plays a large role, and being blacker is not positive, and looking more Senegalese is not positive. Works in my book.
Further to the matter, it was not an American superficial sense of social hierarchy, but rather my observation based on a comparision between a good bloody decade of experience with the Maghreb and the Mashreq (and especially in connexion with the Maghreb given the cultural ties), and my thankfully relatively brief time in that wasteland of a country, Mauretania. Bloody Moroccans should have taken them over and taught them proper manners.
Regardless, while perhaps there is less "true racism" as compared with North America - I am not sure what is true racism in the end - as compared with attitudes about skin colour in the Maghreb or Senegal, the Mauretanians come right up pretty fucking close to my standard of calling them racist.
As to the Haratine, given the problematic question of their continued slave status, well, I will just say that I think the commentator is naive.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 23, 2005 02:25 PM