This is a guest note by journalist and Middle East and Islamic issues expert Nir Rosen.
On Sunday, February 28th the New York Times published an outrageous oped by Efraim Karsh full of lies, distortions and mistakes.
Karsh describes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an urgent foreign policy matter for the United States.
It doesn’t appear to be urgent. One more American administration has prostrated itself before Israeli arrogance and expansionism. Karsh mentions some sort of “100-year war between Arabs and Jews.” There is no 100 year war between Arabs and Jews. There is a 100 year colonial struggle between Zionist Jews and the Palestinian people (and briefly the Lebanese as well).
He hopes that the “Islamic nation can make peace with the idea of Jewish statehood in the House of Islam.” Its not about Jewish statehood in the house of Islam.
Its about Zionist Jewish settlers dispossessing the Palestinians and occupying Palestinian land. And killing Palestinians. Its not a religious conflict. Its a territorial one, an anti-colonial one, a national liberation struggle, even if the discourse used these days to describe it is often religious.
“Muslim states threaten Israel’s existence not so much out of concern for the Palestinians, but rather as part of a holy war to prevent the loss of a part of the House of Islam,” he says. He is lying. Who is he talking about? Iran?
Even if that was a real threat and not merely grandstanding, who else is there? the Saudis, the Turks, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and others all collaborate with Israel. Syria?
Hardly a threat and eager for peace as long as it can regain the occupied Golan heights. And the Israeli police force could conquer Syria in a few hours. Hizballah? Not a state and not trying to destroy Israel but merely protect Lebanese territory.
Hizballah threatens a bloody revenge if Israel attacks Lebanon, but that’s it. And he is also lying when he says that Muslim states believe in some kind of holy war to prevent the loss of a part of the house of Islam. Which Muslim state? Nobody talks like this or says these things.
Most Muslim states either collaborate with Israel or just don’t care (like Iraq today).
Karsh is a third rate academic who clearly has not visited much of the “Muslim World” about which he writes with generalizations, clichés, racism, Orientalism and a right wing pro Israeli agenda.
He falsely claims that Arabs consider themselves superior to all other Muslims. And he falsely claims that Hijazis regard themselves as the only true Arabs.
This is just not true. There is always the occasional chauvenist but he wouldn’t be typical of the views of most “Arabs” or Hijazis.
Karsh claims that Muslims view themselves as part of the House of Islam and the rest of the world as part of the House of War.
I have worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Bosnia, Turkey, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Qatar. I have attended hundreds of sermons in mosques and I watch Arabic satellite television regularly. In the last seven years of working in the Muslim world I have never heard anybody use these terms.
You have to go to obscure websites to find these terms used today. There may be a theological basis for these terms of course but just like most Christians, for most Muslims, religion is but a small part of their identity, and often not the most important part, and Islam is not the main guide to their daily actions.
House of Islam and House of war are not common household terms in the Muslim world and not an honest description of the way the vast majority of Muslims view the world.
These references to Saladin and other early Muslim rulers have very little to do with the lives of most modern Muslims
He falsely claims that Muslim and Arab rulers vilify “infidels.” This is also a lie.
Notice Karsh provides no examples. Most Muslim and Arab rulers do not “villify” the “infidels,” in fact they cooperate with them regularly and most Muslim and Arab countries are thoroughly integrated with the rest of the world.
While many of their people might resent the West for a variety of reasons, with only a few exceptions, most Muslim and Arab dictators collaborate closely with the West and even often with Israel.
They do not view the world as divided between Muslims and infidels any more than most Christian rulers do. And certainly bringing up Nasser as an example is silly, since he would have been the last Arab ruler to think in these terms. Opposing Western Imperialism is not the same as opposing infidels.
Karsh wants the United States, and (notice he says “us”) to take a harder line with Iran.
There is a trend lately of New York Times oped contributors calling for more wars against Muslims. Whether against Iran or most recently calling for less concern over civilian Afghan casualties.
And of course Thomas Friedman has never met a war he didn’t support.
Karsh assures us that most Muslim states would not support Iran if more sanctions are imposed or if the United States attacked Iran. So therefore we shouldn’t be afraid of going to war. Except that there is also no solid evidence presented that Iran even wants nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile most Muslims and Arabs are probably more concerned about the one nuclear state in the Middle East that does regularly initiate wars of aggression — Israel.
Karsh refers to “the customary lip service about Western imperialism and “Crusaderism.”” He is trapped in the past.
What Muslim government uses these terms? Karsh is taking the statements of extremists like Bin Ladin and claiming that they are made by Muslim rulers. But talk of Crusaders is far removed from the Muslim mainstream.
Karsh reduces everything to religion.
Imagine if all Muslims believed that Pat Robertson or other insane Christian extremists were typical of all Americans and that we all believe that Haitians made a pact with the devil.
Another mistake he makes is conflating the leaders of Muslim countries with the people. Despite the hatred that many Sunni Muslim dictators feel for Iran, their people may have a very different attitude.
Iran and particularly its leadership remain very popular throughout the Muslim and Arab world, among the PEOPLE. Of course they would be helpless to intervene should the United States attack Iran because they are ruled by pro American dictators.
Karsh welcomes what he claims are the “latest changes in the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy, which combine a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear subterfuge with a less imperious approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.” So far there is no evidence of Iran’s nuclear subterfuge and most experts actually dismiss concerns that Iran is seeking to gain nuclear weapons.
And what American administration ever had an “imperious approach to the Arab Israeli conflict”? and given that we are subsidizing and arming the Israelis don’t we have the right to make demands of them? Instead Prime Minister Netanyahu humiliated Obama’s envoy Mitchell and we just accepted it. Bush, Clinton, Obama, all cravenly bow to Israeli extremism.
“A military strike must remain a serious option: there is no peaceful way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, stemming as they do from its imperialist brand of national-Islamism.” If Iran is imperialist where has it expanded? It is America and its ally Israel that engage in Imperialism.
Khomeini may have dismissed nationalism, as Karsh says, but it was only rhetorically. Iranians remain extremely nationalistic, even chauvenistic and the regime has had to make many concessions to ‘Persian’ nationalism and ‘Persian’ traditions and the regime acts strategically to further its own interests, not those of the Muslim world, so their anti nationalism is nonsense and quoting
Khomeini from nearly 30 years ago is irresponsible when describing the regime of today. Karsh jumps from a minor dispute over whether to go by the “Persian Gulf” to the “Arabian Gulf” into discussing religious conflict, hatred of infidels and support for a war against Iran.
Several years ago I was invited to take part in a conference sponsored by the Department of Defense’s Central Command entitled “Rethinking the War on Terror: Developing a Strategy to Counter Extremist Ideologies.” The proposed issues to be discussed were: Radical Islamist Ideologies; House of Islam v. House of War; Koran and Jihad; Sectarianism in Islam and the Politicization of Sectarian Identity; Cult of Martyrdom; Temporal Goals (e.g., destruction of Israel, United States out of Iraq, topple Saudi Government, etc.); Countering the Radicals’ Arguments, Tools, and Attraction; Individual liberties and the Sharia mindset; Understanding popular grievances and terrorist/insurgent objectives; Engaging failed or failing states to deny sanctuaries to terrorists and non-state actor organizations.
Karsh’s silly article reminded me of this conference. At the time I explained that I viewed the entire approach as all wrong.
People don’t mind when you tell them that they’re wrong about the facts, but when you tell them their very approach is wrong they can get upset. But the very approach these people were using to conceptualize the issues was wrong, and not a single non Orientalist middle east studies academic would agree with these culturalist assumptions.
I didn’t even know how to talk to these people because the barrier between us began at the epistemological stage, in the way we approached acquiring knowledge about the middle east.
Their obsession with things like ‘dar al islam/dar al harb’ and terms like ‘jihad’ and ‘cult of martyrdom’ showed how they focused on the exterior shell and fetishized this Orientalist idea of ‘Muslim culture.’
They assumed that there was some kind of microchip that makes Muslims tick and once you learn the cultural script, you could understand these people. This stems from the idea of ‘varying rationalities,’ that Muslims do not think in the same way we do, that you need to understand their own form of rationality and you do that through learning the language, the ‘culture’ and then you can decode them. But why are ‘Muslims’ a group to begin with?
This obsession with a term like ‘dar al harb,’ (house of war) keeps on coming up.
Sometimes I think that more Americans than Muslims know what it means. They assume that a medieval term somehow trickled into the ‘Muslim’ mentality and decides how they see the world. This assumes that all Muslims understand such a term in the same way, and that the term acts in a specific way not contingent on historic and contemporary conditions, both of which are untrue
This is Orientalism, America is never studied in this way, do we read the Bible to understand American ‘culture’?
And this ‘cult of martyrdom’ business, based on the assumption that Muslims have some kind of reptilian brain, thinking in pre-destined cultural scripts.
People were anti-American when they were secular and nationalistic, they were resisting America as Marxists, and are now resisting it as Islamists, the fight creates the cult, not the other way around, fetishizing it and obsessing with it is just a way to obscure the real grievances. And what is the ‘Sharia mindset’?
There is no such thing as Shari`a. It is a very broad term, it means Islamic law, but only one of its schools, Maliki fiqh, alone consists of tens of thousands of pages and interpretation. It is not an ‘object’ that people can just assimilate
There is this American racist right-wing obsession with the idea of Muslims spreading Sharia in the West. Then people like Karsh or the organizers of the conference I went to pick up these catch-phrases and make them into an object of scientific inquiry
There is no such one thing called Sharia, or Islamic law, it gets interpreted in many different ways, for Saudis it is the religious police, for Iranians it is banks and women driving, for others it is no banks. Sharia can be a political slogan, especially in Egypt, as a sign that separates Muslim from non-muslim rule. It varies greatly and cannot be simplified, it has no clear content.
– Nir Rosen