Marshall Sahlins on anthropologists in Iraq

(an open letter to the New York Times)

To the Editor:
The report (Oct.11) of the killing of two Iraqi women by hired guns of the State Department whose mission was “to improve local government and democratic institutions” bears an interesting relation to the story of a few days earlier about the collaboration of anthropologists in just such imperious interventions in other peoples’ existence in the interest of extending American power around the world. It seems only pathetic that some anthropologists would criticize their colleagues’ participation in such adventures on grounds of their own disciplinary self-interest, complaining that now they will not be able to do fieldwork because the local people will suspect them of being spies. What about the victims of these militarily-backed intrusions, designed to prescribe how others should organize their lives at the constant risk of losing them? What is as incredible as it is reprehensible is that anthropologists should be engaged in such projects of cultural domination, that is, as willing collaborators in the forceful imposition of American values and governmental forms on people who have long known how to maintain and cherish their own ways of life.

Of course, these collaborating anthropologists have the sense that they are doing good and being good. I am reminded of a cartoon I saw years ago, I think it was in the Saturday Review of Literature, which shows two hooded executioners leaning on their long-handled axes, and one says to the other: “The way I see it, if I didn’t do this, some sonovabitch would get the job.”

Marshall Sahlins


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

43 thoughts on “Marshall Sahlins on anthropologists in Iraq

  1. Professor Sahlins,

    Glad to see that you are as cranky as ever. Even more glad to see you attacking those challenging Montgomery McFate and her Human Terrain Teams.

    Please keep up the good work! Your service is appreciated by those of us on the front lines of GWOT.

    Sgt. Steel

  2. The only position they need in the military is Anthropologist.
    All the other jobs are useless.
    That way there’d be noone to kill anyone,
    just a bunch of people investigating culture/society/humans. 🙂

  3. Professor Sahlins raises the question of how we as a discipline should deal with some of our members taking part in “…intrusions, designed to prescribe how others should organize their lives….” This question is not simply about anthropologists who work with the military (although, of course, their intrusions put peoples lives in obvious peril and are therefore much more likely to evoke emotion and passion from us). Some anthropologists who work for development organizations, non-military government agencies, conservation organizations, and the like transport Euro-American ideas about how people ought to live in the world and provide data that ends in cultural domination all the time. I keep wondering how these anthropologists working for the military are any different from anthropologists I know who work for conservation organizations that have as a goal the full-scale transformation of people’s socio-ecological ways of living and being in the world. And before anyone says, “well, stupid, its because the military-anthropologists are getting people killed,” there is plenty of data to suggest that the policies and practices of the aforementioned non-military organizations get people killed, put their lives in peril, and destroy their cherished ways of life. But even when they don’t they are projects of social engineering that are often meant to make peoples ways of seeing and taking part in the world more in line with contemporary capitalism or particular international ideologies. I know an anthropologist who was asked to learn about the role a particular animal plays in a particular cosmological cycle so that a conservation organization could figure out how to alter the local cosmology so that the local people would no longer hunt this animal.

    I guess my question is this: Is it okay to learn about human social life and behavior so as to have the knowledge of how to change it?

    I just taught our undergraduate majors a section on ethics so I just re-read the AAA ethics code and part of it reads:

    “In research, anthropologists’ paramount responsibility is to those they study. When there is a conflict of interest, these individuals must come first. Anthropologists must do everything in their power to protect the physical, social, and psychological welfare and to honor the dignity and privacy of those studied.”

    How can it be okay to work to change people’s lives, beliefs, and actions if this is really part of our code of ethics?

    And before lots of angry applied anthropologists respond, I am not saying that all applied anthropology has as its goal the prescription of new ways to live and organize life. But some of it certainly does and that is what I want to call into question.

  4. Mohawk, you write, “I am not saying that all applied anthropology has as its goal the prescription of new ways to live and organize life.” But in marketing and medicine, education and the military, in development studies, wherever, applied anthropology is clearly about facilitating new ways to live and organize life. What else could “applied” possibly mean?

    I take it, then, that you recoil from the notion of anthropologists prescribing. Perhaps, to stretch the medical metaphor, all we should be doing is diagnoses, leaving prognosis and treatment to those more willing to accept the risks required to initiate change. Or, perhaps more commonly, we see ourselves as pathologists, diagnosing illness and cause of death, but again unwilling to accept the risks that might, just might, lead to a cure.

    Then, paradoxically, while asserting our passivity, we rail against our impotence and wonder why policy makers don’t have much time for us. What an odd place we find ourselves in.

  5. I must admit I’m a little flummoxed by the idea that anthropologists should never do _anything_, especially since opposition to ‘changing people’s beliefs’ would seem to rule out teaching, which is really what most anthropologist due to earn their keep. Could you spin that out a bit Mohawk?

  6. There is nothing passive in Sahlins’ position, and certainly nothing inherently passive about the search for knowledge.

    I find it interesting that John (5) casually accepts the work of the HTT teams as applied anthropology. If the HTT teams are “willing collaborators in the forceful imposition of American values and governmental forms on people”, and this is easily accepted as a form of applied anthropology, then the term for the sub-discipline takes on a whole new meaning.

    There is no horizontal collaboration with the Afghan groups these HTT teams are ostensibly studying, and I can imagine no open access to the research for the Afghans studied. What the HTT teams are doing is not anthropology, even if they have anthropologists as members. This is true whether their goal is to ‘do good’ or enact a US military mission.

  7. While I agree with Sahlins about this war, and tend to agree about anthropologists in it, what of the anthropological work of Ruth Benedict and many others in World War II? Definitely the US wanted to stop the Nazis and change their culture and minds. (Not the Germans, note; just the Nazis.) The alternative was that the Nazis would take over a lot of the world and do a lot more changing of minds. Something similar goes today for conservation. While a great deal of extremely misguided and scuzzy work goes on in the name of conservation, the survival of humanity (including those indigenous peoples) depends on it; without it we will all soon be dead. Should anthropologists then respect the right of humanity to commit suicide? By an extreme Kantian ethic, yeah, certainly. By a utilitarian ethic, well, no. So, what ethic are we using here?

  8. Rex,

    I am not saying we should follow the Prime Directive, I’m saying that we have to make choices within social context and that that context matters.

    For example the attempts to cure Kuru in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea nessecarily had to change the mortiuary practice that was contributing to its proliferation. These practices were part of a cherished set of social and cosmological beliefs. But at the same time people were anxious to find a way to stop the ravages of the Kuru outbreak. Anthropologists and others worked to find the causes of Kuru and the local understandings of the causes of Kuru and used that information to bring an end to the disease.

    This is an example of what I see as VERY ethical use of anthropology to change behavior.

    As is teaching.

    But I see lots and lots of unethical uses also.

  9. So, as I thought it would, it comes down to simply being a matter of not agreeing with the objectives the US has in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Let explicitly state what we believe those objectives to be. That would be a good start.

  10. mohawk: well, yes — we all have to make choices, and we make them in social contexts that matter. That seems pretty straightforward to me 🙂

  11. John Fulton wrote:

    “There is no horizontal collaboration with the Afghan groups these HTT teams are ostensibly studying, and I can imagine no open access to the research for the Afghans studied. What the HTT teams are doing is not anthropology, even if they have anthropologists as members. This is true whether their goal is to ‘do good’ or enact a US military mission.”

    The HTS team concept is troubling on a number of levels, but I’m not sure that either of these criteria distinguish HTS teams from “real” anthropology. Many working anthropologists do not do “horizontal collaboration” with the people they study, and there are ethical concerns even with with the idea of “open access” to research (e.g., confidentiality). In a broader sense, even “legitimate” fieldwork in places like Iran in the 1960s and 1970s, or in Egypt today, takes place in a context of large-scale political alliances and relations of military force and economic coercion that exist between those countries and the great powers.

    A better model for thinking through the complexities of HTS than the work Benedict and Mead did for the War Department (and please, let’s never again, under any circumstances, imply a comparison between Ruth Benedict and Montgomery McFate!), is the work some anthropologists did with the War Relocation Authority, working in Japanese American internment camps. Here anthropologists, with the intention of helping, worked with populations directly under government control.

    Orin Starn wrote about the ethical, bureaucratic, and theoretical challenges of this work in an article titled “Engineering Internment,” American Ethnologist. Nov 1986, Vol. 13, No. 4: 700-720. He took a dim view of the effort for a number of reasons, and his conclusions were not well received by some of the surviving scholars who worked for the WRA, like Opler. While Orin’s cautions should be heeded, we also need to take the views of Opler and others seriously.

    There are a number of differences between now and then, not only because the HTS work is going on in regions of active warfare, but in terms of the differences between the theoretical perspective of WRA anthropologists (largely derived from psychological anthropology), and the far more sophisticated understanding most anthropologists now have of structures of power and violence. One of the similarities, though, is that in both cases, very bad policy decisions were made at the national level, and scholars were faced with the question of what to do about it, in the absence of any realistic capacity to reverse that policy in the short term.

  12. Rex:
    But is it that straightforward when we are talking about applied anthropology that works for things like development organizations, conservation organizations, and non military governmental organizations?

    I know many in these fields who feel that the very presence of an anthropologist on a team leads to some sort of ethics of dealing with these hard questions of when it is ethical to alter behaviors though the gathering of social data.

    And my point was not that everything exists within and at the same time generates some sort of social matrix or context, because, well, duh, that is the whole point of anthropology, right? But rather, my point was that I do not think that everyone who does applied anthropology actually thinks about that social matrix at all. I mean there are hundreds of examples of very well meaning people who find out some things that they think make people’s lives better and then it turns out 2 or 4 or 60 years later that the projects they implemented ended up hurting people in ways that no one predicted.

    I used the Kuru example because that set of research projects around the illness were so careful and cautious and really worked to understand everything about Kuru from every angle. And now, Fore are thriving and Kuru is over and a medical condition (as a matter of fact, i think there is an “End of Kuru” conference on right now in the UK).

  13. Mohawk said: “the AAA ethics code…reads:

    “In research, anthropologists’ paramount responsibility is to those they study. When there is a conflict of interest, these individuals must come first. Anthropologists must do everything in their power to protect the physical, social, and psychological welfare and to honor the dignity and privacy of those studied.”

    How can it be okay to work to change people’s lives, beliefs, and actions if this is really part of our code of ethics?”

    Mohawk, this is really quite simple: Please re-read your own quote. The code of ethics does not prohibit working to change people’s lives, beliefs, and actions, it mandates it.

    Any reasonable reading mandates working to protect little girls from having their fingers cut off a joint at a time by their family members whenever a relative dies. Any reasonable reading mandates working to protect POWs from being eaten by their captors. Any reasonable reading mandates working to protect women from execution for committing adultery or prostitution. Any reasonable reading mandates working to protect people from execution for homosexual acts.

    You seem to be equating protection with defending the status quo for the traditional power elites.

  14. Dr. Sahlins wrote: “What about the victims of these militarily-backed intrusions, designed to prescribe how others should organize their lives…?”

    Well, let’s see: One of the victims was pulled from a hole in the ground, given a trial which, while surely imperfect, was far fairer than any he had accorded others, and then hanged. Two other victims, sons of the first, were surrounded, chose to fight, and were killed.

    Do anthropological ethics require that we cherish the right of Saddam Hussein and his sons to torture, murder, gang rape, and maim their critics? Are the only people who ought to be excoriated those who worked to end their rule of terror? Saddam good/Shrub bad?

  15. I think there is something worth pulling out of mohawk’s comments. Although framed as an issue about the reflexive awareness of researchers to their social context, the point about the long-term and often unanticipated outcomes of our work speaks to a wider issue: the presumed efficacy of anthropology and, for that matter, any human action in the world.

    I might gloss this as the ‘efficacy assumption’: people act in the world thinking (to various degrees) that they actually have the power to change it. Most of the time this assumption ranges from unrealistic expectations to downright hubris. One important question to ask about anthropological in Iraq is not whether anthropologists will use their power for right or wrong, well or poorly, but whether they actually have any in the first place.

  16. The cautions of history and the concerns expressed by several – including Professor Sahlins – regarding the roles anthropologists have and do play in extending hegemonies are crucial. However, I am concerned about other comments here which imply (perhaps inadvertently) that social change – even dominating change – is external to the social landscape of the people anthropologists do research with. Rather, sociocultural change (as both reproduction and transformation) and the operations of power in that change seem to be common constants over space and time.

    I would contest that all anthropology is “applied” – in that teaching and research are forms of praxis – and that denial of this is too a political act. Clearly, those anthropologists explicitly involved in efforts to transform sociocultural life must strive to work collaboratively with those they do research with, while recognizing how such interventions are always implicated in the shifting terrains of power between local and global elites.

  17. Perhaps underneath Mohawk’s comments, a suspicion that the rise of the issue about Anthropologists in Iraq provides a way of guaranteeing the moral viability of those engaged in the kind of cultural domination Mohawk describes. Not to say that there shouldn’t be an investigation about the complicity of anthropology with militarism, but when this is done with respect to a conflict which has high visibility in the media and and near-unanimous unpopularity among liberals, then it becomes a bit easy to take sides and say “look at those bad anthropologists collaborating with the military”, while business as usual continues to work in the service of much more broadly distributed domination.

  18. Forty years ago the Old Left had a fit because the New Left was adaptive in protests, mixed tactics, had fun, protested in ways, protested for love rather than a class war and made common cause with non-Marxist groups.

    Professor Sahlins is living proof that you have to do is wait for forty years and the New Left will become the Old Left.

  19. John Fulton writes, “I find it interesting that John (5) casually accepts the work of the HTT teams as applied anthropology.” I find this curious, since having gone back to reread (5), I don’t see where I mentioned HTT at all. I was attempting to respond specifically to the sentence I extracted from Mohawk’s remarks.

    On reflection, I can see what Fulton did, leaping to conclusions based on preconceived notions, i.e., that one must be either for or against anthropologists working for the military. Preoccupied with his preconceptions, he failed to note what I was doing, going off on a tangent.

    It is not, of course, anthropologists alone who do this sort of thing. Failing to note that the actual facts of a matter do not fit handily into preconceived categories must be a failing at least as old and broad a as humanity. One had thought, however, that if anthropological training and fieldwork experience teaches anything special at all it is the importance of being constantly mindful of detail, especially examples that challenge our preconceptions.

    From this detail-oriented perspective, I do note, however, that what the HTT teams are reported to have done in Afghanistan is mainly to apply a bit of local knowledge in ways that kept their military colleagues from offending local sensibilities, exacerbating local feuds, and otherwise screwing up in ways that would, predictably, have led to more violence, more casualties and more wounded, in the areas under question. There is no contradiction at all in thinking (1) that it might be better if the soldiers were not there at all and (2) that, since they are, what HTT teams are doing to reduce harm to local individuals is perfectly consistent with the AAA’s ethical position. Is a blanket case for guilt by association, then, the best that our critics can do?

  20. From this detail-oriented perspective, I do note, however, that what the HTT teams are reported to have done in Afghanistan is …

    The word “reported” is key here and leaves you some wiggle-room.

    The carefully scripted stories they give the media about what they are doing isn’t necessarily what they are actually doing. Or at least not the full extent of what they are doing. This lack of transparency is one of the key issues raised by critics.

    You also seem to be selectively reading the criticisms and concerns raised on this blog, which go far beyond “guilt by association.”

  21. Mea culpa. We have also seen fear of loss of moral purity and fear of being taken for a spy. How? Guilt by association, that’s how. If people calling themselves anthropologists do horrible things, won’t we all be tarred with the same brush?

    Personally, I prefer to make moral judgments case-by-case. Thus, if anthropologists working in Vietnam in the sixties did, in fact, finger village leaders killed as part of the Phoenix program, that is an abomination. If anthropologists, working with army units in Afghanistan, enable them to work more effectively with local people–thus reducing casualties on both sides–where, precisely, is the evil in this?

    Do we actually have any evidence relevant to the case in hand? The familiar stories of evils done in Vietnam and Chile, now half a century ago remain awful warnings of how things may go wrong. References to “carefully scripted stories” may raise useful questions about what else may be going on. As evidence neither amounts to anything more than a lawyer’s attempt to impugn opposition witnesses. They have no standing as evidence themselves.

    So, what are we left with? A bit of meta-narrative in which we flail ourselves for the sins of our predecessors, who created our field as part of bearing the white man’s burden, followed by solemn oaths that we, whose livelihoods depend on jobs provided by institutions thoroughly complicit in the evils of our own time, would never, ever do anything so nasty again. Which, I raise the question again, leaves us precisely where?

    If the role of the university as a quasi-monastery where tender souls will never have to leave school find a haven is crumbling, what then? (The image is taken from Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropique.) Shall we found real monasteries? Shall we be like the monks in A Canticle for Leibowitz, guarding our texts while the world goes to hell around us? What end does our moral posturing serve?

    That’s what I want to know.

  22. I’m disappointed by Sahlins. One would think a prominent academician would bother to check his facts. Sahlins starts by saying “…killing of two Iraqi women by hired guns of the State Department whose mission was ‘to improve local government and democratic institutions'”. The security contractors who killed those women were not hired by the State Department and their mission was not to improve local government and democratic institutions. Their mission was to protect the people in their care and they were hired by a USAID contractor.

    There is no connection between the two events. In fact, if the article Sahlins is referring to a “few days earlier” is “Army Enlists Anthropology In War Zones”, it was published on October 5th and it was about Anthropologists in Afghanistan. Not even the same country.

    If Sahlins wants to argue against the imposition of American values, that’s a fair argument. But this argument is half-baked and off the mark. Go back to your ivory tower and try again.

  23. Was anthropology ever transparent?

    In the classic mode, the lone anthropologist goes somewhere that no other anthropologist has been before and comes back to write a highly edited account of what he or she observed, heard or thought about. Even in the sixties I heard rumors that so and so had spend their field trip in a bar in [city name deleted] and written up what they had gleaned from gossip and a bit of library research.

    Things are now arguably quite a bit better. For many, if not most, parts of the world, the anthropologist’s account must insert itself into that “stream of already existing representations produced by journalists, prior anthropologists, historians, creative writers, and of course the subjects of study themselves” to which Marcus and Fischer have drawn our attention. Nowadays, plausible fraud (like faking art) requires serious study.

    Plus, as numerous critics have mentioned, any ethnographic account is written. None, however navel-gazing, is ever a complete account of the anthropologist’s experience. The writer/editor’s choice of what to highlight leaves the rest obscure. The convention of not naming names protects both the innocent and the guilty alike, even as it presses the text toward the stereotyping that abstraction makes inevitable. No one, to the best of my knowledge has published a collection of the entirely non-PC observations that circulate when people who have worked in the same or similar places loosen up with a few drinks under their belts. Some are attempts at humor, the speculation that the vacant expressions of rural Taiwanese kids result from their being raised by water buffaloes, for example. Some are more serious but equally unpublishable. Who will put into print the discussion of culture shock in which one party observes that “Culture shock? That’s when you discover that your best friend and informant in the field has just sold his daughter into prostitution to buy a motorcycle”?

    To be human is to be non-transparent, and that applies to anthropologists, too.

  24. Professor Sahlins,

    Doesn’t hearing that “anthropological knowledge” is being marshaled in the ever snowballing “war on terror” or “war on the Middle East” or “Crusade” or “Clash of Civilizations” or whatever this war is make the American public feel better? I mean, here are some people who can finally get to the root of what we’ve been told is the problem!

    We have been told for ages now by people, including charming academics holding prestigious endowed chairs in studies of the relevant “areas,” that the problem is cultural, stupid. (Whichever problem that is: the roots of the war, whatever we are supposed to believe they are, terrorism, etc.) The “clash of civilizations” that is supposedly at the root of terrorism. The “tribalism” that has supposed caused the “civil war” in Iraq. Sometimes, we even hear, from relatively credible sources, that the problem is Islam. Which, despite Geertz (and others’) efforts to point out the obvious facts to the contrary, remains, in the American mind, a singular and homogenous lump of cancerous violence located somewhere in the Middle East (and completely coterminous with everything associated with the Arab ethnicity: see some posts on this blog).

    Mr Sahlins, you’re right. The “chilling effect” argument is horsefeathers. But not just because the war is what should really cause us ethical night tremors, but because the environment has ALREADY BEEN chilled for those of us who work in places with substantial numbers of practicing Muslims. Why? Two reasons: Frist, that there are substantial numbers of spies and agents of US financial and political interest running around in these places is common knowledge on the ground. Not to mention people who work with USAID, NGOs, and, well, a lot of people on Fulbright fellowships. Second, well, people read newspapers, listen to the radio, and shockingly, read American anthropology. People all over the places where people are often Muslim know what we think of/say about their ‘culture’ (however we’ve defined the unit of analysis, or not). They read those newspaper articles and saw those episodes of CSI or what have you, too. “The Clash of Civilizations” is, for example, a catch phrase in Islamic Africa too. Though one often sees it prefixed with “soit dissant.” Intellectuals who grew up in the places in question often know this. What of the “chilling effect” of Campus Watch’s harassment of Nadia Abu El-Haj? What of the “chilling effect” created in international collaboration when respected scholars from the “areas” in question are denied visas to enter the US to present their research? What about the chill we might feel when others think about the fact that our government–while prosecuting Chuckie Taylor, after supporting/masterminding the execution of Saddam Hussein on the day of Eid al Adha–refuses to be subject to the International Criminal Court. (Talk about a chilling effect! “Your President has clearly refused international rule of law, you are accountable to no one, and your compatriots are complicit.” But then, most people we encounter in the field are too polite to say this, instead clearing their throats or saying “how ’bout them Cubs?” when news of yet another US funded mercenary shooting of innocent women, or similar, is broadcast in their mysterious indigenous language.)

    Mr Sahlins, I, like you, support the concept of culture. I even think it can be a causal force in the world. But I think it’s time we as anthropologists show how much we value that term by speaking out clearly about what culture is NOT.

    What culture is NOT is this: the thing raising the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan. Culture is not the problem, tribalism is not the problem. The quirks of local tribal knowledge are hardly the problem. Hand gestures, generations old disagreements, and volleyball nets (!) are not the problem. McFate can repeat and repeat again her rehearsed anecdotes about how ‘anthropology’ is saving lives by decoding the inscrutable mind of the other, telling them that in Iraq the American ‘stop’ gesture means ‘HI!, and giving the locals their volleyball and “man-boy love” (?!?!?). Her repetitions might make the American public happy (here’s someone who knows how to talk to these inscrutable orientals!), but they cannot change the problem in Iraq into a cultural one. They cannot make the problem something anthropologists can fix, no matter how much they are paid.

    Telling the American public that the service men are from Mars, the Afghanis/Iraqis from Venus won’t fix the problem. Maybe the little children in this theater of horror “just don’t understand” that an outstretched hand means “stop.” Telling that to the horrified, stop-loss’d 19 year old children of the American poor who carry the guns might save a few lives, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

    The problem, as you point out HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CULTURE. It has a lot to do with State Department’s engagement of stateless soldiers of fortune who are hired out of Dubai and subject to the law of no country. It might have something to do with the fact that the current US administration refuses to consider itself subject to the court in the Hague, in fact, to any court what so ever, having obscured several dubiously legal dealings from oversight by IT’S OWN COURTS. It might have something to do with the fact that children younger than the undergrads many of us teach in intro classes are carrying the guns. It might have something to do with the fact that those children are on multiple tours of duty, under-supplied with armor. Let’s not call it class violence, they are “volunteers,” after all.

    Anthropologists can be angry about the fact that their colleagues are making substantial amounts of money (as they must be) working for the military. They can be angry about the fact that these colleagues seem to consider this contract work ‘research’ about which they can publish (see They can be angry about the fact that McFate appears again and again on the radio making offensive and racist claims in the name of ‘anthropology’ (From the Talk of the Nation interview when asked about HTS identifying themselves to their ‘subjects’: “Everywhere you go people are smart….Villagers in Afghanistan call one military unit ‘circle/square’ tribe because that’s on their arm badge. They recognize another unit as ‘crossed swords.’ That’s how they see them as TRIBES.”). Anthropologists can be angry that HTS workers seem to believe they can completely bypass IRB review.

    We can and should be mad about all of these things. But we should be even madder about something else: the hijacking (likely for substantial consulting profit) of the idea that the problem is cultural, stupid. “They just don’t understand” may play well in Peoria, but we should know better.

    Though we both believe in culture, I am sure you agree with me Mr Sahlins, when I say this, “It’s the (political-)economy, stupid.”

    Concerned anthropologists should strongly voice their dissent. This is not a “clash of civilizations” problem, the massive casualties are not caused by little cultural differences that could be explained by your anthropologist-as-protocol-officer.

    HTS can’t fix the problems in Iraq, because the problems are not fixable by anthropologists, even by good anthropologists well-versed in local languages and ethnography. (Though if HTS has some of those qualified area specialists, they’re not putting it in the press kit.) HTS won’t substantially change how potential research subjects, collaborators and colleagues deal with us. “They” are smart enough to have doubts about “us” all (already and for good reason) and to sometimes keep those doubts and their local knowledge to themselves. What HTS can do is distract people from the man behind the curtain. But then, Americans don’t like to look at him anyway. We continue to allow ourselves to be distracted from the atrocities committed in our name, and with our money.

  25. Iraqis are from Mars, I love you!

    Great commentary, and my thoughts exactly.

    I think we are also uncovering another implicit problem in US public and military discourse, one that is rooted in assuming that the political and the cultural are two separate categories.

    Everytime I hear “tribe talk,” and the implication that Iraqi and Afghan tribal structures and world views are identical because, well, they’re tribes, or more to the point, “Islamic” tribes, I want to scream.

    And at some level, does the discourse about “tribes” resonate with American mythological and popular culture conceptions of Native Americans and the “tribes” that we had to pacify and civilize in our Manifest-Destiny march across North America? Anthropology’s role in this is a sore topic (BIA, etc.), and I wonder if we are in the realm of “not learning lessons from past mistakes.”

    For those reading this blog who want to think more about the viewpoints Iraqis are from Mars has expressed, check out Mahmood Mamdani’s article in AA “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” which is also available in abridged form on the SSRC website:

    An excerpt:

    Culture Talk

    Is our world really divided into two, so that one part makes culture and the other is a prisoner of culture? Are there really two meanings of culture? Does culture stand for creativity, for what being human is all about, in one part of the world? But in the other part of the world, it stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity, whose rules are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and museumized in early artifacts?

    When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I often feel I am reading of museumized peoples. I feel I am reading of people who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic, act. After that, it seems they just conform to culture. Their culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates. It seems just to have petrified into a lifeless custom.

    Even more, these people seem incapable of transforming their culture, the way they seem incapable of growing their own food. The implication is that their only salvation lies, as always, in philanthropy, in being saved from the outside.

    When I read this, or something like this, I wonder if this world of ours is after all divided into two: on the one hand, savages who must be saved before they destroy us all and, on the other, the civilized whose burden it is to save all?

    We are now told to give serious attention to culture. It is said that culture is now a matter of life and death.

    But is it really true that people’s public behavior, specifically their political behavior, can be read from their religion? Could it be that a person who takes his or her religion literally is a potential terrorist? And only someone who thinks of the text as not literal, but as metaphorical or figurative, is better suited to civic life and the tolerance it calls for?

    How, one may ask, does the literal reading of religious texts translate into hijacking, murder, and terrorism?

    See also essays on this site by Olivier Roy, Tariq Modood, Robert Hefner, and Timur Kuran addressing aspects of Islam and Muslim societies.

    Some may object that I am presenting a caricature of what we read in the press. After all, is there not less and less talk of the clash of civilizations, and more and more talk of the clash inside civilizations? Is that not the point of the articles I referred to earlier, those in The Spectator and The New York Times? After all, we are now told to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims. Mind you, not between good and bad persons, nor between criminals and civic citizens, who both happen to be Muslims, but between good Muslims and bad Muslims.

    We are told that there is a fault line running through Islam, a line that divides moderate Islam, called genuine Islam, and extremist political Islam. The terrorists of September 11, we are told, did not just hijack planes; it is said that they also hijacked Islam, meaning genuine Islam!

    Here is one version of the argument that the clash is inside – and not between – civilizations. It is my own construction, but it is not a fabrication. I think of it as an enlightened version, because it does not just speak of the other, but also of self. It has little trace of ethnocentrism. This is how it goes.

    Islam and Christianity have one thing in common. Both share a deeply messianic orientation. Each has a conviction that it possesses the truth. Both have a sense of mission to civilize the world. Both consider the world beyond a sea of ignorance, one that needs to be redeemed. Think, for example, of the Arabic word al-Jahaliya, which I have always known to mean the domain of ignorance.

    This conviction is so deep-seated that it is even found in its secular version, as in the old colonial notion of “a civilizing mission,” or in its more racialized version, “the White Man’s Burden.” Or simply, in the 19th century American conviction of a “manifest destiny.”

    On the same SSRC website, you can also check out Arjomand’s “Can Rational Analysis Break a Taboo?”

    And here is the military’s take on “the tribal”:

    In which we learn that “tribal organizations are the basis of Iraqi society.” As I mentioned in a post last week, from the 1950s until the 1990s, tribal affiliation and identification was not legal for political/governance processes in Iraq. Saddam resurrected a new, politicized version of “the tribe” to save his own sorry ass when the sanctions went into effect after the Iraqis were routed from Kuwait.

    On a more peevish and personal note, it’s mind-boggling to turn on the television or the radio and hear, finally, after all this time, anthropologists talking about the Middle East, but not in the way that most anthropologists who would consider themselves well-versed in the ethnography of the Middle East would talk.


  26. Aside from general views on this issue, one thing I don’t like is how it is sometimes portrayed in the media. I saw on CNN a lead in which said something like, guess who’s come out of their ivory towers and become the US military’s most powerful weapon.

    no no no no no

  27. Bravo “Iraqis are from Mars?”. The problem of course is not (only) that “culture” is used as a resource by the military or by the government; this is not unprecedented. The problem is that a hardened, fetishized category of “culture” is being operationalized to cloak underlying issues of power, inequality, representation, and violence. “Culture” — as used by McFate et al. — precludes self-interrogation, shielding us from examining in any detail the intersection our own “culture” has with “theirs” (that is, the other side of the equation, the role of the US in the conflict) and displacing both blame and responsibility for a solution onto the Other.

  28. Great piece, “Iraqis are from Mars.”
    In this connection, the argument voiced elsewhere that the anthropologist’s intervention brings down the death rate in the local population seems so off-base. Obviously, political efforts should go into stopping and preventing anything like the American wars in Iraq and Afganistan. If that is dismissed as utopian, by comparison ith the useful function of reducing the casauties of American power, we’re doomed– and I don’t mean just us, the discipline.
    Best from the “Old Left”

  29. “If that is dismissed as utopian, by comparison ith the useful function of reducing the casauties of American power”: I don’t see anyone here doing that.

    What is idiotic is the self-righteous posturing of folks who think that by signing petitions qua anthropologists they are going to make even a bit of difference. Politicians respect two thing, votes and money, and anthropologists, even if we were united, can’t deliver much of either. We are, as constituencies go, very nearly negligible.

    If people are serious about this, where is the united front? Where is the outreach to people in other disciplines or outside of academia? What does signing petitions on behalf of a population on the scale of a small town in Kansas amount to but what Tom Wolfe aptly labeled “radical chic”?

  30. bq. What HTS can do is distract people from the man behind the curtain. But then, Americans don’t like to look at him anyway. We continue to allow ourselves to be distracted from the atrocities committed in our name, and with our money.

    Yet, this suggests to me that the problem _is_ culture, but it is just that the problematic culture is American and that it is the _Americans_ (not the Muslims or whoever) with the cultural blinders on, and that it is the Americans who exhibit odd irrationalities that require explaining. Like their continuing refusal to acknowledge the fact that if there were nothing underneath Iraq and its neighbors except for sand, _none_ of this would be happening. We need teams of anthropologists from smarter countries to come to America and research the problem of how your average American can so easily be duped.

  31. [quote]
    … displacing both blame and responsibility for a solution onto the Other.

    I am in agreement with your main point. The US has not, but needs to, engage in a self-critical examination. Especially its leadership (or leadersheep as the case may be).

    But your statement above is a bit one sided. After all, anthropologists are not being called in because the “natives” don’t get it, but because the Americans don’t get it. The examples given in the news are things like, soldiers wanting to dig wells to help make friends with a community and an anthropologists telling these soldiers that doing so might cause conflicts within that community. That is hardly a displacement of blame on the other.

    Any specific examples of anthropological activities in HTS that qualify as displacing the blame and responsibility on the other? Can we get this discussion down into something more concrete?

  32. Grizzly, you know, maybe some anthropological research would be helpful here in the US. Though I am not certain that we want to suggest that there are “good” cultures and “bad” or “problematic” cultures. It is just SO culture-and-personality studies, which is very Margaret Mead/Ruth Benedict. And we know they were on War Dept payroll when they cranked those puppies out, right? Anyway, even if culture-and-personality isn’t itself part of the psy-ops built by anthropologists to shore up American hegemony, it’s out of fashion, theoretically speaking.
    But, you make a good point. Maybe “we Americans” need teams of anthropological researchers to come. But not from “smarter countries.” Maybe just from countries where the citizens do not have a vested interest in American hegemony. But then, as “Iraqis are from Mars?” points out, those scholars exist, many of them are extremely intelligent, I’m sure some of them wouldn’t mind studying Americans through the quality optic of rigorous ethnographic study, and many of them CANNOT GET VISAS.
    But, who is going to fund and/or give research clearance to that anthropology graduate student from, I don’t know, Makerere University in Kampala. Not only is it REAL HARD for 25 year-old grad students from Uganda to not only show up in the US with a massive check from the Ugandan equivilant of Fulbright (because there isn’t one: Fulbright is a gift from the Cold War) and apply for a research visa (it’s hard enough to get a visa to study at an American grad school), full professors who are famous public intellectuals in other parts of the world have a hard time, too. Sometimes it’s Campus Watch that gets them. Sometimes their visa gets revoked. And God help the Muslim (this is not a CULTURE people, it’s a GIANT WORLD RELIGION), who writes as an openly practicing Muslim! Look at Tariq Ramadan. But then he’s aprofessor of religious studies.
    And the scholars that haven’t been harassed, excluded, denied tenure, etc (this is well documented people, I’m not making it up), OFTEN DON’T GET READ. How many people have read Mahmood Mamdani’s very relevant, very well written, very interesting book? (King-Irani has, who else?) You know, Mamdani has an endowed chair in anthropology and political science at Columbia, and was the director of CODESRIA, and presented at the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize Symposium.

    This leads to the ONE quibble I have with “Iraqis are from Mars?” comment: THERE IS NO CURTAIN, THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES.

  33. Speaking from the middle-aged Left, I don’t think the discipline is doomed, or the country, either, when I see lively, engaged, and smart discussions and comments like the ones here on Savage Minds. We are not going to change things by signing petitions. That’s not how things work and anthropologists who don’t grasp this have got to do some ethnography of their own country and it’s political system. But it does not take money alone to reach the political elite. Good old fashioned street-level organizing is all that is needed, and if anthropologists or other scholars are to be lauded for coming out of the ivory tower, it should be for that: engaging with the various and growing groups and organizations in the US who know something is very rotten in the heart of our own society and its bloody footprint in the wider world. Maybe at the upcoming AAA’s we should talk about starting our own HTTs to understand and address the problems and assumptions that lead Americans to let a leadersheep like the one we have now put tens of millions of people at risk, desecrate the constitution, and drive the nation into debt.

  34. Peanut said:
    “And the scholars that haven’t been harassed, excluded, denied tenure, etc (this is well documented people, I’m not making it up), OFTEN DON’T GET READ. How many people have read Mahmood Mamdani’s very relevant, very well written, very interesting book? (King-Irani has, who else?) You know, Mamdani has an endowed chair in anthropology and political science at Columbia, and was the director of CODESRIA, and presented at the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize Symposium.”

    Mamdani’s book is fabulous, and better yet: a joy to read. He did not go to the Judith Butler school of expository writing. His work is wide ranging and makes connections that we rarely see in academic writing or the media: Rwanda, Military discources, US media representations of Muslims and Islam, the link between what the CIA did in Afghanistan and what the 19 9-11 hijackers did in NYC.

    As for the banning and silencing of people in academe, it really exists and it really dampens public debate and discourse, and thus, harms the practice of effective citizenship. For those of you who don’t know about it, check out Daniel Pipes’ McCarthy-esque, where, I guess I should be proud to say, I have my own web page.

    We have a Task Force for Middle East Anthropology to counter this sort of dangerous nonsense, and last fall we produced “Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility after 9/11: A Handbook for Scholars and Teachers”, which in the long run should do a hell of a lot more than a petition to save the discipline from doom.
    You can download the Handbook for free at this URL:

  35. quote
    where the citizens do not have a vested interest in American hegemony

    Of course. But they probably have a vested interest AGAINST US hegemony. How much better is that?

    People here are still refusing to talk about concrete examples, btw, of how anthropologists are hurting folks in the middle east by participating in HTS.

  36. Why is it always necessary to slag off Judy Butler when complementing someone else’s prose, Laurie? That was a gratuitous dis, especially when Butler has made important public “critiques”: about the legal tactics the Bush regime.

    Peanut: I was thinking of smarter countries like Sweden or Japan, maybe even Canada. But even academics from rich, non-suspect (read: non-Muslim) countries are having a tough time getting into the US these days, so you’re right. But then, the US scholars who do get read and who do critique, end up getting bitched about by the likes of Laurie. Go figure.

    Let’s speculate for a second or two and work through some of the mixed metaphors of this thread. For example, who is the man behind _Iraqi’s are from Mars’s_ curtain? Is it the same emperor Peanut refers to? I mean, no the emperor is definitely _not_ wearing any “clothes”: . His naked idiocy is out there for all to see. So maybe Bush isn’t the emperor, nor the man behind the curtain. Maybe Bush is the curtain itself. That is, the distraction. From what does he distract? Vested interests? Oil money? Is that what we’re saying?

    If the emperor has no clothes, what is _wrong_ with Americans that they neverthless can’t see it? Are we talking about repression? I mean, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, and _neither is anyone else!_ What else would explain the lack of a widespread movement to impeach Bush and reform their government? Like, do Americans want to repress the ugliness of what their country is doing or the ugly principles (such as profit) that their country is really all about? I mean, do they fail to notice themselves driving their Expeditions across Lake Washington everyday to their nice jobs at Microsoft? Can they not see themselves buying gigantomobiles known as RVs in order to take their 1000-dollar pure bread pets to agility meets that they record digitally and replay later watch on their new flat screens?

    I am inclined to think this is all some kind of clusterfuck involving both cognitive rot wrought by a TV-and-Prozac-adled culture that would rather worry about Britney Spears’s brazilian than about things like the soldiers coming home with their faces melted off AND involving some reactionary psychic defensive formation that acts to repress their own guilt in creating this mess through the act of voting for a monkey (or passively allowing him to be annointed president).

    So we still need an account of why Mamdani or others are neither heard nor consequential in US public discourse. I mean, McFate thinks that Afghans are “smart” because, as IAFM points out, they can visibly distinguish arm badges on soldiers. Has it never occurred to her that Afghan anthropologists might have actually TAUGHT: in prestigious US anthropology programs? Laurie King-Irani and others elsewhere on this website are right to point out the complete absurdity and the base racism that seems to characterize the way in which McFate et al imagine the Muslim other. I reiterate the idea that the primitive, tribal, and irrational culture that needs decoding is the one emanating from the so called ‘homeland’ crossing from ‘sea to shining sea.’

  37. If you are outside of academe, if you have not taken graduate classes on social theory, you are not going to read more than a paragraph of Judith Butler’s writing. Do I admire her for being a genius, and more to the point, a genius who takes the political risks of speaking out about things that too many are scared to broach? You bet. But the point was that if we want to communicate with non-anthropologists, non-academics, the prose of a Mamdani is preferable, and it is not so hard to write about serious, complicated, dire issues from critical perspectives in a way that someone with a BA or a high school diploma can understand.

    And if memory serves me, Judith and Homi B have been “roasted” in the academic world in a good natured way for the opacity of their texts.

    Wow, there are a lot of really sensitive people on Savage Minds. Debate and expression of opinion can get a little rough, you know. I am sure I have not intentionally insulted anyone or slighted them in my posts. We are talking about taking our knowledge “to the streets” and enriching and revitalizing citizen discourse. And if you think getting folks in a Union local or a church basement or an NAACP meeting to plough through some of the writing we in academe churn out, let me tell you, it’s not going to happen.

    My point was that different audiences require different registers of discourse. This is not a snobbish or elitist statement. If anything, I recoil from academic elitism. Tribally speaking (okay, this is satire, folks, don’t get upset), I come from a long line of blunt-talking Irish smart asses who enjoy satire. And I’m proud of it.

    That being said, if I have offended, I am sorry, but consider the gist of my points about effective, clear, and engaging communication with people who are being snookered into thinking that anthropology’s main utility is in fighting the war on terror. We can problematize this discourse in the general public, we can encourage people to question underlying assumptions and the interests and contexts in which they are embedded. And we can do it without having to distribute decoder rings to audiences outside of the academy. I think it’s called being a public intellectual. Entering the fray of public debate runs the risk that one’s feathers will be ruffled occasionally. Personally, I find this bracing and fun.

    If we could cross Steven Colbert and Judith Butler, another world would be possible….



  38. Re: visa issues, alien exclusion, and “chill”

    A new piece in the New York Times discusses Tariq Ramadan’s exclusion from the United States. Read more about it here:
    Please note that Tariq Ramadan is Swiss professor of philosophy, and his exclusion prevented him from taking a professorship he had been offered at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

  39. Dear Marshall:

    Simply, thank you to open this important debat.

    French anthropologist, as many other ones, have been chocked by these revealations from US and United Kingdom Press.

    Best regards.

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