Tag Archives: Middle East

Israeli Assemblages

This article was making the rounds a couple of days ago so I thought I would repost it here:

“The Art of War”:http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the_art_of_war/

I asked Naveh why Deleuze and Guattari were so popular with the Israeli military. He replied that ‘several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaux became instrumental for us […] allowing us to explain contemporary situations in a way that we could not have otherwise.’

My Thoughts on Anthropologists in the Military

With all the discussion about Anthropologists in the military on this blog, I’ve had a long time to think about it. So I figure I should finally have the guts to put my cards on the table and say where I stand on this issue. While its seems that some colleagues on both the left and the right think that this is a clear-cut case of “you are either with us or against us,” I actually think that there are some very complicated issues here which warrant the discussion we’ve been having. I hope that this attempt at formulating my own position will help further that discussion.

True, for anti-imperialist commie pinkos like myself, it initially seems as if its an open-and-shut case. Anthropologists shouldn’t be working with the military. Period. However, even if that’s how some of us feel deep-down, I think we have a moral obligation to articulate the ethical basis for our objections. Since it seems as if Anthropologists in the military are going to be a fact of life for some time to come, we also owe it to our colleagues to begin to articulate our objections as clearly as possible so that we can all work towards finding common ground.

Continue reading

Rage against the Machine

I was thinking about recent discussions on Savage Minds, from Laura’s posts on anthropology and torture, to the petition posted by Oneman when I heard this story on NPR’s On the Media. It discusses how music is being used in interrogations at Guantanamo.

The piece is relevant to Laura’s posts in that the use of music is based on the Army’s own cultural theories about Muslims:

the music that was picked was picked partially because it was aggressive and loud, and it was also meant to be insulting to a Muslim. A lot of very devout Muslims don’t believe they, you know, are allowed to listen to music at all, let alone sort of Western music.

The broadcast, together with a followup piece, also touched on how musicians have reacted to the use of their music in interrogations. This includes efforts to sue the US Government for royalty payments as a kind of protest. The different attitudes of the two bands discussed by David Peisner is interesting. The bassist for Drowning Pool said:

kids in America pay to listen to music. You know, if the worst thing that happens to these guys who are detained that, you know, that they get blasted with loud music for a few hours, I don’t see what the harm is, especially if we might be able to prevent a future terrorist attack.

While the members of Rage Against the Machine “sent letters to the State Department and the Armed Forces to try and stop this from happening.”

I wonder how current debates on this blog would be recast if discussed in terms of music. Would signing a petition against the use of music in interrogation somehow restrict the artistic freedom of musicians? Would failure to sign such a petition meant that artists whose work was used by the military were somehow complicit? Is the really interesting anthropological question the theory of culture in which loud music is considered fun for American youth but torture for Muslims? These are complex issues and I thought it might be interesting to look at them from another angle.

Rosen and Said

The excellent (but poorly advertised, on the Internet anyway) Boston Review is currently running “a review by Lawrence Rosen”:http://bostonreview.net/BR32.1/rosen.html of Robert Irwin’s book on Said. I’ve “discussed the Said-Irwin thang before”:/2006/12/10/edward-said-and-the-oppositional-canon/ as something that pretty much all anthropologists should keep up on, given the way that Said has become so central to the canon. Lawrence Rosen — a student of Geertz from the Morocco phase — has had a distinguished career (although not very similar to his contemporary Paul Rabinow) worrying out the interpretive end of law and anthropology and the Middle East.

The thing that I like about Rosen’s review is that it charts a middle course between Said and Irwin. It is tempting to diss and dismiss both of thee authors since there seems to be so little middle ground between not only their arguments, but their more general sensibilities. I like Rosen’s willingness to point out the way that Said’s shortcomings can be understood as part of a larger ‘unfinished’ project rather than as errors that doom the enterprise from the start. Above all, it ends by shifting the discussion away from the narcissistic examination of the careers of Western scholars and back to the issue at hand — what must be done for Standard Average European scholars to understand the Standard Average Muslim?

Iraqi Modernity

Juan Cole has recently argued that the Sunni-Shiite split in Iraq is actually a very recent phenomenon. Here is a quote taken from Crooked Timber (linking to this post):

I see a lot of pundits and politicians saying that Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have been fighting for a millennium. We need better history than that. The Shiite tribes of the south probably only converted to Shiism in the past 200 years. And, Sunni-Shiite riots per se were rare in 20th century Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites cooperated in the 1920 rebellion against the British. If you read the newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, you don’t see anything about Sunni-Shiite riots. There were peasant/landlord struggles or communists versus Baathists. The kind of sectarian fighting we’re seeing now in Iraq is new in its scale and ferocity, and it was the Americans who unleashed it.

It is tempting to see battles we can’t solve as intractable divisions rooted in tradition, despite their modernity, but doing so often obscures more than it clarifies.

However, I was intrigued by a very different culturalist argument about Iraq from today’s Christian Science Monitor, this one grounded in some very interesting data.

One central element of the Iraqi social fabric that most Americans know little about is its astonishing rate of cousin marriage. Indeed, half of all marriages in Iraq are between first or second cousins. Among countries with recorded figures, only Pakistan and Nigeria rate as high. For an eye-opening perspective about rates of consanguinity (roughly equivalent to cousin marriage) around the world, click on the “Global Prevalence” map at www.consang.net.

Continue reading

Oriental Open Access

Last night I was searching for some information about a new volume a friend of mine edited that was recently published by the “Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/, best known as the home of Indiana Jones or Robert Braidwood, depending on who you are. I not only found the volume, but discovered that the OI is providing “it’s entire catalog”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/PUB/SRC/Elec_Publications.html open access. This is great news. Philology is a very small discipline and the dilemmas of scholarly publishing are nowhere as clearly articulated as when your sales rep is trying to pitch “The Hittite Dictionary, Volume S, Fascicle 1, sa- to saptamenzu”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/PUB/SRC/CHD/CHDS.html to librarians from small liberal arts colleges with rapidly-disappearing budgets.

For anthropologists who are detail junkies, these publications are all fantastic to page through. Many of the entries in the Hittite dictionary are incredibly Borgesian for someone who doesn’t study Hittite (“said of the thigh of a sheep in a quasi-recipe: ‘the client kisses the thigh of the sheep which has been cut open (and) stuffed (with pomegranite and chopped meat)'”). But a few of the pieces from the press articulate very well with the work of non-philological anthropologists including, most obviously, archaeologists and middle eastern types. “Changing Social Identity with the Spread of Islam: Archaeological Perspectives”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/PUB/SRC/OIS/1/OIS1.html looks good, for instance. And of course the whole point of writing this entry is really to plug my friend’s book, “Margins of Writing, Origins of Cultures”:http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/PUB/SRC/OIS/2/OIS2.html, which is the proceedings of a conference which was unique for combining the work of anthropologists (mostly Chicagoans like Michael Silverstein, John Kelly, etc.) with that of philologists (Theo van den Hout, Peter Machinist, and Seth Sanders, the editor and my homie). It’s sort of Benedict Anderson in the ancient middle east — language and ethnic identity at the birth of alphabetic writing. Very cool and highly reccomended if go for those sorts of issues and are ready for the power of a fully armed and operation philological monograph.

The Invention of the World: Islam in the West

While it is indeed possible (and at least fun to think) that trained otters in the service of Chinese explorers were the first to discover the Americas from the East, an article on Al-Jazeera’s website details the influence of Muslim scientists on the discovery of the New World from the West — and asserts the possibility that Andalusia Muslims may have gotten here well before Columbus. Whether the latter claim is true or not, certainly the importance of Muslim scholarship to Columbus’ voyage cannot be overestimated; Muslim navigation was the state-of-the-art in the 15th century and for centuries before, providing most of the navigation tools, such as the astrolabe, that Columbus and his crew relied on. By the 9th century, Muslims had proven that the Earth was a sphere, and had worked out its circumference to within 200 km (Columbus apparently knew about this work, but substituted lower figures to help make his case that the voyage he had proposed was at all feasible).

The impact of Muslim science and culture, and especially of the Al-Andalusian culture that dominated the Iberian peninsula between the 8th and 12th centuries, on the development of Western culture is little known and even less talked about. The treatment of Muslim Spain in Western Civ books tends to consist solely of the Song of Roland and, centuries later, the defeat of Granada and subsequent expulsion of Muslims (and Jews) from Spain. In between, a mighty civilization emerged, flourished, and ultimately declined — one that I am beginning to think contributed more to “Western culture” than the Romans ever did. Besides creating a stewpot of cultural and scholastic achievement in its own right, Muslim Spain served as a conduit for the teachings of the Muslim world at a time when Muslim learning was at its peak. For instance, the Catholic Church was utterly transformed by the study of Aristotle in Arabic translation; likewise, the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping by Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli relied on the introduction of negative numbers by Muslims (who themselves had learned from Hindu mathematicians centuries earlier) and the al-jabr (“algebra”) of Al-Khwarizmi (from whose name we also get the word “algorithm”). The work of Ibn Rashid (Averroës) — who also gave us Aristotle — and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) form the foundation of Western medical knowledge; the poetry and dialogues of and about Muslim philosophers and warriors (and non-Muslims deeply embedded in Andalusian culture, such as El Cid, from the Arabic el Sayyid, “leader” or “chief”) laid the groundwork for the birth of the novel (in Spain, of course!); and the pointed arch essential to Gothic monumental architecture was adopted from Muslim architects.
Continue reading

Update: Susanne Osthoff Has Been Freed

Susanne Osthoff, the German archaeologist and relief worker kidnapped in Iraq three weeks ago, has been freed and is reportedly in sound health, according to German authorities. Her driver is also expected to be freed shortly. Details are still sketchy — I imagine more will be forthcoming as Osthoff makes her way home to begin her recovery — but for now it’s simply a relief to know she is ok.


Few people know that before they made King Kong in 1933, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack were documentary filmmakers. Their first film was Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, made in 1925, made just a few years after Nanook. The film documents the harrowing migration of the Bakhtiari in Western Iran.


I regret not having had a chance to see this film. Fortunately, in honor of Peter Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong remake it will be screened on Turner Classic Movies next Tuesday. Here is their description of the film:
Continue reading

Aleph Bet

I recently wrote a post on my other blog pondering how the Devanagari alphabet came to be ordered in such a rational way. So I was excited to read about this exciting archaeological find, described in the New York Times as “the oldest reliably dated example of an abecedary – the letters of the alphabet written out in their traditional sequence.”

Just what language these letters represent is a matter of some debate, as is archaeologist Ron E. Tappy’s literal use of the Bible, but it seems like a spectacularly important discovery nonetheless.

More links over at Language Log where you can also see a picture.

Jews, Israel, and Anti-Semitism

Dennis Prager, a Jewish columnist and talk-show host, blames the university for instilling anti-Semitism in today’s Jewish students — and, along the way, destroying both Judaism and America. "How’s that work?" I hear you ask. Well, Prager doesn’t say directly, but those of us who have been smacked with the working end of the "anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism" argument can basically work it out. See, universities teach something called "critical thinking skills" which, when applied to contemporary Israeli policies, tends to make Israel look like less of a hero among nations and more like just another state playing geopolitical games in order to maintain and extend its hegemony. Since this sort of "extension of state power" runs counter to a) Americans’ basic ideology of independence and freedom, and b) well-founded Jewish concerns about the risks of powerful states and their use of power, a lot of Jewish-American students come to develop a distrust of Israel, even a distaste for its politics.

That’s the easy part, though — to get from there to anti-Semitism you have to follow a very particular train of thought. First, you have to agree that a criticism of Israeli policies is akin to a criticism of Israel as a nation. Then you have to accept that Israel is not only the best but the only possible realization of Zionism, so that to oppose Israel is to oppose Zionism. And finally, you have to believe that Zionism is not only the best but the only possible manifestation of Judaism, so that to be anti-Zionist is to be anti-Semitic. Each of these assumptions is questionable, but Prager depends on all three to make his case. Here’s the money quote from Prager’s article:

Yet universities have become society’s primary breeding ground for hatred of Israel. This hatred is often so intense that the college campus has become a haven for people who use anti-Zionism to mask their anti-Semitism. Moreover, anti-Zionism itself is a form of anti-Semitism, even if some Jews share it. Why? Because anti-Zionism is not simply criticism of Israel, which is as legitimate as criticism of any country. Anti-Zionism means that Israel as a Jewish state has no right to exist. And when a person argues that only one country in the world is unworthy of existence — and that happens to be the one Jewish country in the world — one is engaged in anti-Semitism, whether personally anti-Semitic or not.

The first assumption, that non-support of Israel’s policies implies non-support of Israel’s "right to exist" (a much-bandied but not particularly well-grounded "right", it should be noted), is easily disposed of. After all, dozens of Israeli "refuseniks" (soldiers and officers who have refused to particpate in actions against Palestinains) have challenged Israel’s policies, ostensibly without denying their own right to exist. A large and growing contingent of Israeli leftists and pacifists, including groups such as Women in Black and New Profile have challenged their government’s actions and policies, again without apparently calling for an end to the Jewish state. For many Jewish liberals in the US and elsewhere, Israel’s Jewishness (or lack thereof) is no excuse for policies that would be condemned if enacted by any other nation.

Continue reading

Culture Talk

According to Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, author of the book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Americans are trapped in “Culture Talk,” a way of framing the problem of terrorism which assumes that culture was made

only at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic act. After that, it seems Muslims just conformed to culture. According to some, our culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates, so that all Muslims are just plain bad. According to others, there is a history, a politics, even debates, and there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. In both versions, history seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom of an antique people who inhabit antique lands. Or could it be that culture here stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity with rules that are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and mummified in early artifacts?

There are two versions of Culture Talk: the crude view that Islam as the enemy civilization, and a more subtle view of Islam as divided within itself (although this division is seen as unchanging over the course of Muslim history since the middle ages). Mamdani ascribes the first view to Samuel Huntington, whose 1993 article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” is widely cited by proponents of this view. However, Mamdani argues that Huntington’s article was little more than a caricature of Bernard Lewis’s 1990 “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” This earlier article forms the basis of the more nuanced version of Culture Talk.

Lewis both gestures towards history and acknowledges a clash within civilizations. … But Lewis writes of Islamic civilization as if it were a veneer with its essence an unchanging doctrine in which Muslims are said to take refuge in times of crisis.

Lewis ignores the important political and historical contexts of fourteen hundred years of history when he writes:

The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.

Continue reading

Our Algeria

I’ve been reading David Macey’s “biography of Frantz Fanon”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=ur2&camp=1789&tag=savageminds-20&creative=9325&path=ASIN/0312300425/qid=1118547796/sr=2-3/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_3 recently. One morning not too long ago I was sitting at my kitchen table sipping a glass of iced coffee (we do this in Honolulu), and reading about the use of aerial bombardment to instill terror in Algerians. From behind my house, coming out of the mountains, I heard the rumble of an airplane which grew in intensity. Soon it was a roar, and then it was shaking the house. My fiancée and I stared at each other, wordlessly wondering if we should run outside or dive under the table. I am good at keeping calm but the vast, angry envelope of sound wrapped itself around my brain and the enormity of it shot right through my conscious mind right into my bare, animal gut. We froze, realizing we didn’t know what we should do, or if there was anything to be done at all. Slowly, the sound receded as the jet headed out towards the ocean. I realized it was Memorial Day, and the jet was doing a fly over of the Punchbowl.

It’s hard to get very far away from the war in Iraq or the military in Hawai’i. The Punchbowl, the crater of an extinct volcano only a few block from my house, is home to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the final resting place of more than 45,000 of my country’s war dead. Military installations are everywhere. Members of my choir miss months of practice when they get shipped overseas, and I’ve already been to one service at my synagogue where I’ve found out that fellow congregants have died overseas.

Although comparing Iraq to Vietnam is a popular pastime, I’ve seen much less discussion of the similarities to the Algerian war. And this despite the fact that France’s long entanglement in Algeria is in many ways more similar to Iraq than what happened in Vietnam. Both Iraq and Algeria involve nominally secular but culturally Christian forces occupying Muslim countries. Both involve aggressors who had lost in Vietnam and were determined not to be humiliated again. Both were, in some sense, about fulfilling the exceptionalist self-understanding and civilizing impulse of their conquerors — the difference being that the French Declaration of the Rights of Man did not, as did the slightly older America constitution, restrict women, the poor, and people of color from voting. And finally, both wars involved a terrible betrayal of the ideals of the countries that prosecuted them as torture and the blatant disregard of human rights were visited upon a populace in the name of universal justice – although to be sure, France’s strategy of fighting insurgents made Abu Ghraib an official policy at the national level, while the US government knows better than to admit its torture is ever ‘official’. Iraq is our Algeria.

What strikes me most about Macey’s discussion of the war in Algeria were the writings of French anthropologists and psychologists writing about Muslims in Algeria in the period before the war. Consider this quote from a 1908 study:

The dogma of Islam was to spread with the speed of a contagious epidemic. Its progress has less to do with theology than with mental pathology… In a sense, the Koranic hordes spread a real epidemic madness, arms in hand

Or this one:

Islam does not bring with it any justification for its existence, because it is _destructive_. It neither creates nor produced anything, and therefore could not survive at all if it could not live parasitically on human groups that do work.

Or this one, from a 1956 booklet from the French army’s Psychological Service, designed to help French army officers understand Algeria:

One might find it surprising that the occupation of Algeria was not followed by a psychological conquest, and some regard the fact that the Muslim masses remain impermeable to our civilization and our customs as an argument against our methods. We should not, however, forget the enormous economic and social backwardness of a human mass that is constantly increasing, or that the diffusion of ideas is slow and often has little lasting effect; despite the efforts that have been made by our teachers, primary schools can have a liberalizing effect only if their influence is not resisted by sectarianism and fanaticism in the home. The West’s complex and abstract notions, and its spirit of tolerance are opposed by the simple and concrete imperatives of Islam.

Now, almost a half century later, we have quotes like “this”:http://www.stuffucanuse.com/bombing_commentry/muslims_hate_the_west.htm:

Few in the Middle East have a clue about the nature, origins, or history of democracy, a word that has no history in the Arab vocabulary, or indeed any philological pedigree in any language other than Greek and Latin and their modern European offspring. Democracy’s lifeblood is secularism and religious tolerance, coupled with free speech and economic liberty… We are militarily strong, and the Arab world abjectly weak, not because of greater courage, superior numbers, higher IQs, more ores, or better weather, but because of our culture.

Or “this”:http://www.citizensoldier.org/korantwo.html one:

The bottom line is that because Koran commands the killing of those who reject Islam, it only produces peace in a society where all non-Muslims have been killed! This makes Islam a form of social Russian roulette. Even if Islamic militants are not flying airplanes into office buildings, a democratic nation with a significant Muslim population can find that its laws are hijacked if the Muslims become politically active.

Perhaps I’m just naive to find the similarities between these passages so terribly troubling — I supposed that if I worked in the Middle East or lived on the mainland I’d be much more aware of this sort of thing. The questions is why I feel that my discomfort ought to be shared by everyone? This isn’t a question about my politics or my values — I realize that people have different values than I do, and that’s not going to change. But I have this strong feeling that anyone who reads these quotes should realize that they are just an unbelievably lousy description of one religion and rely on an understanding of the relationship of religion, society, and culture that isn’t worth two bits. As a person, I may (and do) feel outraged when I read these quotes. But I also feel a separate — although, to be sure, related — sense that these descriptions is Islam are terribly done.

This distinction between my personal opinions and my professional intuitions is an important one. Some people just hate Muslims. Fine. We have nothing to say to one another, there’s no ‘dialogue’ we can have with each other. There’s no accounting for taste. But even people who disagree with my politics have to agree with me when I make arguments about the nature of religion and society. Why? Well at one obvious level I’m a professor — they’re supposed to agree with me! We professors are the experts, the authorities, who are consulted in those brief, rare moments when our research specialties become a topic of public import. But this is obviously a red herring. We have this authority because people think that our work is accurate — that we have the answers. Ricoeur, rehashing Aristotle, once argued that in order for something to be true it must have not just a semblance, but a resemblance to reality. It is not enough that we appear to be expert (that we are authorities), but that our accounts of the world are substantively correct (that we are accurate).

Beyond our authority as professional knowers of humanity, anthropologists have the ability to convince others because we provide good data and more convincing reasons. Good and convincing according to who? To our interlocutors — ‘objective’ or not, they are robustly intersubjective. There is a way or arguing about facts and interpretations that we share with others that allows us to convince them that our position is better than theirs — indeed, without this agreement about the rules of the game we would not be able to disagree with them at all. As an ethnomethodologist might put it, the opposite of agreement is not misunderstanding, it is incoherence in interaction. It is ‘talking past’ one another.

This talking past each other can happen for many different reasons. People unfamiliar with how we undertake the mutual interplay of argument, assertion, and evidence will never be convinced by my anthropological arguments. The people I lived with in Papua New Guinea argued (constantly!), but not in a way that would make debates in the US about Islam intelligible. Equally — and importantly — I think it is possible for anthropologists to talk themselves right out of this debate as well. When we talk about anthropology as an inherently critical or destabilizing project that ‘teaches’ certain things (cultural relativism, etc.) they hear us saying “we openly admit our models of society are derived from our particular and partisan values rather than the other way around.” They begin to treat us the exact same way that we treat creationists whose ‘scientific’ arguments are transparently derived from their political agenda. When we admit ourselves to be fundamentally politicized we loose our legitimacy as interlocutors, and for good reason (of course, as an activist you might think the time for talking is long since past).

Of course many political differences rely on unstated models of the human condition — Lakoff, for instance, described the metaphors of childrearing that undergird contemporary politics in the US. A transformation in this underlying picture then affects our political position. If in principle we dislike the religiously intolerant, and Muslims are intolerant, we dislike Muslims. But once we learn something about Muslims and recognize most are not intolerant, then those same principles lead us to conclude that Muslims are ok. And, of course, what we care enough about to study about is shaped by what is on our minds at the moment. But I believe that the fact that we choose our research topics based on our interests, and that we revise our policies as our results come in means only that research and politics are connected, not identical.

As we struggle both to understand and judge events in our Algeria I can’t help but feel that a judicious anthropology — one disabused of comforting notions of scientistic objectivity, but still self-confident in its analytic power — has a valuable role to play in explaining to us what our world is like. Such a role would provide anthropology a voice to which even the authors of the quotes above would have to listen. But to go further — to tell others not merely how the world is, but to derive from that how it ought to be — would give us a voice whose self-certainty and lack of humility would be opposed to the quotes above, but identical in its poise.

The British in Mesopotamia

This is a bit of a scoop for Savage Minds. A student of a friend (who have not asked to be named here) doing archival work recently came across an extremely rare memoir by General Aylmer Haldane of his time as commander-in-chief of British forces in Iraq responsible for putting down the Iraqi insurrection against the British in 1920. He’s made “the entire book available”:http://www.dean.usma.edu/departments/history/web03/resources/resource%20pages/Mesopotamia/insurrection_mesopotamia.html in a series of public-domain PDFs. It is quite detailed ethnographically, and includes appendices with information on troop strengths, casualty figures, and so forth. This is not my area of specialty but I’m told is of genuine and important documentary value, and of course it’s relevant to our own situation today.