On September 22, 2006, Iran was supposed to attack Israel and perhaps the entire Western world. And why precisely on this specific day? Because it is the 27th day of the month of Rajab (in the year 1427, according to the Muslim calendar), the same day Mohammed ascended to heaven on his legendary horse Buraq. And why attack on this day? Because this is what the well-known Orientalist Bernard Lewis said. One could have dismissed this prophecy with a grin had it not aroused a dispute among a number of renowned scholars, had respected newspapers (like the Wall Street Journal) not published it prominently and had statesmen not regarded it as intelligence requiring study.
Lewis, 90, "the prophet from Princeton," is considered the founding father of the scientific field that engaged in the study of Islam and the Arab world, and most Orientalists, their students and their students' students are in one way or another considered the bearers of his legacy. Lewis still enjoys great prestige, and his influence is felt in the White House. There would be no reason to address this baseless forecast by Lewis if it were not for the great importance in understanding the intellectual world of those engaged in the study of the Orient or in the culture of "the other" in general. This is because these people are very influential on the policies of many states, including Israel, and sometimes their words even become self-fulfilling prophecies. There are also other schools, but in regard to Islamic studies the Lewis school is very dominant, and it is worthwhile examining some of its overt and hidden assumptions.
One of these assumptions is that the culture of "the other," like "our" culture, is unique and cannot be compared to another culture. Thus, the scholars who engage in the study of Islam and the Arab world are exempt from the need to familiarize themselves with the cultural and political knowledge that has accumulated in the social sciences during the past generations, and their analyses and explanations are made within closed bubbles. For example, in this discipline there is almost no research comparing Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism. Thus, we forget that one of the first people to define the current "global" conflict as a war of religion was President George W. Bush, who even used the Christian expression "crusade."
Another assumption characterizing the approach of these experts is that they ignore the lack of uniformity in the Muslim world. The Orientalists know very well that among the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world, there are hundreds of sects and streams that disagree on almost everything and wage cultural wars. But these experts guard this like a secret within the fraternity. There are at most Sunnis and Shi'ites, and Islam is otherwise portrayed as a homogenous entity wholly interested in wiping out the West, and especially the Jews.
Among other rifts, Arabs are divided between secularists, religious fundamentalists and ordinary believers who keep the tradition at various levels of strictness and in accordance with the interpretation of the local religious authority. In recent decades, most of the religious wars have been waged between Muslims demanding an Islamic state and secular regimes such as those in Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Iraq. It is strange, for example, that when President Bush named the Saddam Hussein-bin Laden connection as one of the reasons for invading Iraq, the Arabists did not remind him that the Ba'ath regime in Iraq (and Syria) is the sworn enemy of fundamentalists like al-Qaida, and vice versa. Collaboration between Syria and Iran in their support for Hezbollah is limited in time and place, and stemmed from Syrian policy against Israel.
Most of those studying Islam and Arab cultures come from the field of classical history, which emphasizes texts way more than the contexts in which these texts were written or spoken, or how they were interpreted in different periods. In every religion and ideology one can find terrible expressions about the "other" as well as the opposite, and gaps between ideology and practice. In short, we must be wary of uncritically adopting the views of experts, even if they are professors at Princeton.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now