Giant Misunderstandings

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

Giant Misunderstandings

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

Giant Misunderstandings
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 15 2001 12:18 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2


Dear Judith, Geraldine, and both Chrises,


I was relieved to be done with this "Book Club," having posted two long and suitably bookish entries on Karen Armstrong and Bernard Lewis. Neither author really ought to excite controversy, in my opinion—they spend far more time on the pre-modern period than on anything in any living person's lifetime. But now I have to come back to fend off Judith's serial distortions of my position and to answer a question from Chris Caldwell.

My rejoinder to the club last week was so mild that I'm surprised it excited Judith's reaction, which I think we can safely categorize as bilious. And I'm sorry to be put in this position because I so enjoy her writing on other subjects.

What exactly did I say? Simply these shocking words: that our club was veering toward "a reductionist position" on Islam and that "too easy denunciations of the Arab/Muslim worldview do little to help the problem." I purposefully named no names, because I thought it was a group problemthat we were all wildly generalizing about Islam, which happens to be a complex religion, though you'd have trouble finding evidence of that in a book as simple as Armstrong's.  

But Judith's intuition was right that I thought she was the worst offender. It was not just that she persistently failed to distinguish between "Arab" and "Muslim" in her Armstrong reviewBernard Lewis tells us that first thing we need to do is get our terminology right. It was the malevolence that entered the review when she went after Armstrong as the latest version of Menace 2 Society. I mean, that's giving Armstrong way more credit than she deservesher book is boring, but I don't think western civilization is going to keel over as a result.  

I also thought that Judith overstated the danger of Armstrong's Israel position. My critique was simply that it was ludicrously shorttwo sentences. Judith feels that it represents something far more sinisterthe Arab party line!

Let's read it in full:

In 1948 the Arabs of Palestine lost their homeland to the Zionists, who set up the Jewish state of Israel there, with the support of the United Nations and the international community. The loss of Palestine became a potent symbol of the humiliation of the Muslim world at the hands of the Western powers, who seemed to feel no qualms about the dispossession and permanent exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

It's true, there's an edge to the use of the word "Zionist" nowadaysbut it's historically accurate to use in a discussion of the 1940s. And obviously the words "feel no qualms" imply some disapproval. But let's courageously face the fact that the creation of Israel did result in a lot of homelessness, and if there ever is a meaningful peace, it will address that issue along with a lot of others that are very clearly understood by the Israeli and Palestinian governments. Objecting to a phrasing this innocuous doesn't help anybody. Fortunately, I have some very good news: Israel is strong enough to survive even without the intervention of the Slate Book Club.

What else did Judith get wrong? Well, she started her latest posting with the assumption that I had not read the Armstrong book (that claim has since been deleted). Not only did I read it, I agreed with her that it sucked. It's precisely because I read it that I'm responding to her overreaction. She also says that I think only well-read historians like Lewis are allowed to comment on Islam. I don't think anything of the sort. I may be a historian, but I'm not well-read on Islam, which is why I wanted to join this Book Club: to learn something. Now more than ever, I think it's a patriotic duty to understand what Islam is and is notand I dislike shrill anti-Islamic generalizations as much as I dislike shrill pro-Islamic generalizations.

Bringing in Hannah Arendt? That's way harsh! How can anyone argue against her? In fact, I profoundly agree with Judith's important point that we have to fight evil as we understand it and that too many academics shrink from that fight. But I like to think that Arendt would understand the importance of truth at a hard moment like this—because that's exactly what the Nazis attacked before attacking everyone else. Of all people, book reviewers should understand their responsibility to the word. I'll repeat what I said in my first posting: It's precisely when emotions are high that we need to get our facts right.

True, there is a lot of nauseating denial and self-pity in the Arab and Muslim worlds. There are also heroic moderates who need our help, in every country. And there are nations like Nigeria and Jordan and Turkey and Indonesia that are clearly far from perfect, but at least have people who are trying to build better governments than they had in the past or than their neighbors still have.  If we blindly assume that all Muslims think in a certain way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and gives power to the fundamentalists trying to destroy those governments and our own.  

I've gone on too long, but I wanted to get to Chris Caldwell's hilarious suggestion that I, as a historian, was required to weigh in on the B. Lewis/E. Said debate. Since when do historians take a stand on anything? We're invertebrates, ranked somewhere around mollusks on the phylogenetic scale.  

But I'll do as he likes with a classic dodge, though sincere: I like both of them, though I think Lewis is a smoother read. It's unfortunate that they despise each other because I enjoyed the Lewis I read this week, and I think Orientalism is an important book (far more important than comes across in Emily Yoffe's gushing piece on Lewis). If Said commits inaccuracies, he still says something important: that Westerners often fail to understand the internal complexities of "the East" as they superimpose their own agendas on top of it. Does that sound familiar? I think he and Lewis are a good pair, to be honest. Together, they prove that Islam has never understood the West very well, and we have never understood it either.