“Elite Competition, Religiosity, and Anti-Americanism in the Islamic World”: A Response
The article (titled above) by Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer, which was just published in the American Political Science Review (ASPR, Vol. 106, No. 2, May 2012) – a major political science journal – has already been promoted by Foreign Policy website. I read the abstract before having the chance to read the full article carefully. The abstract itself raised an alarm in my mind as it contained unusually wild generalizations about the underlying causes of “anti-Americanism”– what does that mean, anyway? But in American political science, generalizations about Arabs and Muslims are now common place, and they are in demand.
In fact, since September 11, there has been a rise of what I call “intruders on the field of Arab/Muslims studies,” and by that I refer to scholars who have no training in Middle East studies and no language skills, but who believe that their strong feelings about the subject (always against Arab political mood and in favor of Israel) qualify them to write about Islam and Arab politics. And major publishers are willing to publish the works of such scholars even if they woefully suffer from a variety of errors, fallacies and mistakes (see the last book by Steve Fish, Are Muslims Distinctive?). The plethora of public opinion surveys by Gallup, Pew, and Zogby among Muslims and Arabs have generated enough material for political scientists to jump on the opportunity to offer generalizations about Muslims.
I don’t know Blaydes and Linzer but I can surmise from reading their article that they are not trained in Middle East studies (or they are badly trained). I don’t think that they even know what Levant means. The entire article relies on not one Arabic, Persian or Turkish source. All the sources cited are English, and to study Moroccan public opinion, the authors decided to read two French language dailies. This is akin to reading two Chinese dailies in the US to measure American public opinion. Furthermore, the lack of familiarity of the authors with Middle East studies and academic literature is revealed shamefully through their cited literature. What do you do when the authors rely on Shirin Hunter for their examination of Islamic history?
The very premise of the article is familiar for anyone who has been reading Zionist literature on the Middle East for decades (Zionists, who never miss an opportunity to delude themselves that Arab and Muslim rejection of Israel can easily be resolved if Muslim and Arab leaders would stop blaming and faulting Israel). The authors of this article clearly operate from this same assumption: it is their thrust. And in their conclusion they also add the typical standard Zionist cliché: that the US won’t be able to deal or succeed in decreasing the anti-Americanism among Arabs, regardless of changes in foreign policy. It is very simple. You can forget about the jargon and the charts and the statistical formulae and jump to the conclusions to let the authors reveal their true intentions. Incidentally, Zionists have for years marshaled the same silly premise about something similar: they have argued that anti-Zionism among Arabs has nothing to do with Israeli crimes and occupation, but is the byproduct of Arab leaders’ agitation.
And the definitions employed by the authors are typically offered by non-experts on the Middle East. So the definition of anti-Americanism entails hostile acts or expression against a whole range of things American, including the “foreign policy, society, culture, and values of the United States” (p. 225). One has to stop and eagerly ask for a definition of the values of the US. What does that mean? I expect to read such terms in speeches by Bush, but not in an academic article in a political science journal. If one were to oppose abortion in the Middle East, for example, would one be opposing or supporting American values? It is not clear that the authors have an answer and it is not clear that they have thought those things through.
Their very brief discussion of anti-Americanism is so rushed (although theoretical matters are not their forte) and leaves more questions than answers. The authors are so unaware that modern anti-Americanism is a modern phenomenon related not only to the creation of the state of Israel but also to various US policies and wars in the Middle East. The authors are also unaware that the facets of anti-Americanism have been shaped and defined by largely secular forces, namely the Movement of Arab Nationalists and the various secular Arab nationalist and leftist forces beginning in the 1950s. Nasser, was in fact, behind the masses in this respect. And Nasser kept many of his dealings with the US secret because he was aware of the intense disapproval of his own popular base.
But what is anti-Americanism?
There is no such thing. The word connotes an essentialist rejection of all aspects of the US: something that has been substantially refuted by Zogby polls in the Arab world. Arabs are very clear in distinguishing between their admiration of things American (culture, technology and education) and their rejection of other things (wars, foreign policy and Islamophobia). The authors speak about anti-Americanism as if it is some fixed trend that can’t be affected by political developments: certainly Eisenhower’s stance in 1956 affected public attitudes toward the US at the time, and for that the man (wrongly) is fondly remembered by older generation of Arabs.
Grandly, the authors propose “a theory” (p. 225) but really merely propose a contention. They suggest that the struggle in Muslim societies (and they include a large pool of countries here, including Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Ivory Coast among a few Arab countries) exists between two groups – and only two groups because the authors can’t, even if their lives depended on it, identify conflicts in the Middle East or among Muslims outside of these two groups, namely, Islamists and secular reformers. This binary view of contemporary political conflict is so ridiculous that it basically places ruling families – in Morocco, which was discussed in the article, or in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or Oman or Jordan – in the category of secular reformers.
They fault the elites (and here they fail to provide a precise definition) for inflaming anti-Americanism for reasons (domestic) that have to do with their conflict with other rival groups. But this non-theory begs the question: if those elites rush to inflame or incite anti-Americanism for political gain, it means that they operate on the assumption that anti-Americanism is already prevalent among the people. So how can they be responsible for a phenomenon that they seems to cater to? And who are the members of the elite? If by that they mean the ruling families and their allies (as they clearly imply in the case of Morocco), then the ruling families have, if anything, been trying to reduce anti-Americanism. This can even be said about Islamists: public opinion in Egypt today, for example, is more anti-American than the official pronouncements of the president of Egypt. And the ability of unelected and often unpopular elites to shape public opinion is very limited: Anwar Sadat spent the last years of his rule trying with the help of his lackeys in the culture and media industry to improve the standing of the US in Egyptian eyes, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he achieved any success.
But you can’t take the authors seriously either because their evidence is flimsy or because of their political agendas. They consider the notion that the US uses its foreign aid to politically control countries as a mere perception that is not worthy of serious consideration (p. 226). And their passing reference to the Palestinian question is rather revealing of their biases. They talk of American “political” support for Israel, but don’t mention the military support (p. 226), and their talk about Jerusalem is so stuck on religious symbolism: they maintain that Muslims care about Palestinian rights because Jerusalem contains “important Muslim holy sites” (p. 227). I won’t be surprised if our authors mistook Jerusalem for Mecca and Medina. And they are set in their belief that strong anti-Americanism is associated with Islamism, when secular leftist defined the forms and contours of anti-Americanism. Nasserist secularists in Egypt are more anti-American (to use that word with trepidation, from a scholarly and analytical point of view) than Islamists of the Ikhwan and Salafi trends alike. They even think that Islamists invented the American enemy: as if dropping bombs on people’s heads, occupying lands and expressing religious and political hostility to Arabs are not hostile acts in themselves.
And their notion that levels of anti-Americanism are consistent or fixed is not solid: public views toward the US in Libya have rightly or wrongly dramatically shifted in the span of a year. It is not unreasonable to think that if the US were to impose sanctions on Israel, public Arab and Muslim views of the US would change overnight.
And their reference to the role of al-Jazeera is rather laughable. First, they decide that al-Jazeera is anti-American (their authority on that subject is a newspaper article by Fouad Ajami), and they consider al-Jazeera to be a domestic factor in the formation of anti-American attitudes. But al-Jazeera is controlled by the Qatari royal family, which is a client of the US. Al-Jazeera has been – for years – going out of its way to soften and even embellish its coverage of the US. US officials appear without interruption and without rival guests to expound on US positions on a variety of subjects. And Ajami is hardly an authority on that subject. The authors, who clearly don’t watch al-Jazeera, would not have known that the network has become increasingly pro-American over time. But the role of al-Jazeera in the treatment is rather fallacious: if al-Jazeera is a factor in contributing to anti-Americanism, what would account for anti-Americanism in places like Pakistan and Turkey where people are not being influenced by al-Jazeera, especially that most of the evidence that the authors marshal is derived from non-Arab countries? But they say that watching al-Jazeera is associated with negative views of the US. But most Arab people watch al-Jazeera, so how can one prevalence be responsible for another prevalence? Eating shawarma is very common among Arabs, and most Arabs hold hostile views toward the US, but that does not mean that shawarma is a domestic factor contributing to anti-Americanism.
But the author’s assumptions are set before they even proceed with their so-called theory formation. They subscribe rigidly and blindly to the view that struggle or conflict in the Middle East is largely one between “the more Westernized and the more traditional segments of the population” (p. 229). They read that in a book by Shirin Hunter. And their generalizations know no limit: they declare that the battle for local supremacy among Muslims has been won by “those who are more religious.” The authors have not yet read the results of the Libyan elections. And the predictive powers of their “theory” are rather bogus: they maintain that if “if a country’s Islamist leaders are especially anti-American in their rhetoric, then their religiously observant followers will receive and internalize those considerations, reporting stronger anti-American views.” (p. 230) How would that apply to Libya under Gaddafi and to Afghanistan under the Taliban?
The lack of knowledge of the authors is revealed when they test whether the distance from Jerusalem for countries reduces the level of anti-Americanism among Muslims (p. 237).
The three case studies in the article are the weakest parts because they show the basis for the author’s contention about the role of elites. They don’t seem to explain why a Turkish newspaper that is not identified with Islamists is more anti-American than the one identified with Islamists, and they ignore that the modernizers – in their lexicon – in Turkey were oppressive Turkish generals who closed the political system. And they rely on a typically vulgar Zionist definition of Turkish anti-Americanism where it becomes a “combination of old leftism and new Islamism” and then add that there is also a combination of “America-and Jew hatred.” So with that section, you conclude – if you are in agreement with the authors – that opposition to America is indeed anti-Semitic.
The American political science establishment has always been inhospitable to the study of the Middle East: the mention of Palestine can derail one’s academic career. The study of the politics of the Middle East is the kind of “political knowledge” that Edward Said talked about in Orientalism. It seems that there is a new standard for welcoming the study of the Middle East in American political science: the standard entails the presentation of old Zionist clichés about the Middle East, provided they are wrapped in jargon, statistics and references to Fouad Ajami.