Thursday, October 11, 2018

A well-loved tax collector

Tales of Medieval Islam.
By Michael Isenberg.

In my medieval Muslim murder mystery, The Thread of Reason, I recount the violent death of one “ben El the tax collector,” a protégé of the sultan’s vizier (i.e. prime minister) Nizam al-Mulk. “Despite his unfortunate choice of profession,” one of the characters tells us, “and despite being Jewish, he was well-loved in Basra.”

Ben El was a real-life figure, known to the history books as ibn Allah. Here’s an account of his demise from a medieval source, ibn al-Athir (1160-1233). The episode has some bearing on the debate between my left- and right-of-center friends as to how Jews were treated in medieval Islam. It shows that despite being second class citizens, they could nevertheless rise to prominent positions in the Islamic world and that when they came into conflict with Muslims, sometimes even the most highly-placed Muslim officials would take their side. With the possible exception of the sultan himself, there was none higher than Nizam al-Mulk:

Sultan Malikshah arrived in Khuzistan this year [1079-80] to go hunting. With him was Khumartegin and Gohara’in. They were both working to secure the death of Ibn Allah the Jew, the tax farmer of Basra, who was under the protection of Nizam al-Mulk and that was the reason why they were hostile to the Jew. The sultan ordered him drowned and this was done. For three days Nizam al-Mulk withdrew from public appearance and locked his door. Later he was advised to appear at the ceremonial parade, which he did. He gave a great feast for the sultan, during which he presented him with many things, but he criticized him for what he had done. The sultan made his excuses.

The position of the Jew had grown so great that when his wife died everyone in Basra, except the cadi, walked behind her bier. He had lived in great style and vast wealth.

From The Annals of the Seljuq Turks: Selections from al-Kamil fi’l-Tarikh of ‘Izz al-Din Ibn al-Athir, London: RoutledgeCurzon (2002), D.S.Richards, tr.

According to the text, Khumartegin and Gohara’in were motivated more by court politics than by any overarching hatred for Jews. About ten years after the death of ibn Allah, Gohara'in was involved in another incident involving a Jewish official which confirms that. But the later incident also shows that the Chosen People did have plenty of enemies in Islamic circles, despite their wealth and prominence (or more likely, because of it). I’ll recount that episode in a future post.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Professor Lewis Strikes Back

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls—t.
Part 5: Back to the Pilot.
By Michael Isenberg.

I began this series on Orientalism with the feud between Bernard Lewis and Edward Said. I’ve now come full circle and will wrap it up in the same vein.

Orientalism was a 1978 book by Professor Said, in which he argues that most Western scholarship on the Middle East is tainted: racist and in the service of the Armies of Imperialism. Among Western scholars, he singled out Mr. Lewis in particular. In a book chock full of attacks on the works of Orientalists, and even occasional praise for them, the attack on Lewis stands out as an attack on him personally, and an unusually bitter and abusive one at that:

Lewis is an interesting case to examine further because of his standing in the political world of the Anglo-American Middle Eastern Establishment is that of the learned Orientalist, and everything he writes is steeped in the “authority” of the field. Yet for at least a decade and a half his work in the main has been aggressively ideological, despite his various attempts at subtlety and irony. I mention his recent writing as a perfect exemplification [of an] Establishment Orientalist [whose work] purports to be objective, liberal scholarship, but is, in reality, very close to being propaganda against his subject material.


One would find this kind of procedure objectionable as political propaganda—which is what it is, of course—were it not accompanied by sermons on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian, the implication always being that Muslims and Arabs cannot be objective but that Orientalists like Lewis writing about Muslims and Arabs are, by definition, by training, by the mere fact of their Westernness. This is the culmination of Orientalism.

And again,

To look for a conscious, fair, and explicit judgment by Lewis of the Islam he has treated as he has treated it is to look in vain.

What are these "aggressively ideological" works of Professor Lewis? This "political propaganda?" Professor Said objects to a series of articles, which I wrote about previously, in which Lewis argues that despite the apparent victory of secular, nationalist dictators in the Middle East, Islamic movements were a rising force, and “Though they have all, so far, been defeated, they have not yet spoken their last word.” In Orientalism, Said dismisses that as “a project to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam,” and “a charge intended by Lewis to explain to his latest public why it is that the Muslims (or Arabs) still will not settle down and accept Israeli hegemony over the Near East.” The role of Islam in the Arab world was certainly a topic over which reasonable people could disagree without either of them being guilty of trying to "discredit the Arabs." In any case, only a year after Orientalism was published, events in Iran would prove—in a tragic and spectacular fashion—that is was Lewis who was right.

Professor Said’s claim, that what this is really about is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, tells us more about Said than about Lewis. As I noted in Part 1, Said concedes in his Introduction that the subject was personal, “not for me an exclusively academic matter.” Nowhere does he let his personal feelings get in the way of his scholarly objectivity more than when it comes to the Jewish State. While he maintains a certain amount of academic detachment through most of the book, the final chapter, covering modern scholars, is entirely distorted by his partisanship as a Palestinian. Bernard Lewis is pro-Zionist and therefore must be at the receiving end of ad hominem attacks. But Louis Massignon, who viewed Zionism as “bourgeois colonialism,” possesses “sheer genius” and “overwhelming intelligence.” Said is even willing to give him a pass for equating the East with the ancient and the West with the modern, usually one of Said's top complaints against Orientalists.

Lewis calls Said out on this. In a rebuttal, published in The New York Review of Books, “the culmination of Orientalism” argues that what really bothers Said and other critics about so called-Orientalists is not their view of history, but rather their view of current events:

“Orientalism” has been emptied of its previous content and given an entirely new one—that of unsympathetic or hostile treatment of Oriental peoples. For that matter, even the terms “unsympathetic” and “hostile” have been redefined to mean not supportive of currently fashionable creeds or causes.

Or as we would put it today, the real sin of “Orientalists” is that they aren’t politically correct.

As for his overall assessment of the Orientalism hypothesis, Mr. Lewis sums it up in one word: “Absurd.” He points out that everything that Professor Said had to say about Western scholars of the Middle East could equally apply to scholars of Ancient Greece, until “the very name of classicist must be transformed into a term of abuse.” As ludicrous as that may seem, “if for classicist we substitute ‘Orientalist,’ with the appropriate accompanying changes, this amusing fantasy becomes an alarming reality.”

Or as we would put it today, “Orientalism” is bulls—t.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo Credit(s): Haaretz,

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Conan the Barbarian and The Thread of Reason

Tales of Medieval Islam.
By Michael Isenberg.

“The power of ideas—Allah’s ideas—was all I ever needed.”

Thus spake the Sheikh of the Mountain, the leader of the medieval Assassin cult in real life, and one of the principal villains in my novel The Thread of Reason. In the book, the sheikh captures and imprisons the hero, Omar Khayyam, along with Omar’s assistant, Muhammad Baghdadi. At a confrontation in the sheikh’s study, Omar was characteristically skeptical about the sheikh’s grandiose claims of his power—basically it was the scene from every James Bond movie where 007 confronts the bad guy bent on world domination. But unlike Omar, Baghdadi was intrigued. He wanted to know how the sheikh commanded such unwavering loyalty from his Assassins, who were all too eager to die for their master on a suicide mission. In response, the sheikh offered Baghdadi a demonstration. “Let me prove how powerful an idea can be,” he said. “When it comes from Allah.”

He rose from his cushion and gestured for Baghdadi to follow him to the window. Putting one arm around Baghdadi’s shoulders, he pointed out to the courtyard, where dozens of men were working by torchlight. “Every one of my Assassins is completely dedicated to our cause,” [he] said. “Pick one of them out—any one—and I’ll show you how much.”

Still at the table, Omar was absorbed in extracting the pit from a date when suddenly he jerked his head upward. He had just remembered something: a story from the history books. It gave him a bad feeling about where this was going. He scrambled to get to his feet and join the others at the window.

Baghdadi had made his selection. “That one,” he said. He pointed to a young man stripped to the waist who was hustling across the courtyard at a good clip despite the two baskets of bricks hanging from a pole across his shoulders.

“You there,” the Sheikh of the Mountain shouted. The porter dropped his burden and prostrated himself in the dust. “What is your bidding, O Sheikh of the Mountain?” he shouted back.

“I want you to climb the ramparts and—”

“Stop this right now,” Omar said firmly…

“Why do you say stop? You don’t even know what I’m going to tell him.”

“You mean you’re not planning to order him to jump off the castle wall?”

“Now you spoiled the surprise.”

If the scene seems familiar, it’s probably because you saw something similar in the 1982 sword and sorcery flick Conan the Barbarian. In explaining how he made the transition from warlord to cult leader, the villain Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) tells Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger), “There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel, when steel meant more to me than gold or jewels.”

“The riddle...of steel,” Conan replies.

“Yes! You know what it is, don't you, boy? Shall I tell you? It's the least I can do. Steel isn't strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks.” He beckons to one of his followers standing above them on a ridge. “A beautiful girl. Come to me, my child...” The girl calmly steps off the edge of the cliff and plummets to her death.

“That is strength, boy!” says Thulsa. “That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”

But lest you think the Sheikh of the Mountain plagiarized Thulsa Doom, it was in fact the other way around. The story has been associated with the Assassin cult ever since the Crusaders returned to Europe with tales of their adventures. Bernard Lewis, in The Assassins: a Radical Sect in Islam, relates “a somewhat questionable story” of one of the later Assassin leaders:

Count Henry of Champagne, returning from Armenia in 1198, was entertained in his castle by the Old Man, who ordered a number of his henchmen to leap to their deaths from the ramparts for the edification of his guest, and then hospitably offered to provide others for his requirements: and if there was any man who had done him an injury, he should let him know, and he would have him killed.

(From the “continuation” of William of Tyre’s History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.)

But even in 1198, the story was already old. An earlier version occurred during the Qarmatian Rebellion. The Qarmatians were one of the strangest sects in the history of Islam. They were communists. A dissident Shiite offshoot, dedicated to the brotherhood of mankind, they threw off the authority of the caliphs and established their own egalitarian utopia in the early 900s, with their capital at Lahsa, near Bahrain. Naser-e Khosraw, who visited the Qarmatians around the year 1050, described what he found:

They neither pray nor fast, but they do believe in Mohammad and his mission…They take no tax from the peasantry, and whenever anyone is stricken by poverty or contracts a debt they take care of his needs until the debtor’s affairs should be cleared up. And if anyone is in debt to another, the creditor cannot claim more than the amount of the debt. Any stranger to the city who possesses a craft by which to earn his livelihood is given enough money to buy the tools of his trade and establish himself. If anyone’s property or implements suffer loss and the owner is unable to undertake necessary repairs, they appoint their own slaves to make the repairs and charge the owner nothing. The rulers have several gristmills in Lahsa where the citizenry can have their meal ground into flour for free, and the maintenance of the buildings and the wages of the miller are paid by the rulers.

[From Naser-e Khosraw, Book of Travels (Safarnama), W. M Thackston, Jr., tr. (1986)]

You may wonder how a communist state can afford to be so generous and survive, let alone prosper for 150 years, when every other experiment in communism that litters the pages of history collapsed under the weight of its own poverty. The answer is buried in the passage above: slavery. “At the time I was there,” Khosraw writes, “they had thirty thousand Zanzibar and Abyssinian slaves working in the fields and gardens.”

The Qarmatians supplemented the stolen product of their slaves' labor with plunder from neighboring communities. In 930, for example, under the command of Abu Tahir Suleiman Janabi, they sacked Mecca, killed several pilgrims in the holy precincts of the Kaaba, stole the sacred Black Stone that was kept there, and brought it back to their capital. According to Khosraw, “They said that the stone was a ‘human magnet’ that attracted people, not knowing that it was the nobility and magnificence of Mohammad that drew people [to Mecca].” After Janabi’s death his successors returned it for a ransom. At some point during its theft and captivity it got shattered—to this day a silver frame is used to hold the pieces together.

The raid on Mecca was not the Qarmatians’ only attack on Muslim cities. Two years earlier, Abu Tahir Suleiman Janabi and his men had marched on Baghdad, capital of the Commander of the Faithful, the Caliph al-Muqtadir. Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, tells us what happened next:

Baghdad was filled with consternation; and the caliph trembled behind the veils of his palace. In a daring inroad beyond the Tigris, Abu Tahir advanced to the gates of the capital with no more than five hundred horse. By the special order of Muqtadir the bridges had been broken down, and the person or head of the rebels was expected every hour by the commander of the faithful. His lieutenant, from a motive of fear or pity, apprised Abu Tahir of his danger, and recommended speedy escape. “Your master,” said the intrepid Qarmatian to the messenger, “is at the head of thirty thousand soldiers: three such men as these are wanting in his host:” at the same instant, turning to three of his companions, he commanded the first to plunge a dagger into his breast, the second to leap into the Tigris, and the third to cast himself headlong from down a precipice. They obeyed without a murmur. “Relate,” continued the imam, “what you have seen: before the evening your general shall be chained among my dogs.”

[Spelling updated for consistency with modern use]

Abu Tahir Suleiman Janabi's boastful prediction was not to be. The Qarmatians were driven away from Baghdad and al-Muqtadir, despite a turbulent reign, remained unchained.

I put the “Riddle of Steel” scene in The Thread of Reason because I wanted to make a serious point about the power of ideas and because the book is about the Assassins and the scene is a timed-honored part of Assassin lore. But I couldn't resist poking fun a little at how often it has appeared, not only in Conan the Barbarian and The Thread of Reason, but in many other works as well (1964’s The Long Ships and 2005’s The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam come to mind). And so, when the Sheikh of the Mountain accuses Omar of ruining his surprise, I have Omar reply, “When Suleiman Janabi performed that demonstration—a century and a half ago—it was a surprise. Now it’s just a cliché.”

As for whether the porter actually jumps, you’ll just have to read the book.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo credit(s): You Tube, Crystalinks

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls—t.
Part 4: The other things Said got wrong.
By Michael Isenberg.

In Part 3 of this series, “Polluters of the Brain,” I began to lay out all the flaws in Edward Said’s “Orientalism” hypothesis, the notion that Western scholarship of the Middle East is irredeemably tainted by imperialism and racism. In particular, I discussed how his eponymous book is polluted from intro to index by the philosophy of postmodernism. I quoted extensively from Said admirer and postmodernism critic Camille Paglia.

While Ms. Paglia was willing to overlook Professor Said’s postmodernist tendencies, she is too honest an intellectual to overlook his fundamental unfairness to Western scholars. Despite her praise for his brilliance, she felt compelled to point out “reservations” that she had about Mr. Said’s “caricature of the disciplines of anthropology, Egyptology, and Oriental studies.” (Which seems to me a little like saying that despite Camille Paglia’s brilliance, one has reservations about her views on feminism, the sixties, and that business about art and culture being man’s attempt to come to terms with nature.) Paglia is quite right that Orientalists’ “massive scholarship in the nineteenth century is the foundation of today’s knowledge…[Said] tends to accept others’ dismissal of a massive body of work of awesome learning and continuing relevance.” That massive body of work was sure relevant to my own research; it helped me out greatly.

Professor Said is so certain that Westerners can't tell Muslims anything about the Muslim world, that he ignores instances where they really have uncovered Muslim achievements long forgotten in the East. Abu Zayd ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), for instance, developed cyclical theories of history that were way ahead of their time. And in economics, no less a figure than Arthur Laffer acknowledges that ibn Khaldun preceded him by half a millennium in developing the principles underlying supply side theory and the Laffer curve. And yet, except for a brief revival in the seventeenth century Ottoman Empire, ibn Khaldun’s works were nearly dead to the world, until a French Orientalist, Silvestre de Sacy, breathed new life into them in the early 1800s.

More generally, Professor Said takes a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude toward Western scholars. He condemns them for appropriation if they adopt the works of Middle Eastern culture, and Eurocentrism if they ignore them. Those who disparage the Muslim are “racist” and “ethnocentric,” those who embrace the “Wisdom of the East” are appropriators. On the one hand, he is infuriated by Western representations of Muhammad as a fraud and a child molester, or criticism that Islam is “totalitarian.” On the other hand, he is infuriated by any suggestion that Muhammad and Islam are of any relevance to the modern Middle East, which he thinks is better understood in terms of the socialist, nationalist revolutionary movements which seemed to be in the ascendant at the time he was writing. Similarly, he argues that Orientalism creates artificial barriers between people. Then he damns one of the greatest achievements of human history, the Suez Canal, for shortening the distance to the East and thereby bringing the barriers down. “The logical conclusion of Orientalist thought,” he calls it.

As I noted in Part 2, there is some merit to Professor Said’s argument that many Orientalists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were racist and in the service of imperialism. But it’s a stretch to extend that argument to the post-World War II era, when the European powers pulled up their stakes in their one-time colonies and the civil rights movement in America made racism socially unacceptable. Professor Said is the first to object when Western scholars characterize the Middle East as static and unable to evolve. And yet he is in denial that the West can evolve as well, even though he has to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to stay in denial.

The first hoop is language; in the absence of colonialists, he redefines his terms to create new ones. Oil companies are the new “empires,” America the new “imperium.” It’s been said that Americans make lousy imperialists—all they want to do is go home—but that doesn’t deter Professor Said from stretching the definition of “empire” beyond recognition in order to make his case.

Unable to find enough criticisms of twentieth century scholars by redefining his terms, he resorts next to package dealing by bringing pop culture into the mix. Yes, there are some pretty cringe-worthy stereotypes of Arabs in 1960s television, but one can hardly draw conclusions about the academics toiling in the Middle Eastern sections of university libraries based on what appeared on The Beverly Hillbillies.

Indeed, the very name that Professor Said chose for his book, Orientalism, is an exercise in package dealing. As I noted previously, the term was more common during the Imperialist era than it is today. Even at the time the book was published in 1978, it had fallen into disuse. The International Congress of Orientalists voted to drop the term in 1973 and is now the International Congress of Asian and North African Studies. Even Professor Said concedes that “Today an Orientalist is less likely to call himself an Orientalist,” although he correctly points out that the name lingers (even in 2018) in institutional names such as Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies. But by reviving the nearly-extinct term, Professor Said is able to associate modern scholars with their imperialist predecessors, and thereby visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, even unto the third and fourth generation.

Said has yet another technique to make his case against scholars: he has the clairvoyance to read between the lines and uncover the coded racism and imperialism in their work. For example, consider his analysis of Bernard Lewis’s article, “Islamic Concepts of Revolution.” As noted above, revolution is central to Said's understanding of the modern Middle East. He objects that Professor Lewis disagrees, and finds particular fault with Lewis’s discussion of—etymology. Lewis points out that the root of the Arabic word for revolution, thur, means to rise, excite, or stir up, and originally referred to the motion of a camel rising up. It's a mildly interesting if somewhat pedantic discussion. Professor Said's response is completely out of proportion: “The entire passage is full of condescension and bad faith. Why introduce the idea of a camel rising as an etymological root for modern Arab revolution except as a clever way of discrediting the modern?” [I don’t know—maybe because a camel rising is the etymological root for modern Arab revolution?] Furthermore Professor Said argues that words like rise, excite, and stir up, are Freudian in nature and therefore evoke the racist stereotype of the oversexed Arab. Said’s “gotcha” tone reminds me of Dennis, the anarcho-syndicalist in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “What a giveaway! Do you hear that? Do you hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about. Do you see him repressing me?”

The only difference is that in the movie, King Arthur really does call Dennis “Bloody peasant,” whereas the insults to Professor Said in Lewis’s article are figments of his imagination.

But Professor Said’s attacks on Professor Lewis did not stop with the latter’s etymological analyses, and I shall discuss that in the final part of this series.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo Credit(s): Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), Old Scholar; YouTube

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

How to Stand up to Putin

Russia/Syria Attack on Idlib off the Table—For Now.
By Michael Isenberg.

What a difference a few days make.

I wrote in my Mideast Week in Review on Friday that Idlib province, in northwest Syria, was under siege by Russian and Syrian government forces. Idlib is the last rebel stronghold in the country (not counting Turkish and Kurdish-controlled areas) and a government victory there would signal that Syria's long, bloody civil war was nearing its end, with the ruthless dictator Bashar Assad coming out on top. World leaders were alarmed about a looming humanitarian disaster for the three million civilians living in Idlib. The possible use of chemical weapons was a particular concern, with all parties staking out their positions in case of that eventuality.

Although fears of an imminent ground attack had eased—Russian air strikes had tapered off at the end of the week—the prospect of a negotiated settlement was dim. There was just too little that the government and the rebels, who are overwhelmingly jihadist, had to offer each other. An attempt was made nevertheless; it failed. A summit was held the previous weekend in Tehran between Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Russia’s Vladimir Putin—who are allied with the Assad regime—and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, who sides with the rebels. But the conference broke up without reaching agreement on Idlib.

So the world breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan emerged from a meeting in Sochi, Russia and announced in a press conference that they had agreed to create a 10-to-20 mile demilitarized buffer zone between Russian/Syrian and rebel forces. The attack on Idlib was off—for now.

There appears to have been two factors in President Putin’s change of heart between Tehran and Sochi. One was that he has bigger fish to fry. It is significant that in his statement at the press conference, he led off with remarks about Russian-Turkish trade and cultural ties, rather than Idlib. One can only hope that he is beginning to find the Russian commitment to propping up Syria’s Assad to be a drain on his country’s resources, and wishes to focus on more productive pursuits.

But perhaps more significant is the buildup of Turkish forces in and around Idlib. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported seeing a military convoy cross the border from Turkey into the region on Thursday. According to The Independent,

Turkey has amassed armoured vehicles, artillery guns, and tanks along the border with Syria, with some equipment moving across the frontier, according to Turkish news outlets and video footage posted to the internet.

Turkey has also begun to bolster a dozen outposts it operates in and around Idlib with additional troops and military vehicles...

It has transferred arms and ammunition to its Free Syria Army (FSA) rebel allies, pro-Ankara newspapers reported, though some experts say the distribution of weapons won’t affect the outcome of any conflict...

Syrian forces aided by Russian air power could easily overrun the outposts. But Turkey’s moves have upped the geopolitical cost of any attempt to take Idlib by the pro-Assad camp.

Although the Turkish escalation wasn’t considered enough to alter the military outcome, it appears to have given Putin second thoughts. There’s a lesson here. It doesn’t take much to get a bully to back down—provided you show you’re serious about backing up your words with action.

US President Donald Trump had some words of his own on the subject—he tweeted on September 3 that “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province”—but he does not appear to have influenced Mr. Putin significantly. That Sochi was a Turkish/Russian show just goes to demonstrate how far the US has to go to regain a leadership role in the region after so many years of Barack Obama’s feckless policy of unenforced "redlines."

While the delay of any attack is good news for the people of Idlib, it is unclear what the long term result will be. The Syrian government, through its official news agency SANA, said that it “welcomed the agreement on Idleb Province.” But it described the plan as “time-bound” and promised that the Assad regime was still committed to “reestablishing security and stability to each inch that was struck by terrorism as it stresses determination to go ahead in its war against terrorism until all the Syrian territories are liberated whether by military operations or by local reconciliations.”

The end game in Syria is now very much up in the air.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo credit(s): Reuters

Monday, September 17, 2018

Polluters of the Brain

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls—t.
Part 3: Orientalism and Postmodernism.
By Michael Isenberg.

In Part 2 of this series, I gave credit where credit is due to the things that Edward Said got right in his influential book Orientalism, in which he attacks Western scholars of the Middle East as racist lackeys of imperialist oppressors.

It will take two more posts for me to cover all the things he got wrong.

Let me start by addressing something that I don’t hold against him. Professor Said’s critics have made a great deal out of an infamous gaffe in Orientalism: “After Mohammed’s death in 632, the military and later the cultural and religious hegemony of Islam grew enormously. First Persia, Syria, and Egypt, then Turkey, then North Africa fell to Muslim armies.” Said got the sequence wrong—Turkey fell to Islam centuries after North Africa. But having written a couple books myself, I know just how hard it is to eliminate every last error and typo. I’m willing to give Said a pass on this one. If you consider the book as whole, it’s clear that he knows his history (Albeit I’m surprised the error wasn’t corrected in the book’s 25th Anniversary edition).

Of far more concern than a probably unintentional error of chronology is that Orientalism is based on a fundamentally flawed philosophy.

That philosophy is postmodernism.

Postmodernism is an approach to art and literary criticism that hit its stride on college campuses in the 1960s, just as Said was doing his graduate work. But its roots extend to older philosophies of the “we know that we know nothing” variety, such as the positivism of August Comte and the skepticism of David Hume. It’s closely associated with “poststructuralism,” “social constructionism,” “deconstructionism,” and the “French Theory” (or just “Theory”) of Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault. Despite the nuanced theoretical distinctions that academics draw between these terms, as far as I can tell, in practice they’re used interchangeably.

The basic idea is that reality is ultimately unknowable by human beings. We can only know “narratives” and “representations,” which are inevitably warped by race, culture, language, socioeconomic group, and the interests of the powerful—especially the last. Foucault’s “big squishy pink-marshmallow word is ‘power,’” writes Said admirer and postmodernism critic Camille Paglia, “which neither he nor his followers fully understand.”

Needless to say, in a world where there is no truth, only “social constructs,” the effort to find Grand Themes running through history is pure folly (which is a problem for me personally, since my novel The Thread of Reason is the first installment in a series about one of those Grand Themes).

In Professor Said’s words, “The real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer.”

Applying that philosophy to western scholarship of the Middle East, he says, “My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence—in which I do not for a moment believe—but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting.” Note that he’s inconsistent on whether a thing called the Orient actually exists apart from its representations. Here he says he does “not for a moment believe” in the existence of an “Oriental essence,” but in another passage, which I cited in Part 2, he says that “human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures.” In any case, the inconsistency makes little difference in the postmodernist world view. We fallible humans can only grasp the representations anyway.

In her 1970 essay, “The Comprachicos,” Ayn Rand identifies the problem with this kind of philosophy, and the implications of teaching it to students. She was talking about “Progressive” ideas in general, but her critique certainly applies to postmodernism in particular.

They are being taught, by implication, that there is no such thing as a firm, objective reality, which man’s mind must learn to perceive correctly; that reality is an indeterminate flux and can be anything the pack wants it to be; that truth or falsehood is determined by majority vote. And more: that knowledge is unnecessary and irrelevant, since the teacher’s views have no greater validity than the oratory of the dullest and most ignorant student—and therefore, that reason, thinking, intelligence and education are of no importance or value.”

One has to wonder, if knowledge bears such little relationship to any sort of reality, what benefit there is in funding universities, or paying the comfortable salaries of postmodernist academics.

Camille Paglia has expressed similar reservations:

The fashionable French posturing—‘there are no facts’—has got to stop. There are no certainties, but there are well-supported facts which we can learn and build on, always with the flexible scholarly skepticism that allows us to discard prior assumptions in the face of new evidence. If there are no facts, surgeons couldn’t operate, buildings would collapse, and airplanes wouldn’t get off the ground.

Professor Paglia does not always employ such scholarly and measured tones when discussing postmodernism: “Empty word play,” she calls it. “Pedantic jargon, clumsy convolutions, and prissy abstractions.” “Positively idiotic.” “Abject philistinism masquerading as advanced thought.” And my favorite: “Polluters of the brain commit crimes against humanity. Dante’s Inferno has a special reserved foxhole for the followers of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, who will boil for eternity in their own verbal sludge.”

Remarkably, Ms. Paglia does not include Mr. Said among those she would boil for eternity. She writes, “Said’s thinking has been influenced by Michel Foucault and Frantz Fanon, but he uses their ideas sparingly and judiciously.” I find Professor Paglia's opinion mystifying in view of the implicit postmodernism that pollutes every page of Orientalism, not to mention Mr. Said’s own numerous explicit acknowledgments of his debt to Foucault. In all fairness, when she wrote this she was reviewing a different Said book, Culture and Imperialism. She may also have gone easy on him in view of their common ground on the New Historicism, yet another academic movement, this one popular in the 1990s. Said and Paglia both found it lacking in rigor.

It is now generally accepted that postmodernism has run its course. “Gone out of fashion,” say Jose Lopez and Garry Potter, editors of After Postmodernism. “Moribund,” says Paglia. Alas, reports of postmodernism’s near death are greatly exaggerated. Its noxious influence lives on in the persistent belief that there is no truth, only narrative. The main thing that's changed is now there’s less of a focus on text as a source of narrative, and more of a focus on race and gender, a trend to which Orientalism contributed in no small way.

And yet, getting into bed with postmodernism isn’t the only thing Orientalism gets wrong, as I shall discuss in Part 4, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo Credit(s): Judy Horacek

Friday, September 14, 2018

Mideast Week in Review

by Michael Isenberg.

  • Idlib Offensive.
  • Trump Administration to close PLO Office in DC.

    Idlib Offensive: As is so often the case these days, the big story in the Middle East is Syria, where government forces and their Russian backers have besieged Idlib province.

    Idlib is located in the northwest of the country. It is one of the last major strongholds of rebellion against the regime of dictator Bashar Assad, not counting the Turkish- and Kurdish-controlled regions along the northern border. Some 30,000 rebels from various factions are holed up in Idlib, most notably from the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front and the jihadist Hay'at Tahrir ash-Sham, the group which absorbed the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front (For the record, Hay'at Tahrir ash-Sham denies al-Qaeda ties).

    Idlib is also home to nearly three million civilians, many of them refugees from fighting in other parts of the country. The presence of such a large population of non-combatants has prompted concern among world leaders and international relief agencies of a looming “humanitarian disaster” including severe shortages of food supplies and medical services.

    A negotiated settlement to avoid the fighting and prevent such a disaster is unlikely. A summit last week in Tehran between Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin broke up without reaching agreement on Idlib. The Assad regime has little incentive for negotiations in the wake of its battlefield successes elsewhere in the country. Further, there is the problem of what could be offered to the rebels to convince them to lay down their arms. As government forces cleared out other rebel-held areas over the past year, agreements were reached to evacuate them to other parts of the country, notably Idlib province. But with Idlib as their last stronghold, there are few places they could go now.

    Following the failure of the Tehran conference, Russian forces have resumed pounding opposition targets in airborne attacks.

    The biggest wild cards are how the Trump administration will react, and whether the Assad regime will use chemical weapons.

    President Trump’s policy on Syria has been, to put it nicely, inconsistent—always a mistake when dealing with children, animals, and dictators. Last July, I reported that the president had apparently given up on Syria, in the wake of reports that he planned to end CIA support to the allegedly moderate rebels fighting Assad. The only things that seemed to spur the administration into action were attacks on the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces—the coalition of Arabs and Kurds that has been in the forefront of the fight against ISIS—and any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, such as the chlorine gas attack in Douma this April (The Syrian government denies any use of chemical weapons).

    However, in a tweet last week, Mr. Trump warned that “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province,” potentially signaling a more active US role going forward.

    As for whether chemical weapons will be used in Idlib, both the Trump Administration and the Assad regime are staking out their positions in case of that eventuality. According to the BBC, “The US state department warned on Monday that Washington would respond to any new chemical attacks by the Syrian government or its allies.” President Assad, meanwhile, is already preparing his alibi. Virginia state senator Richard Black emerged from a meeting with Assad claiming “British intelligence was working toward a chemical attack in order to blame the Syrian government.”

    As I write this, the situation is uncertain. According to Reuters, “Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow would keep bombing militant targets in Syria’s Idlib Province if need be.” However, Fox News reports, “In the previous 24 hours, air strikes from Russian aircraft in rebel-held areas significantly decreased, and lowered in intensity.” The Syria Campaign’s Kenan Rahmani claims, “The offensive is certainly on hold, and that is in large part a result of the renewed commitment from the United States to establish consequences should Russia and the regime continue with reckless bombing of Idlib.” It remains to be seen whether the easing of Russian air strikes is in response to Trump Administration saber rattling, or merely a tactical pause to make way for an imminent ground offensive.

    Read more—

  • The looming fight for Idlib, Syria’s last main rebel stronghold, explained (Vox)
  • Va. state senator who met with Assad says British are planning fake chemical attack (Washington Post)
  • Syria war: How Idlib may be changing Trump's strategy (BBC)
  • Syria war: Idlib rebels targeted by 'fiercest raids in weeks' (BBC)
  • Russia says will keep bombing Syria's Idlib if need be: Ifax (Reuters)


    Trump Administration to close PLO Office in DC: In contrast to its Syria policy, the Trump Administration has shown great consistency toward the Palestinians.

    On Monday, the State Department notified the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that it was ordering the closure of the PLO’s office in Washington DC. By way of explanation, department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement, “The PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel. To the contrary, PLO leadership has condemned a U.S. peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the U.S. government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise.”

    The closure comes in the wake of the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem in May, in the face of Palestinian objections, and the cancellation of $200 million in aid for Palestinian “refugees” in August.

    The move brought outraged protests from Palestinian leaders. Diplomat Saeb Erekat called it a “dangerous escalation” and a “slap by the Trump Administration against peace and justice.” He promised that Palestinians “will not succumb to US threats and bullying.”

    Although the Palestinians so far show no signs of moderating their stance, some observers have noted that the Trump Administration’s policies have had an effect on the rest of the Arab world. Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, said during an embassy reception last week that “Despite the best efforts of Palestinian leaders to whip up opposition to President Trump’s Jerusalem decision, the response in the Arab world was mostly silence” and “What is new is the behavior of many Arab states. They are no longer reflexively dancing to the Palestinians’ tune.”

    Read more—

  • Trump admin. closing Palestine Liberation Organization D.C. office (CBS)
  • Dermer ‘Confident’ Trump Peace Plan will Incorporate Arab States (Jerusalem Post)
  • Dr. Saeb Erekat on the Announcement to Close the Palestinian Mission in Washington (State of Palestine)
  • Closure of the PLO Office in Washington (Dept. of State)


    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

    Photo credit(s): Fox News, BBC, Twitter