Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A Juice that Frees thy Heart from a Hundred Pains

Did Muslims drink wine in the Middle Ages?
by Michael Isenberg.

Readers of my novel The Thread of Reason, set in the world of medieval Islam, often tell me how surprised they are to find widespread wine drinking in the book. “Isn’t wine prohibited in Islam?” they ask me.

It certainly is. The Quran bans it in numerous places, for example Chapter 5, Verse 90: “O ye who believe! verily, wine, and [games of chance], and statues, and divining arrows are only an abomination of Satan's work; avoid them then that haply ye may prosper [1].”

The Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad and his Companions, which together with the Quran form the basis of Muslim law, is even more strict. It tells us that the penalty for drinking was set by Muhammad and his successor, the caliph Abu Bakr, to forty lashes. But Abu Bakr’s successor, the caliph Omar, raised it to eighty [2]. And it wasn’t merely drinking that was forbidden: also buying it, selling it, transporting it, serving it, and sitting at a table where it is served [3].

Despite these prohibitions, wine was widely enjoyed in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. We know this from numerous sources. In this post, I’ll share what some of the literature of the time had to say. The poems and stories handed down to us through the centuries may be fictional, but they reflect the attitudes of the writers, and in my opinion they're far better sources for details about daily life than a formal history, which, in the words of Jean Henri Fabre, "records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat." So I'll cover the literature here and, in the next installment, get into more traditional types of historical evidence.

Wine was a favorite topic of poets, especially those in the Sufi tradition such as Rumi and Hafiz. Omar Khayyam, the astronomer and author of The Rubaiyat (and the hero of The Thread of Reason), was obsessed with wine. The oldest collection of his poems we have is the Ouseley Manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, transcribed in 1460. Out of the 158 verses that appear there, 90 of them, by my count, or 57%, are about wine, including the one from which I took the title of this post:

Every draught that the Cup-bearer scatters upon the earth
quenches the fire of anguish in some afflicted eye.
Praise be to God! thou realizest that wine
is a juice that frees thy heart from a hundred pains [4].

There is some debate as to whether the wine that is so highly praised in Muslim poetry is supposed to be taken literally, or whether it is a symbol for something more spiritual—wisdom, or mystic communion with Allah, for example. The debate is especially controversial in Omar Khayyam’s case; I’ll discuss that in detail in a future post.

While the symbolism of poetry can be hard to interpret, there is no room for interpretation concerning the wine that pours so freely in the prose stories of the time. It symbolizes wine. For instance, liberal imbibing appears in the Maqamat, by Qasim Hariri of Basra. Hariri will be familiar to readers of The Thread of Reason as the spy sent to “take care of” Omar Khayyam during his travels. One story in the Maqamat, for example, concerns a party of travelers who wish to journey from Damascus to Anah, in western Iraq. They are reluctant to set out, however, because they do not have a guard to travel with them and protect them from bandits as they cross the Syrian desert. The problem is solved when a holy man presents himself and promises to keep them safe by means of magic incantations. This unlikely expedient works like, well, like magic, and the party arrives in Anah without incident. They pay the holy man generously, and he scampers off, leaving them wondering where he went:

And we ceased not to seek him in every assembly, and to ask news of him from each that might mislead or guide.—Until it was said, "Since he entered 'Anah he has not quitted the tavern."—Then the foulness of this report set me on to test it, and to walk in a path to which I belonged not.— So I went by night to the wine-hall in disguised habit; and there was the old man in a gay-coloured dress amid casks and wine vats;—And about him were cupbearers surpassing in beauty, and lights that glittered, and the myrtle and the jasmine, and the pipe and the lute.—And at one time he bade broach the wine casks, and at another he called the lutes to give utterance; and now he inhaled the perfumes, and now he courted the gazelles [5].

The "holy man" was in fact a con man. And there’s no doubt from the context wine means wine. Certainly the thirteenth century artist who drew this illustration of the scene for an illuminated manuscript thought so. The guy in the lower right stomping the grapes clinches it.

The characters in the Maqamat were practically teetotalers compared to those in the most famous collection of stories from the medieval Muslim world, The Thousand and One Nights. I ran a search on the Richard Burton translation and found 783 instances of the word wine (okay, that includes the footnotes, but I think I made my point). While the narrator of the The Maqamat considered the consumption of alcohol to be “foulness,” the drinking parties in the Nights are presented very matter-of-factly, as if they were a perfectly normal part of life. You’d be surprised at who would show up:

Now the warmth of wine having mounted to their heads they called for musical instruments; and the portress brought them a tambourine of Mosul, and a lute of Irak, and a Persian harp; and each mendicant took one and tuned it; this the tambourine and those the lute and the harp, and struck up a merry tune while the ladies sang so lustily that there was a great noise. And whilst they were carrying on, behold, some one knocked at the gate, and the portress went to see what was the matter there. Now the cause of that knocking, O King (quoth Shahrazad) was this, the Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, had gone forth from the palace, as was his wont now and then, to solace himself in the city that night, and to see and hear what new thing was stirring; he was in merchant’s gear [i.e. traveling in disguise], and he was attended by Ja’afar [ibn Barmak], his Wazir [prime minister], and by Masrur his Sworder of Vengeance. As they walked about the city, their way led them towards the house of the three ladies; where they heard the loud noise of musical instruments and singing and merriment; so quoth the Caliph to Ja’afar, “I long to enter this house and hear those songs and see who sing them.” Quoth Ja’afar, “O Prince of the Faithful; these folk are surely drunken with wine, and I fear some mischief betide us if we get amongst them.” “There is no help but that I go in there,” replied the Caliph.

Harun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest caliph of all time. And although he didn’t drink on this occasion—he excused himself on the grounds of “vows of pilgrimage”—he sure didn’t mind that everyone around him partook, especially considering that he was the leader of the Muslim world, responsible for the enforcement of shari’ah. As for Ja’afar, he’s presented as somewhat more strict, attempting to keep himself and the caliph away from a place where wine was being served. But the Thousand and One Nights is a work of fiction. Harun al-Rashid and Ja’afar ibn Barmak’s real-life carousing was considerably more wild. I’ll tell you about that in the next installment.

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 Amazon.com
[1] Palmer Translation. [2] Sahih Muslim, trans. Abd al-Hamid Siddiqui (2009), book 17, Hadith numbers 4226–31. [3] Tirmidhi 43:3031 https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/43. [4] Ouseley MS #140, Verse 81, Heron Allen translation. [5] Maqamat, #12, Thomas Chenery translation.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The US-Saudi-Iran Triangle

by Michael Isenberg.

In my previous post, I argued that practically everybody in Washington has the wrong approach to responding to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The media demands a knee-jerk reaction, divorced from any overall strategy, just because Khashoggi was one of their own.

As for President Trump, he does have an overall strategy. At least as far as his public statements and actions are concerned, that strategy is to shamelessly suck up to the Saudis, one of the most repressive regimes on the face of the planet, and a leader in both funding terrorism and spreading the jihadist philosophy that underlies it (I concede the possibility that President Trump may take a harder line with the Saudis in private).

So if both the media and President Trump are pursuing the wrong approach, what is the right one?

Any US reaction needs to be part of a larger, coherent strategy toward the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. It needs to be a strategy we adhere to consistently, not just when the latest victim of Saudi repression happens to be a media darling. It also needs to be a strategy which supports the interests of the United States. And our primary interest in that part of the world is to defend ourselves against Islamic terror.

For guidance we can look to the lessons of the Cold War in general, and in particular, two policies of the Nixon Administration which were extremely effective in making the Soviet Union less aggressive: linkage and triangular diplomacy.

Mr. Nixon explained the first policy in his 1980 book, The Real War:

It was during the transition period between my election in 1968 and my first inauguration in 1969 that Henry Kissinger and I developed what is now widely called the concept of linkage. We determined that those things the Soviets wanted—the good public relations that summits provided, economic cooperation, and strategic arms limitations agreements—would not be gained by them without a quid pro quo. At that time the principal quid pro quos we wanted were some assistance in getting a settlement in Vietnam, restraint by them in the Middle East, and a resolution of the recurring problems in Berlin…We “linked” our goals to theirs, and though it took two years for the Kremlin to accept this policy in the SALT I negotiations, it finally did [pp. 267-8].

As for triangular diplomacy, the triangle was Soviet Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and the United States of America. The idea was that, going forward, the US would engage both Russia and China diplomatically, rather than engaging Russia and isolating China, as it had been doing for decades. The strategy leveraged the Russian-Chinese split that existed at that time. Historically, the two peoples had looked down on each other as barbarians. The communist takeover of China in 1949 brought a temporary thaw to the relationship, but the rivalry soon reasserted itself. In Nixon’s words, “As competition between the two communist giants developed, it was increasingly directed toward leadership of the communist world, with each accusing the other of deviation from ‘true’ communist orthodoxy [The Real War p. 135].” By the early months of the Nixon Administration, the “competition” had degenerated into an all-out border war.

“Promoting Sino-Soviet rivalry cannot, in and of itself, be a U.S. policy,” Nixon wrote. “But the rivalry is there, and it provides an opportunity, an environment, in which to design a policy [The Real War, pp. 302-3].”

Ken Hughes, of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, described how Nixon put that design into practice: “He would play China against the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union against China, and both against North Vietnam [Richard Nixon: Foreign Affairs].”

For example, as we learn from his 1978 autobiography, RN:The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Nixon told the Soviets, “The only beneficiaries of US-Soviet disagreement over Vietnam is China [p. 406]. Then he told the Chinese, “The only gainer in having the war continue is the Soviet Union. [p. 568].” He really was “Tricky Dick.”

There are many similarities between the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Saudi Arabia during the War on Islamic Terror that make the latter a perfect candidate for Nixonian policies.

Like the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia wants—in fact needs—things from the United States: arms deals, investment funds to make its economy less dependent on oil revenue, and summits to give their leaders stature and legitimacy in the eyes of their own people and the world. A perfect opportunity for the US to insist on linkage to things the United States wants: intelligence on jihadist groups, an end to Saudi funding of them, and most important, an end to spreading the Wahhabi doctrine of political Islam around the world. A perfect opportunity for linkage, and a far better policy for the US than first bowing to Iran under the Obama Administration and then toeing the line for Saudi Arabia under Trump.

Also like the Soviet Union, the Saudis have a rival for the leadership of its respective world. Shiite Iran has locked horns with Sunni Saudi Arabia over which nation best represents the “true” Islam. This rivalry colors every aspect of Iranian/Saudi activity, from constant Iranian sniping at any mishaps during the annual pilgrimage or haj (Saudi Arabia’s role as Custodian of the Two Holy Sanctuaries is a source of great prestige in the Muslim world), to vicious proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.

There is one complication in any hardline US policy toward Saudi Arabia: Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. If Saudi Arabia fears losing the United States as an ally, it may turn to them. Indeed, some Middle Eastern countries, the United Arab Emirates, for example, are already doing this. Their leaders may be thugs, but they’re not stupid. They saw how the Obama Administration threw Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak under the bus during 2011’s Arab Spring. They also saw how steadfast an ally Putin has been to Syria’s Bashar Assad during the civil war in that country. Any US Middle East policy must be accompanied by a complementary Russia policy. While a comprehensive Russia strategy is beyond the scope of a blog about Islam, the annals of the Nixon administration contain many examples of how to keep the Russians from meddling the Middle East. We can also learn some lessons from Turkish president Recep Erdogan, who recently succeeded at halting the Russian/Syrian advance on Idlib.

This week offers a perfect opportunity to take linkage and triangular diplomacy on their maiden voyage: negotiations between the parties in the Yemen civil war began today in Stockholm. I would love to see Trump tell the Saudis, “The only beneficiaries of US-Saudi disagreement over Yemen is Iran,” and then turn around and tell Iran, “The only gainer in having the war continue is Saudi Arabia.” If that could hasten a settlement, the Yemeni people would be free of the starvation and disease that the war has inflicted on them, and the world would be free of a breeding ground for jihadists, who flourish wherever instability reigns.

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 Amazon.com

Photo credit(s): iuvmpress.com, A Cartoon History of US Foreign Policy

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

We don’t need a knee-jerk reaction to the Khashoggi murder

We need a new policy toward Saudi Arabia.
by Michael Isenberg.

Trump is under attack. (What else is new?)

This time the issue is his admittedly weak response to the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government. The CIA believes Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”) "probably ordered" the hit, albeit the case against him, as far as the public has been told, is circumstantial: he had close ties to some of the conspirators. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress there is no "direct evidence" against MBS. When asked at an October 11 bill signing how the case would affect his dealings with Saudi Arabia, he replied that making money off the Saudis comes first. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country on—I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like jobs and others, for this country.”

A month and a half has passed since then and the issue hasn’t gone away. The critics have only grown louder, with particular emphasis on holding MBS personally accountable somehow. In an editorial last week, The Washington Post shredded the president’s response as a “craven abdication,” and called for private organizations to suspend their dealings with the Saudi regime and for Congress to attach “a provision to a must-pass budget bill ending military aid to Saudi Arabia until the Yemen war ends and all authors of the Khashoggi murder are identified and sanctioned.” House Speaker Ryan said, “Realpolitik is very important. But Realpolitik works if you do so from a position of moral clarity and with respect to holding people accountable,” leaving me wondering whether he knows what "realpolitik" means. The Senate has gotten into the act as well. A procedural vote on Wednesday, with bipartisan support from senators as diverse as Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), advanced a resolution which would cut off US support for the Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war. A terrible idea—there is a long history of legislative branch grandstanding disrupting delicate behind the scenes negotiations by the executive branch—but it shows the depth of dissatisfaction with Trump's position.

Some of my Trump supporter friends have attempted to justify that position by pointing out that Khashoggi wasn’t the angel that the media has made him out to be. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and was friendly with Osama bin Laden in the 80’s (So was the US!). More recently, in a column titled "The US is wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab World is suffering for it," he argued for more political power for Islamists: “There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it.” While all these accusations against Khashoggi are true, I don’t think any of them diminish the seriousness or the brutality of the murder. Yes, Khashoggi has expressed some very wrong opinions, but surely that's not a capital offense or an extenuating circumstance that should factor into the US response.

My Trumpista friends are on more solid ground when they point out that Khashoggi’s murder is just one of many atrocities routinely committed by the Saudis. In the words of the 2016 documentary Saudi Arabia Uncovered, Saudi Arabia “is a state which beheads and even crucifies its citizens. Where those who question its authority are lashed and locked up for years. A state where woman lack many basic rights.” Recent cases have included the imprisonment and whipping of blogger Raif Badawi and the 2016 execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric whose sole crime was criticizing the government. And while progress in the form of drivers licenses for women has been greeted with much fanfare, the dirty secret is that many of the women activists who made that possible now rot in Saudi jail cells. The only reason the Khashoggi case has gotten more attention than these others is that Khashoggi is a member of the Western liberal media, thanks to his association with The Washington Post. Again, I don't think this excuses the Saudis in any way. But it does underscore the importance of treating the Khashoggi murder in the context of our overall relationship with Saudi Arabia, and not in isolation.

It would be foolish to engage in a knee jerk response merely because the victim is a Western journalist. Any US reaction needs to be part of a larger, coherent strategy toward the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. It needs to be a strategy we adhere to consistently, not just when the latest victim of Saudi repression happens to be a media darling. It also needs to be a strategy which supports the interests of the United States. And our primary interest in that part of the world is defeating Islamic terror.

We've seen Donald Trump repeatedly stand up to foreign dictatorships, and rightly so. But the House of Saud hasn't been among them. Both in the Khashoggi case, and in many other instances, the Trump Administration's strategy in the Middle East has been to unquestioningly embrace the House of Saud. The rationale for this is not merely the jobs cited above. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an Oct 18 statement to reporters,

I think it's important for us all to remember, too, we have a long, since 1932, a long strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They continue to be an important counterterrorism partner. They have custody of the two holy sites. They're an important strategic alliance of the United States. We need to be mindful of that as well.

This “important strategic alliance” with our “important counterterrorism partner” is problematic. Cozying up to dictators is a double-edged sword under the best of circumstances. There are advantages in terms of intelligence, resources, military bases, and so on, but at the cost of creating resentment against the United States that induces recruits to join our enemies. The (possibly exaggerated) CIA role in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953, and the US’s subsequent support for the Shah is still a sticking point between us and the Iranians—forty years after the Shah’s downfall. Arguably, we had the excuse that we were in the midst of the Cold War and we did what we had to do in the context of the larger struggle against the Soviet Union. We should never apologize for that. But we should recognize that it came with consequences.

There was some logic to allying with the Shah’s Iran in 1953 against a higher priority enemy. But there is no logic to allying with MBS’s Saudi Arabia in 2018: Saudi Arabia is the higher priority enemy. As I wrote in my review of Saudi Arabia Uncovered,

The Saudi regime is not content merely to subject its own citizens to the terrors of Islamism. It exports them. The ties between Saudi-funded Islamic charities and terror groups are well-known and reviewed in the documentary (which also notes there is no evidence that senior Saudi officials were complicit in them). However, thoughtful observers consider that the kingdom’s embrace of the Wahhabi form of Islam—the country has spent $70 billion promoting it worldwide—is even more insidious than direct support of terror. In the words of former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh, “The ideology of ISIS is not much different from the ideology that Wahhabi Salafi Islam in Saudi Arabia adheres to. Unless the Saudis deal with this issue, we are going to constantly fight yesterday’s war and even if we defeat ISIS, there’ll be another terrorist organization, perhaps with a different name, as long as they have this ideology that emanates from Saudi Arabia.”

Or as Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy put it,

For over 50 years the Saudis have also financed and helped spread the establishment of Muslim Brotherhood legacy thinkers and groups in the West. The Wahhabis and the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] share both a hate of Western liberal democracies and a dream of wanting to establish Islamic states and the caliphate. Their essential difference lies in that Wahhabis are simply corporate, top-down, “elitist” Islamists, while the Brotherhood are grassroots, populist Islamists. Both their interpretations of Islam are supremacist and theocratic.

I don't mean to single out President Trump here. President Obama’s policy of unquestionably embracing Iran—another exporter of jihad—was just as bad, for the same reasons.

Another argument I tend to hear, especially from libertarians, is that the US should not take any action at all with regard to Khashoggi. He was not a US citizen, his murder took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which is technically Saudi sovereign territory. It's an internal matter in which the US has no vested interest.

There is some merit to this, but I part company with my libertarian friends when they frame it as part of an overall policy of disengagement from the Middle East. My disagreement with them stems from a fundamentally different view of the cause of Islamic terror. They see it as a reaction to past injustices that the Western powers committed against the Muslim world, such as the previously mentioned overthrow of Mossadegh. And while I agree that these injustices feature prominently in jihadist recruitment propaganda, the real origin of Islamic terror is not to be found in anything the West has done, but rather in Islam itself. The terrorists will come for us regardless of our level of engagement in the Middle East, and we need to be proactive in addressing that problem. Princeton historian Bernard Lewis called it the "Clash of Civilizations," which I discussed in more detail in "Fighting for God," one of the tributes to Professor Lewis that I posted in the wake of his passing earlier this year.

So if neither disengagement, nor a knee jerk response to the atrocity of the week, nor Obama's stint as Iran's bitch, nor Trump’s strategy of hopping to the tune of the "beautiful" Saudi sword dance is the right policy in the War on Islamic Terror, then what is? There are many lessons from the Cold War we can draw on to formulate one. I’ll address that in my next installment.

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 Amazon.com

Thursday, November 15, 2018

4 Reasons I Don’t Give a Damn about Cultural Appropriation

By Michael Isenberg.

As a Jew who wrote a novel about the Muslim world, I am sometimes asked whether it bothers me that I’m committing “cultural appropriation.”

Absolutely not.

Cultural appropriation is the accusation leveled against members of “dominant” cultures when they use elements of “minority” cultures for various purposes, such as religious ritual, fashion, and especially the arts. Such accusations are all the rage on college campuses and other prog hotbeds, and tend to peak around Halloween in the form of minute examination of one’s festive attire for any hint of political incorrectness. (“I’m a culture, not a costume.”) As a philosophical concept, cultural appropriation is indefensible and racist. It is the enemy of artistic expression, and depends completely on a false premise. Just a terrible idea.

Before I get into details, I will admit to one area of agreement with the lefties who lecture us about cultural appropriation: one should always approach other cultures with respect. I attempted to do that in my novel—it's called The Thread of Reason, by the way—despite the many areas of Muslim doctrine with which I disagree, and I hope that is apparent to the reader.

That said, here are 4 Reasons I Don’t Give a Damn about Cultural Appropriation:

1. Cultural Exchange is a Good Thing.

No culture has a monopoly on good ideas. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, its quirks and taboos. It is therefore beneficial when cultures learn from each other, taking the best that each has to offer. This is certainly what we’ve done in America; the results have astonished the world.

This was the case in the world of medieval Islam as well, where Arabs, Turks, and Persians, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all jostled each other in the marketplace. As the main character in my book, Omar Khayyam, put it,

That’s the genius of the Muslims…we borrowed from our neighbors and the people that we conquered, and we made their ideas our ideas. Persia, India, and especially Greece are the foundation stones of our civilization—almost as much as the Quran. Did you know that when the caliph Harun ar-Rashid—three centuries ago—won battles against Rum, he demanded ancient Greek manuscripts as part of the tribute?

We commenced with the faith of Muhammad and the Companions, and we fused it with the philosophy of Aristotle and the Greeks. We saw further than those who came before us, because we stood atop a tower of ideas that they constructed.

(For those my right-of-center friends who disagree with this characterization of Islam, keep reading.)

If the forces of political correctness had their way, there would be no such cultural exchange. Every race, gender, religion, and other subculture would be segregated. Seated in different sections of the metaphorical bus. Ossified in its own traditions, unable to experience the evolution that comes from trade. The exact opposite of the diversity and multiculturalism whose benefits we once heard so much about.

2. That’s racist.

My left-of-center friends will no doubt interject at this point that I have cultural appropriation all wrong. They don’t object to cultural exchange per se. It’s only a problem when the playing field isn’t level, i.e. when the “appropriating” party exerts power over the other party, especially when the relationship is one of colonizer to colony (How colonialism continues to play such an important role decades after the great powers withdrew from their colonies baffles me).

This is so much worse than the segregation scenario I described above. Our politically correct friends have created two classes of cultures. One class may take any idea it wants from the other and experience the benefits of doing so, the other condemned to stagnation as it is prohibited from adopting anything in exchange. That really is a new colonialism. It’s racist AF.

The defenders of this kind of thinking tell us it’s necessary to rectify injustices that one culture committed against another. And yet they would enforce it even when the individuals involved were neither perpetrators nor victims of these injustices. Punishing the innocent is not justice. The antidote to racism is not reverse racism.

3. Your culture is not your property.

The notion that one people can “appropriate” the culture of another presupposes that the latter owns their culture via some sort of collective intellectual property rights.

They don’t.

As a writer, I’m all for individual intellectual property rights. In the words of the US Constitution, “securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” will “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Indeed, it is only fair that authors or inventors who labored and took risks to create something new should own it, and thereby benefit financially.

But giving intellectual property rights to a collective—most of whose members didn’t invent the thing—is another matter entirely. For someone who is not the creator, and may not even be his descendant, to retain such rights merely because he happens to have been born into the same culture does nothing for fairness. Nor does it protect the financial interests of authors and inventors or promote the progress of science and the useful arts. And for those rights to persist for centuries or even millennia after the death of the creator is absurd (Indeed, even current US law, which protects copyrights for a hundred years after the death of an author, goes too far).

To coin a phrase, you didn't build that. If you didn’t create it, you don’t own it. And that which is not owned cannot be appropriated.

4. Because I want to.

I chose to spend several years of my life researching and writing a book about the medieval Muslim world because it interested me. Not everyone in that world agreed with the quote above about the benefits of borrowing from other cultures. It was, therefore, a world in conflict. One the one hand, there were those such as Omar who studied “Greek science,” were tolerant toward Jews and Christians, and winked at a few breaches of shari’ah. On the other hand, there were the hardliners; they studied mysticism, persecuted Jews and Christians, and cracked down on the enforcement of shari’ah. I found this conflict fascinating, as well as tragic: in the end, the hardliners won, and, as I shall show in the sequels to The Thread of Reason, the consequences for Muslim civilization were disastrous.

It was a story I wanted to tell. That is the only justification any author needs.

I want to leave you with a quote from bestselling novelist Anne Rice, which she posted on Facebook last year. Ms. Rice is a straight, white woman who has created characters of nearly every race, gender, and orientation, both living and undead. Her 1986 novel, The Feast of All Saints, about “free people of color” in the antebellum South is particularly noteworthy in this respect. I was merely going to include excerpts, as it is rather long, but the post is so beautifully written and powerful (as a writer, I'm jealous), it’s worth reading in its entirety:

You can write from the point of view of anybody: a man, a woman, a gay man, a gay woman, a person of color, a native American, an ancient Egyptian, King Solomon, anyone. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you cannot do this. When I was writing "Feast of All Saints," a good friend told me in essence I had no right to write about people of color. ------- Shortly after, I went to Haiti to do research for this novel, and in a hotel bar in Port-au-Prince, I ran into an American black man, and I asked him about this very question. I told him about my book. "Write it," he said. He became extremely intense. "Write it." He felt it was of the utmost importance that I give birth to the novel I was envisioning. Later, back home in America, I asked the same question of a famous black author at a book signing. He said the same thing. Write the story. That was good enough for me. The bottom line is, you go where the intensity is for you as a writer; you give birth to characters for deep, complex reasons. And this should never be politicized by anyone. Your challenge is to do a fine and honest and effective job. Don't ever let anyone insist you give up without even trying. Two of the greatest novels about women that I've ever read, "Anna Karenina" and "Madame Bovary" were written by men. One of the finest novels about men that I've ever read, "The Last of the Wine" was written by a woman. That was Mary Renault. And her novel, "The Persian Boy," about a Persian eunuch is a classic. The vital literature we possess today was created by men and women of immense imagination, personal courage and personal drive. Ignore all attempts to politicize or police your imagination and your literary ambition.

Or as one of the comments on the post put it, “You don’t have to be a deer to write Bambi.”

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 Amazon.com

Photo appropriated from: lolsnaps.com

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 Amazon.com

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 Amazon.com

Photo Credit(s): Haaretz, Bio.com

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 Amazon.com

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 Amazon.com

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 Amazon.com

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 Amazon.com

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 Amazon.com

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