Another Professor for Peace

, Peter Seabrook, Leave a comment

In Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University opposes the Iraq war and the current U.S. occupation of that country (though he does not advocate simply cutting and running). He falls squarely on the Palestinian side of the Israel/Palestine conflict, but delivers an interesting assessment of Yasir Arafat.

Because of the uncertainty of the situation in Iraq, Dr. Khalidi refrains from making pronouncements on U.S. policy there except for recommending that the U.N. take over (the book was published in late 2003), noting “the entirely healthy American popular allergy to empire.”

Khalidi served as an advisor to the Palestinians during at least one series of negotiations. He does predictably blast Israel, laying into its “intense, systematic violence against Palestinian civilians,” yet he fails to make a distinction between a “Palestinian civilian” and a Palestinian fighter or terrorist (there exists no Palestinian regular army). However, Khalidi denounces Yasir Arafat as a corrupt, power-hungry boss responsible for derailing several peace processes through incessant meddling.

Concerning terrorism, he writes that the September 11th attacks compare with Palestinian suicide bombers by having “disturbing but superficial similarities in that suicide bombers apparently motivated by Islam were involved in both.” “Superficial similarities?” This phrase is from a passage critiquing U.S. media coverage of Palestinian suicide bombers; Khalidi argues that a far higher number of Palestinian “civilians” are killed by Israeli soldiers. He sees these as “false image[s]” in the U.S. media, which he blames mainly on “the [Ariel] Sharon government and Israel’s lobby in the United States.”

In another section, he desperately defends Islam’s compatibility with political freedom by citing “the thriving democracies in three of the largest Muslim countries in the world, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Malaysia, not to speak of Turkey, Iran…” Turkey and Malaysia could possibly classify as “thriving democracies” (Khalidi doesn’t bother to define the term), but Bangladesh has held regular elections for barely 15 years. In Indonesia, a disaffected populace finally boiled over in 1998 against then-president Suharto’s corrupt regime; the subsequent instability resulted in four different presidents from 1998 to 2001. And Iran remains a country whose constitution dictates that religious leaders have control of the military and final say over all laws.

More generally, Khalidi drops the odd far-left remark here and there. For example, he makes reference to “the neo-imperialist wannabes in Washington” and writes that an influential Iraqi pro-independence activist in the 1920s “was summarily exiled to the Seychelles Islands, the Guantánamo Bay for political prisoners of its day.”

Usually, his history (the majority of the text) is far less politicized than his take on current events, and that is what makes the book worth reading.

Especially informative for me was his description of the relationship between Ibn Saud and the Wahhabi sect of Islam (responsible for the extremely harsh, religiously based laws in Saudi Arabia today). The crafty ruler had employed Wahhabism to great effect in his rise to power, “transcending the usual tribal connections and enabl[ing] [the Saudis] to wield power that proved far superior to that of all their local rivals.” Later on, though, Ibn Saud violently suppressed sections of this “xenophobic” movement in the 1930s in order to peaceably negotiate oil deals with the British; that struggle almost mirrors the current Saudi dilemma.

Also intriguing are Khalidi’s accounts of the colonial powers’ attempts to stamp out all forms of democratic thinking from their holdings. From what he says, the future did indeed look promising for democracy in the Middle East, but a great opportunity was lost with the arrival of imperialist European nations (mainly France and Britain).

A rising sophomore at Kenyon College, Peter Seabrook is an intern at Accuracy in Academia.