A Dev­il The­o­ry of Islam

A Review of Judith Miller’s God Has Nine­ty-Nine Names : Report­ing From a Mil­i­tant Mid­dle East” The Nation, August 12191996 

God Has Ninety-Nine Names

Judith Miller is a New York Times reporter much in evi­dence on talk shows and sem­i­nars on the Mid­dle East. She trades in the Islam­ic threat” — her par­tic­u­lar mis­sion has been to advance the mil­len­ni­al the­sis that mil­i­tant Islam is a dan­ger to the West. The search for a post-Sovi­et for­eign dev­il has come to rest, as it did begin­ning in the eighth cen­tu­ry for Euro­pean Chris­ten­dom, on Islam, a reli­gion whose phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty and unstilled chal­lenge to the West seem as dia­bol­i­cal and vio­lent now as they did then. Nev­er mind that most Islam­ic coun­tries today are too pover­ty-strick­en, tyran­ni­cal and hope­less­ly inept mil­i­tar­i­ly as well as sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly to be much of a threat to any­one except their own cit­i­zens ; and nev­er mind that the most pow­er­ful of them — like Sau­di Ara­bia, Egypt, Jor­dan and Pak­istan — are total­ly with­in the U.S. orbit. What mat­ters to experts” like Miller, Samuel Hunt­ing­ton, Mar­tin Kramer, Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Steven Emer­son and Bar­ry Rubin, plus a whole bat­tery of Israeli aca­d­e­mics, is to make sure that the threat” is kept before our eyes, the bet­ter to exco­ri­ate Islam for ter­ror, despo­tism and vio­lence, while assur­ing them­selves prof­itable con­sul­tan­cies, fre­quent TV appear­ances and book con­tracts. The Islam­ic threat is made to seem dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly fear­some, lend­ing sup­port to the the­sis (which is an inter­est­ing par­al­lel to anti-Semit­ic para­noia) that there is a world­wide con­spir­a­cy behind every explosion.

Polit­i­cal Islam has gen­er­al­ly been a fail­ure wher­ev­er it has tried to take state pow­er. Iran is a pos­si­ble excep­tion, but nei­ther Sudan, already an Islam­ic state, nor Alge­ria, riv­en by the con­test between Islam­ic groups and a bru­tal sol­diery, has done any­thing but make itself poor­er and more mar­gin­al on the world stage. Lurk­ing beneath the dis­course of Islam­ic per­il in the West is, how­ev­er, some mea­sure of truth, which is that appeals to Islam among Mus­lims have fueled resis­tance (in the style of what Eric Hob­s­bawm has called prim­i­tive, pre-indus­tri­al rebel­lion) to the Pax Amer­i­cana-Israel­i­ca through­out the Mid­dle East. Yet nei­ther Hezbol­lah nor Hamas has pre­sent­ed a seri­ous obsta­cle to the ongo­ing steam­roller of the any­thing-but-peace process. Most Arab Mus­lims today are too dis­cour­aged and humil­i­at­ed, and also too anes­thetized by uncer­tain­ty and their incom­pe­tent and crude dic­ta­tor­ships, to sup­port any­thing like a vast Islam­ic cam­paign against the West. Besides, the elites are for the most part in cahoots with the regimes, sup­port­ing mar­tial law and oth­er extrale­gal mea­sures against extrem­ists.” So why, then, the accents of alarm and fear in most dis­cus­sions of Islam ? Of course there have been sui­cide bomb­ings and out­ra­geous acts of ter­ror­ism, but have they accom­plished any­thing except to strength­en the hand of Israel and the Unit­ed States and their client regimes in the Mus­lim world ?

The answer, I think, is that books like Miller’s are symp­to­matic because they are weapons in the con­test to sub­or­di­nate, beat down, com­pel and defeat any Arab or Mus­lim resis­tance to U.S.-Israeli dom­i­nance. More­over, by sur­rep­ti­tious­ly jus­ti­fy­ing a pol­i­cy of sin­gle-mind­ed obdu­ra­cy that links Islamism to a strate­gi­cal­ly impor­tant, oil-rich part of the world, the anti-Islam cam­paign vir­tu­al­ly elim­i­nates the pos­si­bil­i­ty of equal dia­logue between Islam and the Arabs, and the West or Israel. To demo­nize and dehu­man­ize a whole cul­ture on the ground that it is (in Lewis’s sneer­ing phrase) enraged at moder­ni­ty is to turn Mus­lims into the objects of a ther­a­peu­tic, puni­tive atten­tion. I do not want to be mis­un­der­stood here : The manip­u­la­tion of Islam, or for that mat­ter Chris­tian­i­ty or Judaism, for ret­ro­grade polit­i­cal pur­pos­es is cat­a­stroph­i­cal­ly bad and must be opposed, not just in Sau­di Ara­bia, the West Bank and Gaza, Pak­istan, Sudan, Alge­ria and Tunisia but also in Israel, among the right-wing Chris­tians in Lebanon (for whom Miller shows an unseem­ly sym­pa­thy) and wher­ev­er theo­crat­ic ten­den­cies appear. And I do not at all believe that all the ills of Mus­lim coun­tries are due to Zion­ism and impe­ri­al­ism. But this is very far from say­ing that Israel and the Unit­ed States, and their intel­lec­tu­al flacks, have not played a com­bat­ive, even incen­di­ary role in stig­ma­tiz­ing and heap­ing invid­i­ous abuse on an abstrac­tion called Islam,” delib­er­ate­ly in order to stir up feel­ings of anger and fear about Islam among Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans, who are also enjoined to see in Israel a sec­u­lar, lib­er­al alter­na­tive. Miller says unc­tu­ous­ly at the begin­ning of her book that right-wing Judaism in Israel is the sub­ject of anoth­er book.” It is actu­al­ly very much part of the book that she has writ­ten, except that she has will­ful­ly sup­pressed it in order to go after Islam.”

Writ­ing about any oth­er part of the world, Miller would be con­sid­ered woe­ful­ly unqual­i­fied. She tells us that she has been involved with the Mid­dle East for twen­ty-five years, yet she has lit­tle knowl­edge of either Ara­bic or Per­sian. It would be impos­si­ble to be tak­en seri­ous­ly as a reporter or expert on Rus­sia, France, Ger­many or Latin Amer­i­ca, per­haps even Chi­na or Japan, with­out know­ing the req­ui­site lan­guages, but for Islam,” lin­guis­tic knowl­edge is unnec­es­sary since what one is deal­ing with is con­sid­ered to be a psy­cho­log­i­cal defor­ma­tion, not a real” cul­ture or religion.

What of her polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion ? Each of the ten coun­try chap­ters (Egypt, Sau­di Ara­bia, Sudan) begins with an anec­dote and moves imme­di­ate­ly to a pot­ted his­to­ry that reflects not much more than the work of a name-drop­ping col­lege sopho­more. Cob­bled up out of var­i­ous, not always reli­able author­i­ties (her pages of foot­notes are taint­ed by her igno­rance, whether because she can only cite the sources she already knows she wants in Eng­lish, or because she quotes only author­i­ties whose views cor­re­spond to hers, there­by clos­ing out an entire library by Mus­lims, Arabs and non-Ori­en­tal­ist schol­ars), these his­to­ries are meant prin­ci­pal­ly to dis­play her com­mand of the mate­r­i­al, but actu­al­ly expose her lam­en­ta­ble prej­u­dices and fail­ures of com­pre­hen­sion. In the Sau­di Ara­bia chap­ter, for instance, she informs us in a note that her favorite” source on the Prophet Mohammed is the French Ori­en­tal­ist Maxime Rodin­son, a redoubtable Marx­ist schol­ar whose biog­ra­phy of the Prophet is writ­ten with a brac­ing com­bi­na­tion of anti-cler­i­cal irony and enor­mous eru­di­tion. What Miller gets from this in her short sum­ma­ry of Mohammed’s life and ideas is that there is some­thing inher­ent­ly ris­i­ble, if not con­temptible, about the man whom Rodin­son says was a com­bi­na­tion of Charle­magne and Jesus Christ ; for where­as Rodin­son under­stands what that means, Miller tells us (irrel­e­vant­ly) that she is not con­vinced. For her, Mohammed is the beget­ter of an anti-Jew­ish reli­gion, one laced with vio­lence and para­noia. She does not direct­ly quote one Mus­lim source on Mohammed ; just imag­ine a book pub­lished in the Unit­ed States on Jesus or Moses that makes no use of a sin­gle Chris­t­ian or Juda­ic authority.

Most of Miller’s book is made up not of argu­ment and ideas but of end­less inter­views with what seems to be a slew of pathet­ic, uncon­vinc­ing, self-serv­ing scoundrels and their occa­sion­al crit­ics. Once past her lit­tle his­to­ries we are adrift in bor­ing, unstruc­tured mean­der­ings. Here’s a typ­i­cal sen­tence of insub­stan­tial gen­er­al­iza­tion : And Syr­i­ans, mind­ful of their coun­try’s chaot­ic his­to­ry” (of what coun­try on earth is this not also true?) found the prospect of a return to anar­chy or yet anoth­er pro­longed, bloody pow­er strug­gle — ” (is this unique­ly true of Syr­ia as a post­colo­nial state, or is it true of a hun­dred oth­ers in Asia, Africa, Latin Amer­i­ca?) and per­haps even the tri­umph of mil­i­tant Islam in the most sec­u­lar” (with what ther­mome­ter did she get that read­ing?) of all Arab states — alarm­ing.” Leave aside the abom­inable dic­tion and jaw-shat­ter­ing jar­gon of the writ­ing. What you have is not an idea at all but a series of clich?s mixed with unver­i­fi­able asser­tions that reflect the thought” of Syr­i­ans” much less than they do Miller’s.

Miller gilds her paper-thin descrip­tions with the phrase my friend,” which she uses to con­vince her read­er that she real­ly knows the peo­ple and con­se­quent­ly what she is talk­ing about. I count­ed 247 uses of the phrase before I stopped about halfway through the book. This tech­nique pro­duces extra­or­di­nary dis­tor­tions in the form of long digres­sions that tes­ti­fy to an Islam­ic mind­set, even as they obscure or ignore more or at least equal­ly rel­e­vant mate­r­i­al like local pol­i­tics, the func­tion­ing of sec­u­lar insti­tu­tions and the active intel­lec­tu­al con­test tak­ing place between Islamists and nation­al­ist oppo­nents. She seems nev­er to have heard of Ark­oun, or Jabri, or Tara­bishi, or Ado­nis, or Hanafi or Djeit, whose the­ses are hot­ly debat­ed all over the Islam­ic world.

This appalling fail­ure of analy­sis is espe­cial­ly true in the chap­ter on Israel (mist­i­tled, since it is all about Pales­tine), where she ignores the changes caused by the intifa­da and the pro­longed effect of the three-decade Israeli occu­pa­tion, and con­veys no sense of the abom­i­na­tions wrought on the lives of ordi­nary Pales­tini­ans by the Oslo accords and Yasir Arafat’s one-man rule. Although Miller is obsessed with Hamas, she is clear­ly unable to con­nect it with the sor­ry state of affairs in ter­ri­to­ries run bru­tal­ly by Israel for all these years. She nev­er men­tions, for instance, that the only Pales­tin­ian uni­ver­si­ty not estab­lished with Pales­tin­ian funds is Gaza­’s Islam­ic (Hamas) Uni­ver­si­ty, start­ed by Israel to under­mine the P.L.O. dur­ing the intifa­da. She records Mohammed’s depre­da­tions against the Jews but has lit­tle to say about Israeli beliefs, state­ments and laws against non-Jews,” often rab­bini­cal­ly sanc­tioned prac­tices of depor­ta­tion, killing, house demo­li­tion, land con­fis­ca­tion, annex­a­tion and what Sara Roy has called sys­tem­at­ic eco­nom­ic de-devel­op­ment. If in her breath­less­ly excitable way Miller sprin­kles around a few of these facts, nowhere does she accord them the weight and influ­ence as caus­es of Islamist pas­sion that they undoubt­ed­ly have.

Mad­den­ing­ly, she informs us of every­one’s reli­gion — such and so is Chris­t­ian, or Mus­lim Sun­ni, Mus­lim Shi­ite, etc. Even so, she is not always accu­rate, man­ag­ing to pro­duce some howlers. She speaks of Hisham Shara­bi as a friend but misiden­ti­fies him as a Chris­t­ian ; he is Sun­ni Mus­lim. Badr el Haj is described as Mus­lim where­as he is Maronite Chris­t­ian. These laps­es would­n’t be so bad were she not bent on reveal­ing her inti­ma­cy with so many peo­ple. And then there is her bad faith in not iden­ti­fy­ing her own reli­gious back­ground or polit­i­cal predilec­tions. Are we meant to assume that her reli­gion (which I don’t think is Islam or Hin­duism) is irrelevant ?

She is embar­rass­ing­ly forth­com­ing, how­ev­er, about her reac­tions to peo­ple and pow­er and cer­tain events. She is grief-strick­en” when King Hus­sein of Jor­dan is diag­nosed with can­cer, although she scarce­ly seems to mind that he runs a police state whose many vic­tims have been tor­tured, unfair­ly impris­oned, done away with. One real­izes of course that what counts here is her hob­nob­bing with the lit­tle King, but some accu­rate sense of the mod­ern” king­dom he rules would have been in order. Her eyes filled with tears — of rage” as she espies evi­dence of des­e­cra­tion of a Lebanese Chris­t­ian mosa­ic, but she does­n’t both­er to men­tion oth­er des­e­cra­tions in Israel — for exam­ple, of Mus­lim grave­yards — and hun­dreds of exter­mi­nat­ed vil­lages in Syr­ia, Lebanon, Pales­tine. Her real con­tempt and dis­dain come out in pas­sages like the fol­low­ing, in which she imputes thoughts and wish­es to a mid­dle-class Syr­i­an woman whose daugh­ter has just become an Islamist :

She would nev­er have any of the things a mid­dle-class Syr­i­an moth­er yearned for : no grand wed­ding par­ty and tra­di­tion­al white dress with dia­mond tiara for her daugh­ter, no sil­ver-framed pho­tos of the hap­py wed­ding cou­ple in tuxe­do and bridal gown on the cof­fee table and fire­place man­tel, no bel­ly dancers wrig­gling on a stage and cham­pagne that flowed till dawn. Per­haps Nadine’s friends, too, had daugh­ters or sons who had reject­ed them, who secret­ly despised them for the com­pro­mis­es they had made to win the favor of Assad’s cru­el and soul­less régime. For if the daugh­ter of such pil­lars of the Dam­a­scene bour­geoisie could suc­cumb to the pow­er of Islam, who was immune ?

Such snide accounts triv­i­al­ize and cheap­en the peo­ple whose hous­es and pri­va­cy she has invaded.

Giv­en her will­ing­ness to under­cut even her friend­ly sources, the most inter­est­ing ques­tion about Miller’s book is why she wrote it at all. Cer­tain­ly not out of affec­tion. Con­sid­er, for instance, that she admits she fears and dis­likes Lebanon, hates Syr­ia, laughs at Libya, dis­miss­es Sudan, feels sor­ry for and a lit­tle alarmed by Egypt and is repulsed by Sau­di Ara­bia. She is relent­less­ly con­cerned only with the dan­gers of orga­nized Islam­ic mil­i­tan­cy, which I would haz­ard a guess accounts for less than 5 per­cent of the bil­lion-strong Islam­ic world. She sup­ports the vio­lent sup­pres­sion of Islamists (but not tor­ture and oth­er ille­gal means” used in that sup­pres­sion ; she miss­es the con­tra­dic­tion in her posi­tion), has no qualms about the absence of demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices or legal pro­ce­dures in Pales­tine, Egypt or Jor­dan so long as Islamists are the tar­get and, in one espe­cial­ly nau­se­at­ing scene, she actu­al­ly par­tic­i­pates in the prison inter­ro­ga­tion of an alleged Mus­lim ter­ror­ist by Israeli police­men, whose sys­tem­at­ic use of tor­ture and oth­er ques­tion­able pro­ce­dures (under­cov­er assas­si­na­tions, mid­dle-of-the-night arrests, house demo­li­tions) she polite­ly over­looks as she gets to ask the hand­cuffed man a few ques­tions of her own.

Per­haps Miller’s most con­sis­tent fail­ing as a jour­nal­ist is that she only makes con­nec­tions and offers analy­ses of mat­ters that suit her the­sis about the mil­i­tant, hate­ful qual­i­ty of the Arab world. I have lit­tle quar­rel with the gen­er­al view that the Arab world is in a dread­ful state, and have said so repeat­ed­ly for the past three decades. But she bare­ly reg­is­ters the exis­tence of a deter­mined anti-Arab and anti-Islam­ic U.S. pol­i­cy. She plays fast and loose with fact. Take Lebanon : She refers to Bashir Gemayel’s assas­si­na­tion in 1982 and gives the impres­sion that he was elect­ed by a pop­u­lar land­slide. She does not even allude to the fact that he was brought to pow­er while the Israeli army was in West Beirut, just before the Sabra and Shati­la camp mas­sacres, and that for years, accord­ing to Israeli sources like Uri Lubrani, Gemayel was the Mossad’s man in Lebanon. That he was a self-pro­claimed killer and a thug is also finessed, as is the fact that Lebanon’s cur­rent pow­er struc­ture is chock-full of peo­ple like Elie Hobei­ka, who was charged direct­ly for the camp mas­sacres. Miller cites instances of Arab anti-Semi­tism but does­n’t even touch on the mat­ter of Israeli lead­ers like Begin, Shamir, Eitan and, more recent­ly, Ehud Barak (idol­ized by Amy Wilentz in The New York­er) refer­ring to Pales­tini­ans as two-legged beasts, grasshop­pers, cock­roach­es and mos­qui­toes. These lead­ers have used planes and tanks to treat Pales­tini­ans accord­ing­ly. As for the facts of Israel’s wars against civil­ians — the pro­tract­ed, con­sis­tent and sys­tem­at­ic cam­paign against pris­on­ers of war and refugee camp dwellers, the vil­lage destruc­tions and bomb­ings of hos­pi­tals and schools, the delib­er­ate cre­ation of hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees — all these are buried in reams of prat­tle. Miller dis­dains facts ; she prefers quot­ing inter­minable talk as a way of turn­ing Arabs into deserv­ing vic­tims of Israeli ter­ror and U.S. sup­port of it. She per­fect­ly exem­pli­fies The New York Times’s cur­rent Mid­dle East cov­er­age, now at its low­est ebb.

In her lame con­clu­sion Miller admits that her scold­ing may have been a lit­tle too harsh. She then puts it all down to her love” of the region and its peo­ple. I can­not hon­est­ly think of a thing that she loves : not the con­formism of Arab soci­ety she talks about, or the osten­ta­tious culi­nary dis­play she says that the Arabs con­fuse with hos­pi­tal­i­ty, or the lan­guages she has­n’t learned, or the peo­ple she makes fun of or the his­to­ry and cul­ture of a place that to her is one long tale of unin­tel­li­gi­ble sound and fury. She can­not enter into the life of the place, lis­ten to its con­ver­sa­tions direct­ly, read its nov­els and plays on her own (as opposed to mak­ing friends with their authors), enjoy the ener­gy and refine­ments of its social life or see its land­scapes. But this is the price of being a Times reporter in an age of sullen exper­tise” and instant posi­tion-tak­ing. You would­n’t know from Miller’s book that there is any inter-Arab con­flict in inter­pre­ta­tions and rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Mid­dle East and Islam and that, giv­en her choice of sources, she is deeply par­ti­san : an ene­my of Arab nation­al­ism, which she declares dead numer­ous times in the book ; a sup­port­er of U.S. pol­i­cy ; and a com­mit­ted foe of any Pales­tin­ian nation­al­ism that does­n’t con­form to the ban­tus­tans being set up accord­ing to the Oslo accords. Miller, in short, is a shal­low, opin­ion­at­ed jour­nal­ist whose gigan­tic book is too long for what it ends up say­ing, and far too short on reflec­tion, con­sid­ered analy­sis, struc­ture and facts. Poor Mus­lims and Arabs who may have trust­ed her ; they should have known bet­ter than to mis­take an insin­u­at­ed guest for a friend.


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