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Book Review 262: The Arabists

January 1, 2013 - Harry Eagar
THE ARABISTS: The Romance of an American Elite, by Robert D. Kaplan. 333 pages, illustrated. Free Press paperback

Arabist is a wonk word, not used in ordinary American.

In essence neutral, indicating a westerner with special knowledge of the Arabic language, it was turned into a slur meaning particularly a Jew-hating (or despising) American diplomat who had “gone native” and adopted the anti-Zionist attitudes of the Arabs among whom he had spent many years.

Robert Kaplan, a journalist with interests in the Middle East, tries to reconstruct the evolution of the Arabists and to rehabilitate them, in part. Not by denying that they were, largely, antisemitic partisans; but by claiming that the situation was more complicated.

Not much more complicated, on the evidence of this 1993 book, whose hopeful conclusions – that the State Department's Arabists were going to become better – turned out to be a bad prediction.

Arabists seem to have had a love-despise attitude toward Arabs. Many people have written about the romantic feelings inspired by the desert and the warm feelings created by Arab courtesy. Less susceptible visitors have observed the way Arabs treat women and animals and been less impressed by formal courtesies; as, for example, romantics have fallen for the gentility of the Old South while realists were repelled by its brutality and cruelty.

More than one Arabist seems to have loved Arabs while holding them in contempt. One described learning the language as “opening the door to an empty room.”

I learned a lot from this book – based as it is on interviews with active and retired Arabists – but I also had many serious problems with what Kaplan left out.

American Arabism originated with missionaries. Do-gooders, with whom Kaplan is mightily impressed.

Their experience in the Koran Belt, compared with, say, China, was unique. Islam is a universalizing, salvationist monotheism, as is Christianity; but Islam has a one-way view of proselytizing. It's like the Hotel California. You can check in but you can never leave.

After a generation or so, the missionaries realized they would never convert any Moslems. Dedicated but sappy, they gave up and adopted what Kaplan does not call a social gospel approach.

The Middle East was treated as a gigantic Salvation Army aid station. If they could not be given Christianity, the Moslems could be given medical care, writing and printing, democratic instruction, efficient agriculture and nationalism.

The masses accepted the medical care without gratitude but proved indifferent to farming, study, nationalism and democracy. A tiny film of students got interested in nationalism, and for a time staffed the bureaus and palaces of the faux-modern Arab states. They are now being swept out by the real Moslems.

No Arab Moslem was ever attracted by democracy.

It was the fundamental failure of the Arabists, both before and after Kaplan wrote this book, to imagine that they were. Much blather about the Arab Spring in 2012 (and anticipations of it in “The Arabists”) could have been avoided had these deluded specialists paid attention to the Syrian political scientist Bassam Tibi, who states flatly that Arabs are not interested in democracy.

Allah knows there are enough indications of that truth in Kaplan's book, although he does not draw the obvious conclusion: Alberto Fernandez, a new generation Arabist, told Kaplan “self-determination is not something the Arabs want to apply anywhere else in the Middle East” except Israel and the areas it conquered in 1967.

Just so.

The missionaries, at least, had a reason for their delusions. As I said, they tried to introduce modernist ideas into the Koran Belt. As Kaplan does not realize, they were not themselves full moderns.

True, as Americans they were skilled in the use of books and gadgets. But every last one of them was also in thrall to the Book of Revelations. It was probably this – their expectations about history – that prevented them from quitting the area when their purpose became obviously impossible.

That is, the missionaries, whatever their skills and good intentions, were all half-crazy (some way more than half).

It is not a good idea to base a nation's foreign policy on a bedrock of half-craziness. The 20th-century Arabists were free of this delusion, but the circle turned in 2003, when a bunch of fundamentalist Texas yahoos grabbed power in America.

Kaplan ends his book worrying about the collision of American policy with Baathist, secular, modernism in Iraq, which he considers the nadir of Arabist influence – Gulf War I.

It was the Koran Belt. Things could always get worse.

When the antimodernists of the Bible Belt collided with the antimodernists of the Koran Belt in 2003, things got worse than even the worst pessimists imagined in 1993.

 
 

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