Correcting for the Historian’s Middle Eastern Biases

Eugene Rogan’s revised and updated edition of The Arabs: A History opens up with the conquest of the Mamluks of Egypt by the Ottoman Sultan, Selim the Grim. It recounts the story of the region—perpetually disquieted by wars great and small—up to the present day. It is a well researched and energetic book that holds one’s attention, and will be of value to readers who wish to understand the Arab world the way Arabs want to be understood. As history it is fabulous, but as analysis, it has a certain bias that I found frustrating as an Arab Christian.

Rogan, the director of the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, lived in the region for eight years while he was growing up, in Lebanon and Egypt. His love for it is evident, and appreciated. My reading of The Arabs, though, is informed by my experience as an Iraqi Christian who was born in Baghdad, lived in Greece as a refugee, and came to the United States at the age of nine. While I have been located outside of the Arab nations most of my life, I have always been in and around the Arab American subculture, hearing the stories and perspectives of immigrants old and new as each upheaval initiated a new wave of arrivals. Rogan is optimistic in his views of the Arab world, as am I; there is much in his book with which I agree, and I hope to enrich the dialogue on the Middle East by these reflections.

Reform and the Arab World

In the summer of 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte filled the Alexandrian harbor with his men o’war; the city surrendered within hours. He and his forces went on to conquer and occupy Cairo. During three years there, the French attempted to bring to Egyptians the ideas of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, and the technology of the Industrial Revolution. They were not impressed. “The gulf separating French Revolutionary thought from Egyptian Muslim values,” writes Rogan, “was unbridgeable. Enlightenment values that the French held to be universal were deeply offensive to many Egyptians, both as Ottoman subjects and observant Muslims.”

At the heart of the Enlightenment was a de-Christianized secular philosophy; this is what the French were attempting to implant in Egyptian Muslim terrain, and of course it didn’t take. The Egyptian answer to Napoleon’s worldview comes from ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (1754-1824), an intellectual and theologian of that era. “Al-Jabarti,” writes Rogan,

dismissed Napoleon’s claim that all men were equal as ‘a lie and stupidity’ and concluded: ‘You see that they are materialists, who deny all God’s attributes. The creed they follow is to make human reason supreme and what people will approve in accordance with their whims.’ Al-Jabarti’s statements reflected the beliefs of Egypt’s Muslim majority, who rejected the exercise of human reason over revealed religion.

European technology, however, was enthralling. And so Cairo began sending young clerics to study the ways of the French. The journal entries of one cleric was “full of contradictions,” Rogan writes. He refers to Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), who notes in his journal with an air of superiority that the French were “Christians only in name.” But, admiring Europe’s science and technology, he added almost enviously: “I was grieved by the fact that [France] had enjoyed all those things that are lacking in Islamic kingdoms.” This young cleric ended up translating the 74 articles of France’s 1814 constitution. He wrote that he wanted his countrymen to see, through this constitution, how the French “intellect had decided that justice and equity are the causes for civilization of kingdoms, the well-being of subjects, and how rulers and their subjects were led by this, to the extent that their country has prospered, their knowledge increased, their wealth accumulated and their hearts satisfied.”

One can see from the historical record the difficulty the Arab world had in synthesizing faith and reason. Moreover, because by the time Arabs were exposed to European ideas Europe had shed its faith, they couldn’t help but see apostasy as some kind of necessity of modernization. And so the constant struggle ever since has been not only their own internal inability to synthesize faith and reason, but their reflexive misunderstanding of the development of Europe. The widespread insistence that science and technology can only be gotten by the abandonment of faith continues to this day, issuing in a desire for technological growth that many Arabs feel cannot be harmonized with the other elements of their identity.

In Rogan’s telling, al-Tahtawi’s 1834 book on European scientific and technological advancement, with its analysis of Enlightenment political philosophy, was “the opening shot” in reforms. The Ottoman Empire and the Arab world proceeded to make Western-style reforms in the 19th century, if fitfully, beginning with the 1839 Reform Decree. One example of a difficult reform was the idea of the equality of different faiths. The Ottoman government was caught at times between warding off Western powers concerned over the welfare of Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, and pacifying the Muslim majority throughout their lands, who as part-and-parcel of their religious beliefs did not and could not view non-Muslims like Jews and Christians as equals.

The introduction of such ideas brought agitation and revolts. Rogan writes, “The Ottomans learned some important lessons from the experience of 1860. Never again would they pursue a reform measure that openly contravened Islamic doctrine. Thus, in the decades that followed, when the abolitionist movement and the British government combined forces to pressure the Ottoman Empire to abolish slavery, the Porte [central government of the Ottoman Empire] demurred.”

Rogan also recounts the attempts made by Tunisia, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire to acquire European technology. However, their ventures put them in debt to European banks, which resulted in bankruptcy, and opened the Middle East to European occupation. Thus the lesson for the Arab world was: No reform! Because reform eventually leads to subjugation of the people and their culture.

Nationalism and Anti-Semitism

The author lays too much at the feet of colonialism and imperial Europe. He is steadfast in the old Arab grudge: the national-state boundaries of the modern Middle East imposed with the Sykes-Picot accord  are artificial. The Western occupation of Arab lands and the artificial boundaries have wreaked havoc in the region, ergo all the wars and revolts.

The historical record stands in contradiction to this claim. By Rogan’s own historical account—and this is what I mean about his history being superior to his analysis—not only were there already local identities of the people, there were certain cultural and tribal boundaries approximating the harder boundaries drawn up by Mark Sykes and François-Georges Picot in 1916.

The Arab world had seen internal wars going back very far, whether it was Egyptian pashas attempting to conquer Greater Syria or Wahhabis fighting Iraqis and the Ottomans in the Hijaz. European machinations aggravated the situation, to be sure; the thirst for oil in modern times has made for some unsavory politics. I don’t want to discount these factors, yet at the same time the Arabs have long been given a pass on their victimization. For their own good it needs to stop. It’s a case of both/and, which is to say that Arabs need to overcome their grudge against Western colonialism and move forward for the sake of their people, and the Western countries need to return to something like the 1840 “self-denying protocol”—that is, to refrain from using the Arab nations for their own benefit.

Because I know the Arab context well, I can sense that Rogan has unfortunately picked up some of the Arab attitude toward the Jews, although he does temper it. The Arab milieu—Christian and Muslim—is anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic. Clearly Rogan is not anti-Semitic; but he does tend to be partial to the Muslim Arabs. As an Arab, I understand that he is trying to stay true to the Arab perspective, but his sympathies have blurred his objectivity. When I write about Arab anti-Semitism, it is not out of vindictiveness; I write unflinchingly about it because I am convinced that Arab anti-Semitism hurts the Arabs and I sincerely want healing for them.

One thing stands out here as very peculiar: the author’s silence about what the Arabs did to the Jews after World War II. They killed them, confiscated their property and possessions, and drove them out of Arab lands. Aside from the one paragraph he gives to the pogrom in Iraq in 1941, there’s not much on what the Arab Muslims did to the Jews living in their midst throughout the region in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His being so tied to the Arab Muslim perspective leads him to minimize the virulent anti-Semitism in the Arab world to this day.

We have, for example, the Reverend Doctor Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian-Arab Lutheran pastor and recipient of the 2012 German Media Prize. Dr. Raheb travels the world telling people that the Jews in Israel are imposters and usurpers; that they have convinced everyone that they are real Jews while in truth they are Eastern European pretenders, neither Jews nor Semites. This is nothing new; it’s just repackaged Arab anti-Semitism with a Christian sheen to be more palatable to Western audiences. One of Raheb’s claims is that he, as a Palestinian, is genetically closer to “real Jews” than are the Jewish people who make up the state of Israel. The message: The settlement of Israel by Jews is part of the Western colonial occupation of Arab lands, and should be reversed.

Consider how similar this is to the narrative Rogan tells, of the Arab view of the Jews going back in time. Rogan himself consistently uses “occupier” when referring to Israel or Western nations—a noun he seldom uses for Ottoman or Arab conquerors, destroyers, or occupiers. He is aiding and abetting what is known as replacement history—a racial theory that claims that the Jews who created the state of Israel, and those who sustain it today (mostly those of Ashkenazi background), are descendants of the Khazars, a central Asian nomadic Turkic tribe which converted to Judaism.

The Khazar myth has been discredited, for the Jewish diaspora out of the Middle East is a historically established fact, and the science of genetics supports that history. (See genetic studies of Ashkenazic Jews showing that they are an admixture of European and Middle Eastern origins; in fact it is a testament to their solidarity that they retain something around half Middle Eastern genetics after the better part of a millennium in diaspora.)

But should race and ethnicity be the exclusive measuring rod of who can live where? Would a Jew have to be of “pure blood” to live in the land? The pedigree of such thoughts is chilling. In any case anti-Semitism, what Dr. Ruth Wisse defines as “the agitation of politics against the Jews,” seems to have worked well in the Middle East, even without concentration camps.

There are fewer than 10 Jewish families living in Baghdad, Iraq, according to the 2016 State Department International Religious Freedom Report. In Bahrain there are approximately 36 to 40 individuals from six Jewish families. There are approximately 23 Jews—not families, but persons—in all of Egypt. In Libya, there are “no reliable estimates of the small Jewish population.” Morocco’s Jews fare a bit better; their religion is recognized by the government, and they are allowed to worship. The State Department report estimates the Jewish population there to be 3,000 to 4,000 persons. There is no reliable information on the current state of the small Jewish communities that existed in Aleppo and Damascus before the civil war in Syria. In Tunisia, the Jewish community is between 1,500 and 2,000 persons. There are no accurate numbers on the Jewish population from the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen may have 50 Jews left.

Arabs have maintained for years that the problems of their region would go away if they could get rid of the Jews, and Rogan does little to dispel that myth. The statistics show that the Arab lands have been essentially de-Esthered, yet the Arab world proceeds in chaos still.

Convert, or Pay

There were, as we know, Arab Christians before there were Arab Muslims. But time and space do not permit me to address the way Rogan discounts the Christians of the region. Suffice it to say he does not challenge the beneath-the-surface accusation that Christians were in league with Western powers. Let me only quote his jaw-dropping discussion of the Ottoman kidnapping of Christian boys, and slave recruitment from the Balkans. Writes Rogan:

Young Christian boys were taken from their villages. . . . They were sent to Istanbul, where they were converted to Islam and trained to serve the empire. . . . By modern standards, the boy levy [tax] appears nothing short of barbaric: children sent into slavery to be raised far from their families and forcibly converted to Islam. At the time, however, it was the only means for upward mobility in a fairly restrictive society. Through the boy levy, a peasant’s son could rise to become a general or grand vizier.

In fact, though, this is called cultural genocide.

When the Muslim Ottomans conquered the Christian Balkans, the inhabitants were given two choices: convert or pay to keep your religion. By decree, young Christian boys were taken to Istanbul, and turned into Muslim warriors. One could even call it kidnapping. It is nothing short of complete conquest: physical and cultural. Even adjusting for our perspective and “modern standards,” the explicit goal and design of this policy was the obliteration of Christian culture and society in the Balkans. The tiny communities that stayed Christian were well nigh powerless.

Rogan excuses these developments as a product of the times, neglecting the objective immorality of it. The Arabs maintains this double standard throughout. What is done to Jews and Christians is justified away, but the slightest injury to Muslims—real or imagined—is brought to the fore.

A final disappointment is that the radical Islam of our time barely figures in the book. Its last chapter contains a few paragraphs about ISIS in Iraq, and one sentence on the “genocidal measures against the Yezidi minority community.” There is no mention whatsoever of the thousands of Christians slaughtered and/or displaced, in a work that purports to be about all Arabs.

Overall I’m glad The Arabs was published. It is an important contribution to the field. But the reader should be aware of its defects.

Reader Discussion

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on March 09, 2018 at 12:11:23 pm

As " frustrating as an Arab Christian" might be, one can only imagine how a Jew from the Middle East must feel after reading this one-sided, and obviously biased, analysis of Arab history, interesting as it might be. Simms' review at least puts the book in proper perspective and leaves the reader with an implied caveat to read the book with in conjunction with a more balanced and accurate view of Arab history.

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David I. Owen
on March 15, 2018 at 11:44:12 am

Great review of a book that appears to be nothing more than a regurgitation of the 'received wisdom" of the times regarding the Arab world.

"through the boy levy, a peasant’s son could rise to become a general or grand vizier."

this should surprise no one as it is, in fact, part of a long, very long, historical trend among the Mohammedans. So much of what passes as the "greatness' of Arab civilization, re: mathematics, science, medicine, astronomy was actually accomplished by Assyrian Christians, Jews, Armenians and Coptic Christians drafted (both forcibly and otherwise) into the service of the Muslim overlords. (see data from Ninevahonline)

Also, see "Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controvery" by Emmet Scott which details the brutalities imposed by the Muslims upon the both Jews and Christians for over one and a half millennia. A religion arising out of the acts of brigandry cannot be expected to be peaceable - and history has shown that Mohammedanism has been neither peaceable nor open to any ideas that do not fit within the Koranic straight jacket.

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on January 24, 2020 at 15:45:20 pm

you speak as if all this is exclusive to "Mohammedans" history. As if Arab's themselves are inherently different from Assyrians christians.

"A religion arising out of the acts of brigandry cannot be expected to be peaceable "

Let me remind you of your equally peaceful Torah:
In the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites [the people of Jerusalem], as the Lord your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their Gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).

They should be utterly destroyed and should receive no mercy but be exterminated, as the Lord commanded Moses … Utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling (Joshua 11:20 … First Samuel 15:3).

You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath; and fire will consume them. You will destroy their offspring from the earth, and their children from among the sons of men (Psalms 21:9-10).

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.