Malise Ruthven

  • Covering Islam by Edward Said
    Routledge, 224 pp, £8.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0840 6
  • Heart-Beguiling Araby by Kathryn Tidrick
    Cambridge, 224 pp, £12.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 521 23483 2
  • Inside the Iranian Revolution by John Stempel
    Indiana, 336 pp, £10.50, December 1981, ISBN 0 253 14200 8
  • The Return of the Ayatollah by Mohamed Heikal
    Deutsch, 218 pp, £9.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 233 97404 0
  • Sadat by David Hirst and Irene Beeson
    Faber, 384 pp, £11.50, December 1981, ISBN 0 571 11690 6

Edward Said is the first Palestinian to have stormed the East Coast literary establishment. His achievement has partly been the result of what his more paranoid opponents must regard as his uncanny sense of strategy. A Christian-born Arab long resident in the United States, he successfully scaled the ladder of English studies (hardly a quarter where Zionist sentries would be posted) before launching his brilliant attack on the citadel of area studies in Orientalism. This position could be occupied without much difficulty, since no one outside the interests directly concerned was eager to rush to the defence of institutions backed by the Government, big business or the oil companies. By the time his nationalist apologia, The Question of Palestine, came out, Said’s voice was too powerful to be ignored.

Covering Islam takes up the main theme of Orientalism, but with a more specific focus: the American media’s prejudiced and ill-informed coverage of the Iranian revolution. Like that of his compatriots, Said’s fire is sometimes rather wild. In his rage to demolish the clichés that have come to make up much of the conventional wisdom about Islam and Iran, he is inclined to overlook such nuggets of truth as lie buried within them. For example, it may be sloppy and misleading to describe Iranians as having a ‘martyr complex’, but one cannot deny that martyrdom has a central role in the religious and popular culture of the Iranian people, and that this has had some impact on their political outlook. Generally, however, Said’s targets are well-chosen and the questions he raises important, even if his answers are less than wholly satisfying.

The central theme of Covering Islam, as of Orientalism, is the affiliation of knowledge with power. A region, a collection of people or even a common religious tradition, must first be defined into existence before it can be subjugated and controlled. Classical orientalists, men like Snouck Hurgronje and Silvestre de Sacy, became the employees of colonial governments and put their knowledge to active, sometimes destructive use. Today’s orientalists continue to ‘speak for the Orient’ rather than letting it speak for itself. They present ‘Islam’ to their students, and thence to the wider public, as something monolithic and predominantly hostile. This ‘reductive and monochromatic’ account of an enormously varied and complex reality is passed on, suitably vulgarised and trivialised, by the mass media. In such a manner public opinion may be softened up to demand military intervention (‘Nuke Tehran’ buttons were displayed during the hostage crisis) or at least to accept such adventurist and dangerous expedients as the Rapid Deployment Force. As in all such veiled propaganda, double standards abound. Statements are made about Muslims or Islam which, if applied to any other religion or ethnic group, such as Judaism or Blacks, would provoke instant outrage or ridicule.

During the revolution and the hostage crisis, US television coverage of Iran epitomised these attitudes. Khomeini, medieval, despotic, wages ‘holy war’ upon the world in an attempt to drag his homeland back into the seventh century AD. The unstated assumption, of course, is that Westernisation equals modernity, and that developing countries must needs transform themselves into ‘mini-Americas’. Any country (excluding those under Communist control, which are already beyond the pale) which rejects Western (i.e. American) control over its government and institutions must by definition be obscurantist and backward-looking. The fact that the pro-Western Menahem Begin has been just as willing as Khomeini to mandate his actions by appealing to religious authority, or that all three Presidential candidates in 1980 claimed to be ‘born-again Christians’, is ignored in this context. In its popular image, ‘Islam’ is uniquely atavistic, its adherents uniformly fanatical.

In seeking to explain TV mythology about Islam, Said leads us back along the paths of academia to his habitual targets, the temples of area studies. Here we find, unsurprisingly, two familiar demons who by now have come to loom almost as large in anti-orientalist mythology as Khomeini in Middle America: Elie Kedourie and Bernard Lewis. Lewis is singled out for his smug and unthinking assumptions about ‘Western’ intellectual superiority. At the heart of his and similar attitudes Said discerns an epistemological naivety that would never be permitted in other fields of inquiry. Unlike most modern historians, literary critics and anthropologists, the orientalists continue to exhibit an almost complete lack of self-consciousness about the methodology of their field, its ‘knowability’ and the purposes to which their knowledge (which can only consist of interpretation) may be put. This he attributes to two factors: the marginality, or ‘willed irrelevance’, of Islamic studies in relation to the general culture; and a ready market for its products.

Generally speaking, Said’s argument is thoroughly persuasive, even if at times his approach is too polemical. As in Orientalism, scholars (such as Arberry, Watt or Hodgson) who do not fit the orientalist pattern are scarcely given their due. The broader argument that Islam is not something about which satisfactory generalisations can be made is pushed too far: the Quran and the Sunna (the Prophet’s practice as allegedly recorded in oral tradition) contain an irreducible core of positive teaching which, though variously applied in different societies, definitely constitutes a common element in the religio-cultural traditions of Asia and Africa. Islam can be defined, and needs to be understood, as the impact of a certain kind of vision, a vision which confers a unitary coherence upon the world’s manifold diversities.

Although she explicitly dissociates herself from his view that writers on the Middle East are primarily to be understood as ‘prisoners of an institutionalised system of discourse’, Kathryn Tidrick’s entertaining and well-written study provides ample support for Said’s overall argument that ‘knowledge equals power’ and can be made to serve its ends. Her book is about the making of a popular image: the Bedouin Arab, a ‘gentleman of the desert’ in Wilfred Scawen Blunt’s phrase, with whom, it seems, members of the British upper crust felt peculiarly at home. In her detailed account of four Victorian orientalist writers – Burton, Palgrave, Blunt and Doughty – she follows the emergence of this literary archetype and its Anglo-Saxon complement: the wandering Englishman uniquely qualified to ‘understand’ the Arabs. Arabia, she suggests, came to occupy a special place in the British upper-bourgeois psyche, the result of heavy childhood doses of the Bible and the Arabian Nights. ‘“Arabia” became a country of the mind more real than any place on a map and drew like a magnet those whose journeys were undertaken in search of themselves.’ All four men, she suggests, had sought and been denied adequate recognition within their own societies; all of them were patriots of an unusual kind, nationalists of the Continental type with strong ideas about race, blood and language. Of the foursome, Blunt was the most complete Bedouphile, and possibly the one whose ideas had the most far-reaching results. His support for Arabi Pasha, whom he mistook for a kind of Egyptian ‘desert gentleman’, brought Blunt into conflict with British colonialism, leading him eventually into supporting the nationalist cause in Ireland and India. However, Tidrick warns us not to be too easily taken in by this: in championing the Arabs he was ‘striking a blow for the principle of aristocracy’. His stand against the British Empire, she suggests, was really the ‘petulance of a jilted lover’. In his contempt for the Copts, the ‘Caananites’ of Syria and the ‘bastard Irakis’ he almost matched his old adversary Lord Cromer, ruler of Egypt and ideologist of Britain’s divine right to rule.

For individuals like Blunt, Tidrick concludes, Arab society ‘became a medium of self-expression’, a place where they could work off their private frustrations and seek new identities. (Like his most ardent disciple, T.E. Lawrence, Blunt may well have been conceived out of wedlock.) The net effect was far from innocuous. The myth that the ‘English knew the Arabs as no one else did’ made it easier for the British to take over large portions of the old Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Sir Mark Sykes (co-signatory of the Anglo-French agreement that led to the establishment of mandates in Palestine, Syria and Iraq) fully shared, and was no doubt thoroughly influenced by, Blunt’s contempt for the Levantine ‘Gosmoboleet’. Lawrence, the young archaeologist saturated with Burton, Palgrave and Doughty, became obsessed with the idea, first mooted by Blunt, of an Arab empire headed by the Hashemite clan. The unfortunate ‘Gosmoboleets’ and ‘bastard Irakis’ had the Sherif Hussein’s sons foisted upon them as rulers: the most culturally developed parts of the region subjected to government of the most backward. The ensuing anomalies are still felt in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and, of course, Palestine.

One of the attitudes exposed in Said’s book might be called ‘the who-lost-China syndrome’: the orgy of divisive and emotional recrimination following such US foreign policy setbacks as occurred in China in 1948 and thereafter in such places as Cuba, Vietnam and Angola. Iran seems destined to become the latest subject for an autopsy of this kind. As Said points out, the premise behind this thinking is that the US has had some kind of proprietary rights over territories ‘lost’ by incompetent Presidents or neglectful officials.

John Stempel’s book Inside the Iranian Revolution exemplifies this attitude. As Deputy Chief of the Political Section of the US Embassy, Stempel served in Tehran during the critical years from 1975 to mid-1979, after the fall of the Shah, when most of the pre-revolution personnel were withdrawn. He details the confused policy decisions which bedevilled US-Iranian relations in this period when, thanks to the rise in oil prices, the Shah was engaged in buying up the most advanced military equipment along with American businessmen, Congressmen and Senators (or their wives). In reviewing US policy decisions he does not pull his punches. Neither US Intelligence nor the State Department nor the Embassy staff itself seems to have seen what was coming, or from which quarter. Long after Iran’s armed forces had begun to disintegrate, Zbigniew Brzezinski was still advocating the ‘Pinochet Option’ – a properly organised military coup which would save the day for US interests. A ‘counter-coup’ had been successful in 1953 when the temporarily exiled Shah was restored to power with a little help from his friends in the CIA. Why wasn’t the same possible in 1978? According to Stempel’s analysis, apart from the confusion in Washington, the Shah himself was largely responsible: he fell less because of the strength of his enemies than from the weight of his regime’s incompetence. Partly as a result of his illness, whose gravity he concealed from his US allies, he grew increasingly out of touch with realities in his country and became unable to take decisive action. He failed to give a proper lead to the security forces, who consequently vacillated between repressive brutality and pusillanimous lenience. He showed the same incompetence on the political front. Despite the reforms of the ‘White Revolution’ he failed to broaden his base by delegating real responsibility to his ‘liberal’ supporters and the official government-backed Resurgence Party which should have become their political vehicle.

No doubt all this is partly true: the Shah might have saved the day for himself and his American friends if he had induced the Westernised middle classes to share more fully in his government and to identify more fully with his regime. But there is much to quarrel with in Stempel’s book. He minimises the impact of the social and economic dislocations caused by the Shah’s rush for development, the alienation of his erstwhile middle-class supporters by foreign competition, wholesale corruption at the top and the notorious police brutality which increasingly affected their more radically-minded children and did so much to dent the Shah’s image abroad. He is woolly about the composition and ideology of the opposition: for example, on adjoining pages, the late Ali Shariati, guru of the Islamic Left, is bracketed with Khomeini as a‘hard-line anti-modernist’ and described as a ‘Shiite Marxian socialist’ (neither description is accurate). He seems equally confused about the political affiliations of the various guerrilla groups which played a main part in the overthrow of the Shah and are now leading the opposition to the Islamic Republican Party. A statement which exemplifies both his ignorance about the opposition forces and the extent to which the US Government identified itself with the Shah is his claim, which is utterly without foundation, that the BBC Persian Service was ‘captured’ by expatriates sympathetic to the revolution.

These omissions and errors point to the more serious failure to grasp the ideology of the Iranian revolution. In common with the US media pundits pilloried by Edward Said, Stempel simplistically equates ‘Westernisation’ with ‘modernisation’, assuming that the Khomeinists’ hostility to the former automatically encompasses the latter. The interaction between nationalism and Shiite Islam in modern Iranian history (as described by such outstanding American specialists as Hamid Algar and Nikki Keddie) is completely ignored in Stempel’s analysis. Despite his meticulous recounting of events in a seemingly objective style, Stempel reveals more about the defects of US policy in his own errors and omissions than in any of the statements contained in his narrative. If Stempel is in any way representative of the average US career diplomat, no wonder they ‘lost’ Iran.

Long the confidant of President Nasser and for more than two decades the Arab world’s best-known journalist, Mohamed Heikal is well-placed to act as a sympathetic but objective observer of Iran, free from the taint of ‘orientalism’. Readers of Sphinx and Commissar and The Road to Ramadan will expect a highly professional and very readable effort. Heikal’s English, polished by Edward Hodgkin, never betrays the fact that it is not his first language. He is a master of the telling anecdote or spicy detail that makes public figures seem real and human. But if there are plenty of colourful passages in The Return of the Ayatollah, it does not achieve quite the same level of analysis as Heikal’s previous books in English. In writing about Egypt, Heikal was privy to the innermost counsels of the great: he is one of the few active journalists to have held high political office. His knowledge of Iran is much more sketchy, and he is not the kind of writer to fill the gaps in his first-hand knowledge with massive book-learning.

Nevertheless he provides a much more convincing account than Stempel of the reasons the Shah and his American friends ‘lost’ Iran to the Ayatollah. He points out how, on his abdication in 1941, the Shah’s father, Reza Pahlevi (ousted by the British and the Russians for his pro-Axis sympathies), owned some two thousand villages and directly employed a quarter of a million of his subjects as workers on his land. His son Muhammad Reza – aided by his more powerful twin-sister Princess Ashraf, an avid collector of Napoleana and tiger skins – set about appropriating the country’s wealth by more sophisticated means. The Pahlevi Foundation was set up in 1958, ostensibly for charitable purposes. ‘By 1979 its assets were estimated at around $3 billion. Between them the Royal Family and the Pahlevi Foundation were thought to control 80 per cent of the cement industry in Iran, 70 per cent of hotels and tourism, 62 per cent of banking and insurance, 40 per cent of the textile industry, 35 per cent of the motor industry ...’ Heikal has missed out the helicopter assembly plant owned by the Shah’s younger brother, Mahmoud Reza. ‘If the people don’t like traffic jams,’ he is said to have asked, ‘why don’t they buy helicopters?’

The Shah’s undoing began with his own inimitable arrogance, and the corruption surrounding the court which, especially after Nixon came to power, was all too heartily encouraged by American business interests and by the multinationals. The Shah would lecture Western visitors on the ‘decadence’ of their civilisation while expounding the virtues of his own brand of ‘oriental’ authoritarianism.

Heikal’s account places the siege of the American hostages in context. The Embassy compound, some sixty acres in the centre of Tehran, had been the communications centre from which the US monitored the whole region – a tangible reminder of super-power presence, and an obvious target for nationalist attack. As a Muslim Arab he shows some refinement in his analysis of the forces opposing the Shah, although his view is to some extent distorted by his Egyptian background. He assumes that the return to Islamic ‘fundamentalism’ in Iran is partly, as in Egypt, the result of the failure of secular nationalism. While acknowledging the Shiite roots of Iranian radicalism, with its enshrining of the experience of dispossession and martyrdom, he overlooks (as does Stempel) the specific role of the clergy as carriers of the nationalist banner.

With the hindsight of the past twelve months, most readers (and not just non-Muslims) will probably find his characterisation of Khomeini unduly sympathetic. But the extent to which Heikal himself falls under his spell helps explain the Imam’s extraordinary charisma.

He started talking in a low key, but I have never heard a voice which was so quiet and yet so moving. It seemed to caress the ears of his hearers in gentle waves, producing in them a state almost of intoxication ... It was a most extraordinary scene. Here was the Imam, with his long grey beard and the black mourning turban of the Shiis, a figure who might have stepped straight out of the seventh century. Yet all these people, representatives of the intellectual and social élite of Iran, were listening to him in absolute silence, hanging in rapt attention on every word that fell from his lips.

Part of this appeal is inseparable from the Shiite religion, with its expectation of a Hidden Imam who will return one day to bring peace and justice to a world torn by misery and strife. The tumultuous reception accorded to Khomeini on his return from exile can only be understood in this context.

Though not, of course, laying any formal claim to the Hidden Imamate, Khomeini at his best represents an aspiration to end the state/clergy division that has tormented Iranian society since the Qajar Shahs found themselves increasingly opposed by the mullahs for selling economic concessions to foreign interests during the last century. The problem for the revolution is that while virtually all sides (excepting the monarchists and the extreme secular Left) are agreed on the need to reintegrate the national polity, each would prefer to do so on its own terms. For Khomeini, ‘the ink of the fuqaha [religious scholars] is as sacred as the blood of martyrs.’ For his leftist opponents who are now at war with the Islamic Republican Party, the creation of an Islamic state must involve a significant abandonment of clerical privileges. The conflict, which is complicated by regional and ethnic factors, is not a simple matter of ‘secular modernisers’ versus ‘religious obscurantists’, as American TV pundits would have it.

In contrast to every other Arab and Muslim leader, the late Anwar Sadat achieved something like hero status in the West. His visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 made him an instant media superstar, as beloved of the American public as Khomeini was hated. Time Magazine, painting him against the backcloth of the Pyramids, named him ‘Man of the Year’. An American committee nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, an honour that came to be somewhat tarnished by the fact that he was obliged to share it with Menahem Begin (surely the most unsuitable recipient in the history of the award, not excluding Kissinger of Cambodia). Kissinger, who had once dismissed him as a ‘bombastic clown’, suddenly found him ‘the greatest since Bismarck’. Sadat, in short, became the object of a kind of inverted orientalism, best illustrated in Gail Sheehy’s extravagant encomium in Esquire:

Though he is an emotional man standing now at the pivot of history, Sadat maintains an almost metaphysical serenity. Neither displeasure nor impatience, seldom even the fits and starts natural to frustration can be discerned in his utterances ... Performer, politician, poet, prophet – the man is all four sides. They form a geometry as pure in its logic and mystical in its inspiration as the Pyramids ...

The authors of the first biography to appear since Sadat’s assassination last October will have none of this gush. Both of them are old Guardian hands with many years’ experience of reporting Egypt and the Middle East. David Hirst, along with Eric Rouleau of Le Monde, is one of the few Western journalists to have received the Edward Said Seal of Approval. Irene Beeson lived for 16 years in one of the poorer districts of Cairo, and knows its people intimately, Together they have produced a masterful exercise in demythification.

Sadat’s was a complex personality, but not an impenetrable one. First and foremost, he was an actor. In 1948 there appeared a small advertisement in the Cairo quarterly, Al Fusuul: ‘I am a dark youth 1.69m tall, 31 years old. I go in for comic acting, and I am ready to play a role in the theatre or cinema. Anwar Sadat.’ Though Sadat never made it on the stage or in films, Jerusalem initiated a brilliant career on the small screen, one which he relished to the day of his death. He was never happier than when quipping with foreign TV journalists or delivering one of his interminable rambling monologues to the nation. It was not inappropriate that his death took place in the full glare of the cameras. According to the authors, Sadat belonged to a type well-known in Egyptian popular culture as the fahlawi. The American scholar Lewis Scudder has described the fahlawi thus:

The fahlawi is an individual who is happy-go-lucky, hail-fellow-well-met. He is a blusterer who loves his pomp ... Generally jovial he likes to be liked. He is characterised by an Epicurean approach to life – pain avoidance and pleasure-seeking. Among his phobias is the fear of responsibility ... Among other traits, the fahlawian personality is characterised by a perennial search for the shortest and quickest means to a particular end, means which avoid the mundane discomfort of expending the energy usually required to overcome the obstacles in the way.

By a happy etymological coincidence, the Egyptian word comes from the Persian root pahlaw – whose originally heroic connotations recommended it to ex-sergeant Reza Mirza when, on making himself Shah in 1925, he needed a suitably august dynastic surname. The parallels between Sadat and Reza’s son Muhammad are compelling. Both were the constitutional successors of brilliant, charismatic, self-made leaders, without whom they could not have hoped to occupy the highest office in the state. Both seem to have been weak, dependent personalities, who compensated for their feelings of inadequacy by elaborate uniforms and rituals. Both suffered from post-colonial feelings of social inferiority, preferring to mix with the international haut monde rather than cultivate domestic public opinion. Both of them claimed to be heirs to the ancient divine kingships which once flourished in their regions, and tried to manipulate the imperial symbols of these ancient kingdoms to counter the nationalist attacks of their domestic critics. The Shah had his vastly expensive picnic at Persepolis, Sadat invited Frank Sinatra and a few hundred other international jet-setters to a lavish barbecue at the Pyramids.

Like that of his friend the Shah, Sadat’s Government was increasingly characterised by corruption and cynicism at the top, alienation among the middle classes, and the poverty and wretchedness of the masses. The infitah, the so-called ‘open-door’ economic policy with which he replaced Nasser’s state capitalism, was a fraudulent failure, a stratagem which enabled Sadat and his cronies to amass considerable private fortunes, and a small parasitic element within the middle class to become rich enough to force up the prices of rents and basic commodities without significantly contributing to Egypt’s productive capacity. The main reason his regime did not collapse like that of the Shah was probably the absence of the kind of frustration that comes when rising expectations are thwarted. In Crane Brinton’s famous analysis, revolutions do not occur when living conditions are at their worst, but when improvements fail to keep pace with aspirations. Generally speaking, Sadat had no need for torture chambers and an elaborate apparatus of repression. The living and working conditions of most Egyptians could be counted on to succeed where SAVAK failed.

According to Besson and Hirst’s analysis, Sadat’s foreign policy was, if anything, even more unrealistic and disastrous than his domestic policy. If diplomacy is war conducted by other means, then the flaws in Sadat’s diplomacy were the direct result of his military failures. Like the infitah, the ‘Victory of the Crossing’ (whose eighth anniversary Sadat was celebrating the day he was shot) was a myth. At best, the 1973 war represented a 1-1 draw with Israel, Egypt’s initial advantage having been cancelled out by General Sharon’s counter-crossing and encirclement of Sadat’s Third Army. Though his political prestige stood high, Sadat’s negotiating position was really no stronger after the 1973 war than it had been before it. Kissinger cleverly bailed him out, believing that Israel could be forced into limited concessions by a modest display of American muscle. Sadat, fahlawi to the last, decided to place all his eggs in his ‘Friend Henry’s’ basket. The Jerusalem visit and the subsequent humiliation of the Camp David Accord, when Sadat, despite all his protests to the contrary, was obliged to accept a separate peace with Israel, were the logical consequences of this decision. The Palestinians, original cause of four wars with Israel, were abandoned to their fate – a bantustan-type ‘autonomy’ (the minimum necessary to preserve Israel’s ‘Jewishness’) within a Greater Israel.

Such, at any rate, is the thesis that emerges from Hirst and Beeson’s book. Generally speaking, it follows the line of Sadat’s Arab critics. It is consistent, and undoubtedly accords with the facts. There remains the suspicion, however, that Sadat may have been a more subtle operator than his critics took him for. Despite the selling-out of the Palestinians, and his weak bargaining position, he did succeed in getting something for nothing. In April his successor Husni Mubarak stands to get back the remaining portion of Sinai in accordance with the Camp David agreements. What is there to stop him, having achieved this, from undertaking a rapprochement with the more pro-Western Arab states, and pushing for a much better deal for the Palestinians? If this happens, Mubarak, who has already taken some measures to distance himself from the excesses of his predecessor (for example, by releasing, among other political detainees, the estimable Mr Heikal), will no doubt be given the credit for it, so we will never know for sure whether this was really Sadat’s intended strategy. The assurance with which the authors consistently condemn their subject is one of the strengths of this book: it is written with feeling, passion almost. They were lucky, however, that their subject departed from the stage just before their book went to press. He will no longer be around to spring surprises which might contradict the main thrust of their argument. Their book contains one major weakness. Like many of the Shah’s critics, they have paid insufficient attention to the Islamic opposition. Sadat, unlike the Shah, knew how to work with both the ‘official’ religious establishment and the more moderate elements in the Muslim Brotherhood. This did not save him, however, from Khalid Stambouli’s bullets. His successor may already be mending his fences, not only with the old left and centre parties, but with some of the Islamic radicals who could fill the space dividing the regime’s Westernised élite from the urban poor. If he achieves this, Egypt will be spared the fate that overtook Iran. The Egyptians will then have good cause to thank, not only Mubarak, but also the man who took it upon himself to prevent Anwar Sadat, Generalissimo and President for Life, from wreaking further devastation upon his people.