Review: 'Faith Misplaced' by Ussama Makdisi

In Beirut cafes, middle-aged men debate politics. They blame the Sykes Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration for all the Arab ills. They rant against colonial powers, Europe and later America. In Arab circles today, this has come to be known as the "Wooden Rhetoric."

Ussama Makdisi takes this Wooden Rhetoric and makes it into a book. He blames the West for its "Oriental" view of the Middle East, and America for taking Israel's side against the Palestinians. He introduces himself as a "bridge to cultural understanding" between America and the Arabs. He writes, "I am also entangled in [this] history."

For a starter, Makdisi's understanding of history sounds troubling. "The value of history stems from the lessons we draw from it," he writes (p. 16). History, however, is important for its own sake. When used as a "lesson," it becomes a tool for political legitimacy and thus invites the victor to dictate it.

Makdisi's claim to be the bridge between Arabs and America seems of little credence. There is no indication that he ever stepped out of his Beirut elite bubble, a problem that also tainted the views of his maternal uncle, the author of Orientalism, Edward Said.

Because Makdisi feels compelled to denounce colonialism, he expresses dismay over the British bombardment of the Iraqi revolution in 1920. Makdisi fails to notice that the Brits attacked Iraqis on behalf of King Faysal, the man Makdisi's grandfather met in Beirut and vowed to support. In fact, Makdisi dedicates a chapter to European betrayal of the Arabs, especially the British duplicity with Faysal.

"Iraqi nationalists, reacting to the British conquest of their land, also seized upon Wilsonian ideas and urged the United States government to help push for their immediate application in their country," Makdisi argues (p. 126-127). But who were these Iraqi nationalists? Were they the British-sponsored Faysal and his Sunni officers, or the rebels?

Makdisi conveniently, or unwittingly, leaves out the details of the Iraqi 1920 revolution, which was in fact a revolution of the Shiite tribes of the Middle Euphrates against the new Sunni rulers, with Iraqis who were former Ottoman army officers joining the Faisal monarchy under the wing of the British Empire.

But even if we assume that the Iraqis revolted against the British colonial rule in 1920, a few decades before the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine was making the headlines, the so-called revolution would prove that the Palestinian problem is not as central for Arab anti-colonial sentiment as Makdisi wants it to be.

While citing Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi national aspirations, Makdisi dismisses Lebanese nationalists and call them pro-French, without qualifying his accusation: "Faysal and his followers knew that Maronite Christians from Lebanon advocated a pro-French nationalism that opposed their Arab project" (p. 148).

With no evidence to substantiate his pan-Arab claims other than the findings of the American King-Crane Commission, and some elite literature, Makdisi speaks on behalf of all the Arabs: "For Arabs, Sykes-Picot was a metaphor for Western imperialism" (p.177). Makdisi fails to realize that without Sykes-Picot, Palestine would have never come into existence. It would have either remained divided into marginal Ottoman states, or become part of a grand Arab autocracy under Faysal and the Hashemites.

Thankfully, however, Makdisi realizes that "[p]arts of the Arab world, such as Morocco and Algeria, were far more preoccupied with the struggle against French colonialism than with Israel ... for reasons of geography, history, and political context, [they were] more insulated from the fallout of the Arab-Israeli conflict than were Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt" (p. 208).

In another fair observation alien to most of his tract, Makdisi added, "The degree and expression of the disillusionment with the United States varied across the diverse Arab world. Most Arabs understood that their relationship with the United States hinged on more than simply Palestine" (p. 208).

Despite admitting the priority of national issues over that of Palestine, Makdisi still points fingers at the Saudis: "As with his father in 1948, Faysal's relationship to the United Sates was ultimately more important to him than were the Palestinians" (p. 304).

Then yet another contradiction: "Americans never seemed to appreciate, moreover, that Arabs saw Palestine as a quintessentially internal problem and that Arabs in any case had already immersed themselves in intense self-criticism" (p.241).

Even though there is no evidence whatsoever in this book that the Arabs were "immersed" in "intense self-criticism," Makdisi uses this characterization to attack authors he disagrees with, such as Lebanese-American Fouad Ajami, known for his Arab self-criticism. The mildly critical words Makdisi employs for Gamal Abdel Nasser include accusing Nasser's republic of having some "flaws." Makdisi stays away completely from assessing the reasons behind the failure in experimenting with Arab unity between Egypt and Syria (1958-61), under Nasser.

Makdisi also leaves out the 19 years during which the West Bank and Gaza were under Jordanian and Egyptian rules, respectively. Why didn't the Arabs create Palestine over that part of the land until they could "liberate" the rest and annex it? The author conveniently remains silent there.

Makdisi again claims to speak on behalf of "all" the Arabs: "Although Saddam sought to portray Khomeini as a grave 'Persian' threat to the Arabs," he writes, "few Arabs regarded Iran as a greater menace than Israel, and fewer still were uncritical of the manner in which the United States had consistently turned its back on the Palestinians" (p. 324). From where did Makdisi get his numbers to corroborate these assertions?

Worse than speaking on behalf of the Arabs, Makdisi does not notice an ethical failure on his part.

When analyzing Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, he only views it from the prism of military confrontation with America and the "demoralization" of the Arabs because of his defeat. None of these demoralized Arabs seems to have cared that Saddam had actually invaded a country, Kuwait, and occupied it.

In Makdisi's words: "Saddam Hussein's inexplicable military challenge to the United States and the consequent crushing defeat to which his nation was subjected demoralized most Arabs outside the Gulf. Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Algerians, Yemenis, and Egyptians had initially rallied around Saddam as a symbol of defiance of the West" (p. 335).

If you wonder who gave Makdisi the right to speak on behalf of "few," "fewer" and "most" Arabs, a bigger surprise hits you when he uses the "Arab press" to gauge the anti-Sadat feeling. "Sadat was condemned in the non-Egyptian Arab press as an 'agent of imperialism.' Syria, Algeria, South Yemen, Libya and the PLO were appalled and terrified at Sadat breaking ranks" (p. 315).

For those unfamiliar with the Arab world in 1979, except for a few Lebanese newspapers, there were free Arab media outlets, most of which were owned and run by the different Arab governments. Still, Makdisi sees it as OK to use the "Arab press" as an impartial indicator.

By the end of the manuscript, Makdisi tries to use his "history" book to draw themes for political purposes. "That the Shia Hassan Nasrallah was able to sustain his popularity in the predominantly Sunni Arab world at a moment of extraordinary sectarian violence in Iraq is remarkable," according to Makdisi, who adds a footnote to see Amal Saad Ghorayeb, "What the Moderate Arab World Is," Al-Ahram Weekly, April 26-May 2, 2007.

Amal Saad Ghorayeb is a Lebanese analyst whose father runs a Hezbollah "polling" center. Regardless of her neutrality, and regardless of the fact that this is the only time in the book that Makdisi uses a poll to support any of his claims, Makdisi is using a 2007 poll to make a point in an epilogue he penned in 2010. "In his pan Arab appeal during Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon, Nasrallah appeared to be a latter-day Gamal Abdel Nasser and stood for the same secular desire for self-determination," he writes (p. 364).

If after more than 60 years of the Arab conflict with Israel, Makdisi still looks for a latter-day Nasser, the populist autocrat, to "liberate" Palestine, that's a disaster. Perhaps it might be better for Makdisi to call for the creation of Arab democracies that can decide what is the best way to deal with the Palestine question. Every Arab opinion, outside elected parliaments, is a mere claim, and this book has a lot of them.