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Monday, November 03, 2008

More Jesus in an Age of Terror: a hideously emboldened Orientalism

Chapter 3 of Jesus in an Age of Terror sets the context for chapter 4 (and, to lesser extent, chs 5-6). It begins by recalling the reasons for (re-)emergence of social sciences in NT scholarship, giving the various (largely lovely) reasons that are given (60s protest movements, the impact of 1968, the increasing influence of sociology in the universities, decolonialisation, development of explicitly non-Marxist social-scientific/anthropological approaches, translations of Weber into English, and so on). There is a much bigger reason for the increasing interest in cultural anthropology: the increasingly heavy emphasis on ‘the Arab’, ‘the Persian’, ‘the Muslim’ etc in Anglo-American culture in the 1970s, a point developed by Said (esp. in Covering Islam and Orientalism). Said’s work has been qualified and developed to show how wide ranging these stereotypes were and are across Anglo-America (popular culture, party politics, higher education etc.). By the end of the 1970s, the study of Christian origins starts to develop cultural anthropological approaches to the ‘Mediterranean’ which regularly morph into generalisations about the ‘Middle East’ and ‘the Arab world’, both contemporary and ancient.

The views of ‘the Arab’ etc continued in the 1990s esp with the collapse of the Soviet empire and has been intensified and ‘hideously emboldened’ (to use Derek Gregory’s phrase) in the ‘war on terror’. Intellectually, Huntington would develop his clash of civilisations thesis after Bernard Lewis would give his weird but influential roots of Muslim rage work. All the while, cultural anthropology and social sciences have continued to grow and grow in NT studies and continued emphasising civilisation clashes and stark differences. Even the more ‘traditional’ NT studies by (say) Meier and Wright have now started to use the work of NT scholars using cultural and social anthropology (in the case of Wright to say how Jesus ‘subverted’ the context).

The rest of this chapter looks at the dominance of this clash thesis across Anglo-American culture, politics, higher education, religion, the new atheists (Sam Harris is one of the worst offenders) and so on, including some of the brutal results seen in Iraq. It looks at some of the (frankly ridiculous) explanations of centuries of ‘Islamic/Arab decline’, ‘Arab stagnation’, ‘Arab/Muslim humiliation’, Arab/Muslim shame’ etc and how all these approaches simply ignore the massive range of cultural differences and historical change, relying instead on bizarre generalisations, including sometimes the very honour-shame approaches common in NT studies at the moment. I look at the complex nature of violence in the name of Islam, including the whole political and radicalised Islam filled with the decline of secular nationalism, the impact of US led foreign policy in the Middle East, increasing slums in major cities, influence of revolutionary Marxism on certain politicised Islamic movements, the peculiarities of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia, and so on. This is designed to show how ideologically convenient and intellectually limited discourse the generalising, dominant clash arguments, and centuries long decline are and how they too frequently ignore vital details, local histories and, very simply, the *modern* nature of a revolutionary Islam. This discussion sets the background for the cultural and ideological location of (some) contemporary NT scholarship which generalises dramatically about the Middle East.

The next chapter looks at the serious problems in NT studies. I give some considerations to the ways in which NT studies and pop culture overlap (documentaries and blogs) before moving on to the NT scholars where there have been lots of use of the *contemporary* ‘Arab world’, ‘Mediterranean’, and ‘Middle East’ to look at the *ancient* world. There are two functions of this. One is the fairly banal explanation of why the shift to social and cultural anthropology since the 1970s and some uses are relatively innocent. The other function is to attack some of the staggeringly insensitive and ridiculous generalisations about ‘the Middle East’ and ‘the Arab world’ (‘the Mediterranean’ frequently morphs into these categories) in NT social scientific scholarship and put them in ideological location. Some of the things said about Arabs recently in NT scholarship function as if Said never happened. Some of them are just so obviously influenced by contemporary concerns (Arabs not democratic, Arabs are drawn to extremist movements, Arabs obsessed with family and sex, Arabs suppress behaviour that comes out in crazy arm gestures, Arab ‘humiliation’, Mediterraneans are psychologically undeveloped and abuse family members etc). Naturally, there is much concern to contrast this with ‘the west’ or, most frequently, America. Coincidence?

There are some clear rhetorical overlaps with Huntington’s clash of civilisation thesis in this NT literature. Worse still some of the anthropological literature *still used* in NT studies has been heavily denounced. Most notably, Raphael Patai, who wrote the ominous sounding The Arab Mind in the 1970s, is still used. Said denounced it as racist in Orientalism. He may be right of wrong but to not deal with Said is…not helpful shall we say. This book has some of the most absurd generalisations about the Arab world, often based sexual generalisations (handling of baby boy’s genitals, the issue of figure hugging western trousers, and masturbations rates (I’m not joking – and ‘the Arabs’ are supposed to be obsessed with sex!). This book was also used, it seems, in the thinking behind Abu Ghraib (see Seymour Hersh’s investigations). Language used by some NT scholars on the Arab world also has overlaps with the contemporary liberal and hawkish rhetoric (e.g. Thomas Friedman) on the Middle East. In fear of understatement, this is very worrying. To make matters worse, a lot of the anthropology being used has its roots in social psychology and anthropology sponsored by the US govt and military, something, interestingly, which has returned in a major way recently – indeed a colonel wrote the preface to the latest edition of Patai’s Arab Mind saying how wonderful it was in military training! Incidentally, some military figures have at least seen through Patai and think his influence has been a disaster. A lot of this anthropology has traditionally had an ideologically convenient demarcated world…with the US at the centre.

Another peculiar development is that some of those using the heavily generalising anthropology and social psychology and emphasising civilisation differences have been using providing of the most aggressive non-argument arguments of recent times, dismissing different uses of social sciences (typically those more sensitive to cultural complexities) using the political rhetoric of clashing civilisations to dismiss their opponents. There is little concern to discuss the details of cultural context, naturally. I parallel some of these non-arguments in NT studies with some political non-arguments designed for slurring opponents. I’ll let you read all that but for now I’ll just say that the argumentation of such scholars is at the same level as ‘are you with us or against us?’

I must add a note of qualification here: some of the scholars analysed will certainly have different *personal* views to the aggressive US-led foreign policy and some of the unpleasant generalisations about Arabs and Muslims (some, I know, are very hostile to some of the developments in Anglo-American culture). But they still write things that are totally in sync with the dominant cultural discourses on the Arab world and Muslims. It is important to stress, then, that individual views are not always helpful whereas looking at scholarly trends can be. This brings us back to the propaganda model in higher education and how intellectual views tend to conform strongly, sometimes irrespective of how nice individuals may be.

12 Comments:

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

On the subject of terror, you might be interested in the terror experienced by an earlier priest and prophet:

http://geoffhudsononjosephus.blogspot.com/

November 03, 2008

 
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

James,
seems like I must get hold of your new book as soon as possible. Sounds terribly interesting. But at the risk of being accused of being one of those odious orientalists I think it is quite obvious that the muslim world has been in a steady decline for centuries. With few exceptions, most muslim countries are intellectual backwaters. The reasons why can be discussed, although I have my firm opinion about why. And I say this after having travelled for decades through the muslim world as a journalist.

November 03, 2008

 
Anonymous Emanuel Pfoh said...

Hi Antonio,

I don't know if you agree, but it is possible to trace the decline of classical Islamic culture and political thought in a parallel and interrelated development with the penetration of Western policies in the East (Napoleon in 1798-99, the Ottoman reforms, which were adviced and managed by Westerners, WW I-II, the Cold War). Within this development, I am really interested in reading and knowing what James is saying in his forthcoming book regarding Jesus (and the West).

Emanuel

November 04, 2008

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

I think there is a) a big problem in defining or measuring decline for a start, esp. cultural decline. Besides, Said showed long ago that this often involves overlooking writers, thinkers and artists from across 'the Arab world'. Most relevantly for my book, is the ideological constructs and the ignoring of evidnece. Also what I'd also say is that the ideas of Islam being inherently violent (or inherently whatever) ignores masses of contradictory evidence and the big, big problem that the kinds of violent Islam and related issues that are constantly referenced are very modern phenomena.

November 04, 2008

 
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

Emanuel,
my goodness, NO, NO! I don´t think the intellectual and scientific decline of most of the muslim world started with the arrival of Napoleon in Egypt. Egypt had already been in a comatose state long,long before the arrival of the europeans. I actually think Napoleon gave the country the boost that in time led to the coming of Muhammed Ali, his sons and the reforms and importation of foreigners and western ideas that led to a reawakening of Egypt.
No, the decline can be traced to to 12th and 13th centuries and the strenghtened position of the ulema and the rise of "orthodox" islam. I think a statement by George Monbiot in a recent article in the Guardian on the rise of anti-intellectualism in America has relevance also in the context I am talking about he wrote:
"One theme is both familiar and clear: religion - in particular fundamentalist religion - makes you stupid. The US is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing".
Much the same can be said for the muslim world, except that the grip of religion is even worse than in America.

November 04, 2008

 
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

James,
I think there is not much problem at all in defining and measuring things like cultural and scientific decline. You can look at it from almost any angle you want (new books published in a country, litteracy level, amount of universities and the quality of the teaching, scientists produced by a country etc etc etc) and much of the muslim world, not the least the arab world, gets almost down at the bottom of what we can find on this planet. If you don´t believe me you can take a look yourself at the conclusion a group of muslim scholars came to some years ago in a study made on behalf of the UN . The statistics are simply appaling.
And as I said earlier, I am talking from personal experience after having been myself in countries like Saudi-arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Iraq, Malaysia and many more. The only descent bookshop I have ever found in the arab world was in Beirut and it is hardly suprising that it is western (Virgin bookstore). And if creationism and belief in other pseudosciences is rampant in America it is nothing in comparison with the muslim world were 99,9 % of all people I have met still believe in Adam and Eve.

I think I´ll leave the discussion if Islam may or may not be inherently more violent than other major religions for another day. I´m flying to Turkey for a short vacation tomorrow and have to pack my bag. You see, I am a true Ataturkist. God save him! Ataturk believed that his country was in a shambles because of too much religious superstition that had gone on for centuries. I happen to agree with him.

November 04, 2008

 
Anonymous Emanuel Pfoh said...

Antonio,

everybody is a slave of his own words, and so am I! However, if I can make my position clearer: true, the fading of classical Islamic thought can be traced to the 12th-13th centuries, but I was referring especifically to the so-called modernisation process of the 19th century. Do you really think the techno-economic boost Mohammed Ali gave to Egypt had a correlation in Islamic political thought? I think not.
I won't go further since I guess the subject is now irrelevant for the discussion.
All the best,

Emanuel

November 04, 2008

 
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

James,
just can´t resist telling you about a meeting I had few years ago with a group of bearded turkish imams on the townsquare of Korkuteli. Korkuteli is a 100% muslim village where ALL men have beards and ALL women have headscarfes, and you can only dream about finding a bottle of icecold Efes pilsner there. Me and the imams started to talk about islam and after a few disgressions we came to the topic of Ataturk. "Yes, yes, he was a great man and a good muslim", said a couple of the imams ad nodded in agreement. "No, no, he was a great man but he was actually an atheist and hated islam. If he could have had his wish he would probably have had you all hanging from the lampposts here in the village", said me and had all of those gentle imams flabbagasted to say the least.

November 04, 2008

 
Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

Emanuel,
sorry, I misunderstood you. Yes, I certainly agree with you that "the techno-economic boost Mohammed Ali gave to Egypt" DID NOT have a correlation in Islamic political (or religious) thought. The tragedy is that this same trend can still be seen in many muslim countries to this day. Technology and expertise is often imported from West or Asia while archaic religious dogma still keeps its grip on the majority of the population and real freedom of thought can get you to jail or even a death sentence in the courts.

November 04, 2008

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a v quick response (not enough time...). Issues such as education levels varied and some parts of 'Arab world' can be shown to have declined dramatically in past 30 years as a result of various things I mentioned. Also, there is a problem in some areas where people are well educated but face harsh socio-economic conditions not typical of (say) a middle class life style. This has caused big problems.

On dress etc, and for what it is worth, there have been plenty of examples where more conservative dress has returned in the past decade of so and there is plenty of footage of much different and more 'liberal' personal presentation from 50 plus years ago. What I'm saying is that there have been many big changes in modern times that cannot so easily be traced to convenient labels of decline and stagnation over centuries. I'm not defending any modern (or earlier) practice, but I am saying that historically speaking many big changes have happened in different parts of the Arab world due to the reasons I outlined.

Also I'm not sure using isolated examples is of much use for 'the Arab world' (which is massive!!). There are examples where religion isn't foregrounded so why prioritise one example over another? Again, this is a massive, massive area and to generalise is v problematic.

I note you gave a modern example too...

Anyway, sorry to be so rushed.

James

November 06, 2008

 
Anonymous steph said...

Antonio: while most Muslims "still" believe in Adam and Eve, Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus, even an empty tomb and some still believe in a virgin birth.

I'm glad you didn't discuss inherent violence before reading the book. :-)

November 06, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Just read something that cropped up earlier:

4QMMT-4Q399 lines 2,3 has:"And also we have written to you some of the 'works of the Torah' which we think are good for you."

The equivalent in 4QMMT-4Q398 lines 10,11 has:"[And also] to you we [have written some of the 'precepts of the Law' which we think are goo]d for you."
(Texts from Martinez)

1. The reconstructor thinks 'precepts of the Law are equivalent to 'works of the Torah',or
2.The reconstruction is based on valid text in which case the same is true, or
3.Two translators can't agree.

November 06, 2008

 

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