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.