Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Possible Partners, Probable Enemies: Why the US Is Losing the Islamic Mainstream

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Possible Partners, Probable Enemies: Why the US Is Losing the Islamic Mainstream

Article excerpt

THIS ARTICLE ARGUES THAT THE UNITED States, in particular, and the West, in general, fails to recognize the Islamic mainstream as a potential partner in world-wide struggles for freedom and democracy. As in the past, the West is missing the reality in the Middle East of the everyday struggles of ordinary people for better lives in more just national and international frameworks. This reality is obscured because increasingly, across the Arab Islamic world, these emancipatory struggles are waged under centrist Islamist banners. As a consequence of US policies, the United States government is alienating these Islamist centrists and turning them from potential partners to probable enemies. While it is unlikely that US official policies will change any time soon, there are openings for Western civil society institutions with democratic and anti-imperial orientations to offset these damaging consequences of US policies and to create cooperative openings to the Islamic mainstream. At a minimum, the academic study of the Middle East must be rethought to create the body of humanistic scholarship that could provide intellectual support and guidance for such efforts.

I began my serious study of the Islamic world as a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-sixties. With the required course work for my doctorate completed, I set out in 1968 to engage face to face the world I was studying at one of the West's great learning centers. My preparation, or so I thought, was excellent. In my course work I drew on the proud Gibb legacy of Islamic studies at Harvard, represented for me by the late Nadav Safran, a student of Gibb and then a leading figure in Middle Eastern studies. Safran, though a political scientist with close ties to Israel, encouraged my interest in Arabic language and literature and supervised my independent reading of the classic texts on which his generation of scholars had focused. To these classic studies I married what I took to be the best of the new social scientific studies in modernization. In Safran's courses I began my reading in the burgeoning development literature focused on the Middle East. My major guide, though, was Samuel Huntington, exceptionally well-known as a conservative intellectual even then, who became my academic mentor and thesis advisor. I had prepared myself to witness the intellectual, moral, economic, and political transformation of backward societies into modernized states. Egypt, as the "lead society" in the Arab world, would be my case study in "political development." Cairo would be my vantage point from which to witness up close this march of history.

I do not mean to suggest that I accepted these perspectives uncritically. Quite the contrary, as a working class boy from Jersey City, New Jersey, I brought to Harvard a very strong set of leftist intellectual and moral commitments. Those commitments prompted a critical stance to both the old Orientalist tradition and the new development literature. From the first I understood both approaches as mainstream and my own positions as critical. In formulating my independent stance I drew on dependency and world system critiques of dominant approaches, as well as the variants of Marxisms and phenomenology that suffused the New Left political and intellectual movements in which I was active, all centered at the time on opposition to the American assault on Vietnam.

Still, though fortified with the critical perspectives of the left, my encounter with Cairo was a major shock. The world laid out so completely and so transparently in Cambridge, whether by the mainstream or its critics, simply did not exist. Realities on the ground bore no resemblance at all to the fixed historical trajectories and ideal types with which I was armed. Nor, I should add, was I prepared emotionally and intellectually for the powerful attraction that Arab Islamic culture exerted on me. With my studio and art history background, I had not failed to notice the intellectual thinness of the treatment of cultural issues, in the broad sense of this term, in both the mainstream and critical social sciences. …

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