July 8, 2004
The Bush administration says it wants to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. But it is relying on a poor and biased guide.
Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh recently reported in the New Yorker magazine that the "bible" of a powerful pro-war group of conservatives in Washington is a 1973 book called "The Arab Mind," by Raphael Patai. This book says that "Arabs only understand force," and that the "biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation."
According to the London Guardian, the influence of the book is not limited to armchair warriors in Washington. "The Arab Mind" is "probably the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the U.S. military" and is "even used as a textbook for officers at the JFK special warfare school in Fort Bragg," the Guardian reported. Hersh alleges that the book was a kind of manual for the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.
But it's impossible to "win the minds" of the large and diverse group of people who make up Iraq when you believe that almost all of them think with only one mind.
"The Arab Mind" has no place in U.S. military schools or policy circles. Serious scholars have long discredited the book because of its fundamentally racist character.
Published a generation ago, "The Arab Mind" follows a genre of books popular in the 19th century that believed that race defines human behavior. These books reduced the histories, politics and cultures of huge groups of people into simple instinct or an unchanging personality. Academia rightly repudiated this approach long ago.
Imagine if our officials were basing government policies on a book that told them that the African mind has an "aversion to work that involves dirtying one's hands," or that the Jewish mind has an "all-encompassing preoccupation with sex." Substitute the word "Arab" for "African" and "Jewish" in these two examples, however, and you have the wisdom found in this noxious text used by the military. (In fact, Raphael Patai, the author of "The Arab Mind," wrote an equally fatuous book "The Jewish Mind," in 1977.)
So why have the military and influential pro-war pundits taken this book to heart?
The answer is twofold.
First, no other group is so easily maligned and stereotyped as Arabs and Muslims are today. What would be seen as racist caricature for any other group is far too often considered as actual insight into Arab behavior or Muslim belief. To a degree, the explosion of such representations is an unfortunate consequence of war, but such attitudes have existed for a long time in the United States. When was the last time you watched a normal Arab American family on a TV sitcom? (The answer: never.)
But the second and more significant answer lies in the fact that we simply rely too much on culture (as we did with race) to explain away everything that we refuse to understand. By obsessively focusing on culture, we avoid talking about history, economics and politics. Culture is an always-prepared and easy answer, because "they" just aren't like "us."
Consider how al-Qaida fanatics use the same pretext for their immoral terror that is found in books like "The Arab Mind," namely that "they" (Americans, this time) only understand force and humiliation, and are obsessed with sex.
Instead of elucidating the challenges of sharing our world, these types of cultural explanations reduce entire populations into eternal essences and promote the idea that we live in an era of clashing civilizations.
This is not only wrong, it is dangerous. Extremists of all sorts love the clash-of-civilizations idea because it justifies their brutality. It leads to the belief that murderous violence is the only thing "they" understand.
This apocalyptic logic only alienates people and must be broken. We can start with cultivating real knowledge of Iraq and not relying on crude and stereotypical ideas. This criticism isn't only for the military, either. The now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) never had a real grasp on Iraq. Of the 1,600 Americans employed by the CPA, only 16 spoke Arabic.
The irony is that real knowledge will illustrate how all people want basically the same things from life, even if they express them in different languages. Interviews of Iraqis today reveal that their desires are much the same as Americans. They long for jobs, education, general services, security and the ability to control their own destiny.
These are universal values. But you won't learn that from a text of stereotypes at Fort Bragg.
Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor in the English department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and co-editor of "The Edward Said Reader" (Vintage, 2000). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.