Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Arabian Gulf" And Other Fairytales

A version of this post was published at The Hudson on March 22, 2011.

A recent Kuwait Times news-story announced a $4.5m gift to George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, courtesy of the Government of Kuwait. On the face of it this piece of news is less than newsworthy; endowed Chairs and research institutes supported by Middle Eastern governments with dubious human rights records and illusive academic credentials have become the bloodline of Middle East and Islamic Studies at America’s leading universities. Harvard and Georgetown are beneficiaries of tens of millions of dollars in grants from such renowned donors as the House of Saud, the al-Nahayan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation, and the Bin Laden dynasty—all, incidentally, affiliated with states notorious for their poor Human Rights records. Likewise are Princeton, Columbia and Cornell recipients of donations from morally repugnant Middle Eastern regimes. The recent flurry of news about distinguished American academics lending their influence and expertise to burnish the less than savory reputation of Middle Eastern despots—a scheme Tufts University’s Daniel W. Drezner termed “Scholars for Dollars”—is only the latest manifestation of this trend. And so, George Washington’s latest gift from Kuwait’s al-Sabbaah dynasty is arguably another attempt by a ”first among equals” at keeping up with the Joneses.

To be fair, universities solicit and receive grants from a variety of sources; most of them reputable and legitimate; many philanthropic in nature, often with no strings attached; others with less than innocent intents, meant to curry favor and influence pre-determined outcomes. But even when university gifts stem from altruistic impulses—with the greater good and the advancement of knowledge as lodestars—they can be cause for alarm and can potentially taint an academic institution and prejudice its mission. A case in point is the way in which the Kuwaiti Government—one of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders —spun its recent GW donation for media and public relations gains, both in the US and at home. The Kuwait Times spoke with swagger of a longstanding “distinctive and solid” relationship between the Kuwaiti Government and George Washington University; it flaunted the fact that GW had awarded the Emir of Kuwait an Honorary Doctorate of Law in 2005, and claimed the university to have established a Kuwait Chair to conduct “research and studies on the Arabian Gulf region.” Ahem, exactly where in the world is “the Arabian Gulf region,” and does George Washington University really do research and teach courses on “the Arabian Gulf”?

Risible and mendacious as it may sound to the discerning observer, the phrase “Arabian Gulf” is perhaps not much cause for concern; especially when GW’s homepage defined the Chair in question as one devoted explicitly to the study of the “Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Affairs;” an artful choice of semantics that heeded the donor’s dislikes—by omitting the objectionable adjective in “Persian Gulf”—and maintained for the university a modicum of academic integrity—by feigning to indulge an “Arabian Gulf” fantasy. Still, this is a slippery slope in an academic field already fraught with emotions and ideological rivalries, and one long mired in political advocacy.

Bespeaking the Persian Empire’s importance during antiquity, the appellation Sinus Persicus (today the “Persian Gulf”) reflects a very old usage, one going back to Strabo (64BC-AD24), perhaps even to earlier Classical Greek and later Roman geographers. Even tenth century Arab cartographers, and Arabic-language maps in more recent times, have referred to the Persian Gulf as “Khaliij Faaris” (“the Gulf of Persia”), seemingly unbothered by its non-Arab pedigree. In 1917, the US State Department’s Board of Geographical Names designated the Persian Gulf as the sole official name of the region in question. The United Nations followed suit in 1975 and again in 1984. Yet, it was recently revealed that the United States Navy has been using the term “Arabian Gulf” for decades, “out of deference for US allies in the region.” “Our [Arab] partners […] use [the Arabian Gulf], and so do we,” said US Navy spokesman Lt. Myers Vasquez.

Whether driven by ideological or pragmatic concerns, indulging such fallacies and bowing to the neuroses of one’s political partners can have dire consequences; especially when the partners in question are known practitioners of cultural suppression, oppression of minorities, historical revisionism, and rejection of minority narratives.

Seemingly bland terms such as “the Arabian Gulf” (or even the “Arab world,” to name another of Arab nationalism’s favored ideological talismans) are misleading. The “Arab Middle East”—an inaccurate construct normalized also “out of deference for US allies in the region”—is home to an estimated population of 300 million people, among them 15 million Kurds, 15 million Copts, 25 million Berbers, 7 million Jews, and tens of millions of Armenians, Southern Sudanese, Maronites, Assyrians, and others, all of whom non-Arab “users” of a slew of Arabic-defined languages. Yet American political expediency, moral abdication—or, why not, “deference for US allies in the region”—seem unworried by this kind of pandering to Arabist assumptions and outmoded Arab colonialist models.

Albeit a Western coinage, colonialism and imperialism are not exclusively Western. And though they were wars waged against Muslims, the Crusades and Reconquista were delayed defensive endeavors; not a colonial enterprise, and not a prelude to modern European Colonialism—as is often the portrayal in remorseful Western narratives. Indeed, conquest and colonialism have been salient chapters in Muslim history (from the seventh century Arabians, to the fifteenth century Ottomans,) and Muslim colonialists preceded their European charges down that path by close to a millennium. The Iberian Peninsula, Central Eurasia, Western Asia, the Fertile Crescent, and Northern Africa were home to venerable civilizations prior to the Muslim-Arab conquests of the seventh century. What came to be called the “Arab world” during the twentieth century is anything but an exclusively Arab preserve. In fact, pluralism and multiplicity of identities have been hallmarks of Middle Eastern history for millennia—even as modern Arabists seek to blur this reality. The Brill Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics writes that prior to the Arab conquests of the seventh century the region now misleadingly labeled the “Arab world”
had hosted many other cultures, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. […] The legacies of these pre-Islamic peoples and cultures did not all simply disappear with the advent of the Muslim Arabs. […] Peoples of the region resisted the forces of Arabicization, Islamicization, or both, [and] earlier cultures [have remained, alongside] groups convinced that their ancestors belonged to a people different from [the “Arabs”.]
Yet, the Arab colonialist view of a cohesive uniform “Arab world,” denuded of its pre-Arab heritage, seeps into America’s official, academic, and popular Middle Eastern discourse. Never mind that a good third of Middle Easterners aren’t Arab; never mind that they still use languages and partake of collective memories distinct from those of Arabs; and never mind that their national names, place-names, and parameters of identity are explicitly non-Arab. The Arab die is cast, and “deference for US allies in the region” seems to justify shedding historical clarity and shirking academic decency.

Syro-Lebanese poet Adonis recently offered a devastating appraisal of this worldview. The image of the universe that Arabs have built around themselves and the political culture that they spawned, he wrote, are completely closed to the outside world; Arabs and Arab nationalists are resentful, scornful, and loath to diversity. Theirs is “a kind of culture, […] where the ‘other’ is Evil, Hell, Satan […] and where distinctness and plurality are rejected out of hand.”

This is the monolithic Middle East that is being legitimized and intellectualized at America’s leading universities today; a Middle East where the millenarian “Persian Gulf” is re-christened “Arabian,” where a rich tapestry of cultures are deemed a uniform “Arab world,” and where ancient pre-Arab peoples who so much as patter an idiom resembling “Arabic” are summarily anointed “Arabs.”