Misreading “The Arab Mind” (Boston Globe 30/5/2004)
AMONG THE STARTLING revelations in Seymour Hersh’s recent articles about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was news of a peculiar scholarly revival. In the May 24 issue of The New Yorker, Hersh wrote that it was the late Raphael Patai, a Hungarian-born cultural anthropologist who taught at Columbia and Princeton, whose work provided the intellectual backdrop for the torture and sexual abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib. Patai’s 1973 book “The Arab Mind,” an unnamed academic told Hersh, had become “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In his discussion with conservative prowar intellectuals, the same academic told Hersh, two themes predominated: “One, that Arabs only understand force, and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”
Patai’s book has a curiously checkered history. Though well-reviewed when it appeared in 1973 (The New Yorker itself praised the book as “a sympathetic and wide-ranging study”), it was roundly attacked by the late Edward Said in his landmark 1978 study “Orientalism.” Said’s central idea was that when it came to “the East,” scholarship itself had become a means of serving and legitimating imperial dominance over the Oriental “other.” Though Said concerned himself primarily with 19th-century texts, he did devote a stinging chapter to “contemporary Orientalists,” including Patai.
But Patai’s book continued to be read in diplomatic and military circles. It gained broader currency in November 2001, when Hatherleigh Press released a new edition with an introduction by Norvell B. De Atkine, director of Middle East Studies at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. “At the institution where I teach military affairs, `The Arab Mind’ forms the basis of my cultural instruction,” writes De Atkine, adding, “Over the past 12 years I have also briefed hundreds of military teams being deployed to the Middle East.”
Patai’s work is emblematic of a bygone era of scholarship focused on the notion of a “national character,” or personality archetype. (A longtime resident of Jerusalem, he also penned a book titled “The Jewish Mind.”) For such scholars, a set of sweeping generalizations about the personality of an entire people could be extrapolated from dubious anecdotal and literary references. In Patai’s case, his methodology was itself based on a fatally flawed set of assumptions — most importantly, that there is one entirely homogenous Arab culture, derived from nomadic Bedouin culture. This ignores both the diversity and history of a people and civilization that extends across dozens of countries, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, and the deeply rooted Arab culture of cities and agricultural communities.
In his book, Patai paints a lurid portrait of Arab family life and child-rearing practices, supposedly the same across the region. While the crying of girl babies is routinely ignored, he wrote, male infants are picked up immediately and soothed by female relatives. “This comforting and soothing of the baby boy,” Patai states without equivocation, “often takes the form of handling his genitals” — a tactic that was also used “simply to make him smile.” Of the Arab mother-son relationship, Patai observes, “Her breast, his greatest source of pleasure and gratification, was his for the asking.”
The father, meanwhile, must toughen up his pleasure-centered, hedonistic infant son, who savors the “bitter taste of the father’s heavy hand, the rod, the strap, and, at least among the most tradition-bound Bedouin tribes, the saber and the dagger whose cut or stab” will “harden him for life.” Once this has happened, Patai writes, “the boy will have assumed the typical male Arab personality.”
The centerpiece of “The Arab Mind” is Patai’s portrait of Arab sexuality, which he considers uniquely fraught and confused. Patai breezily invokes “the all-encompassing preoccupation with sex in the Arab mind.” Despite public repression, he writes, “in private, it has been found that sexual activity is more intensive among Arab students than among Americans.” On the subject of masturbation, Patai writes authoritatively, but without citing any source, that “Whoever masturbates, however, evinces his inability to perform the active sex act, and thus exposes himself to contempt.”
Such generalizations may seem dubious to many readers, but they provide the backdrop for the idea expressed by some commentators that the Arabs who were victimized in Abu Ghraib were in effect doubly victimized by their own culture. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in his weblog on May 4, “It’s worth realizing that the nakedness and the sexual humiliation might be far more potent in a sexist, homophobic, and patriarchal culture than in less sexually repressed societies. One of the most important things to remember about today’s Muslim extremism is that it has taken what is the submission of women in Islam and turned it into a political pathology.” This comes perilously close to blaming the victims’ suffering on their culture, and deflects scrutiny from the fact of their torture, and the cultural or political pathologies of those who carried it out.
But the manifold shortcomings of Arab child-rearing and sexual practices are not all that is wrong with Arab culture, according to Patai. In his view, the Arabic language itself, with its confusion of eloquence and exaggeration, is to blame for fostering a disconnection with reality and a connection instead with aggression and fantasy. Furthermore, Patai insists, Arab music and art is uncreative and repetitive, reflecting the intrinsic limitations of Arab-Islamic culture.
So what do contemporary anthropologists make of Patai’s work? Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University, author of the recently published “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror” (Pantheon), dismisses this sort of Orientalist scholarship as “culture talk” that reduces all problems in the Muslim world to culture and neglects actual political experience.
To Dale Eickelman, a professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College, “The Arab Mind” is useful only as a negative example. “Once only, I used it in an introductory class as an anti-text to indicate the pitfalls of using psychological projections to elicit the characteristics of society and nation,” he said in a recent e-mail. Sondra Hale, a professor of anthropology and chair of the women’s studies program at UCLA, seconds the notion. “He can no longer be taken seriously,” she said via e-mail.
For their part, Patai’s two daughters — Daphne Patai, a literature professor at UMass-Amherst, and Jennifer Patai Schneider, a physician in Tucson — have issued a statement defending their father’s scholarship and taking issue with the suggestion that he wrote “a handbook for American torturers.”
But whatever Patai’s intentions, the kind of thinking he engaged in does have real-world consequences, ones that reverberate far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib. In their recent book “Occidentalism” (Penguin), Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit argue that a reciprocal negative stereotype of the West has arisen in the Arab world, one that holds that the West is licentious, amoral, overly sexualized, aggressive, and engaged in a crusade against Islam. Buruma and Margalit trace this stereotype back to thinkers of the Western counter-Enlightenment, but events like the abuse at Abu Ghraib, in which soldiers reportedly not only raped prisoners but forced them to eat pork and drink alcohol, suggest that an Occidentalist worldview has sources much closer at hand, in the actual experience of domination.
In the wake of the Iraq war, mutually reinforcing Occidentalist and Orientalist stereotypes have contributed immeasurably to the fear and apprehension that divides Islam and the West. It should be observed that the human rights violations that took place in Abu Ghraib would have been no less horrific had they taken place in Madison, Wis. But the explosiveness of the situation makes them far more dangerous as we enter an era where each side defines the other only by its worst excesses. Rather than plumbing some mythical “Arab mind,” we should affirm the shared humanity that transcends our differences and binds us all together.
Emran Qureshi is the coeditor, with Michael Sells, of “The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy” (Columbia).
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