Orientalist Art: Harem Fountain by Frederick A. Bridgman
While housies* who had supported the Mubarak regime, like ADC and James Zogby, are flocking to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon, Irshad Manji doesn’t appear impressed with the Egyptian people’s toppling of 30 years of US and Israeli-backed dictatorship.
For the past two weeks, we’ve been hearing that the “wall of fear” in Egypt has collapsed. Not to rain on anyone’s revolutionary parade, but I beg to differ.
Why the indifference towards the Egyptian people’s amazing feat? In what almost sounds like a sentence lifted from Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, Manji, who doesn’t know Arabic or hold a degree in Arab cultural studies, confidently opines:
the politics of the family. That’s where fear begins in much of Arab society.
Manji narrates the stories of two anonymous Egyptian women who fear their parents and then offers gratuitous advice:
I have no idea whether Mona or the woman I met at the café in Cairo participated [in the protests to oust Mubarak]. If they did, they’ll now need to apply their gutsiness to relationships at home.
Of course, just like Patai cited an Arab friend in the introduction to his book to give a facade of legitimacy, Manji found a Syrian sociologist, Halim Barakat, whose research she used to back up her claim. Her application of Barakat is problematic on two levels.
First, Manji misinterpreted and misapplied Barakat (carelessly or deliberately). She quoted one sentence from Halim Barakat’s book:
Political leaders “are cast in the image of the father, while citizens are cast in the image of children.” (Remember the speech in which Mr. Mubarak defiantly affirmed that he wouldn’t step down? He painted himself as the father figure who deserved absolute compliance from his 80 million toddlers, whom he’d previously ordered to go home.)
Manji doesn’t give us a citation for that, likely because she conveniently lifted it from a blog post by Brian Whitaker, whom she quotes in the same post. Since Whitaker doesn’t mention the book, Manji doesn’t bother to look it up herself. The quote came from The Arab World: Society, Culture and State. Had Manji actually read the book (it’s online; she didn’t even need to make a trip to the library), she would’ve noticed that the author in the very next paragraph preemptively rebuts any simplistic generalizations and negative stereotypes that orientalists like Manji may spout:
To consider the complexity of society and the variations introduced by social class, lifestyle (bedouin, rural, or urban), political order, and encounters with other societies, we must reexamine some previously accepted generalizations. One such generalization is that the Arab family socializes its children into dependency. The dependency present in Arab society is only partly a product of family; much of it is owing to political and economic repression
Barakat goes on to give an example of a Palestinian refugee camp that had transformed its social dynamics over the course of one year thanks to political organization. The excerpt is so exciting and similar to self-empowerment we’re seeing in Egypt, it’s worth reprinting in full. It’s not surprising that Manji would’ve excluded this had she looked up the book, considering her support for Israel:
After a three-week study of a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan immediately after the June 1967 war, I concluded that a few well-armed and well-organized persons might be able to invade and control this camp of more than three thousand people because the camp lacked organization. Every family lived on its own, totally preoccupied with immediate and personal problems and interests. Less than a year later, in the spring of 1968, I visited the same camp and found it totally transformed. In the interim, Palestinian resistance organizations had mobilized the people, trained them, engaged them in political dialogue, and involved them in preparation for surprise attacks. People were talking about principles, arguing about ideological issues, learning about themselves and their enemies, and proudly narrating the stories of heroes and martyrs of the liberation struggle. The explanation for this sudden transformation from a condition of dependency to a condition of autonomy is located not in the realm of the constant (that is, early childhood upbringing) but in the realm of social variant.
Thus, Barakat would say the Egyptian revolt transformed Egyptians’ (reluctant) dependency on Mubarak was brought about by the social variant change they chose. In other words, a more thorough examination of Barakat, as opposed to Manji’s intellectually lazy approach, suggests that the social change she yearns for – “Maybe it can work the other way around, too. Maybe democracy in parliament will convulse autocracy in the house” - has already has already been set in motion.
Second, like Patai, Manji selects a social dynamic and orientalizes it. She presents it as uniquely and distinctively Arabic. It’s like Patai’s saying Arabs cringe at sexual degradation; as if other peoples enjoy it. Even if we were to assume for the sake of argument that her simplistic father figure theory of power dynamics is correct, she is unaware that this is a predominant image in western society also as postulated by Freud (Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego).
How about Manji demonstrate some gutsiness herself and apologize for supporting Israel, the primary culprit behind Egyptians’ oppression. Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel was the main reason Mubarak was armed and supported in the billions of dollars annually in US foreign aid. Enthusiastically endorsed by Daniel Pipes and Alan Dershowitz and a supporter of the collaborating PA’s Salam Fayyad, Manji is no friend to Arabs and is in no position to offer advice, much less racist advice.
Irshad Manji, ikhrasi khales!
* Housies: Short for “House Arabs and House Muslims,” terms inspired by Malcolm X’s term “House Negro”.