by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 5, Jumada' al-Ula', 1425)
Recent US policies towards Muslims and the Muslim world, and particularly their treatment of Muslim prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo and elsewhere, reveal a deep fear and contempt of Muslims. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ discusses the pseudo-academic study that many blame for these attitudes.
The ongoing prisoner-torture scandal has highlighted a little-known aspect of American policy toward the Arab world. It has recently come to light that required reading within Washington circles, especially among influential "neo-cons" in the defence department, as well as the American military, is a notorious zionist tirade, The Arab Mind.
Written by one Raphael Patai, a now-deceased expert on zionism, this book has been promoted by the American publishing industry as "one of the great classics of cultural studies" and described as "an impressive spread of scholarship." Patai himself reached the heights of prestige in American academia, with professorial positions at several much-vaunted "ivy league" universities, including Princeton and Columbia. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, whose article in the New Yorker magazine exposed the depths of depravity in the US torture scandal, The Arab Mind is "the bible of the neo-cons on Arab behavior." A professor at an American military college has said that it is "probably the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the US military," and a former US army colonel, who wrote an introduction to the 2002 edition, has said that "It is essential reading at the institution where I teach military officers."
Among other things, The Arab Mind depicts Arabs as lazy and sex-obsessed. Two quotes indicate Patai’s perspective. On Arabs being lazy, he asks, "Why are Arabs, unless forced by dire necessity to earn their livelihood with ‘the sweat of their brow,’ so loathe to undertake any work that dirties the hands?" And on sexuality Patai opines, "The all-encompassing preoccupation with sex in the Arab mind emerges clearly in two manifestations. In the Arab view of human nature, no person is supposed to be able to maintain incessant, uninterrupted control over himself. Any event that is outside routine everyday occurrence can trigger such a loss of control. Once aroused, Arab hostility will vent itself indiscriminately on all outsiders."
Such statements have led some observers to conclude that the book shapes the degrading forms of torture used by Americans on Iraqis (and almost certainly on others as well). But apart from its specific connection to the American torture scandal, The Arab Mind is instructive for two general reasons. First, it demonstrates to what lengths the American military and policy establishment will go to justify its brutalities against Arabs; then, most importantly, it raises serious questions about the credibility of American "scholarship".
Raphael Patai was an "academic reductionist," a breed of scholar that specializes in simplifying the behaviors and beliefs of other cultures for consumption by academics, journalists and policy-makers. Reductionist academic works objectify human beings to construct an illusion that intellectual generalizations and concepts are immutable facts fixed in space and time. Patai worked within this academic model, which by definition reduces diverse human beliefs and behaviors to objects. Such academic work takes place in a rigid power-structure of certification and validation, in which scholars cite and legitimize each other’s works, creating a vast edifice with an appearance of truth. In some cases, this brand of scholarship is also marked by a form of Jewish-type exclusivity, which tends to regard people as strictly defined by bloodlines and inherited tribal or national affiliations. Academic reductionists such as Patai appear to be amoral, in that they claim to be impartial and therefore somehow above morality, but most of the time their works become moral or immoral. Academic reductionists have put themselves in the service of governments and corporations, achieving a further spurious validity for their work. The ‘knowledge’ they construct is also often the basis of policy and advertising.
Patai’s work belongs to a genre of academic study, which is somewhat discredited today, known as "national character studies." During the second ‘world war’ and the cold war, national character studies were created as a tool of research and policy-making for US military interests. Because of their deceptive simplicity, such studies also contributed to stereotypical representations of various nationalities. In wartime it became difficult for American academics to conduct fieldwork abroad, so many worked for their government instead. The earliest national character studies were sponsored by the US government, and employed well-known American anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Ruth Benedict. These studies were typically written about America’s adversaries, such as Japan and Germany, and cold war enemies, primarily the Soviet Union. Today they are seen as crude attempts at applied anthropology, although the scholars who participated in the original national character studies seem to have been genuinely convinced that they were contributing to the American war effort.
Through her wartime national character studies, Margaret Mead developed the concept of "culture at a distance." Like many national character studies, hers were based on interviews with various captive or powerless groups, such as prisoners in concentration camps, or recent immigrants. In this way, anthropologists were increasingly drawn into politicized research for the US government, and many supported US policies. Eric Fromm, a Freudian psychoanalyst, wrote Escape From Freedom (1941), which was conceived as an authoritative national character study of the Germans. Fromm attempted to describe the essential qualities of German character, discussing at length the psychology of Nazism and the attraction of nationalism. The tendency of these studies was definitely reductionist, and it proved difficult to maintain even a semblance of objectivity. Ethnocentrism became rife, and some studies later embarrassed their authors. For example, war-time ethnocentrism contributed to patriotic xenophobia in Weston La Barre’s attempt to explain Japanese "character structure." Like many researchers of the period, he worked with detainees, and his data was collected at Japanese internment camps under the Central Utah Project War Relocation Authority in 1943. His conclusion, that after defeat in war the Japanese would abandon their "emperor mythos", has proven him a fool of time.
A character study of the Russians, which tried to describe America’s cold war adversary, exposed many weaknesses in the national character premise. In 1950 Geoffrey Gorer, a student of Margaret Mead, co-authored The People of Greater Russia with a psychoanalyst. Using Freudian theory selectively, the work is an over-simplification that amounted to the US government promoting xenophobia. Gorer, stretching Freudian theories far beyond their limits, focused on "swaddling" as the key to Russian national character. He claimed that swaddling, the practice of wrapping babies in strips of cloth after birth and periodically loosening the straps, caused manic-depressive behavior in later life, leading Gorer to declare that the Russian people were by nature passive and therefore ripe for totalitarianism and authoritative control. Margaret Mead defended Gorer, and contributed a work of her own, The Soviet Attitude Toward Authority.
With their single-minded emphasis on reducing human behavior to psychological speculations, the national character studies generally ignored other important aspects of most nations and cultures, especially class and regional differences, and they generally failed to recognize or acknowledge the range and continuity of human behavior. These flaws led some scholars to question the value of national character studies, which fell into disuse during the 1960s. However, despite their having been discredited in some academic circles, a surviving school of thought still vigorously defended and practised them. So national character studies have remained a factor in American understandings of other cultures, suggesting that blatant forms of racial and ethnic discrimination can still be accepted without question, when supported by academic knowledge, in particular when the victims are Arabs and Muslims.
The Arab Mind was first published in 1973 at the height of the Arab oil-embargo, and it was released in new editions as the Islamic revolution in Iran emerged in the late 1970s, and after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Subsequent editions remained in print throughout the 1990s, and the book continued to be cited in academic and journalistic works. Patai remained influential to his death in 1996, often giving talks on the "Arab psyche," such as those he presented at annual meetings of the American Psychiatric Association. Patai’s study of the Arabs parallels the wartime national character studies in many ways, and his work indicates the dangers of ideological distortion in academic research.
Patai’s ideological construction of an immutable pan-Arab character is grossly stereotypical. He begins The Arab Mind by providing his own definition of an "ideal Arab", which he arrived at by discussing at great length childrearing practices, language usage, personality types, ethos and value structure, sexuality, emotions and religion. Patai’s research was based primarily on Arabic literary sources and Arab folklore, as well as the works of Western Orientalists and his own observations as a Zionist Jew living in occupied Palestine. In his preface to the 1976 edition, Patai described the typical Arab male as "a patient, good natured, but also volatile and excitable, naive and yet shrewd villager of about twenty five years of age, married with several children, supported by a deep trust in Allah, possessed of a strong sexuality, illiterate and yet having an exquisite mastery of the Arabic language and the treasures of its oral folklore, devoted to kith and kin and yet prone to conflict, torn between the traditions of the past with their code of honor and the increasingly intruding demands of the future, proud of being an Arab, yearning for a life of leisure but resigned to spend his relatively short span on earth working the land with the sweat of his brow", and so on.
Once neatly summarised as such, Patai’s Arab needs direction from the experts, which he offered in a postscript to the 1983 edition: "The challenge facing the Arab world in the 1980s is to digest the overwhelming influx of Western things, techniques, skills, and knowledge invited by the Arabs in the past decade, and to integrate it into the context of Arab culture. This is an immense task whose magnitude is now only beginning to dawn upon the Arab intellectual leaders. Its successful accomplishment will require total dedication and concentration, which will be possible only if the Arabs can rid themselves of their obsession with and hatred of Zionism, Israel and American imperialism; can overcome or at least curb, their paralysing conflict proneness; and can devote their best talents not to fighting windmills, but to constructing the new Arab man." Such declarations, though made two decades ago, could easily have been written today in neo-con rhetoric on "Arab reform" or the UN Arab Development Report.
Upon closer examination, it transpires that most of Patai’s experiences with Arabs were with Palestinians, although the only time he ever really uses the word "Palestinian" is when referring to them as "guerrillas" and "commandos." Patai wrote the first edition of The Arab Mind in the early 1970’s, when stereotypical images of Arabs were rife in both popular and academic culture, at a time when the Americans and the Israelis had a vested interest in portraying as unjustified and irrational any Palestinian resistance to the Zionist colonization of Palestine. Patai defended vigorously the zionist occupation of Palestine, holding fast to a rejectionist stance as he expounded in glowing prose the zionist mythology of "a land without a people for a people without a land". He bolstered his case by citing the "authority" of another tirade, From Time Immemorial, by Joan Peters, which put forth the ridiculous premise that the people who are now known as Palestinians migrated from other Arab countries to Israel only after its creation, to take advantage of the modern Western "prosperity" brought by the zionists.
In many ways Patai’s "Arab mind" is a reflection of his own mind, and much of his work can be viewed against his social and political background. Born and educated in Hungary, he later lived and studied in Jerusalem for 15 years, moving to the US in 1948 after the zionists created Israel. Patai’s father was a well-known leader in the European zionist movement, and Patai himself was involved with zionism all his life. From 1957 to 1971 he was Director of Research at the Herzl Institute (named after Theodor Herzl, the 19th-century founder of zionism), where he built what is still the largest zionist research center in the US. Patai also published articles and books on zionism and the Jews, but he is best-known now for his infamous national character studies of the Arabs.
A fatal flaw in the national character studies can be found in their persistent reliance upon narrow generalizations to ‘explain’ the complexities of human behavior. One need only look at the diversity of people in the Arab world to see the multifarious difficulties with maintaining any of Patai’s suppositions. It is difficult, for example, to see how Patai’s findings can apply equally to a Saudi prince and a Tunisian fisherman, to a Libyan Bedouin (a nomad in the desert) and a Kuwaiti commodities-broker, to an Egyptian soldier and a Moroccan "mulla", to a wealthy Palestinian businessman in Qatar and an impoverished Palestinian migrant-worker from Ghazzah, to a child who is growing up in the hills of Syria and the one doing so in coastal Yemen, to a woman who is an executive director of the Cairo museum and one who farms fields in northern Iraq, to a Marxist in Aden and a Christian in Beirut, a mu’adhdhin in Marrakesh and a musician in Muscat, and so on. The Arab Mind and other national character studies reduce real people to narrow, simplistic and cramped stereotypes, and provide academic legitimacy to racist profiles, which in turn have contributed to American savagery and viciousness in the Arab world today.