Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lawrence and Washington

There is a rumor about that some Washington policy makers are trying to understand the "Arabic mind" better by reading T.E. Lawrence's monumental account of the First World War Arab revolt, rather misleadingly entitled "Seven Pillars of Wisdom." If true, this is indicative of just how superficial and far behind modern intellectual thinking Washington is.

Edward W. Said and other post colonial critics have long since established that Orientalism was in large part the West's own perspective on the East, regurgitating an Orient that was acceptable to the colonial masters. In this body of work, there were frequent references to the Arab or Islamic "mind", as if it was really something as arcane and difficult to understand as the Martian "mind". Said makes the pertinent point that it is only the Arab's "mind" that can be discussed in this way. It would give offence to talk about the black "mind" or the Jewish "mind" in the same manner. In a nutshell, Said contends that Islam and the Arabs in particular, have been subject to a lot of pseudo-Orientalist criticism on the part of Western scholars. The purpose of the bulk of this pseudo scholarship is not really to understand the Arabs better, but to assert the superiority of the West. Certainly, Lawrence's Seven Pillars would fall clearly into Said's Orientalist category. In his pivotal work, Orientalism, Said describes Lawrence's work as an imaginative attempt to reshape the East in his own image. It is Lawrence who leads the Arab revolt against the Turks and all of the Arab motivations, attitudes and thought processes are filtered to us through the Laurentian Orientalist-colonial style. Even Lawrence's disappointment at the betrayal of the Arabs by the British, is seen as a personal offense to Lawrence's own honor. We get no coherent picture of how the Arabs felt about their betrayal.

If Washington policy makers are indeed re-reading Lawrence, then it would merely be the continuation of a common attitude of the West towards peoples who are considered "inferior". The real mind set is ignored and the foreign point of view is mediated through the opinions of Western "experts". This attitude has certainly been clearly at work during and in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Americans were told that ordinary Iraqis hated Saddam and would welcome the American military as an army of "liberation". Of course, someone got the script wrong and the actual perception of ordinary Iraqis was and is that the U.S., without provocation, has set down an army of occupation in their country. The situation is rather similar to that in Northern Ireland some decades ago. While most of the Catholic pro-Republicans didn't get involved in violence personally, they passively supported the IRA against what they considered to be a British army of occupation. It is worth noting also that it is only during the present century that the Irish have truly started to be considered as equals by the British rather than as a colonized people.

Where will all the present misconceptions in Iraq eventually lead? It is impossible to say with any real assurance, but the long term outlook for West and East is certainly looking bleak.


Anonymous owen said...

Fancy looking at LofA for ideas about today!

3:11 AM  
Anonymous camel said...

Is this true?

9:53 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...


11:51 AM  
Blogger Medway said...

John, perhaps you cold explain the difference between "the Arab mind" and the 'mind-set of the Arabs"
How come the first is considered racist but the second not? Are we saying that it is racist to look at another culture as a whole and generalise? Do we have to qualify every statement with "of course we are 6 billion unique individuals!" ?

10:28 PM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

Good point, Medway. However, it would be considered racist to talk about "the black mind" or "the Jewish mind". On the other hand, perhaps there is an overdose of political correctness here.

2:10 AM  
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