Halliday: Islam and the Myth of Confrontation
This is a varied collection of essays on Iran, the Gulf War, international relations, Orientalism, human rights in the Middle East, and anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. In this book, Halliday registers his break with his leftist, anti-imperialist past (already partially registered since the Gulf War). Halliday has come a long way from his valuable works on the Arabian peninsula, Iran, South Yemen, Ethiopia, and superpower relations, in which he criticized U.S. imperialism in the third world and American belligerence toward the Soviet Union.
Halliday now considers himself the Enlightenment referee between Orientalists and Islamists and their apologists (p. 6): "That is my tribe, the Bani Tanwir, or what might be called the descendants of Enlightenment rationality" (p. 196). He also inveighs against "post-modernists," "anti-imperialists" concerned "about the ethnocentric nature of universal values," and unspecified others with "philosophic doubts about the validity of asserting universal entitlements" (p. 158). With the exception of Edward Said and Bernard Lewis, the rest of Halliday's opponents are caricatured, then dismissed.
These essays rebut a few points made by Orientalists and their followers, but otherwise offer no new or original analysis of the Middle East or its Western representation. The book does at times register the tension between Halliday's old anti-imperialism and his new pro-imperialism. Nevertheless, Halliday is committed to universalist (read Western) standards of evaluation and "morality" and evidently supports Western imperialist powers' right to intervene to enforce such standards. Although he acknowledges the problematic history (but not present) of these countries themselves (p. 152), he is undeterred. He states with confidence that "[p]olicies [in the Middle East] that deny the equality of men and women, of Muslims and non-Muslims, which legally suppress the rights of the individual, are not matters to which Western Europe, whatever its own failings, can remain indifferent" (p. 130). Would Halliday allow for Muslim countries not to "remain indifferent" to the lack of equality between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, and the suppression of individual rights in Western Europe? The fact that Halliday believes that "[i]mperialist domination is not a legitimate policy for the end of the twentieth century; [rather] a firm, multilateral, always self-critical insistence on universal codes of political practice, as embodied in the conventions and documents of the UN to which all member states supposedly subscribe" (p. 131) does not mitigate the book's general pro-imperialist stand.
As for Said and Lewis, Halliday's critique is derivative and contains little that is new. Halliday seems to completely misunderstand Said's Orientalism, if not Said's entire oeuvre. For example, Said is faulted for focusing "on discourses about the region, not the societies and politics themselves" (p. 201), but Said is ultimately an anthropologist of Europe; he studies European cultures, societies, politics, and philosophies, and with the exception of Palestine, he has written little about Middle Eastern history, societies, and politics. His important writings are concerned with how the West represents the Middle East--how the Orient is produced by Europeans.
Even when Halliday takes on Said's critique, he misconstrues it. For example, he alleges that Said's work "identifies" the "contestable" claim that there exists "a widespread and pervasive single error at the core of a range of literature" (p. 210). In fact, Said has never identified such an "error"; the concept of "error" is foreign to his method. What Said identified is a discourse that produces the "Orient" and that also functions as an epistemology through which this "Orient" is apprehended by Europeans. For Said, Orientalists are the effects of this discourse which they fail to question. Halliday misrepresents Said as claiming that there is something special about Europe's racism toward the Orient and its peoples as opposed to other subject peoples and then tells about these other racisms! Said, however, has never made such a claim. Said, a more nuanced observer, set about studying Europe's racist representations of the Orient with the understanding that racism against other subject peoples was part of other, albeit related, discourses, meriting their own study. The only thing that Said thinks is special about the "Orient" is the specific discourse that produced it, not some privileged status of oppression.
Halliday accuses Said of claiming that all ideas, such as Orientalist axioms, are "invalid" because of their origin in a dominating Europe. Such a positivist attribution misses the significance of Said's work completely. Said's work, which Halliday accuses of not being materialist, is not about Orientalism's validity or invalidity; it is about a discourse that produces its objects of knowledge in a materialist context of political and economic interests, which it ultimately serves. Said's more recent Culture and Imperialism proceeds in the same direction.
Halliday attempts to assimilate Said into "postmodernism," which he never defines, and then attacks both. He seems unfamiliar with most "postmodernist" works and does not seem to understand those with which he is familiar. As for Said being a postmodernist, perhaps Halliday should have consulted the former's The World, The Text and the Critic (1983) for Said's critiques of Derrida and Foucault and his later critique of other "post-modernists."
In joining his self-described tribe, Halliday has exchanged old friends for new ones. Whereas he was an ally of Said, Eqbal Ahmad, and Noam Chomsky--the latter two he thanked in previous books--in his new book he thanks Kanan Makiya, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Makiya's former wife), and Sami Zubaida, all recent critics of Said, and at least in Makiya's case, one who has been criticized by many Arab and U.S. intellectuals. Halliday's commitment to Makiya had first shown itself in his endorsement of Makiya's first book on Iraq. Halliday defends Makiya, "whose criticisms in his Cruelty and Silence . . . of the Ba thist regime and of a widespread collusion with it among Arab intellectuals, provoked a torrent of abuse from within the Arab World, and from apologetic circles without" (p. 218). Those "apologetic" circles presumably include Said, Chomsky, and Eqbal Ahmad--who Halliday once identified as having "provided me with generous moral and financial support through the Third World Project"--all of whom are ardent critics of Makiya's support of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, as well as his Orientalist views of Arab culture.
Halliday does not see that those who attacked Makiya are themselves anti-Ba`th and support critics of Saddam Hussein's regime, such as Isam al-Khafaji, who also attacked Makiya. Their criticisms of Makiya are not based on his anti-Ba`th agenda but on his pro-imperialist one. In this vein, Halliday must have identified strongly with Makiya. As a strong supporter of the U.S. war against Iraq, Halliday declared in 1991 in the New Statesman that "if I have to choose between imperialism and fascism, I choose imperialism." Apparently, fighting both is not a viable option for Halliday.
In From Kabul to Managua, his last book before his political break, Halliday attacks U.S. liberals and conservatives for their use of the Vietnam War to define the U.S. international role: "The leitmotif of virtually all U.S. public discussion of Vietnam in the 1980's . . . was the attempt to come to terms with what Vietnam did to us'--the USA; what it had done to Vietnam, when it left a devastated ecology, economy and human community compounded by a vindictive US blockade, was all too rarely touched on" (p. 162). Whereas this could easily apply to contemporary Iraq, in his new book, Halliday is more concerned with challenging "mistaken" and "hasty perceptions" of the number of Gulf War dead. He states that "estimates of 200,000 dead were later reduced to a tenth or even a twentieth of that" (p. 87) and that U.S. and Iraqi officials "lent credence to the idea of higher casualties, for opposed political reasons." To avoid such self-serving sources, Halliday cites the much reduced numbers reported by Independent and Foreign Policy, both of which he considers objective toward U.S. foreign policy. In exonerating the United States, Halliday completely ignores a 1995 UN report which put the number of Iraqi children dead and dying as a result of sanctions at more than half a million.
Consistent with many Middle East scholars, Halliday seems to lack a command of Arabic. He uses common words in Arabic, like "harshness" (which he incorrectly cites as al-qiswa when the correct word is al-quswa, p. 84) and danger (khatar, p. 162), which have no ideological or political idiomatic meaning in Arabic and have English equivalents. Perhaps the author is attempting to exoticize such words for the reader. Many Arabic words are incorrectly transliterated--in fact, the transliteration used is internally inconsistent and follows no known system--and incorrectly reproduced in English. Thus, la ilaha illa Allah becomes la Allah ila Allah (p. 80), aqtuluhu is used instead of uqtuluhu (p. 208), and li ta`arafu (a misquoted Quranic verse) becomes li'ta'rifu (p. 217).
Finally, Halliday confuses Muslim and Islamic. Islamic refers to Islam the religion, its doctrines and jurisprudence, philosophy, and history, whereas Muslim refers to those people who adhere to Islam or countries which adhere to it, but not as the only source of jurisprudence and politics. With the exception of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and more recently Sudan, which claim to be Islamic when in fact they also use European legal codes, no Muslim country adheres to Islamic law as the only body of law. Calling Muslim countries Islamic is tantamount to calling Israel a Judaic state instead of a Jewish state. One would have thought such matters to be already clear for an "Islam expert" of Halliday's caliber.
Unlike Halliday's previous works, this book is more attuned to Halliday's new conservative agenda than to scholarly research. It is noteworthy that in a book on religion and politics in the Middle East, the author does not consult a single Arabic or Persian (or Hebrew, Turkish, or Kurdish) source; there is, for example, no Arabic or Persian publication by Islamists, whose views he analyzes. If Islam and the Myth of Confrontation dispels any myths, it is the myth that Halliday can successfully defend his support of the U.S. war against Iraq.
Joseph Massad is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University.