A triumph of willful ignorance

Source: Reuters / Vostock Photo

Source: Reuters / Vostock Photo

Even before 9/11, politicians had a tendency to rely on poorly researched information about distant regions and culture. Since then, the situation has just gotten worse.

I had just boarded a plane at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport when a flight attendant told me that two planes had destroyed the Twin Towers. Hours later, standing in the line at passport control in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, I asked the two American businessmen in front of me what they’d heard about the attacks. “What attacks?” “Oh, that’s impossible,” said one, “that’s just science fiction,” opined the other, “total fantasy.” It was not just George W. Bush in “Fahrenheit 911” who was in denial on first hearing about the event.

The U.S. promptly issued an advisory telling Americans to leave Central Asia, which most did in something of a panic. After all, Western media and academics had been telling the world for years that Islam was the key driving force in the region.

This is just one of countless Western myths that had nothing to do with reality on the ground. The 9/11 aftershock in Bishkek reached the threatening level of a few smashed windows at the American university, probably due more to drunken high spirits than anything else, and a graffito “Americans go home” more reminiscent of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” than fundamentalism or anti-Americanism.

Central Asia and the Middle East have long been plagued by scholastic analysis and parachute journalism. One American Central Asia “analyst” I met at Radio Liberty in the early 1990s had never even been in the region. Nowadays, the Internet facilitates “cut and paste” jobs masquerading as analysis and containing astonishingly ignorant statements about “exotic” countries and regions.

The well-known agency STRATFOR has described Kyrgyzstan as a “worthless piece of rocky real estate.” The agency almost certainly lifted this from the superb American series “The West Wing,” which on several occasions referred to Kyrgyzstan as “a rock on the side of a hill.” The remark is funny in a TV program that does not have to bother about accuracy, but it has no place in serious analysis.

Parachute journalism and the scholasticism of outsiders imposing their own preconceived notions and ideologies on Central Asia is one thing, but astonishingly, the situation is hardly better with regard to the Middle East, despite the region’s intimate historical links with Europe going back millennia.

After 9/11, it quickly became painfully obvious that none of the key Western decision-makers and neo-cons had the faintest idea about Islam and the Middle East. Indeed, hardly any had even been in the region. Certainly, none knew Arabic.

Reading up extensively on Islam before first visiting Central Asia in 1991 and then spending some five years living and working there and in Azerbaijan, I soon found that while many wrote about Islam, virtually no one had actually researched fundamentalism.

One of the few exceptions was Bassam Tibi, the Syrian-German emeritus professor of international relations at Göttingen University in Germany and a native speaker of Arabic. He was the only one I found who had actually read any fundamentalist literature at all. Moreover, he’d taken the trouble to interview members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian jails in the 1980’s to find out their motivation.

Astonishingly, little has changed since then, despite 9/11. This year, Michael Scheuer, formerly head of the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden unit, published a new book called – yes – “Osama Bin Laden.”

Presenting the book at the Carnegie Endowment in February 2011, Scheuer claimed that no one had actually ever analyzed bin Laden’s speeches and interviews, or the lengthy interviews, testimony, and previously untranslated documents written by those who knew him. If true, this is a damning indictment on U.S. and Western foreign policy.

Scheuer also heavily criticized reporting of the Arab Spring in Egypt, noting that Western media only talked to English-speaking members of the secular and well-educated Egyptian middle-class to the exclusion of the Egyptian poor, who not only form the overwhelming majority of the country, but are also extremely pious. On this reading, the society is illiberal in the Western sense of religious tolerance and has no interest in democracy.

This total ignorance largely explains why the West thought that secular Saddam Hussein was allied with bin Laden and blundered into the catastrophe of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – completely forgetting the key lesson of the First Gulf War that an invasion of Iraq would likely lead to the country splitting apart and descending into civil war. 

Moreover, as the American historian Gabriel Kolko has pointed out, after the Second World War, the U.S. had a “heavy metal” army based in Europe, and yet it fought its main wars in Korea and Vietnam, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan – although it is hard to evaluate the counterfactual case of what would have happened in Europe without that presence.

But apart from the likes of Scheuer and Robert Baer, who did several documentaries on the “Cult of the Suicide Bomber”andis fluent in Arabic and Persian, the CIA seems to have had precious few real experts.

Astonishingly, America failed utterly to learn its lesson after missing the signs of the impending Iranian Revolution in 1979 by not having people on the ground. Some of its huge military budget would have been far better spent on training an army of world-class experts with a native command of the likes of Arabic, Persian and Pashtun.

It would then have had a far better handle on the outraged impotence felt throughout the Arab world after Israel’s crushing victory in the Six-Day War and which led to political – as opposed to the earlier religious – fundamentalism – and the subsequent terrorism.

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As if getting the contemporary Middle East hopelessly wrong were not bad enough, the West makes spectacular howlers regarding its own history as well.

In 2001, President Clinton said 9/11 was due to the Crusades and America’s treatment of the native population. Since America was not even invented at the time of the Crusades and its manifest destiny had nothing to do with Islam, it is hard to see why Muslims would instigate 9/11.

But the universal view of the Crusaders as wanton Christian aggressors, as portrayed in films such as Ridley Scott’s “The Kingdom of Heaven,” blots out the historical reality from the popular consciousness of both Westerners and Muslims.

While the Crusaders’ often barbarous behavior is now rightly condemned by all, the fact is that when Pope Urban II made his call for the Crusades at Clermont in 1095, he was responding to a plea for help in defending Christian Byzantium – the Eastern Roman Empire – from the Muslim Seljuk Turks.

In contrast to modern Westerners, medieval Europeans knew all about Arab and Muslim aggression which, in contrast to 9/11, really did represent an existential threat to Western culture. Byzantium had been suffering attacks and sieges from Arab and Muslim forces for centuries before Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. But long before that, it had lost large chunks of Greek-speaking Christian North Africa and the Middle East to Islam.

In 732, Charles Martel defeated Muslim forces at Poitiers – a French town just a few days ride from Paris. As Edward Gibbon famously noted, if the Moors had been victorious at Poitiers, “perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford.”

Just 19 years later, Muslim forces were still at it, this time several thousand miles away at the other end of Eurasia, where they defeated the Chinese at the Battle of Talas in modern Kyrgyzstan, thus facilitating the spread of Islam in Central Asia and preventing further Chinese expansion into the region under the Tang dynasty.

In short, Europe was under the very real threat of Islamic expansion from the 7th to the 17th centuries - in 1683 the Ottoman Turks laid siege to Vienna for the second time. But none of this, or the Arab slave trade in Europeans, appears in Barack Obama’s Cairo speech.

Obama also repeats another standard Western myth – that Arabs preserved western classics for posterity. While the translation movement was indeed sponsored by Arab rulers, much of the heavy lifting was in fact done by Greek, Aramaic and Arabic-speaking Syriac Christians. And it was the Hellenized states after Alexander the Great and Byzantium which preserved Classical Greek learning for Muslims in the first place. But to their detriment, Arabs then and now exclude Western rationalism in favor of revealed religion.

This numbing ignorance of history extends across all Western political parties and was reflected in George W. Bush’s naïve claim that “they hate us because we’re free” – a classic example of Woody Allen’s quip that confidence is what you have before you understand the problem. In fact, bin Laden and the fundamentalists made it abundantly clear what they wanted: to get the West out of “their lands” and replace the Western-dominated international order with a global pax islamica.

The sad conclusion is that while there is much comment on Islam, as soon as you dig a bit deeper, you usually find that it is “false expertise” by people lacking even the basic tools of the trade, such as a thorough command of the language(s) and extensive practical experience of living and working in the country or region, while the real experts have precious little input into policy.

It requires no great insight to see that this has been disastrous for Western understanding and foreign policy on the Middle East and Central Asia. Even worse – the very same trend is discernible in the outpouring of books on China in recent years – most of which are written by people who don’t know Chinese.

Most consumers of this kind of “analysis” in government and business hardly ever consider whether genuine expertise stands behind the star name or organization. Caveat emptor!

Ian Pryde is the CEO of Eurasia Strategy & Communications, Moscow.

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