MEF defends Patai

The Middle East Forum yet again confirms its intellectual and moral bankruptcy -- and attachment to racist stereotypes of Arabs -- by reprinting the foreword of the 2002 edition Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind, the book that the New Yorker's Samuel Hersh revealed was behind neo-conservative ideas of the Arab world and may have encouraged the mindset that led to the use of torture at Abu Ghraib.

The foreword was written by Norvell B. De Atkine, a teacher at John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who declares himself an "incurable Romantic" about the Arab world, as Patai did. These kind of arabists, who fancy themselves as later-day Lawrences of Arabia or Richard Burtons, are really not helpful in these days of mass poverty, social unrest, political extremism and autocratic regimes.

But here is what De Atkine has to say:

It might legitimately be asked how well Patai's analysis bears up in today's world. After all, it has been about thirty years since the majority of The Arab Mind was written. The short answer is that it has not aged at all. The analysis is just as prescient and on-the-mark now as on the day it was written. One could even make the argument that, in fact, many of the traits described have become more pronounced. For instance, Islamist demagogues have skillfully used the lure of the Arabic language, so carefully explained by Patai as a powerful motivator, to galvanize the streets in this era of the Islamic revival, in a way even the great orator Abdul Nasser could not achieve.


Wow, those Islamists, they use language and everything! And the idea that they "galvanized the streets" in way that "Nasser could not achieve" is ridiculous when you think of the crowds he could pull. The Islamists -- at least those of the Bin Laden type -- have a limited appeal in the Arab world, even if they've managed (because of their experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere) to be very effective organizations. Otherwise the entire Arab world would be run by Islamists. Furthermore, Islamic revivalism is also not going anywhere. The biggest trend in Arab societies today is the growth of apolitical piousness that manages to integrate with modernity just fine -- not a Taliban or Wahhabi-like return to seventh-century Arabia.

The point is not that Patai had nothing worthwhile to say. It is more that whatever his contribution to understanding the Arab world was, it was too tinted by ideology and romanticism to be fully trusted. The Arab world has gone through tremendous changes since Patai first wrote The Arab Mind, which is why it is time to leave scholars with an outdated view of the region (Bernard Lewis, an outstanding Ottoman historian but dubious interpreter of the Arab world, comes to mind here) to the historiographers and intramural academic bickering.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.