The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Karsh, Rosen, and essentialism

It's been a busy week, so I'm glad that Nir Rosen took the time to skewer Efraim Karsh so I don't have to. Karsh — among the most prominent Israel apologists in British academia and a leading critics of Israel's New Historians — wrote Muslims Won't Play Together, which basically a loosely argued case for not being afraid of the Islamic response to a strike on Iran, which he backs:

So, if the Muslim bloc is just as fractious as any other group of seemingly aligned nations, what does it mean for United States policy in the Islamic world?

For one, it should give us more impetus to take a harder line with Iran. Just as the Muslim governments couldn’t muster the minimum sense of commonality for holding an all-Islamic sports tournament, so they would be unlikely to rush to Iran’s aid in the event of sanctions, or even a military strike.

Beyond the customary lip service about Western imperialism and “Crusaderism,” most other Muslim countries would be quietly relieved to see the extremist regime checked. It’s worth noting that the two dominant Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been at the forefront of recent international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the idea that bringing peace between the two parties will bring about a flowering of cooperation in the region and take away one of Al Qaeda’s primary gripes against the West totally misreads history and present-day politics. Muslim states threaten Israel’s existence not so much out of concern for the Palestinians, but rather as part of a holy war to prevent the loss of a part of the House of Islam.

In these circumstances, one can only welcome the latest changes in the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy, which combine a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear subterfuge with a less imperious approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Rosen took Karsh to task for all of his biased assumptions in the piece — the idea of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being a Muslim-Jewish one (rather than one over the land and human rights of the Palestinian people as a whole), the idea of the US having "an imperious approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," his understanding of Iranian politics and countless other sloppy lines. Do read Nir's post.

The thing that shocks me the most, though, is Karsh's framing of the Islamic world as one where the classic theological-legal term for what Western scholars have called "the Islamic law of war" has everyday reverence. Thus, he makes constant use of the House of Islam / House of War dichotomy. It was as if my next door neighbor, when he traveled abroad, said "Well, I'm off to Dar al-Harb, see ya later!"

It's typical of the way scholars with an axe to grind are making use of terms with little everyday relevance (never mind of use in the decision-making of the governments of Muslim-majority countries) to portray an Islamic threat. It reminds me how, at a certain time in America (and I'm sure elsewhere) after 9/11, the word "dhimmitude" was bandied about as if the dhimmi laws still applied in most of the the Islamic world. It's ridiculous and apparently serves the likes of Karsh to impart a scary otherness to people on this side of the planet. And the people who seem to have most liked to eat up this kind of stuff appear to be the editorial board of the New York Times.