Intifada Reprise: The Importance of Narratives

I’ve noticed that more students seem to be coming earlier to watch the music videos that  end when class begins.  Today I began a clip from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour fifteen minutes before class.

In Thursday’s lecture I had tried to make an argument: For historians, Islam is not the explanation for the problems of the Middle East, despite what pundits might claim.  Although historians used to insist that certain races (or cultures or faiths) were essentially, innately, inherently violent or troublesome or superior, we have long since looked to multiple causes to explain trends in our own and other societies.

The other half of my argument had been that some in the Middle East viewed Islam as the answer to the problems in the region.  Today I pointed out that others in the region proposed a variety of solutions, and that people had been grappling with questions about how to create powerful and/or just societies ever since–even well before–the Ottomans (with whom we had begun the course).

A few weeks ago I had asked the students to think about the challenges facing rulers in the region.  This time I wanted them to think about the problems that people in the Middle East had been confronting.  Their responses:

It was in this context then, looking at these words, that I posed today’s problem: Why was there a Palestinian uprising in 2000?  I wanted both to show the connection between the issues Palestinians were facing and broader regional issues, and at the same time to argue that narratives had consequences.

There have been two major narratives surrounding the start of the 2000 intifada.  The first (and commonly accepted version in the US) ties the uprising to the 2000 Camp David Summit.  In this story, the Palestinians, always inherently violent and never really wanting peace, were unwilling to make concessions despite Israel’s “generous offer,” and, having rejected peace, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat returned home to begin war.

The second narrative takes a historical approach, refusing to assume any kind of national character argument: why would the Palestinians have begun an uprising in 2000?  What were the causes?

Beginning with the word cloud they had created about the challenges facing people in the region, I first summarized the economic, political, and demographic results of the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles as they had influenced the lives of Palestinians.  These included rapidly expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza open to Jews only, doubling of the number of Israelis moving into territories occupied since 1967, declining living standards, and division of the West Bank into mutually exclusive enclaves.  Then I showed them a series of tables from UN Human Development Reports illustrating poverty and unemployment, an increasing gap between rich and poor Palestinians, the overwhelming distrust that Palestinians had for the Palestine National Authority government, and their cynicism about the goals of the political parties that had presided over both the signing of the Oslo Accords and the devastating consequences.

Like all other uprisings that I can think of, a spark ignited the anger.  In this case, it wasn’t Arafat’s return to begin a war–this intifada began at least partly in frustration with his government.  It was an incident related to upcoming Israeli elections, when would-be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visited the top of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to make a political point.  Despite warnings and pleas by Palestinian leaders that his visit would be incendiary, Sharon, accompanied by some 1500 Israeli police (according to Israeli sources), entered the enclave holy to Muslims.

My focus today was on the importance of historical narratives.  The consequences of the two versions are enormous, I argued.  If the first narrative is believed, then the Palestinians cannot be trusted as “partners for peace” because they are inherently, innately, and essentially committed to violence.  To accept this narrative, to accept this explanation for the uprising, one has to exclude all previous efforts at resolution, ignore longstanding Palestinian movements of nonviolent resistance, and be blind to the existence of any possible causes for Palestinian discontent.  More important, if Palestinians had no reasons to rise up, then there is no possibility for resolving the conflict–there are no grievances.

If, on the other hand, Palestinians face the same kinds of issues as those in the rest of the region (economic deprivation, external control, unresponsive governments), then there is a possibility for resolving conflicts by focusing on concrete and specific problems.

It isn’t only history that matters.  The way we narrate history matters, too.

I was thrilled when I realized that at least one student understood the broader implications of today’s session:

Islamic Political Movements

Having begun on Tuesday with a video from DAM, today I showed them one of Subliminal’s videos.

Today’s big issue: Islamic political movements.  One of the four big questions we have been addressing all semester is the nature of the state, and this week they read Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of ibn Fattoumeh. The main character journeys the world looking for a just society, noting the variety of states in the world and the ways in which they (do not) adhere to the kind of polity that idealists would have sought.

I began in a different place, though.  What causes human rights violations in the Middle East?  I showed them Wikipedia’s answer (the Douglas Adams fans chortled):

I explained that pundits and policy-makers had been using “Islam” as an explanation for all they find confusing or disturbing about the Middle East.  Instead of providing the sorts of answers we would expect when analyzing uprisings or rioting or government abuses in, say, France, certain public “intellectuals” substitute “Islam” for analysis when discussing the Middle East.

I showed the students a series of slides with too-long quotes from Amnesty International.  Each detailed government abuse, torture, poverty, police brutality, lack of freedom, discrimination based on gender, origin, or religion–all real, measurable issues that compromised human rights and well-being.  The culprit was not “Islam” but both secular and religious governments in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Then I illustrated US support for many of those same governments:

I wanted them to think about the variety of possible responses to these problems, but instead of asking them to produce a list, I provided one–something I will change next time I teach this course.

I argued that, even though Islam was not the explanation for the problems in the region, which were quite complex but can certainly be analyzed, some people in the Middle East see Islam as the solution for those problems.  They argue that, since neither the secular Western states nor the socialist bloc had created sustainable and just regimes, it was necessary to turn to a new way.  Islam, they argue, offers alternatives to corrupt and unjust governments–and to nearly all those things that Amnesty International had documented.  Islamic politics would rely on existing institutions and provide an “authentic” alternative to the failed policies of the past, in their view.

I pointed out that, though the Muslim Brotherhood had begun in Egypt in the 1920s and the Wahabbis had begun more than a century before that, the 1980s had become the heyday for religious politics around the globe (the BJP won elections in India, the religious right in Israel, the Christian Coalition in the US, the Islamists in the Middle East).  And right now, the notion that religion belongs in the US government seems to be gaining adherents: Presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had just announced that all rights come only from God.

Unfortunately, although I noted that there are important differences among Islamic political movements, I did not have time to describe them.

I did tell the students that the US has long had close ties with Islamic political movements and (self-described) Muslim governments.  The longer historical context of the Cold War and US intervention in the region was evident when I pointed out that support for such (non-communist) resistance movements had even been official policy.  When asked whether he regretted “having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?”  Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, famously responded, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

The Gulf War and the Arabian Peninsula

I introduced the students to DAM, the Palestinian hip-hop group, as they entered today.

I began where we had ended on Thursday: the consequences of Operation Desert Storm on Iraqis.  This, too, ended up being a fairly traditional lecture.

First up, the debate over the sanctions that devastated Iraq, the twelve years that resulted in fatally degraded infrastructure that the (apparently uninformed) media referred to it in 2003 as “neglect.”   The destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure that made uncontaminated water difficult to come by, combined with the sanctions that prohibited the importation of spare parts and medications, had both immediate and long-term consequences, resulting in an estimated half million children dying from easily preventable diseases.  The Clinton administration decided that, somehow, the weekly US-UK bombings and the public health nightmare were “worth it.”

The students had seen the graph showing declining child mortality under the Ba’ath government.  Now I showed them a graph on the nutritional results of sanctions.

I emphasized two regional consequences of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and the sanctions.  One, of course, was Osama bin Laden’s offer to protect the Saudi state and his fury at the King’s request for US protection instead.  The resulting US bases in the kingdom remained a mobilizing point for Islamist groups.

Second, partly as a result of a promise made to coalition allies, the US initiated negotiations over the territories Israel had been occupying since 1967.  Although the resulting Madrid Conference did not produce an agreement, back-channel talks continued in Oslo.  The resulting Declaration of Principles (aka Oslo Accords) was signed on the White House lawn in September 1993.

The Declaration of Principles provided for mutual recognition, Israeli withdrawal from Jericho and Gaza, and a Palestinian authority with limited (largely municipal) powers. At the same time, it divided the West Bank into many small and mutually exclusive enclaves, some under Palestinian control, others under Israeli control.  It did not create a Palestinian state or deal with the central issues of refugees, water, or Jerusalem.

This was an opportunity to remind the students about the range of existing opinions.  There was anger from the edges among both Palestinians and Israelis.  While most seemed to support a “land for peace” agreement, right-wing Israelis worked to make agreement impossible.  Baruch Goldstein opened fire in a  mosque during prayers five months after the signature on the White House lawn, and an assassin killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin months later.  At the same time, Hamas suicide bombings increased.  Focusing on one set of violent acts to the exclusion of the other makes the bigger pattern invisible.

I ended by trying to tie together recent issues in the region–through Saudi Arabia.  I asked the students to think about the challenges that a patriarchal monarchy would face during the turbulent second half of the twentieth century.  So many choices, each containing contradictions!  How could an old-style oligarchy neutralize Nasserist-type nationalism? How could this government navigate the connected and apparently irreconcilable choices posed by the alliance with the US in the Cold War and US support for Israel?  Where could the Saudi ruling family come down on the use of oil revenue and the potential dangers of “development” for the regime’s survival?  When confronted with global rhetoric about democracy and human rights, what was a Saudi king to do?  War in Yemen, the 1979 take-over of the shrines, support for Operation Desert Storm, exiling Osama bin Laden, and the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan illustrated the tight-rope.

Sadat and Saddam: The 1970s and 1980s

For some reason, recent history seems much harder for me to synthesize.  What are the biggest issues of the 1970s and 1980s?  How can one present them to beginning students who don’t know much about the region, without eliciting significantly more controversy than analysis.  By the time we get to the 1970s and beyond, students already have fixed ideas and a stake in the narration.

Instead of doing an overview of the 1970s and 80s, I decided today to focus on two secular autocracies and try to connect them to the big issues of the era.  I realized they hadn’t hear Fairuz yet, a serious deficiency on my part, so they arrived to her singing one of the songs my Damascus women friends seemed to consider almost an anthem.

The “quiz” today was the same one that Viji gave her students a few weeks ago, and their responses were similar.  I told the students about the experiment she had done in class, and how thinking about issues at a deeper level would help students learn.  I explained that when I asked them to respond to a poll, I had hoped to encourage the kind of engagement that would help them participate more actively in the kinds of analysis historians do, but now it seems I may have been (inadvertently) helping them learn and remember the issues we were talking about.

I began by reviewing the importance of the past in understanding the violence in Lebanon in the 1970s, talked briefly about the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, the Israeli occupation of the south, the Syrian occupation of much of the rest, and the bombing of the US marines barracks in Beirut, for which a memorial exists down the road at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Then I asked the students to think about all they had learned so far about the region.  Based on that, what kinds of challenges faced Egypt and Iraq in the 1970s?  Here are their Poll Everywhere responses, appropriate and complex, as a word cloud:

I began with Sadat’s Egypt, the high costs entailed in being neither at war nor at peace, and the 1973 war that managed to solve none of those problems.  Neither did the “opening” to capitalist investment.  I described Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the result of food riots that followed the imposition of IMF austerity measures.  (In past years I have had to describe the demands for austerity measures, but the students seem to know lots about them these days.)  I introduced the Muslim Brotherhood as both an economic and a political force, and ended with the assassination of Sadat.  (They now know the names of all of the Egyptian presidents since 1952!)

Then on to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Context comes first: the Cold War, and the various ideological options available to people in the 1970s Middle East: communism, state nationalism, Arab nationalism, Islamism.  The Ba’ath party made sense in this context. The rising price of oil we had already talked about (and they seem to have talked to their parents about) provided the emerging Iraqi dictator with a lot of income to spread around.  I talked about rapidly improving child mortality rates under his rule, and the sorts of improvements that would have been reflected in the improving health of children.  But I also showed them a series of images reflecting the growing cult of personality, and concluded with the 1980 invasion of Iran, trying to provide the background they would need for the week’s reading, Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody.  The Iraqi invasion of Iran, I pointed out, brought together most of the issues we had focused on since the end of World War I: disputes over borders, questions of belonging, Nasserism and nationalism, and fear of popular revolution.

Their questions will provide a transition to Thursday:

Guest Lecture

This week is lecture week.  After my extended discussion of the origins of the Lebanese civil war and questions of belonging on Tuesday, the students were treated to a remarkable lecture by my colleague James Gelvin from UCLA.  He was on campus to participate in a panel on the Arab Uprisings with Amjad Atallah, Al Jazeera bureau chief for the Americas.  Professor Gelvin placed the Israel-Palestine context in global context using two timelines, both drawn by hand on a white board.  Some of us need no technology.


So much to “cover”!  This week, I wanted to connect the growing dissonance about belonging with its violent consequences in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The era was so fraught that Billy Joel seemed the best introduction as the students got settled.

I began by talking about the exercise Thursday, trying to reckon with the perspectives of each of the three authors so we could figure out what happened.  Analyzing sources is important, I argued, and we can learn even from explicitly “untrue” sources.  My example: fairytales.  What can we learn from such fiction?  They offered terrific ideas: methods of economic production (pricked her finger on a spindle), kinds of housing, value structures, forests as frightening, class divisions, and others.

At the same time, I emphasized, all sources are not equally valid or trustworthy or believable.  Corroborating evidence is always essential.  So rejecting a source because you disagree or because their tone seems strident isn’t helpful.  I reminded them of the need for a historian to have a split screen.

And the only question from Thursday was really helpful in discussion which things matter: “Was the economic situation as important as the human rights situation in wanting to overthrow the government?”  Different historians focus on different things in trying to understand the past, so the answer would depend on which historians one read or talked to.

One of the four basic themes on which we are focusing this semester is the question of who belongs.  The Lebanese civil war of the 1970s is a devastating window into the issue, and its antecedents offer perspective and context.  So I began with a map of the French division of “Syria” during the mandate and the longstanding European demand to be able to “protect” Ottoman minorities.  Their “protection” led to the 1943 National Pact, which offered an opportunity to remind the students of their readings on the 1860 Damascus riots and the problem of borders that came after World War I.

Then I introduced another strand: the refugees from the creation of Israel in 1948, the new refugees from the war in 1967, and the establishment of competing Palestinian nationalist organizations.  As Palestinians began to emulate the Algerian liberation movement, they tried to create a space in Jordan from which to operate.  Jordan’s King Hussein, threatened by the hijackings that followed, along with Israeli strikes against Palestinian bases on the border, attacked the Palestinian organizations, resulting in thousands of dead.  I talked about three consequences:

  • the creation of Black September, the organization that carried out the Munich Olympics hostage crisis
  • the new refugees flooding into Lebanon and destabilizing the precarious religious balance institutionalized in the 1943 Lebanese National Pact
  • the alienation of non-Palestinian residents of Jordan.

Readings for this week included discussions of the We Are All Jordan campaign of the last decade, and descriptions of the changing geographic boundaries within Beirut as a result of the civil war.

But in addition to demography and war, analyzing Lebanon’s economy is also essential to understand the outbreak of war in the 1970s.  I described the gap between Beirut, Playground of the Rich on one hand, and Beirut, Slums for the Poor on the other, and a political/economic system in which each of the confessional groups were represented among the wealthiest 4%, who seem to have encouraged them to identify with co-religionists instead of with the other underemployed and impoverished people in the city’s surroundings.  Then I briefly compared the Lebanese Nationalist Movement’s and the Phalange’s positions on confessional politics, reform, and restricting Palestinian fighters on Lebanese soil.  After a very brief mention of the horrors of the civil war, I tried to summarize the connections among the three “minority” issues in the neighboring states.  It seemed a long lecture, and I never even got to the Israeli invasion in 1982.

Revolution in Iran

Just back from Spring Break and March Madness is upon us.  Basketball is a preoccupation at Carolina for the next few weeks (we hope), even more than it usually is .

This week is devoted to the Iranian Revolution, and I began by telling the students that this is really, really, REALLY important.  One cannot understand US policy in the region without recognizing the complete alienation that resulted–on many sides.  I welcomed them with a music video by one of Iran’s preeminent rock stars, Googoosh, who earned the respect of many by remaining in Iran after the revolution for many years.  (Please note: many of the images in the blog are clickable and will take you to the videos used in class.)

Spring break is very long, even longer than the week that marks it on the calendar.  To review where we had been before the break, I asked the students to think about the two biggest issues and two most important events in the region between World War I and the revolutionary period we covered right before spring break.  The result really surprised me: it seems that, though many included other issues and events, everyone included the creation of Israel.  It didn’t seem that I had spent very much–or even enough–time on this, so I was quite surprised.  (I wondered if this was a result of the Daily Tarheel’s coverage of the student walk-out during David Horowitz’s talk on campus the night before.)  The wordle was so unanticipated that I didn’t know how to respond.  I will return to it next week, I think.

I began my lecture with a review of Mossadegh and the Shah (from before break), then re-introduced the Shah in the context of the 1971 Persepolis ceremonies.  Although we haven’t yet talked about the 1973 war, I introduced the oil “weapon,” describing the longer trajectory (since 1947) during which producing countries had been demanding more control over and higher prices for their petroleum exports.

Rapidly growing oil revenues helped the Shah fund his White Revolution, as well as encouraging corruption and allowing the growth of an expanded military and a repressive police force.  The results, I pointed out, were quite dissimilar from the goals.  The students got to hear President Jimmy Carter toasting the Shah at a state dinner, while reading Amnesty International’s 1975 report that “The Shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts, and a history of torture which is beyond belief.”   Then they got to hear the shah deny torture while talking with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.

The problem is to convey the complex nature of events.  We think of this as an “Islamic Revolution,” so I wanted to introduce them to some of the demands articulated by the Shah’s opposition.  At the same time, they needed to know that religion did play a role, or more accurately, a number of roles.  After a three-minute introduction to the seventh-century division that led to the emergence of Shi’is, I explained the importance for Shi’is of having sources for emulation and the problem of legitimate rule after the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam.