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.

Lebanon

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.

Revolutionary Middle East, Thursday version

I was pleased with the format Tuesday, with the students’ participation in constructing the narrative and thinking about the implications.  But I couldn’t figure out how to provide enough background for their discussions.  They were reading too broadly this week (what was I thinking?): a Nasser speech, Fanon on torture, the Eisenhower Doctrine, and two chapters from Nadje al-Ali’s wonderful book, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present.  Their journal was to be on whether these events really constituted revolutions.  So I had to provide at least the background for the Algerian war, Iraq 1958, Nasser 1952, Mossadegh 1953, and the Suez Crisis.  It seemed to me that they all fit together, but they were obviously too much for one lecture.

I wanted to focus on France and Algeria for the welcoming music, but since I couldn’t decide which Rai to play, I did two, beginning when only a few students had arrived.

I had decided that I would begin the lecture with a Poll Everywhere poll on the biggest issues of the era.  I would take their responses, create a word cloud with wordle, and then talk about the issues raised by the biggest words (most frequently used in the students’ responses) in order.  I had prepared the PowerPoint to be flexible.  But the system was down!   (Poll Everywhere was very apologetic, claimed this wouldn’t be repeated.)

Face to face with the problem of technology: sometimes it doesn’t work.  It took me most of the hour to regain my footing.  But what followed was not my finest hour as a teacher.  I was flustered, and reverted to a standard lecture, in chronological order.  Iran, oil and the cold war (Mossadegh 1953) followed by the Sinai Suez Crisis (Great Powers, Super Powers, Nasser and Israel), and the Algerian revolution.  The only redeeming elements:

First, I love this BBC clip on the 1956 Sinai-Suez crisis, especially when thinking about 2002-3 and Iraq.

And second, I juxtaposed de Toqueville and a colon legislator on the effects of the French on Algerian society.

I scrambled to the end, trying to remind us all of the big picture concerns as I finally wound down and hoping that they would think about the bigger issues in discussion sections.

Revolutionary Middle East: Nasser

The decade that followed the creation of the state of Israel saw the overthrow of most of the rulers of the Arab states.  It’s a challenge to “cover” all of the revolutionary movements, let alone their consequences.  I have been struggling with my desire to talk about all of the big events of the decade, trying to figure out which things I should focus on.  Those would have to stand in for the issues raised by all of them.

Who better to begin with than Um Khulthoum, though I’m not sure the students understood from the video clip why she has been so beloved by so many for so long.  Review today: the partition of 1947, Israel’s establishment, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees that resulted.

I’d found a wonderful Guardian newsclip on the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 Iraq, and asked the students to watch it and prepare to respond to four questions: What happened? Why? So what? What other information would you need to know to answer these questions?  Then the film:

They began to respond, and quickly got bogged down.  After I played the clip again, they were able to answer the questions, while the TA typed their responses.  Although I’m not convinced the responses are below the right questions, it seemed (I hoped?) that the exercise was helpful not only to make the list, but also to think about HOW one prepares for–and works to understand–historical information.

Clearly, Nasser was not only a huge and frightening spectre for the British newscaster.  He was also a really significant symbol for those who have come after him and used his legacy to seek change .  I wanted the students to think about Nasser and how he could have come to be so popular.  They are reading one of his speeches this week.  I asked them to think about everything they know about Egypt to this point, and began a timeline on a PowerPoint slide.  They were quite impressive, remembering not only the events, but also some of the big issues.  We had left Egypt after the Urabi revolt, so I caught them up to 1948: the frustrated efforts for independence after World War I and the dependent independence that followed, with British continuing to control most aspects of Egypt’s government and economy.  I hope by the end of the semester to convince them that context matters, in this case, that Nasser and his legacy can only be understood within the contexts of Egypt’s history, the struggle against colonialism, and the Cold War.

Zionism and Israel

The opening video this morning was another series of images, this time Polish Jews right before World War II.

I set up the lecture today as a series of questions.  We began with a review of the new state system In the Middle East, the mandates and Zionism.  I showed them a Romanian movie poster about immigration to Palestine that portrayed the New Jew as a European peasant.  The first question: What about those people already living in Palestine?  The Israeli Foreign Ministry explained,  “At that time in the late 19th century, Arab nationalism did not yet exist in any form, and the Arab population of Palestine was sparse and apolitical.”  In the context of European nationalism, those who were nations deserved states; those without a national identity did not merit the territory on which they lived.

But how were the new immigrants to survive?  Israel’s first president David Ben Gurion wrote in his memoirs about how difficult it had been to find work, since local workers knew the jobs and the employers and didn’t expect as much pay as new immigrants.  The response: all land purchased by Jews could hire only Jewish labor.

How did the non-immigrants respond?  The violence of the 1920s and 1930s has to be seen in the broader context of anti-colonial struggle, I argued.  Much of it resembled the anti-colonial risings against France in the Syrian mandate areas, and against Great Britain in Iraq.  In the case of British mandatory Palestine, the immigrating Zionists seemed to add yet another layer of foreign control.

The Middle East mandates were explicitly meant to encourage and facilitate eventual Arab self-government, while the Palestine mandate had an added commitment: to create a “national home” for the Jews.  I asked the students to talk together and try to figure out the best way that the British could reconcile these two apparently competing demands.  Their Poll Everywhere responses, as a wordle:

I reviewed the continuing struggles of the British to limit–then open–then limit Jewish immigration; to recognize–then suppress–then recognize Arab governance; to define–then redefine–“economic absorptive capacity” as a way of analyzing the number of potential immigrants.  When London finally decided (in 1936) that the promises to each group could not be reconciled in a single state, they proposed dividing the land, only to find that both groups rejected the partition.

What were the options?  I offered them the range of Zionist solutions, from Hebrew University President Judah Magnes’ call for a single binational state that would include Arabs and Jews, to Vladimir Jabotinsky’s insistence that only an “iron wall” could convince the local population to allow the creation of an exclusively Jewish state.  As today, though, most Zionists fell in the middle, by 1947 agreeing to partition, a two-state solution.  The holocaust and the huge numbers of Jews in displacement camps lent urgency to growing demands for a Jewish state.

As the clock wound down, I showed them the maps: partition and armistice.  We begin next week with the 700,000 refugees that resulted and the consequences of Israel’s 1948 creation on the people and politics of the region.