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from The Long Shadow

The Historian's Contribution

This is a book about politics by an historian. Though the subject matter closely resembles that of a political scientist, policy analyst, or journalist, the historian's approach differs in important ways.

Political scientists array data systematically in an effort to establish patterns of behavior. Policy analysts use information instrumentally as a means to reach a decision. Journalists focus on the activities of the moment and emphasize first-hand experience. While each of these approaches has its strengths, of course, it is my contention that the work of the historian comes first and offers the most profound understanding.

It comes first because it deals with the most general level of analysis. The historian excels at placing current events within their larger context; he is the observer best suited to interpret the long shadow of the past and to show how it affects the present. Many years' study of a single subject, supplemented by knowledge of languages and cultural forms, and often by personal experience, deepen the historian's perspective.

These virtues have particular usefulness in the Middle East, a region where two factors-the weight of an antique culture and the volatility of today's politics-combine to create a special need for a larger perspective.

The first factor involves a widespread feeling among Muslims that things today are going wrong. This creates a longing for the old days and a wistfulness for bygone centuries-for a time when Muslims were true to their faith and their armies won glorious victories and their cities led the world in cultural advancement. School texts dwell lovingly on the early centuries of Islam, novels revolve around caliphs and other great figures of the past, movies reenact historical dramas, and politicians' speeches conjure up the glories of long ago. About one-fifth the total stock in Arab book stores consists of medieval texts-word-for-word editions of what the ancients wrote.

And those books are read: students routinely study old texts and intellectuals still passionately debate them. One example comes from Egypt. Ibn Taymiya, the renowned Syrian theologian who lived from 1268 to 1328 A.D., wrote anti-governmental polemics that still inspire Muslims today. In April 1981 a semi-official Egyptian weekly magazine singled out Ibn Taymiya as the most harmful influence on the youth of Egypt. It was right: just a few months later Anwar as-Sadat was assassinated and it turned out that at least three out of his four assassins had extensively read Ibn Taymiya or his followers. There is probably no other civilization in which arguments from the distant past retain so powerful a hold. The presence of times past is almost palpable.

Nor are Muslims the only Middle Easterners fascinated with the past. Christians of the region, now but a vestige of their former numbers and influence, also return to earlier centuries for succor and inspiration. And Jews have their own reason to look back: after an absence of two millennia, Israel came into existence only through an immense effort of historical consciousness. On a more mundane level too, the controversy over title to Israel's land involves innumerable small battles over interpretations of the past; no wonder archaeology has a uniquely political significance in Israel.

Unsettled politics is the second factor accounting for history's special usefulness in the Middle East, for the momentum of headlines tends to impede a vision of the whole. Consider the following: in late 1987, major wars were under way between Iraq and Iran and between Soviet forces and the mujahidin in Afghanistan; the Arab-Israeli conflict had been on for forty years; Chad and Libya had recently engaged in several large battles; minor wars were taking place in the Sudan and the Western Sahara; an insurgency plagued Turkey; two feuding communities divided Cyprus; and Iran purveyed an aggressive ideology that threatened to destabilize the entire region. And more: the Middle East had been the locus of the most advanced terrorism and the most sophisticated conventional fighting since World War II. It served as the main testing ground for new aircraft, tanks, artillery, and many other kinds of advanced weaponry.

The intensity and violence of these events makes it difficult to grasp the forces that drive Middle East politics. In contrast to a slower moving region such as Europe or Japan, where there is time to dwell on the underlying issues, recurring crises in the Middle East distract attention from basic topics.

An example may help clarify this point. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is commonly said to be a medieval figure who seeks to turn back the clock to the fourteenth century; he is also viewed as an Iranian nationalist. Both characterizations are entirely wrong. Khomeini's ideas are not medieval but, on the contrary, are radically new for Islam. No one before has ever argued, as does he, that the Muslim religious authorities should take political power; no one has ever turned the Meccan pilgrimage into a political rally; nor has anyone ever tried to replace Western institutions with Islamic equivalents. As for being an Iranian nationalist, Khomeini is perhaps the outstanding antinationalist figure of this century; he believes in the brotherhood of Islam and repudiates the ideology of a loyalty based on place, language, or culture. He shows affection for Iranian culture but scorns the idea that Iran forms the political unit to which ultimate allegiance is paid.

The Essays

The essays are divided into five sections, each of which deals with a key aspect of the Middle East.

Islam and Public Life

Islam's influence on Muslims affects far more than spiritual or theological matters. Indeed, Islam touches on the rhythms of daily life, the tenor of political culture, economics, personal relations, and even eating habits. All is informed by Islam; it is the central cultural feature of the Middle East (and the other regions where Muslims predominate). To give just one example, Islam imbues a political loyalty that exactly contradicts the nationalist bonds that come from the West; the difference contributes much to the volatility that marks public life in the Middle East. Islam is also what makes the Middle East opaque for an outsider-it constitutes the alien factor that turns the familiar universals of daily life into exotic, even mysterious puzzles. Even those who reject Islam are deeply influenced by it. Should you wish to understand the Christian minorities, saloon life, or the development of Communist parties in the Middle East, be advised to start with Islam.

Islam makes itself felt in many ways. Perhaps the most important, and certainly the most spectacular, is the fundamentalist movement. Unlike other Muslims, fundamentalists aspire to apply the law of Islam in its every detail. And of the fundamentalists, the most extreme and powerful has been the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose example has attracted or repelled Muslims throughout the world since he came to power in 1979.

One of the most difficult aspects of his ideology to fathom is the hatred he directs towards the United States and the only slightly milder antagonism he exhibits toward the U.S.S.R. Why so much venom, and why more against the U.S. than the U.S.S.R.? The essay "Fundamentalist Muslims Between America and Russia" takes up these questions and suggests that, ultimately, the ayatollah responds to the much greater danger that American culture presents. It bears emphasis that, even more than soldiers or money, this culture threatens the Ayatollah most profoundly, for he sees it as the greatest obstacle to implementing his Islamic vision. And the weight and volume of American culture far exceeds that coming from Russia. This holds true in nearly every field of endeavor, from high fashion to fast food. Ironically, even Marxism coming from the United States is more of a threat than Marxism coming from Moscow.

Khomeini is right to worry about Western culture, for during the past two centuries Muslims have indeed accepted a great deal from Europe. Although most Muslims intended originally only to learn those features of Western civilization that would be useful to them, this proved, in fact, to be an impossible limitation, and they invariably absorbed much more than this. Surely one of the least expected transfers of culture concerned the historic Christian attitudes towards Jews. But, as the essay "The Politics of Muslim Anti-Semitism" argues, after first becoming known to Muslims in the mid-nineteenth century, when they had little resonance in the Middle East, these went on to acquire considerable significance. They became especially useful with the creation of Israel and the humiliation of being beaten by the hitherto despised Jews. At that moment, Muslims woke up to the utility of demon theories that had circulated in Europe for many centuries. Suitably altered for Middle Eastern use, these were widely adopted and exploited.

Yet, ironically, the ultimate danger of this transfer of anti-Semitism from the West to the Middle East lies back in the West. Although Muslims may propound and believe anti-Semitic theories, these do not reverberate among them in the way they do in the West. Although the circumstance in which this essay was written-the great oil boom of 1974-82-have ended, and with it the immediate dangers noted in this essay, the long-term implications of Muslim anti-Semitism remain quite unchanged. Indeed, a major study on this subject that appeared in 1986, Bernard Lewis' Semites and Anti-Semites, confirms virtually all the key points made here.

Most Westerners approach Islam from a Christian perspective. By using such terms as clergy and heresy, they implicitly draw connections between the institutions of the two religions. But this is almost always misleading. Sunnis do not resemble Catholics, Muhammad shares almost nothing with Jesus, and Friday means something wholly different from Sunday. Should a comparison be drawn, better that it relate Islam to Judaism. The essay "Traditional Jewish and Muslim Ways of Life" shows how much these two religions share in common, whereas Christianity is the odd one out. The Judeo-Islamic tradition has much more substance than the Judeo-Christian one.

The last essay in this section takes up the question of Islam and politics among a little-known but potentially critical body of Muslims, those living in the U.S.S.R. For many centuries, what is now the southern part of the Soviet Union was integral to the Persian cultural world; the Persian- and Turkic-speakers of that region have always seen the Russians as an alien people. The deep cultural divide means that the Muslim residents of the Soviet Central Asian provinces are, in effect, a colonial people, one that shares surprisingly much with the Indians under the British raj or the Algerians under French rule. This is not to claim that they exactly resemble those colonized peoples, but that the many similarities do help understand their position. "The Muslims of Soviet Central Asia" considers the quasi-colonial status of these Muslims, evaluates their likely prospects in the future, and suggests some guidelines for U.S. policy.

The Persian Gulf

The revolution in Iran caused many Western observers suddenly to recognize the power of Islam. As if to make up for having so long ignored Islam, and determined not to be caught out again, they then overcompensated by ascribing too much to it. Thus, when war broke out between Iraq and Iran in September 1980, many accounts of the war pointed to the Sunni-Shi'i split and interpreted the war in terms of the Islamic Republic's challenge to the Iraqi state. The essay "A Border Adrift" offers a corrective to this explanation; it suggests that the outbreak of hostilities climaxed decades of geo-political tensions between Iraq and Iran.

I also argue that Iraq purposefully began the war in 1980, a decision that looks more disastrous with the passage of time. Nonetheless, American policy toward the combatants must be divorced from the issue of who began the war and why. The fact that the war resulted from Baghdad's aggression steadily lost significance with time; that it started things matters less and less in light of the fact that the Iranian leaders quickly turned the fighting to their advantage and have long held the offensive.

The other major factor in the Persian Gulf in addition to Islam, of course, is oil. Despite the attention devoted to oil issues in the aftermath of the 1973 crisis, one critical factor was widely ignored, namely the spending and consumption patterns of the Middle East exporters. It was assumed that the exporters had more money than they needed and would continue to do so indefinitely. This goes against some basic facts of human nature. In fact, the exporting states quickly began to spend more than they took in. Missing this key fact meant not being prepared for the glut and decline of oil prices that began in 1981, much less for the extended period of troubles that followed.

The essay "The Curse of Oil Wealth" points to the strange paradox of oil revenues: The higher you rise, the deeper you fall. The countries that profited most from the rise in prices and production were also the ones to suffer most from the glut. Oil wealth creates other anomalies. The exporters enjoy vast wealth but remain essentially poor, for they lack modern skills; they wield considerable economic power yet remain utterly vulnerable to outside forces. Though this essay was published in 1982, before the ramifications of the oil glut had started to show, it proved prescient about the troubles in store for the OPEC leaders in the rest of the decade.

Its conclusions are markedly more pessimistic than those I reached six years later in "Kuwait: A Very Expensive Experiment." This first-hand report reflects the ambiguous results of the oil boom as seen in the most favored state a few years after the shine had worn off. It is too little appreciated that the Persian Gulf offers a unique social laboratory. Nowhere in the world have peoples undergone a transition so rapid, so complete, and so well documented as in the oil-rich countries. Therefore, developments there have more than a practical interest; in addition to vast resources and strategic centrality, the region provides an unprecedented testing ground for social ideas and a yet-to-be-discovered arena for literary talent.

Certainly few of the books published so far can claim much literary or intellectual merit. When the oil countries became the focus of worldwide interest, an abundance of books appeared. Typical of the fare are the three books reviewed in the essay "Arabia Thrice Over Lightly." Though not without merit, these efforts do not rise beyond their skewed origins.

Countries that provided labor to OPEC enjoyed less wealth than the oil exporters themselves, but their sudden riches were hardly less pervasive and important. "Cairo During the Oil Boom" paints a brief and impressionistic picture, focusing on economics, of the largest city in the Middle East. To note that contradictions abound is an understatement.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict

Although the confrontation between the Arabs and Israel is by far the best known of all topics Middle Eastern, comprehension of its issues remains elusive. My writings here go directly against the conventional wisdom. The essay "Arab vs. Arab Over Palestine" takes on the most fundamental issue in the conflict, arguing that its center of gravity lies not in what one might expect-the battle between Arabs and Jews-but in the inter-Arab competition. Palestinian separatists, Arab nationalists, and the governments of Jordan and Syria are the main rivals; lesser claimants include the fundamentalist Muslims, the West Bank notables, and the Egyptian government. The competition between Arabs for the land under Israeli control requires solution before much can be done about their disagreement with Israel.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has attained a unique position in the universe of irredentist and terrorist movements. While other movements retain a certain outlaw status, the PLO has become a quasi-governmental agency. It managed to muscle the other claimants out of the way-at least in the view of Western observers. The essay "How Important is the PLO?" suggests that this strength results not from the intrinsic powers of the PLO but from the extraordinary patronage it receives from the Arab states. This implies that the PLO does not lead but rather follows the Arab consensus-and that its power is far more illusory than real.

The topic of Syrian relations with the U.S.S.R. is widely misunderstood. Here the standard wisdom holds that Damascus merely abides by the Soviets in a marriage of convenience. The documentation in "Syria: The Cuba of the Middle East?" shows that the two states' bonds go far beyond anything that could be termed a marriage of convenience. They work closely together on a wide array of matters, including international and regional politics, military matters, and terrorism.

"Two Bus Lines to Bethlehem" takes up the misplaced expectations of Western observers that the Jews and Arabs of Israel can deal with each other on an amicable and equal basis. Middle East tradition points in the opposite direction; and, indeed, divisions in Israel closely resemble what is found in the other countries of the region. The separate Jewish and Arab bus companies that cover an almost identical route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem symbolize a separation that is probably permanent.


The Middle East has distinguished itself as the locus of terrorism. It is the region where the most incidents take place and where the new methods-such as aircraft hijacking, the taking of hostages, assaults on diplomats, and letter bombs-are developed. The essay "Suicide Terrorism: The New Scourge" considers the most spectacular of these methods and shows how Iranian intelligence developed the suicide attack as a tool of statecraft. The key conclusion is that suicide terrorism does not depend on fanatical individuals or Islamic sentiments but can be utilized by any ruthless regime.

Perhaps the most powerful Middle East innovation in terrorism is state-sponsorship. This has taken the terrorist tool from poorly organized and underfunded groups and placed it in the hands of far more capable practioners, with devastating effect. Four authorities have emerged as the pre-eminent patrons of terror: the PLO and the regimes in Libya, Syria, and Iran. The first two capture most attention, for they have been in operation longest and engage in the more spectacular activities; but, in fact, they are far less effective than the latter two, which are at once more subtle and far more competent at matching means and ends, strategies and policies.

The futility of Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi's escapades-terrorist and otherwise-emerges from the survey in "No One Likes the Libyan Colonel." After years of frenetic activity, Qadhdhafi has very little to show but destruction and death; none of his major goals have been achieved. The same applies to the PLO; more than two decades of murder have brought the Palestinians no closer to statehood or any other of its goals.

But how very different is the Syrian and Iranian use of terror. Authorities in these two states, especially Iran, have repeatedly achieved important objectives through the careful application of terrorist techniques. " 'Death to America' in Lebanon" analyses perhaps the largest terrorist achievement so far, the Iranian success in driving Westerners out of Lebanon. A Western presence built up over centuries disappeared in less than a decade. The cosmopolitan country that once led the Middle East in culture and finance has turned into a country where Americans and Europeans fear to tread. This marks the first of what the Iranian authorities hope will be a sequence of expulsions in Muslim countries.

The success of terrorism results in good part from the confused reaction of its victims. How should the United States government respond to a hijacking or an abduction? "A Dangerous White House Obsession" focuses on the unthinking, emotional response of President Jimmy Carter and his aides to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It argues that the exceptional attention American leaders gave this relatively minor incident created profound problems for the United States. In future, if the same mistakes are not to be repeated, some cool, rather un-American policies will have to be adopted.

The United States and the Middle East

The Middle East has a special place in the conscience of Americans. First, along with India, the region is one of the two great progenitors of religious inspiration, and the source of the great monotheisms.

Second, the Middle East is the one nonindustrialized area of the world which directly affects vital United States interests. It contains the largest oil reserves on the planet; should the U.S.S.R. gain control over these, Moscow would be in a position to undermine the existing world order without firing a shot. Geographically, the Middle East is the membrane at the middle of the world through which most everything passes. Its land, water, and air passages have the greatest importance for trade; just to mention the names of some of the passageways-the Suez Canal, the Straits of Hormuz, the Bosphorus, the Bab al-Mandab-conjures up the region's critical role in international trade and strategy.

These two considerations-God and Mammon-are so strong, they overwhelm the usual American debate on foreign affairs. The essay "Breaking All the Rules: American Debate over the Middle East" shows that the conservative/liberal distinction disappears when it comes to Middle East issues; instead, one finds pro-Israel and pro-Arab partisans. The exceptionalism of the Middle East has a far-reaching influence on all aspects of American relations in the region, and especially the way Washington makes policy.

Washington policymakers are the focus of "Presidents and Middle East Policy." Steven L. Spiegel argues in his important book, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, that despite many contending pressure groups, it is ultimately the president and his closest advisers who determine American policy in the Middle East. Although Spiegel brings a wealth of evidence to support this claim, his own evidence can be used to prove a different conclusion, namely that the White House usually responds to forces generated elsewhere.

In contrast to most other regions of the world, which suffer from neglect in the American media, the Middle East receives considerable-indeed, often disproportionate-attention. This follows from a fascination with Israel and all things Israeli, and from the very considerable American role in the region. Obsessive interest in Israel and the U.S. leads to problems, however. Events are taken out of context so that assessing their real significance becomes next to impossible. "The Media and the Middle East" holds that over-emphasis on Israel and the United States fundamentally distorts events in the Middle East. The effect of this bias is not restricted to the United States but-because American media have an international impact-is felt around the world.

On a small scale, Ken Follett's real-life thriller, On Wings of Eagles betrays exactly this weakness. His account of the escape of two American businessmen from Iran during the peak of the revolution is a compelling tale of danger and courage. But, as "Corporate Heroes in Iran" argues, there is a basic fraudulence here; Follett's own narrative makes clear that the real hero of the story is less the American that he eulogizes than the obscure Iranian on the periphery of the story.

The essay "Louis Farrakhan Is Not a Muslim" was published at the moment in 1984 when Farrakhan was most in the spotlight due to his association with the presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson. Pointing out that Farrakhan's religious ideas share nothing at all with mainstream Islam helped disentangle his extremist views from those of real Islam.

My Goals

An historian of the Middle East can help explain these issues of current concern and is often asked to do so. This is more remarkable than might appear at first glance. The historian specializing in the Renaissance who strayed into questions of current Italian politics would not get much of a hearing, and the same goes for those dealing with other aspects of Europe's distant past. But a medievalist working on the Middle East (or, for that matter, almost any non-Western) is sought out. Ironically, this interest results from the faulty assumption that little of significance has changed for a millennium in those parts of the world. This is quite wrong-virtually everything has changed-but the assumption does offer the historian opportunities to address a general audience.

And so it is that scholars who otherwise address only their colleagues find themselves in the public eye. At the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1978-79, for example, Iranian specialists enjoyed a special moment when the government and the wider public listened anxiously to their analyses; terrorism, oil, and the Arab-Israeli conflict also invite interpretation.

I am one of those who, educated for one intellectual and career path, found himself following another. I received a Ph.D. in June 1978 for a study on Islam and politics in the medieval period; within months, the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the peaking of the Islamic revival made my topic a matter of current interest. I drew great satisfaction from the study of medieval period-it engaged me with an integral civilization at its prime-but was pulled to contemporary issues by major events taking place in present-day Islam and politics. As one thing led to another, I eventually gave up my claim to be a medievalist and metamorphosed into a historian of the modern Middle East. This decision led me into a variety of activities, including service in the U.S. Department of State, the editorship of a world affairs journal, and the teaching of such subjects as world history, Middle East politics, and strategic studies.

The essays presented here pursue an unusual approach to the Middle East. If analyses for small numbers of specialists deal with narrow subjects and tend to be inaccessible to the non-specialist, those addressed to the general public tend to be confined to issues of the moment and written by observers with an only passing interest in the region. I believe there is a place for the specialist to write on current issues for a general audience. I offer the twenty-two essays that follow in the hope that they at least partially attain this goal.

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