An Old View of the Arabs
“Once mellowed and moldering, the far-flung civilization of the Arabs is being swept today by invigorating winds of change. A fruitful kind of disorder is replacing the old fixed patterns of life.” Those contemporary-sounding words were published in 1962, in a glossy, picture-laden, 160-page book titled “The Arab World.”
The volume boasts three virtues that make it worth a review a precise half-century later. First, the editors of Life magazine, then an outstanding U.S. weekly, produced it, implying cultural centrality. Second, a retired senior State Department official, George V. Allen, wrote the introduction, pointing to the book’s established credentials. Third, Desmond Stewart (1924-1981), an acclaimed British journalist, historian, and novelist, wrote the text.
The Arab World strongly represents an artifact from another era; while not entirely sugar-coating his subject matter, Stewart offers a benign, gauzy, patronizing approach that would make even the most euphemistic writers of today gag. For example, he suggests that a Western visitor to the Arabic-speaking countries enters “the realm of Aladdin and Ali Baba. The people remind him of his illustrated Bible.” One encounters little of this sentimentality in the age of al-Qaida.
More interestingly, the book demonstrates how easily a prominent analyst can misread the big picture.
As suggested by its title, one theme concerns the existence of a single Arab people from Morocco to Iraq, a people so tradition-bound that Stewart resorts to an animal analogy: “The Arabs possess a distinctive common culture which they can no more throw off than a hummingbird can change its nesting habits to those of a thrush.” Ignoring the Arabs’ failed record to unify their countries, Stewart predicted that “whatever happens, the forces for [Arab] union will remain.” Hardly. That urge died not long after 1962 and has long remained defunct, as has its shallow premise that the Arabic language alone defines a people, ignoring history and geography.
His second theme concerns Islam. Stewart writes that this “simple” faith has raised humanity “to a new height” and that it is “not pacifist, but its key word was salaam, or peace.” He calls Islam a “tolerant faith” and describes the Arabs historically as “tolerant conquerors” and “tolerant overlords.” Muslims dealt with Jews and Christians in a “tolerant” way. Indeed, “The Arabs’ tolerance extended to culture.” All this tolerance prompts Stewart blithely but unwisely to dismiss manifestations of Islamism, which he says “have an old-fashioned air to them and have little appeal for the young.” In brief, Stewart is clueless about Islamic supremacism from its origins to modern times.
A third theme involves Arab determination to modernize: “One of the surprises of the 20th century has been the way the Arab Muslims have accepted change and the modern world.” Excepting Saudi Arabia and Yemen, he finds everywhere that “Arab modernism is a tangible, visible, audible force.” (See the “invigorating winds of change” in my first sentence.) His myopia concerning females makes for stunning reading: “The harem and its psychological pillars have been dynamited by the 20th century … In economic affairs … women are almost men’s equals.” He sees what he wants to, undisturbed by reality.
Continuing this theme of wild-eyed optimism, Stewart discerns Arabic-speakers breaking free of an ancient mold, determined “to destroy the old stereotypes.” He writes about the seventh century as no one today would dare do, especially not after the failure of George W. Bush’s Iraqi ambitions and Barack Obama’s Libyan escapade: “The first four caliphs had been as democratic as Britain’s William Gladstone, if not America’s Thomas Jefferson.” Stewart even claims that “Arab civilization is part of Western, not eastern, culture,” whatever that might mean.
As an aside, so arcane was Islam 50 years ago, the two dozen high-priced Life employees listed as the book’s editorial staff captioned one picture with the misinformation that the Islamic pilgrimage “takes place every year in the spring.” (The hajj marches around the calendar, 10 or 11 days earlier each year.)
The mistakes of one’s predecessors have a humbling effect. An analyst like me hopes not to be so obtuse as Desmond Stewart and Life, and not to be shown up so badly with the passage of time. Indeed, I study history with the hope of gaining a larger vision and thereby not being limited by current assumptions. In 2062, tell me how I am doing.
Daniel Pipes (danielpipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2012 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.