Melani McAlister: For a New Moral Map of the Middle East

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Melani McAlister. (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Melani McAlister’s book is Epic Encounters

Imagine Professor Melani McAlister at home in North Carolina, breaking down this Arab spring for a grandmother who’s not entirely convinced that President Obama is not Muslim.

Professor McAlister, an American studies anthropologist at George Washington University, is talking out Edward Said’s premise that we Westerners are trapped in the old moral map defined by an exotic Orient and a rational Occident. Our understanding of 9.11 and Egypt, Melani McAlister tells us, is filtered through the sexy sheikh films of the 20s and the terrorist hostage flicks of the 80s. Not to mention the theology of race in America – that old liberation crossover between the civil rights movement and decolonization overseas – and the rise of a President whose middle name means a lot of things to a lot of people, from American backwaters to Tahrir Square.

As Said would say, there’s an intertwining of culture and Empire that we cannot shake and we rarely recognize. Professor McAlister does say that movies like The Kingdom, Syriana and Hurt Locker mark a changing cultural topography, but our mis-labeling of the uprising in Egypt as a “Facebook revolution” reveals the persistence of our need to find ourselves at the root of all freedoms. Look instead, McAlister says, to the whole networks of Egyptian civil society that predate the social media age – the women’s groups, the labor unions, and yes, the Islamists.

For Americans, a new moral map of the Middle East would be one that stopped looking for simple notions of friends and enemies, that stopped asking friends to be those people who embrace all of American foreign policy objectives, but instead started supporting and imagining a world in which Arab democracy is standing on its own. It’s looking different, sometimes, than American democracy, but that as long as we are standing firmly on the side of peoples’ right to democratic change, we will find friends that are not based just on political expediency.

We’re going to have to stop seeing people as friends only when they do what we want, and instead to say that the most important thing is to support people taking control of their own destiny, wherever that happens. It doesn’t have to be military support, but it must be moral support.

Melani McAlister with Chris Lydon, March 31, 2011.

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  • Some thoughts and points provoked by ROS interview “Melani McAlister: For a New Moral Map of the Middle East”:
    Arabs have been vilified and dehumanized and/or exoticized in movies such as “Thief of Baghdad”, “Sheik of Araby” “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, “Rules of the Game” (where Marcel Dalio gives his Muslim “four wives” speech, etc) and endless others such as discussed by Jack Shaheen in his 2001 book “Reel Bad Arabs”:
    • The Black Stallion (1979)
    • The Black Stallion Returns (1984)
    • Protocol (1984)
    • Back to the Future (1985)
    • The Delta Force (1986)
    • Iron Eagle (1986)
    • Ishtar (1987)
    • The Taking of Flight 847 (1988)
    • Terror in Beverly Hills (1988)
    • The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
    • Navy SEALs (1990)
    • Killing Streets (1991)
    • Chain of Command (1993)
    • Bloodfist VI: Ground Zero (1994)
    • True Lies (1994)
    • Operation Condor (1997)
    • Freedom Strike (1998)
    • Rules of Engagement (2000)
    The late Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish understood with great acuity and poignancy how this “nonsensicalization” and dehumanization of the Arabs by modern media was paralleled by a “superhumanization” of the Jews in general with a witches’ brew of superhumanizing-cum-dehumanizing in modern anti-Semitic imagery.

    There is an echo of this dynamic/dialectic at Harvard: if you give tenure to a Professor like Homi Bhabba who’s sympathetic to Edward Said and his analyses, you have to then balance this with tenure for Niall Ferguson who’s hostile to Arabs and Third World aspirations and defines and understands himself specifically in Judeocentric terms.

    For more “deep context” see:

    Harry Truman once commented: “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”

    This Truman insight includes media and cultural history where cultural history and empire then combine to produce the adhoc’ery of policy, as Professor Melani McAlister describes in the ROS interview and in “Epic Encounters.”

  • Potter

    Part of our education in understanding “them”, along with learning history and languages, should be taking seriously (taking to heart), paying attention to how they see us and why. I think Edward Said has, in the essays I have read, attempted to convey that anger, mistrust, and resentment.

    Regarding Obama’s quintessential pragmatism (rhetoric and good intentions aside) I ask what is this quintessential pragmatism in the service of? He seems to betray his stated core values.

    Regarding hatred of Islam which has grown here- Obama does not confront that anymore ( an example of core values betrayed for some political pragmatism). We seem to struggle with being able to tolerate democratic elections at times when it does not end up producing leaderships that we suppose we want. There has been no change on our policy towards Hamas for instance (not opening a way for them to enter the political process).

    MM is completely right that we need to give emerging democracies moral support- unconditionally and less fearful of the messiness that follows. Nicholas Kristof wrote a good column on that about Egypt, not too long ago.

    Democracy is Messy

  • sifta

    Although not a primary symbol, Mohammed El Baradei did rise to some level of prominence, and is a leading presidential candidate right now in Egypt.

    Interesting discussion on the disjointed situation regarding views on Islam in America at this point in time. It is characterized by some interest in the ‘median’ Muslim individuals and ideas, yet with fear and apprehension of other Muslim individuals and institutions. Prof. McAlister’s point that 1/3 of American Muslims are African-American is oft-ignored in the public discourse (e.g. on “sharia” law), and is notable partially as a measure of the distance from the discourse to reality. In fact, the cultural cues mentioned by Prof. McAlister — and bolstered by the events of 9/11 and its precursor in 1993 — have been recently used to steer the debate on the non-issue of American Muslims (a relatively disperse and polyglot 2-3% of the overall population) as a theoretical wedge issue to front run debate on immigration and Obama’s ‘legitimacy.’ There appear to be racial overtones to this as well, a point not lost on people like Russell Simmons, for example.

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