Cover Page




1 Introduction


Naturalizing Difference and the Great Transformation

Comparison, Ethnography, and History

2 From Rifa’ ah al-Tahtawi to Edward Said


Rifa’ ah al-Tahtawi and France

A Hundred Years Later: Edward Said

Concluding Comments

3 Ethnography as Theory


Unstated Consensus

Defining Ethnographic Worth: 1896–2000

Ethnographic Audiences

An Outsider Looking In on Anthropology’s Ethnography

Concluding Comments

4 Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Control of Women

Cultural Hierarchy and Processes of Control

The Specificity of Eastern and Western Grids

Positional Superiority, Thought Systems, and Other Cultures

Ways of Seeing and Comparing – East and West

The Controlling Role of Ideas

The Use of Revolution in Gender Control

Multiple Systems of Female Subordination

Colonialism, Development, Religion, and Gender Control

Conclusion: The Need to Separate Identities


5 Corporate Fundamentalism


Manufacturing Culture Bit by Bit

Fundamentalisms: Corporate and Religious

Marketing and Children: The United States

Drugs, Commercialism, and the Biomedical Paradigm: An American Example

When Corporate Profits and Education Meet: The Educational Testing Industry

Fundamentalisms: Economic, Religious, Political

Back to Corporate Fundamentalism: Future Directions

6 Culture and the Seeds of Nonviolence in the Middle East


Disharmonic Westernization and Pilgrimage

Between the Stereotype and Reality

Little Worlds in the International Grip

Culture and Nonviolence: Who Stands to Gain From Peace?

Dignity Becomes Reality

7 Normative Blindness and Unresolved Human Rights Issues


Early Constraints

Unresolved Issues

A Nonstate Human Rights Effort

Health and Human Rights

Human Rights and Commercialism

Concluding Remarks

8 Breaking the Silence


Silence and Dominant Hegemonies


Mistakes Repeated in the Iraq Invasion

9 Lessons

Lessons Learned

Strategies of Subordination – In Reverse


Appendix: Laura Nader



In recognition of Donald Cole and Soraya Altorki,

ethnographers of the Arab East par excellence

In memory of Anthony Shadid,

journalist with an ethnographer’s eye


It is not possible to acknowledge all the colleagues, students, family members and others who over the years have enriched my understanding of a world without boundaries, the context for my work. First and foremost were the invitations from the American University of Cairo to deliver lectures that form the core of this book. Soraya Altorki, Donald Cole, Nicholas Hopkins, and Nawal Hassan were warm and generous hosts. The people of Egypt whom I met outside of the university community – the Minister of Energy, as well as Mrs. Mubarak who had studied anthropology at the American University, journalist Gamal Nkruma and others – enriched and broadened my understandings of political happenings in modern-day Egypt.

Support for preparing the manuscript came from the Middle East Center at UC Berkeley and the Committee on Research. The Rothko Chapel hosted my talk on human rights, which was later welcomed for publication in Brazil. My colleague Rik Pinxton of Cultural Dynamics saw my article “Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Concept of Women” (reissued as Chapter 4 of this book) through to publication in Belgium, a piece that was then considered “controversial” in the United States. Mohammed Hamdouni Alami provided the photograph of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, taken in 2007, for the cover of this book.

With regard to Chapter 4, I have also to thank Andrée Sursock, Seteney Shami, JoAnn Martin, and Saddeka Arebi, who were of enormous help in searching out and arguing with me about the comparative materials. The need to explore the idea of occidentalism first crystallized in a conversation with Professor Ashraf Ghani of Johns Hopkins University. Comments from Drs Mondher Kilani, Soheir Morsy, and Guita Debert were most helpful, as were the audiences at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, the University of Auckland, Harvard University, Claremont Colleges and other academic institutions where I presented those ideas.

Over the years at Berkeley I was primary thesis advisor to more than a dozen students working in the Middle East: Golamareza Fazel (Iran), Donald Cole, Soraya Altorki, and Saddeka Arebi (Saudi Arabia), John Rothenberger, Cathy Witty, and Osama Doumani (Lebanon), Seteney Shami (Jordan). June Starr and Ayfer Bartu (Turkey), Andrée Sursock (France), Rochelle Shain (Israel), Nell Gabian (Syria), Monica Eppinger (Ukraine) – I learned from every one of them.

My colleagues Elizabeth Colson, Roberto Gonzalez, and Salwa Mikdadi, as well as former students Saddeka Arebi, Seteney Shami, Ayfer Bartu, Andrée Sursock, Maysunn Succarie, Alberto Sanchez, Roberto Gonzalez, Monica Eppinger, Chris Hebdon, and others read, researched, and provided critical comments on this book. Claire Nader, Ralph Nader, and Tarek Milleron were the toughest of critics, forcing simplicity of style and intolerant of facile generalizations. Suzanne Calpestri and David MacFarland of the Mary and George Foster Library were ready to help in myriad ways. Gratitude is due to Shirley Taylor, Tarek Milleron, and Stephen Curtis for editorial help, to Kathleen Van Sickle for patience in typing and retyping various versions, to Chris Hebdon for hanging in to the end, to Rosalie Robertson my editor, always supportive and cheerful, and to the three anonymous readers for their encouraging comments.


Cultural anthropologists set their discipline apart a century and a half ago by formalizing a historical tradition of extensive observation carried out among peoples foreign to the observer either by distinct customs and practices or by more subtle differences. Through painstaking examination of another culture might come an ability to grasp and understand its honor and dignity – that is, to understand how shared culture may serve a people and how that culture may continue to do so, or where it may begin to break down thereby exposing its members to indignities small and large. But cultures are never as simple as bounded units changing in isolation. The anthropologist must also trace elements that fire across cultural groups and across geographic areas. In the same vein, the observer runs the risk of using imaginary yardsticks, often idealized from his or her own cultural group, to make comparisons unmoored from the real and very messy world. My work related to the Arab East – through field observations, decades of teaching, lecturing, and writing – covers half a century. During this time, I have observed a level of bounded thinking, sometimes referred to as ethnocentrism, that has only grown more rigid as the United States and Europe have become more embroiled in the Arab World and tried to define the East relative to their own societies. This book is my attempt to provide an anthropological sorting out, a sense of what the quality of our observations means for our own culture and dignity, and how thorough an exploration of culture might have to be in order to reach an understanding of another human dignity in relation to ours.

An overview of my work relevant to the Arab East includes fieldwork in south Lebanon in 1961, fieldwork in Morocco in 1980, teaching the introduction to the Middle East at the University of California at Berkeley for over two decades, book reviews and articles, invited public lectures and media invitations on a broad range of subjects often stimulated by the immediate need to counteract public ignorance among my fellow Americans. The subjects covered the status of women, violence, terrorism, Islamic law, and, more generally, Middle Eastern culture – the geography, language, and place of kinship, settled agriculturalists, nomads, and more. Invitations to deliver the distinguished lecture series at the American University in Cairo brought me to Egypt in early 1985 and again in 2005. Those lectures are the heart of this book. The subject matter for my first four lectures included power and the uses of ideologies as a stabilizing technique, the seeds of nonviolence in the Middle East despite stereotypes of a violent East, energy policies and expert knowledges operating in the United States, and a final lecture on covert control, or what I later called “controlling processes.” These lectures all illustrated a framework for analyzing the dynamics of power in the contemporary world, a world long recognized as anything but peaceful by Arabs and Americans. In other words, the lectures cut across themes that could be construed as of interest only to Arabs or the United States. Instead, they were themes of general interest that might enlighten our thinking about culture and dignity.

The lecture on energy grew out of my 1980 National Academy of Sciences report, published as Energy Choices in a Democratic Society, and a series of articles that followed on the politics of energy in the United States. The essay on power, the subject of my undergraduate course Controlling Processes, was later revised and published in Current Anthropology in 1997 as “Controlling Processes: Tracing the Dynamic Components of Power.” Thoughts on the seeds of nonviolence in the Arab East are embedded in several publications, for example, “Naturalizing Difference and Models of Co-existence” in R. Pinxten’s and E. Preckler’s 2006 book Racism in Metropolitan Areas of Europe. Because nonviolence and its opposite are so continual in today’s Arab East, I combined this topic with an earlier unpublished paper delivered in Saudi Arabia at a conference on social control under crowd conditions as in pilgrimages or the Haj.

Reactions to the 1985 Cairo lectures were anything but passive. The audience participation indicated immediate curiosity about the seeds of nonviolence in the Arab world, while the lecture on energy brought about an unexpected public confrontation between two Egyptians, an antinuclear scientist and a nuclear engineer who ­disagreed about nuclear power and the politics of energy. These experiences taught me a good deal about the workings of control in contemporary intellectual culture at an American university abroad, where the graduates – desirous of being modern and more developed – know more about the contemporary globalized world than about their own history and traditions. In this they are not today so different from American universities at home.

Between 1985 and 2005 a new century was born: much of consequence had transpired between the United States and the Arab and Islamic world, principally imperial wars: the first Gulf War of President George H. W. Bush in 1990–1991, the war in Afghanistan in 2001, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and ongoing US occupations. A few observers saw these events as a rupture, but many others viewed them as part of a story of holy wars, originating in the Crusades (1096–1270), if not before. Historians also remind us, in turn, that the then governor of Tangiers, Tariq ibn Ziyad, invaded Spain in April 711 AD and that the Ottoman Turks bombarded Vienna in 1529.

The 2005 Cairo lectures had an urgent tone. In 1985 I had emphasized connections between shadow or hidden power and the uses of ideology. By 2005 there was little shadow and many rank exhibitions of immense raw power. We had witnessed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the US Gulf War of 1990–1991 followed by the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the Shock and Awe of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A flood of ­stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as either al Qaeda terrorists, insurgents, or suicide bombers flooded the West, while in the East the West was seen as imperialist, lawless, and hypocritical.

Few were, or are, examining the history of nonviolence among Arabs, the subject of my lecture in Cairo. Few in the Western mainstream media were writing about the absence of nuclear warheads in Arab countries and their now long-time threatening presence in Israel. Few reporting on the Israeli destructions in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 noted that the government of Lebanon had no effective military defense. The silences were and still are deafening. Once again, Western hegemonic ideas describe Islamic ideals as emotional and irrational and incompatible with Western democratic ideas. They highlight descriptions of Arab dictatorships (often supported by the United States) rather than report on the Arab masses whose opinion is often more democratic than views we find in some cosmopolitan centers elsewhere in the world. The 2005 lectures were an attempt to put imperialism – both cultural and military – on the front burner, the consequences of which might not be obvious to most concerned people and which commonly went unnoticed by social scientists.

The 2005 lecture topics involve a critical examination of two concepts often taken for granted. One concerns the use of area concepts (whether geographic or linguistic) used in organizing knowledge; the other takes up the importance of comparison, implicit as well as explicit comparison. Relevant to critiques of both area concepts and comparison is the question of who sponsors scholarship – government, the military, or philanthropists – because the interests of sponsors often constrain professional scholarship. Geographic organization of cultures may be a convenient form of ordering for some purposes, as in a focus on the “cultural areas” of Europe or the Middle East, although, at the same time, we know the falsity of such ordering because the borders of geographic areas are not clean, not precise. Area categories ignore the effects on Europe or the Middle East of contact with each other and with Asia and Africa. We know that culture spreads by continuous contact of peoples whether by population movements or through other channels. Thus, the idea of a bounded area, geographic or not, is illusory, and it often causes bad histories, bad ethnography, and bad politics. But such area concerns are deeply embedded, even in the marketing of books such as this one, a book that aims to cross borders in our thinking. The Middle East, while structured for the convenience of museums or the ­military, is a deceptive concept. Just as the concept of bounded communities is no longer acceptable for any scientific ethnography, so area specialties cut against acceptable and competent academic endeavors. The long-term alternative to area studies is world ­history, or some model that takes into account interconnections – opening us to the possibilities of a human history devoid of present parochialisms. But, for the moment, crossing area borders may give an untidy impression. We realize that air pollution stemming from New York State does not stop at the Canadian border, so why should culture? Why do we think there are clean boundaries between Islamic science and European science? Similarly, although colonial powers drew the borders of the Arab world, separating “Lebanon” from “Syria,” the Levant as a whole remains a cultural composite of extensively overlapping traditions.

Comparison is central for better understanding of mutual involvement over time by traveling back in time to gain perspective on how cultural difference and misunderstandings may be perceived. It is true that our earliest ethnographers may be found among the ancient voyagers. As early as the 1600s Arab travelers to Europe were varied and numerous: merchants, ambassadors, missionaries, spies, and more. They traveled to Spain, France, England, Italy, Holland, Russia, and wrote about the lands of the Christians, as is documented in Nabil Matar’s 2003 book In the Land of the Christians: Arabic Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century. Seventeenth-century travelers came to Europe from highly developed civilizations, quite the equal of those of the Europeans they met. They wrote down just about everything – what they observed, measured, or learned from interviews and their evaluations of their experiences. The time period and events of the moment of travel were reflected in what they reported. Because few Arab travel accounts have been translated, Western scholars often explain the paucity as due to lack of curiosity, yet some of this Arab travel writing, though not exactly ethnographic, is in some ways startlingly modern.

With the development of the discipline of anthropology and ethno­graphy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, writers became more self-conscious about writing about others and in the process developed some rules, some overt guidance, and some unstated recipes one might say, that limited the manner of writing. Free of disciplinary authority, these early Arab travel writers were not governed by such mannerisms as the need for scientific objectivity. Well ahead of their time, their subjective accounts now resonate with our own.

In 1963 anthropologist Jules Henry published Culture against Man, a book he called “a passionate ethnography.” His opening statement gives an idea of his views on the United States: “This book is about contemporary American culture – its economic structure and values, and the relation of these to national character, parent–child relations, teenage problems and concerns, the schools, and to the emotional breakdown, old age and war” (Henry, 1963: 3). Henry describes a materialistic society that may be dying emotionally. He reports on the state of nursing homes, elementary and secondary schools, advertising, and families suffering from psychosis. He mentions big and small businesses, and uses the words “giant corporations” sparingly. But his focus is on American culture writ large as if undifferentiated from corporate culture. Henry’s work was an admirable attempt to define a culture “dying emotionally,” yet his conceptual frame was that of national character. Similarly motivated but more broad-gauged work today, stemming from historical research in the 1970s, has zeroed in on the central institution of our time – corporate capitalism and the second industrial revolution. In the social sciences we have made some headway on Jules Henry’s courageous start.

At the present, parental powerlessness is felt worldwide, but such powerlessness needs to be better contextualized. In 2005 I called for an expansion of what Christopher Lasch did in Haven in a Heartless World (1977) for contemporary families in the United States. Lasch argued that the family has been supplanted by the state and the helping professions in the context of consumer capitalism, that the much criticized nuclear family did provide a haven in a heartless world, and that the family’s demise has left children exposed to a heartless world without a haven. I suggested there should be ­follow-up in the Arab world, in Korea, China, Peru, and over the planet more generally, to understand the effects on families of the externalities of corporate capitalism in this runaway world. Multiple experiences shaped my understanding: the raising of children, service on the Carnegie Council on Children, having grandchildren and, of course, thousands of students, many of whom were the young and socially abandoned. The question being, who is raising our American children? And what are the domino effects that connect the United States and the Arab world?

Business is implicated, but business is not one big thing. Corporate capitalism, as distinct from penny capitalism or regional capitalism, has wide-ranging consequences, whether these impacts be in the form of captive legislatures and agencies, digitalized technologies, factory farming, or the life experience of our children. If we are to make business socially responsive, assessments of consequences must reach the business world where CEOs might worry about business ethics.

It has been repeated ad nauseam that the history of the last 200 years has been one of the dominant influence of Euro–American expansion worldwide. Plentiful histories have been written about the foundations of American and European dominance and the assertion that no peoples have escaped from European influences – economic, religious, commercial, and more. Euro–American expansion has also been called a success by some, presumably because of an assumed exceptionalism inherent in this dominant expansion. But there is something incomplete in this spectacle of European and now American worldwide power. The words we use are defining. Expansion is a word that makes people think it has been one-way. The idea that there are boundaries between Europe and the rest is sharpened with the advent of nation-states, when in fact there have been no cultural boundaries that have held out against new ideas and cultural patterns across the board. There is selection. The essential point is that when one reads expansion in reverse we see a human history characterized by continuous chains of borrowings and interaction. Look at the spread of yoga, or sushi, or acupuncture from East to West in the twentieth century! The same historians may even speak about the expansion of other empires – Chinese, Islamic, Mongol, Indian, Aztec, or Inca – and in all these tales we hear narratives of rivalries, as, for example, between western or eastern Christianity and Islam. But stories about dominance, difference, conquest, contempt, and rivalries, could also be about barbarisms, fusions, borrowings, or co-existence, as Janet Abu-Lughod writes in her 1989 volume Before European Hegemony: The World System ad 1250–1350, a world characterized by multiple hegemonies. Amin Maalouf recounts in his 1984 history of The Crusades through Arab Eyes a different story than the one that appears in Western accounts. Or, in the case of the contemporary account of expansion, Victoria de Grazia’s 2005 book An Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth–Century Europe, is about how American industries sought to change European culture in less than one century so as to make Europeans more amenable to purchasing American products. The local and diverse gave way to mass standards of consumption in Europe and globally.

While one can hardly challenge the main thread of stories of expansion and influence, parochial descriptions distort our knowledge because they omit the exchanges, the spread of ideas. Agriculture has had an enormous expansionist success radiating out from the Tigris–Euphrates valley through Europe, East Asia, South Asia, and Africa. Technologies and discoveries, such as the uses of metals and building materials (well documented by archeologists) have spread throughout the world, independently of nation-states. Along with Christianity, Arab Islam has had an enormous expansionist success, with the largest number of believers today residing outside the Arab world and is, if the numbers are correct, currently the fastest-growing religion worldwide. All these developments have made and remade both Europe and the West.

These frames of reference inform my scholarship. They outline a twenty-first-century anthropology that focuses on the connections between peoples – what we are like, what you are like, what we have in common, our humanity, our survival, our children, our fears, our solutions to everyday problems – in the context of unequal power and corruption. The planet is a rich place because of diversity in plants and animals and culture. The diversity has enriched the human trajectory. Erecting bounded categories only makes social transformation in an old globalized world one of ­disconnectedness – a mirage. As many are beginning to recognize, notions of exceptionalism and hubris pose both short and long-run obstacles to survival for our shrinking planet. The Arab Spring and the Occupy movements are indications of a widespread rethinking of future directions.


Abu-Lughod, Janet (1989) Before European Hegemony: The World System ad 1250–1350. New York: Oxford University Press.

De Grazia, Victoria (2005) An Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth–Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Henry, Jules (1963) Culture against Man. New York: Random House.

Lasch, Christopher (1977) Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. New York: Basic Books.

Maalouf, Amin (1984) The Crusades through Arab Eyes. New York: Schocken Books.

Matar, Nabil (2003) In the Land of the Christians: Arabic Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Routledge.

Pinxten, R. and E. Preckler (eds) (2006) Racism in Metropolitan Areas. New York: Berghahn Publishers.



The work in this book has an origin that long predates my formal training. Blessed as a first-generation American, I am the daughter of parents who came from the Levant, known by some as Syria, just as or just after Greater Syria was partitioned into Lebanon and Syria and as plans for partitioning Palestine were being invented. To be raised bilingual and bicultural offered a wonderful opportunity to be privy to multiple dialogues about the meanings of Arab and American cultures. Being culturally in-between sensitized me to the sufferings of peoples I might not have heard about in American schools. I grew up knowing about the starving Armenians, the British and French colonizers, the corruption of both Arab and Western leaders, and poetic expression in both English and Arabic. I learned about the yearnings of the Pan-Arabists to model their dream after the United States of America, along with their idealization of Americans, and especially their idealization of American democracy. The indignities faced by colonized and diasporic communities, the famous Arab leaders, especially the poets gunned down by colonialists who labeled them insurgents rather than recognizing them as nationalists, the divide and conquer tactics that pitted one religious sect against another – all of this, along with discussion of how to build a sewer system in our New England mill town, was daily conversation at our dinner table, and it instilled in me the importance of mutual respect in everyday life.

Later on, as an anthropologist, I learned about the lives of the disempowered everywhere: disinherited Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Africans, those dwelling in urban ghettos, Latin American peasants, inhabitants of refugee camps in the Middle East and elsewhere. My first dissertation fieldwork began in 1957, to study a region yet unexplored by anthropologists, the Rincon Zapotec of the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was an initiation rite of the first order (Nader, 1970). In 1961, after completion of my dissertation, I set out from Berkeley to conduct summer fieldwork in Lebanon and begin preliminary research on Muslim village law. As I explored the question of how to find a good village, as I balanced whether it should be Shia or Sunni Muslim, I was deluged with warnings from Lebanese families and friends: I would get sick; if I worked in a Muslim village, there was no telling what they would do to me; I would not be safe, some told me, because Muslims “don’t like Christians”; others said that this was nonsense and the difference in perspective coincided with individuals’ political positions. The many and lengthy conversations and admonitions about the dangers of doing fieldwork did not stop. What seemed like acute paranoia was undoubtedly related to the 1958 crisis. Certainly, the fact that I was based in the Christian town of Zahle explained the reluctance of any driver to take me into the villages.

My interest in knowing to what degree formal Muslim law, a law that originated in urban centers, dominates village procedures for conflict settlement augmented my determination to work in a Muslim village. It took about two weeks of talking to people and taxiing to various villages to realize that one of the most successful ways of locating an appropriate village in Lebanon was through politicians or lawyer-politicians rather than through Lebanese social scientists, who did not concentrate their interest in the rural areas of Lebanon. Whereas in Oaxaca the link between the cosmopolitan centers and predominantly Zapotec villages was easily made through a development commission, in Lebanon the link was best made through politicians, who often function like ward heelers and come to know the villages in the process of electioneering. Politicians and lawyer-politicians were the most knowledgeable people, for my purposes at any rate, in dealing with the village scene in Lebanon. Since I had the unusual advantage of having family living in the country, a politician who was a relative finally helped me locate a Shia Muslim village, among the poorest in Lebanon. Unlike Mexico, where my frustrations were mainly connected with the place of actual fieldwork, my difficulties in Lebanon stemmed from my inability to locate a university student who might have been able to assist me; from the ostensibly trivial problem of finding a car and driver; from the fact that there was a lawyers’ strike and no court cases could be heard; and, in particular, from the problem of gathering any sort of “objective” information on a good village in which to work. Nevertheless, I found a location.

The village, Libaya, is located near Marjayoun: it was not to be found on most maps of Lebanon because the road had only recently been completed. Its population was about 1400. There were eight large families in town and some 400 houses – a homogeneous population of Shia Muslims. I collected mainly cases of wasta making, or the search for remedies in conflicts. Unlike the Zapotec, the Shias readily admitted to conflict and were not at all hesitant to talk about the subject. Consequently, I felt that I was moving with the stream here rather than against it. I became ­fascinated with the number and class of person with whom a Shia Muslim villager comes into contact when he is in trouble and has to look for a wasta. To whom he goes depends in part on the kind of trouble he is in and on the man who is to judge him in the civil court. Among the political elite of Lebanon there is a most incredible knowledge of interpersonal relations, so that it’s a rather knowledgeable game to play – to see who can get the best connections the fastest.

Unlike my first experience among the Zapotec, the personal, managerial, and intellectual problems of fieldwork were minimal once I got to the village. I did not have the hindrance of working with a bilingual interpreter, for I could understand spoken Arabic. The fear of being rejected because of my religion proved an empty one. I was at first asked by the family with whom I stayed about my religion; when I said I was a Christian, they advised me to say that I was Muslim if asked by the other villagers. I answered simply that I was not in the habit of lying. When that story circulated about the village, I was treated with an openness and respect that I had not expected.

I was investigating a subject matter that these Shias themselves liked to talk about, and thus probably accomplished as much in those few weeks as I would have in Zapotec country in about four months. The ubiquitous use of proverbs in the Near East is often helpful in guiding the anthropologist to choose what values are important: “As you treat me so I will treat you” (usually referring to bad treatment); “As you are dressed so you are judged”; “You have to be flexible in life, or else you break”; “If you wish to move a man, send a woman after him, and if you wish to move a woman send a child after her”; “In my presence, face like a mirror, in my absence, like a shoe.” If I were advising young anthropologists preparing for fieldwork in the Arab Middle East, I would strongly recommend that they become familiar with and memorize a selection of proverbs.

The negative aspects of being a woman fieldworker in the Middle East had been highly exaggerated. In my short time in the village I felt no threats; none, certainly, associated with my being a woman. Perhaps this was because I lived with a family instead of separately; this residence made me a “daughter” of the village. Or perhaps it was because the Arabs have a category of woman called “sister of men” – a natural role that a woman anthropologist could walk into, should she wish. I did exactly that.

In recent years anthropologists have focused on the empowered – government officials, the military, scientists, colonizers, marketing companies, surgeons, and others – connecting the lives of the empowered with the peasants, workers in factories, the poor, the imprisoned, and the soldiers, and thereby clarifying how hierarchy embodies dominance. How the powerful rule is often remembered for centuries – or forgotten and then remembered again.

The Armenians who fled their genocide after World War I were taken in by Lebanon, among other countries, and remember being treated with dignity. The Ottoman Turks in Lebanon featured in well-known stories – humiliations and the taking of Lebanese harvests and other incidents are still remembered by Lebanese 90 years later. Yet today the Turkish government rallies behind the humanitarian attempts to free Gaza. That will be remembered by people of the area. Recalling the experience in Germany after World War I, anthropologists urged General MacArthur in Japan not to repeat the mistakes that were made then: “Do not humiliate the enemy,” they cautioned. Human beings, probably everywhere, are sensitive to experiences of culture and dignity and easily note absences of respect. Minor humiliations add up over time, if not softened by mutual respect at other times.


Recently I was in Brussels attending a conference on state management of diversity in Europe, a euphemism for how to deal with Islam in Europe. Distinguished lawyers representing most of the countries that make up the European Union were present. In addition, there were a few scholars from North Africa and the Levant and a handful of anthropologists of different nationalities. The subjects discussed mostly dealt with Islamic migrants from North Africa, the Middle East, and places as far away as Pakistan. This was a professional conference about a heated topic that had a passive agenda of flattening diversity. This intolerance of diversity erupted in emotional outbursts. The Spanish jurist heatedly declared, “We will not tolerate polygyny in Spain!” The anthropologist thinks, “Now what was that about?” Countries that tolerate mistresses (as with France’s Mitterrand), ­multiple lovers (as with Italy’s Berlusconi), and whatever else will not tolerate legal Islamic plural marriage that comes with legal responsibilities? Numbers are of immediate interest. What percentage of Muslim migrants have more than one wife anyway, or could even afford the responsibilities that come with legal plural marriage? How many of these jurists understand the original logic behind the Muslim allowance of plural marriage in the context of a higher ratio of women to men because of male deaths in war, feuds, and the like? In 1961 the Shia village where I worked in south Lebanon had one case of plural marriage in a population of 1400 people – a man who had married his brother’s wife after his brother died. The more the discussions continued, the more the conference began to function like a degradation ceremony for the visiting jurists from Lebanon and North Africa, as well as a reminder of European exceptionalism.

A Dutch anthropologist who had studied cultural diversity and state management issues in Peru broke down at the end of her talk, noting that a Dutch-born boy of Moroccan parents had no future in Holland. A heated discussion ensued when she was challenged by a Dutch legal colleague who had less sympathy for migrants, though they provided cheap labor in his country. I recall that the minister of immigration in Holland in the 1990s developed certain requirements for visa petitioners that included forcing them to view what some regarded as pornographic footage to determine whether they could blend in and be part of Dutch culture. The conference organizer was disturbed that I, as the chair, had allowed an argument about the pros and cons of managing migration to Holland. It was expected to be a harmonious conference. Conference discussions continued to be emotion-ridden when the question of the Muslim scarf in the context of French law surfaced. I have never understood the threat presented by covering the head with the “Muslim scarf.” I recalled my field trip to Morocco in the summer of 1980. While staying in a tourist hotel with my two daughters, I watched French women in next-to-nude bathing suits, some even topless, who were totally oblivious of the incongruity of their mode of dresslessness, made the more blatant since it was in the middle of Ramadan. I heard waiters commenting in Arabic, but there were apparently no headlines in Moroccan newspapers about French nudity nor any laws in existence forbidding it, although undoubtedly opinions were registered about shame.

It slowly occurred to me that this beautifully organized and well-funded Brussels conference, concerned with important issues regarding culture and immigration, had an unspoken agenda – the “civilizing process.” It was, in fact, a degradation ceremony, the unstated idea being that immigrants should act like Europeans in order to be civilized. When I asked a Moroccan participant why he did not object, he responded, “Laura, we have to modernize.” The other Arab guests were also polite participants, although not so acquiescent when speaking privately. However, when asked, an Egyptian judge quietly noted that legal education in Egypt entailed knowing about different legal cultures – village law, Bedouin law, customary law, religious law, along with state law – a tolerance for difference, or the importance of cultural context critical for deciding a case. His comment seemed to fall on deaf ears; it was anathema in the context of European state notions of the “rule of law.” Representative legal professionals from countries who were insistent that one could not be European and Muslim at the same time were mainly from Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, and Denmark; the German and Italian jurists may have learned something from World War II about intolerance, bigotry, and genocide. Mind you, these conversations were among cosmopolitan participants, cosmopolitans who should have been sensitive to ideas of exceptionalism and the meaning of “the civilizing process.” Ironically, these conversations were being conducted while Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and bombings were ongoing background examples of humiliations emanating from the “civilized.”

In the United States there was public outrage at the Abu Ghraib torture revelations at surface level, but little change followed the initial outrage. For the world-famous Colombian painter Botero it went further. He was traveling to Paris when the Abu Ghraib news appeared on the front page of the New York Times, and he could not shake himself of the horror in the photographs. He spent months in his Paris studio painting the horrors of Abu Ghraib. Upon completion, he could not find a single art museum in the United States that would exhibit these works, and when, finally, the University of California at Berkeley accepted his offer, the exhibit was held not in the art museum but in the main library and solely thanks to the advocacy of two faculty members, two donors, and a head librarian who understood the importance of public viewing of torture horrors in order to diminish future possibilities for torture. Is there something about Euro–American ideas of culture and dignity that might help us understand such occurrences, or does it go beyond cultural niceties, being explicable only by ideas of cultural superiority? Is the refusal of a Botero exhibit about American denial, or about censorship, or both? Thousands of viewers came to see the exhibit and some reported that the paintings were even more powerful than the photos since Americans have become inured to violence in photographs. Perhaps the powers that be in the university art museum may have rationalized their refusal to exhibit by simply arguing that Botero’s paintings were not real art.

In 2011 the United Nations authorized a no-fly zone in Libya, the American-led war in Afghanistan was in a quagmire, and the Iraq war seemed to be moving in the direction of permanent occupation with American bases and private mercenary security forces replacing American military. Meanwhile the drumbeat for war in Iran once again unleashed the old and tired words about Islamic peoples, myth-laden generalizations that have endured for centuries.

When in 2007 Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger was faced with a speaking invitation to President Ahmadinejad of Iran (an invitation not of his making but for which he would have to account), he introduced him in a manner that violated the most basic expectations of civility – let alone dignity. Indeed, the introduction was not an introduction but an attack, a ten-minute verbal assault (Cooper, 2007). Bollinger called Ahmadinejad a petty and cruel dictator and, by the time he finished, could be seen as having contributed one more drumbeat for war in Iran. Bollinger missed an opportunity as an educator, let alone as a host. He failed to recognize injustice. He might have provided some history of the reasons Iran has had grievances against the United States, at least since the removal of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. He might have mentioned the Iran–Contra affair and the taking of American hostages. He might have mentioned the American support of Iraq’s war on Iran that cost the country over a million lives, and the constant threats and embargos by the United States government, often with the urgings of the Israel lobby, as any scholar, much less the president of a great university, should have done. It was political bigotry of the worst sort justified by Bollinger’s support of free speech. Although Bollinger publicly upbraided the President of Iran, he had not upbraided his own warring President Bush in the name of freedom of speech and open debate. Ahmadinejad’s response to these verbal attacks was dignified: in his country guests are customarily not treated in such an insulting manner by the host. “In Iran, tradition requires when we invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students enough to allow them to make their own judgment, and don’t think it necessary, before the speech is given even, to come in with a series of complaints to provide vaccination to the students and faculty” (Cooper, 2007). The civilized and the barbarian as public presentations.

The same year brought Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, a nationwide event designated by the US conservative Freedom Center to “break through the barrier of politically correct doublespeak that prevails on American campuses, if you want to help our brave troops, who are fighting the Islamo-Fascists abroad” (Dowd, 2007). As part of the events, one quoted commentator upbraided feminists and Democrats: “The fact of Islamo-Fascism is indisputable; I find it tedious to detail the savagery of the enemy. . . . I want to kill them.” The same commentator also said that Jews need to be “perfected” and that the country would be better off if everyone were Christian. There were also campus protests about the “demonization of Muslims,” and one peace activist called the term Islamo-Fascism “beyond demagoguery,” an agenda of “anti-Islamic hatred,” while still others fanned the flames about the “gathering storm” of Islamic extremism and the ideology that motivates terrorist groups. By 2010 President Barack Obama was being criticized in the mainstream press for not conforming linguistically, for not using terms like Islamic Terrorism.

The year 2010 brought yet another American public outcry in the controversy over the construction of an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero. Echoes of “freedom of religion” were shouted down by politicians and by those who lost relatives in the 9/11 attacks (in which Muslim lives were also lost). Republican ­ideologues like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin contributed to the bigotry. Even the academy was not immune. Harvard instructor Marty Peretz implied that Muslims were unworthy of the privileges of the First Amendment (Peretz, 2010). Hate words reappeared in populist and patriotic rhetoric. For some ground zero is a symbol of liberty – Islamophobia. Support for the proposed Islamic Center came from the Mayor of New York. In a speech on Governor’s Island Michael Bloomberg called the project “as important a test of separation of church and state as any we may see in our lifetime, and it is critically important that we get it right” (Bloomberg, 2010) – a volatile situation once again indicating the ambivalence of Americans regarding our cherished ideals of diversity, tolerance, and equality.

The origin of the term Islamo-Facism is still unclear, but the most general meaning refers to the use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology (Ali et al., 2011). But wasn’t it President George W. Bush who said in 2006 that “this nation is at war with Islamo-fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom” (Bush, 2006)? Mind you, overthrow and imperialist invasions are in practice part of American foreign policy. Hatred is often driven by fear, real or imagined. Although this introduction is not the place to argue for any specific history of the different positions, I will mention that at least one history of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk (2007), concludes by observing that, given what the Middle East has endured from European and now Euro–American imperialism, it is astonishing just how much patience the Muslim world has had with the West.

In an astute commentary on “Colonialism East and West,” Elizabeth and Robert Fernea (1997: 88–95) note differences: “Given our pride in our own colonial past, it is often difficult to relate to the Arab world’s reactions to their colonial past: rage, shame, anger, the kinds of anger that erupted into protest marches, peasant revolts, strikes, terrorism, and guerilla warfare, which culminated in conflicts far more violent than the struggle of colonial America in its revolution against the British.” The colonialists – Ottoman, French, British, Italian, and Spanish – spoke different languages and, with the exception of the Ottomans, practiced a different ­religion. European missionary schools devalued indigenous institutions – law, religion, art, agriculture, and irrigation. Arabic became a liability for the upwardly mobile. Protest against the European presence continued after independence, only to increase with the American support of Israel and then wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in which religious tradition, pride in the arts and literature, and ­historical traditions became hallmarks in the search for dignity.