The Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi is not the most obvious destination for an afternoon of heavy reading, but sometimes the heat makes you do strange things.
The other day, desperate to escape the sun, I found myself sitting in the food court there, reading the historian Bernard Lewis's book, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. It was one of those titles that gripped western readers after the attacks of September 11, and I thought it would be interesting to revisit it now. But I have to admit, I was having a hard time keeping my attention on the page.
An indoor amusement park was bleeping and shuddering in my right ear, and a big flatscreen TV was playing an American crime drama off in a corner. Women in abayas were walking past on cell phones, carrying kiddie meal boxes from Burger King. And through a bank of windows at the far end of the food court, my eyes kept drifting to the Emirates Palace hotel off in the distance – that strange hybrid of super-luxury resort and people's palace – and to the Gulf, and to the flags of Ikea flapping in the hot breeze.
I had to smile. The food court wasn't just undermining my concentration, it was also undermining What Went Wrong.
I don't mean to be glib. Lewis, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, is a man of substantial erudition – "the world's foremost Islamic scholar", even, if you ask The Wall Street Journal. His argument about Islam and modernity is built on his reading of several centuries of history, which trumps my impressions of three floors of retail.
Besides, there is more to modernity than Scandinavian design at affordable prices. The Emirates and our neighbours in the Gulf have been highly selective in adapting modern, western institutions, embracing some while rejecting others. And mass consumerism of the sort on display at Marina Mall is probably among the least combustible – and most blandly hedonistic – institutions the West has to offer.
But I wouldn't want to discount my little comic food-court epiphany, because the Gulf – and its recent boom – really cannot be neatly assimilated into the "clash of civilizations" hypothesis that enjoys so much favour in the West. (Bernard Lewis, in fact, coined the phrase, though it was the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington who expanded it into an epochal geopolitical theory.)
Sometimes it seems that if the Emirates haven't clashed with modernity, it's partly because they've skipped it. Looking around, one sees the hallmarks of a society that has leapt directly from a pre-modern past to a distinctly postmodern present. Look at the state, and you see an unusual hybrid between a hereditary monarchy and a corporation. One doesn't have to be a Gulf triumphalist, or even particularly friendly to its trademark blend of neoliberalism and traditionalism, to acknowledge that something new is happening here.
The region practically begs for new theories.
Alas, scholars who study the Middle East, many of whom reject the "clash of civilizations" hypothesis, have been preoccupied with another clash – one that was also on my mind when I picked up What Went Wrong.
For the past 30 years, the academic field of Middle Eastern Studies has conducted its work in the shadow of a looming feud – between scholars associated with Lewis and those in the mould of Edward Said, the late professor of comparative literature at Columbia University and author of Orientalism. In that book, Said accused old-school orientalists like Lewis of representing Islam as a single edifice – one with backwardness in its blueprints. Such scholarship, he wrote, was just another means by which western powers extended their domination over the Islamic world.
Orientalism, an enormously influential work, cast the shame of imperialism on a whole range of scholars. And over time, "anti-orientalists" like Said took up a central position in the field's main academic organisation, the Middle East Studies Association – an organisation Lewis himself had helped to found in 1966.
Lewis and his acolytes felt increasingly marginalised in their old academic context, but they were not homeless intellectuals: they gained new footholds of influence in the mainstream press, in national security circles, and – after the attacks of September 11 – in the White House.
From those perches, the two sides have not so much debated as tried to discredit one another absolutely. The grounds of the conflict have often been reduced to zero-sum politics: support of Israel (orientalists) vs. support of Palestine (anti-orientalists); neoconservatives (orientalists) vs. leftists (anti-orientalists).
Having been called imperialists themselves, the orientalists have returned fire by calling the anti-orientalists "apologists for radical Islam". Martin Kramer, a conservative American Middle East scholar who studied under Lewis, has faulted the members of the Middle East Studies Association for failing to anticipate the September 11 attacks (never mind that many of its 2,700 members study things like late-Ottoman textiles). Such accusations have found a receptive audience in certain parts of the American public, and among some policymakers.
Today orientalists profess feeling besieged and threatened by forces inside academia, and anti-orientalists profess feeling besieged and threatened by forces outside of it.
In the words of Khaled Abu El Fadl, a professor of Islamic Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, Said's contribution to Middle East studies was to allow "the colonised to return the gaze upon the coloniser". But the ensuing staring contest has gotten a little old.
Last year, at the tender age of 92, Lewis founded a rival academic organisation called the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. Late last month, he delivered the keynote address at its inaugural meeting. "There is a theory, which you have probably heard," he dryly told his audience, "that this study of the eastern society – which has come to be known as orientalism – is an aspect of imperialism, that it represents part of the will of Europe to impose its domination on the rest of the world." Then he said, just as dryly, that this theory leaves him asking, "Where does ignorance end and falsehood begin?"
It was a clear dig against his old nemesis, Edward Said, and Lewis seemed to take no small pleasure in delivering it. Only thing is: Said had been dead for five years.
For over a generation now, this clash between warring academic factions has framed the debate over the Middle East. And I wonder: Have Abu Dhabi and Dubai, whose experiments in state and culture don't really flatter the intellectual proclivities of either camp, simply fallen outside the frame?
The West's efforts to study and understand the Middle East have been stuck in the slog of trench warfare for far too long. And to get a clear view of the no man's land between those trenches, I humbly suggest the bank of windows at the far end of the Marina Mall food court.