The latest volume of J.B. Kelly’s essays shows how little we’ve learned about the Middle East.

by Bruce S. Thornton // Defining Ideas 

Photo via FrontPage Magazine
Photo via FrontPage Magazine

From the 1960s to the late 1990s, John Barrett Kelly was one of the most influential advisors, writers, and commentators on the Middle East. In 1980 his book Arabia, the Gulf, and the West was prophetic in its analysis of the strategic importance of the Middle East and the need for a Western “forward policy” in the Gulf in order to protect U.S. and European interests, particularly oil and its transport, against both Soviet adventurism and the greed of Middle Eastern potentates. Like all his writing, his advice was based on an intimate knowledge of the region and its culture, especially the tribal mentality intertwined with Islam, a faith historically hostile to Western civilization.

Islam Through the Looking Glass is the third and final volume of Kelly’s reviews and essays, this one collecting work from the 1980s and 1990s. They cover numerous key crises in the region during those decades, from the Iranian Revolution to the first Gulf War and its aftermath. The thematic thread running through his work is the chronic misunderstanding of Islam’s doctrines, culture, and worldview that has compromised Western foreign policy since World War I. Reading these observations today––when the same misunderstandings and distortions are determining our reactions to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the global spread of jihadism, and the bloody rampage of ISIS in northern Iraq––is to be reminded of Santayana’s by now trite but no less true observation that forgetting history dooms one to repeat it.

One of Kelly’s insights is that Westerners, particularly the British, serially suffered failures of imagination in analyzing the motives of Middle Eastern regimes and their actions. The lead essay of Kelly’s new book, “Islam Through the Looking Glass,” documents Western misunderstandings of Islamic culture and the misguided policies that resulted . Back in the 1980s, when he delivered the talk on which this essay is based, Kelly criticized the mentality, still with us today, that claimed “we have nothing to fear from Islam, least of all any deep-rooted animosity against the West.” Also like today, evidence to the contrary was rationalized as the result of  “justified resentment felt . . . at past oppression and exploitations by the peoples of Europe and by the creation of Israel.”

How many times for nearly four decades have we heard similar justifications for Muslim violence based on the West’s alleged imperialist and colonialist sins, or the festering conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors? Yet as Kelly points out in another essay, one has only to study “the upheavals which have racked the Arab world” or “the bizarre alignments that currently adorn the Arab landscape, to conclude that the Palestinian issue is incidental to the chronic distemper” afflicting the region. This insight is confirmed today by the close cooperation of Israel with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in confronting the serious threat to all four countries posed by Iran and its attempt to manufacture nuclear weapons, a danger having nothing to do with the Palestinian issue.

This foreign policy mistake of assuming other peoples think and believe as we do has been continually made by the West for decades. During the Cold War, for example, this error lay in assuming that the Muslim Middle East would be our natural allies against the Soviets, given the Soviets’ atheist ideology and Russia’s long history of aggression against Muslims. Yet as others have also pointed out, modern Islamism shares many assumptions with Marxism, such as the demonization of imperialism and capitalism. In the sermons of the Ayatollah Khomeini, godfather of the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, these Marxist tropes were linked to the West’s debauchery, materialism and corruption of Muslim society. This alliance of necessity is still evident today, particularly in Europe, where leftists frequently are apologists for radical Islam.

The most significant event of the period these essays cover was the Iranian revolution, the origins of which continue to be misunderstood today. The standard narrative is that the cruelty and oppression of the Shah’s regime drove the Iranian people to overthrow his rule, leaving behind anger and resentment at the U.S. for its neo-imperialist support of its puppet in the region. For example, much is made of the crimes of the Shah’s secret police, the Savak.

But as Kelly writes in a book review, the author of a Marxist interpretation of the revolution “might have been outraged less by [the Savak’s methods] if he had studied the history of Iran a little more and discovered that the Iranians have a distinct talent for devising bizarre methods of punishment.” Indeed, it took the mullahs who succeeded the Shah only a few years to kill more political enemies than the Shah had in thirty-eight. So too today, under the “moderate” president Hassan Rouhani, the regime’s enemies continue to be imprisoned, tortured, and assassinated. As Kelly reminds us, it wasn’t the cruelty of the Shah, unexceptional in the region even today, that sparked the revolution, but his ostentatious corruption and, most important, his alienation of the clerical class brought on by his liberalizing and secularizing reforms which were seen as threats to Islam.

Kelly traces one cause of this chronic misunderstanding of the Islamic Middle East to the British, whose long involvement in the region fostered “a school-girlish romanticism about the Arabs” that too often led to “mendacity.” T.E. Lawrence, of course, is the most famous example of this dangerous delusion, for his championing of the pretensions and ambitions of the Hashemite clan affected in malign ways the shaping of the region after World War I. These days it’s not just the British whose judgment is clouded by such idealizations. One hears its accents in the famous speech Barack Obama delivered in Cairo in 2009.

All such idealizers, Kelly points out in a passage still relevant for many commentators today, indulge “shame at Britain’s imperial past,” “an anxious deference toward the sensibilities of their Arab clients; and a muted hysteria in the indignation they evince in support of those clients’ grievances, notably concerning the establishment of the state of Israel.” Kelly exposes the masochism of such attitudes when directed toward Arab Muslims, the creators of one of history’s greatest imperial powers: “The Arabs understand perfectly well the essence of imperial rule and recall their own era of imperial domination with pride. What has baffled them is the spectacle of an ex-imperial but still great power failing to behave in accordance with its stature but reacting to almost every challenge with a pre-emptive cringe.” Today it is the U.S. that damages its own prestige and effectiveness by failing to behave as the “strongest tribe,” and hence inviting contempt for its weakness.

Another benefit of Kelly’s collection is to remind us of other books that have shrewdly analyzed the Middle East and Islamic culture. V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers (1981) is one such classic. As Kelly notes in his review, Naipaul’s important insights include the overwhelming influence the Islamic faith has over politics and government in Muslim nations. If the state or the economy fails, the fault lies not in its flawed structure or the corruption of its leaders, but in the failure of the people to practice a pure Islam.

This belief, of course, has been at the heart of modern Islamist theory propagated by the likes of Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden, and the numerous jihadist outfits active throughout the world.  Also significant is the dependence of Islamic nations on the more productive economies of the West, particularly “the export of its own citizens” and the “earnings they remit from abroad.”  This dependence on the West creates a painful resentment and ambivalence, “the whole Muslim dilemma of treating with a civilization held to be anathema by the true believer but whose liberties and institutions he is only too ready to exploit.” One thinks of the strip clubs visited by 9/11 terrorist Mohammed Atta, or the abundance of pornography discovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad lair.

Most important is the restatement of the radical difference between Islamic states and Western ones, “the awesome gulf that lies between the Muslim order, where the law is the grim law of punishment and vengeance, and the rational and liberal traditions of the West.” The failed attempts to bridge this gulf by simply importing Western notions of human rights and political freedom confirm this point. Such projects also reflect an ignorance of the incompatibility of the tribal mentality with the canons of liberal democracy. Despite the support of the Europeans after World War I in creating nations with constitutional governments, the Arabs “have resorted more and more to their basic social and religious institutions, the tribe and Islam, to provide the structure of government. Any progress towards political maturity has been stultified by their inability to comprehend any loyalty other than that to family, tribe or religious sect. Loyalty to the nation or to the constitution is a concept devoid of meaning for them.” The chaos in northern Iraq today, a consequence of the dissolution of the political order created by the U.S. at a great cost in lives and resources, illustrates Kelly’s point beautifully.

These are just a few samples of the numerous useful and insightful essays in this book. Anyone seriously interested in understanding the Middle East and the chaos afflicting it will find shrewd analyses of that troubled region. But the key insight of Kelly’s work is the need to shed our wishful thinking and self-serving delusions. As he wrote during the Cold War, “Surely the time is long overdue for a thorough housecleaning of our conventional assumptions about Islam in its relationship with the West, to rid ourselves in particular of those musty and dangerous illusions about an identity of Muslim and Western interests.” Then the “interests” included confronting the Soviet Union; today they are the belief that negotiation and concession can reform Iran into a viable partner for confronting ISIS in northern Iraq and otherwise stabilizing the region. Unfortunately, the intellectual “housecleaning” has yet to happen. Reading J.B. Kelly’s essays is a good place to start.

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  1. If our society was truly rational we would not be able to accept that the Iranian people were driven to rebel because the Shah’s government was too oppressive, when the succeeding Mullahs were even more oppressive. If the Shah allowed democratic elections and disbanded his police state the Mullahs would have still seized power even without the popular vote. They were not interested in liberal reforms.

    Here in Latin America the story of revolution has followed a similar path. Communist revolutionaries fought to remove dictatorships and replace them with their own dictatorships. They justified their own oppressive policies by blaming their enemies (similar to Venezuela today).

    If Batista was never removed from power Cuba would have suffered oppression, but the economy would performed much better than the Communist model. Most importantly, the country would have certainly reverted to a representative democracy just like the other Latin American dictatorships.

    1. John: I pray you are a teacher someplace, this is what I too have concluded that you articulate so well.

  2. If the democrats run on something for everyone, endless chickens in all pots…………and the republicans run partly on getting our house in order………

  3. “” mark thompson-dc twitter.”” pulitzer prize winning reporter covering national security,military. On his twitter page or on RT news, there is a link for– Pentagon issues 2015 National Military strategy…

  4. Brilliant as always. I wonder what is the cause of the demise of critical analysis in the west? Is it the overwhelming groupthink of our elites and if so, what caused our elites to fall so completely for the “new” leftist ideology developed in the 60s? I lay this at the feet of academia and its complete takeover by the left. Can our wealth have led to a huge population of academics too isolated from the “real world?”

    1. The problem is that K-12 and university teaches naught but “Progressive-Retardnation Worldview pedagogy. The solution is to make it illegal to be publicly funded.

      Instead, K-12 and universities funded by public monies must be “Tragic-Liberty Worldview,” as from 1776-1900. You see, the Progtards swapped out the right education for the wrong one. They are idiots.

  5. Biting Bullets

    Understanding the brutal people who operate in the middle east is all fine and dandy. Understanding their so-called reasoning, political and religious, is helpful to grasp the motive of the evil actions toward us infidels. Know thy enemy. However I would ask: Is there a prescription put forth for eliminating this threat to the rest of us humans? If Dr. Kelly, or you, or Professor Hanson has one, we’d all like to hear about it. Until then I would think that the best way of getting rid of the threat is to get rid of them with prejudice.

    1. Yes, it’s “Life, Liberty and Happiness” vs. “Death, Sharia and Oppression.” So, we live or at-war-with-us enemies live, but not both.

      You have written the answer to your question. Give the enemies of Life et al… what they want.

    2. Of course there are solutions such as yours. But all are blocked by those in power in Europe and currently in the US. The US could lead if we have a new administration that can somehow overcome the US media/propaganda machine that determines public opinion. In all likelhood when the attacks on the US become severe enough, the media may eventually cave to reality. I do wonder what VDH thinks from his penetrating perspective of history??

    3. Kent Greenough

      (THIS WAS DELETED BY THE MODERATOR FOR UNCOUTH CONTENT. we exercise the right to monitor the comments we receive. We will not publish comments that include obscenities, swear-words and vulgarisms; ad hominem attacks; racist expression; rudeness or discourtesy; violations of copyright; or any other transgression of taste or civility that the editors deem unpublishable on a Hoover Institution affiliated web site. We reserve the right, also, to close down comments on a particular essay if the editors believe we have reached “saturation” point. )

  6. Recruit 3,000 special forces men and pay them handsomely and equip them with the latest equipment and have them stand with the Kurds , with the standard behind the battle front of 4 to 1 support personnel for a total of 15,000 non military American personnel plus the US Navy and Air Force Pilots and ground controllers, and in 6 months to one year the story would change dramatically ISIS would be hiding in holes and be killed on a massive basis. Maybe 2017 will be a game changer.

  7. friends:

    please read, daily, pamela geller’s “atlas shrugged” for the details. and, “jihad watch” by robert spencer, daily.

    you cannot know the depravity of islam until you read of its activities, every day. you just cannot.

    john jay

  8. I think the key point of his article is the “lack of imagination” of our citizenry, many leaders included: we simply cannot consider the possibility that people who are the products of other cultures could possibly view the world differently than we, as westerners, do.

    In 2002, Lee Harris wrote a provocative essay entitled “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology.” .

    In it, Harris refers to the reaction of the Aztec chief Montezuma to the arrival of Hernando Cortéz. Though Harris dealt only briefly (but tellingly) with it, the collision between Aztecs and Conquistadors struck a note with me, and I have my (way oversimplified) take on that collision.

    When Cortéz arrived in the New World, the Aztec’s were incapable of understanding what they were facing: here came these pale-skinned “creatures” (gods? semi-gods? men?) with guns (say, what?!?), arriving from the east (where the sun arises), in huge canoes without oars and who brought strange beasts with them, beasts which they rode (horses).

    Montezuma and the Aztecs had nothing to fall back on except the reality they knew: one based on mythology, gods and superhuman events. They were pre-configured to interpret Cortez in terms of what they knew, and not according to what they actually faced.

    Montezuma and the Aztecs can be forgiven: they were ignorant of any world but their own.

    But what is the excuse of our leaders, that they cannot understand that the traditions and forces that have shaped the Middle East may be different from the values and beliefs that have left us with postmodernism, and all that implies?

  9. Another, more contemporary book on Arab culture and politics that I can recommend is Lee Smith’s “Strong Horse” published in 2010.

    Very impressed with V. S. Naipal’s book too.

  10. The question remains begging, why does “the overwhelming influence the Islamic faith has over politics and government in Muslim nations” exist? It’s not because they missed the Enlightenment, it’s because they missed the Middle Ages. That was when the West separated its politics and its religion by the establishment of the non-overlapping magisteria of the King and Pope, one presiding over worldly affairs and the other over spiritual affairs, one instituting secular law and the other canon law. America’s Enlightenment-based disestablishmentarianism, by making spirituality a matter of individual conscience exclusively, served merely to remove religion even further from the realm of politics by making belief off limits to politicos and clerics alike. All based in no small measure on Jesus’ simple declaration, “My kingdom is not of this world.

    Mohammed, of course, never said any such thing.

  11. Great article and a nice pointer to a good resource. But I want to be careful in how I analyze this POV, and i think others here should too. I was convinced of this broad sense of the arc Islam after reading Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong, so I don’t quibble with the idea that Islam, and Arab culture, is inherently anti-modern, and that it’s revanchism is internally motivated and actually started long ago (200+ years).

    Given this, could we not still be provocative? In fact, given the immovability of that civilization’s course through history, wouldn’t we be well advised to carefully consider how we engage it? In light of this worldview, why would we have defended Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein? There are no good guys in the battle and oil would be sold to the west no matter what. What about overthrowing Mousadegh in the early ’50s? The 2003 invasion of Iraq? I often wonder why we helped Saddam in his losing battle against Iran in the late ’80s – if Iran takes Iraq, does that not create a stalemate between Sunni and Shia? Isn’t this what we want, them fighting each other rather than us?

    My internalization of all this has made me less interventionist. In a post Cold War world, I can see no need for our meddling in the affairs of regional Arab/Muslim conflicts. Containment would seem to be a much better approach, but we’ve instead undertaken constant and significant intervention.

    Last. Given the obduracy of the Arab-Muslim mindset, their reaction to imposition on Israel is also predictable. Funny, there is some throwaway language about Jordan and Saudi Arabia cooperating with Israel – as though the majority of people in those nations don’t support the elimination of Israel from Palestine. Israel can only exist in a permanent standoff with the Arab Muslims around it and it was always going to be thus. Why the U.S. would ally with such a project is more magical thinking to me.

    My point? This analysis does not lead me to support our current policies at all, nor those on offer by many on the right. It easily supports a much less interventionist, global balancing kind of a approach. Fyi, the lessons here also apply to Russia, China, India – Westerners must understand the world/civilizations they are engaging. The biggest mistake Westerners make is not realizing how truly large human civilization is, and how incredibly varied it remains culturally. What westerners think of as modernity is not a human universal – it in fact exists for only a minority of human beings and has been rejected by many non-western cultures. We need to get that through our thick heads.

    Great stuff. Would love to hear thoughtful comments in return – if you are going to reduce my commentary to “blaming ‘Merica” – don’t bother. Every action has a reaction, we’d better start taking much more clear eyed responsibility for our’s.

  12. What can one say? To the atheist the world is forever perplexing. A Christian who has read the Old Testament thoroughly and with understanding, will be much closer to the mindset of the Middle East than any atheist could ever be. Furthermore he will be able to read the Qu’ran with a degree of understanding. Once he has read and understood the Qu’ran there will be few mysteries left, in the Middle East.

  13. Imagine at midnight the entire Muslim religion and all its writings, structures, and thoughts disappeared from the Middle East. Those susceptible to religious insanity should follow the ‘who to drink with’ rule which means picking the drinking partner who gets happier not meaner from ever more infusions. Some religions just don’t have a happy hour.

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