Neglected Prophet: J.B. Kelly

by Bruce S. Thornton // Front Page Magazine 

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The received wisdom and unexamined assumptions underlying the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to forge peace between Israel and her enemies are as predictable as the ignominious collapse of this latest attempt. We are now well into the seventh decade of this false knowledge and the spurious narrative dominating American foreign policy under administrations of both parties. Just how old and worn this narrative is can be seen in the late John Barrett Kelly’s The Oil Cringe of the West, a collection of reviews and essays that originally appeared in the critical decade of the 1970s after the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars.

Kelly was a New Zealander who earned his PhD at the London School of Economics. In the 1970s and 1980s he was one of the most influential scholars on the Middle East. Like Elie Kedourie and Bernard Lewis, he was a respected advisor to governments and commentator and on the region who was not afflicted with the sentimental romanticism and civilizational self-loathing that continue to distort Western foreign policy. Dedicated to facts and objective analysis, Barrett was no partisan, criticizing all sides equally when criticism was due. More important, he was the enemy of unexamined opinion and ideological fashion, which of course made him an enemy to the anti-imperialist, Arabophilic establishment, especially in England.

Kelly’s 1973 description of the foreign policy establishment’s view of the Israeli-Arab conflict and Britain’s culpability in creating it is a jewel of concision and eviscerating wit. That view pertains “less to the mundane affairs of men and governments than to the most solemn matters of faith and dogma––of British guilt and Arab innocence and the doctrine of redemption through vicarious atonement.” One can hear the echoes of this sensibility throughout Obama’s notorious 2009 Cairo speech. Also reprised by Obama is Kelly’s reconstruction of the historically false narrative generating that sensibility, which deserves quotation in full: “Britain promised independence to the Arabs during World War I and betrayed that promise afterwards. The worst act of betrayal was the Balfour Declaration which led to the formation of the state of Israel. Arab unity was stultified by British obstinacy in propping up reactionary regimes and opposing revolutionary movements. Although Britain has at last seen the error of its ways and has left the Arabs alone, it still bears the stigmata of past misdeeds. Until these have been erased and the guilt purged, the Arabophile order must toil at its penitential labours, ritually flogging the irreverent and ceaselessly chanting the orisons of repentance.”

Forty years later we still see in England the baneful effects of this false history in an anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism, in the cringing appeasement of Muslim sensibilities, and in the vigorous Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement that seeks to dismantle Israel politically on behalf of the Arabs who want to destroy her root and branch. And ever since Edward Said’s fatuous Orientalism––that toxic stew of historical lies and Foucauldian folderol––this same myth-history now dominates the American intellectual establishment as well. It bespeaks not just the noble-savage/Marxist romanticizing of the colonial dark-skinned battlers against Western imperialism, but the concomitant self-loathing and cheap guilt that in Britain followed the intellectuals’ disenchantment with the Empire, and that has been aped in America by professors and pundits who think that biting the cultural, political, and economic hand that amply feeds them is the height of cosmopolitan sophistication.

One of the most important shibboleths of that history is that all the troubles in the Middle East stem from the unresolved Israel-Arab conflict. Examples are numerous, but this statement by then Commander of the U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus is particularly telling, coming as it does from a military man whose duty in public is to remain ideologically neutral: “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment,” Petraeus told Congress in 2010, “due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships” with regional governments and peoples. This widespread delusion reminds one of France and England giving credibility to Hitler’s claim that his aggression was merely a reaction to the poor Sudetenland Germans bullied by the Czechoslovakians, and it bespeaks a similar failure of imagination about the culture and religion of the Middle East. As Kelly notes: “Like Chamberlain facing the dictators, the governments of the major Western powers have failed to take the measure of the regimes with which they are dealing. As a consequence, they have not yet fully comprehended the nature of the menace which now hangs over the West.” Those words were written in 1975, 20 years before that still misunderstood “menace” manifested itself in al Qaeda’s serial terror attacks in the 1990s and the ghastly culmination on 9/11.

By now blaming Israel for the woes of the region is a hoary cliché, as Kelly points out. Here’s a quote from a book published in 1975: “The failure to resolve this [Arab-Israeli] conflict has been the root cause of the chronic violence and instability which are regarded as characteristic of the Middle East. It is the principal reason for the growth of anti-Western feeling in the Arab countries” since England and America are blamed for the creation of Israel. In an essay about the Arab Oil Embargo, Kelly notes this same reflex to blame the conflict for all the West’s troubles in the region. He makes the critical point that unfortunately still has not been grasped today by the managers of our foreign policy whatever party is in power in Washington: their understanding of the region is based on false assumptions “about a community of interests between the Arabs and the West, about common modes of thought, identical standards and values, and qualities of reasonableness and moderation––which have no foundation in fact.”

On the contrary, as Kelly explains, it is the overwhelming importance of Islam in the region that drives regime behavior as much as the greed and power-hunger of autocratic regimes. Speaking of the Arab oil embargo and price hikes in 1973, Kelly points out that the Yom Kippur war was simply the pretext for jacking up oil prices, something producers had been scheming to do since 1971. But it wasn’t just about money: “What they [the Arabs and Iranians] are endeavouring to do in concert is to hold the Western world for ransom, to place it in thrall, and so to effect a massive transfer of resources from the Christian West to the Muslim East, thereby redressing the balance of power between Western Christendom and Islam which has been tilted in favour of the former for the past three centuries.”

That is, wounded confessional amour propre, a religious motive still dismissed or rationalized by secularized Westerners, is a key to understanding the region, one more cogent than the Israeli “occupation.” “Having suffered for generations,” Kelly continues, “from a powerful sense of grievance at the manifest political and economic superiority of the West,” the oil producers saw their resource as “the means of bringing the West to heel and of reasserting the primacy of Islam. Far-fetched though these ambitions may appear to Western eyes, they nevertheless are real to those who cherish them, and infinitely more seductive than the cooler intimations of reason.” Hence the exorbitant prices for oil had “little to do with the world of commerce or the law of supply and demand. They are simply tribute, exacted from a supine West by a resurgent Islam.” Or to put it in the explicitly Islamic terms used continually by today’s jihadists, oil revenues (or foreign aid) are the humiliating jizya owed by infidel dhimmis to their Muslim overlords.

Kelly’s essays are filled with such insights that our foreign policy-makers are still ignoring today. And he frequently is prophetic about the consequences of such blindness in his own time. In a review of an anti-Western screed published in 1979, he notes the author’s vitriolic ad hominem attacks on scholars who criticize Islam, and sarcastically suggests that the author “is advocating . . . the establishment of some kind of Moslem Holy Office, which would examine what is written on the Middle East and then, depending upon whether or not the work in question conformed to the doctrinal requirements of the Islamic lobby, either grant or withhold its imprimatur.” Satire might become reality, if the Organization of the Islamic Conference has its way. For years now it has agitated in the U.N. for a global “Defamation of Religions” law that if passed would amount to the censorship regime Kelly satirically imagined.

So far the OIC has failed, yet in many Western countries de facto anti-blasphemy laws are in effect, disguised as self-censorship or as “hate-speech” legislation. Just ask Mark Steyn or Geert Wilders. Or consider Kelly’s 1980 essay about the movie “Death of a Princess,” which infuriated the Saudis, while British “public figures of high and low estate” were “falling over themselves in their eagerness to proffer effusive apologies for the intolerable affront offered to Saudi sensibilities by the film’s content, proclaiming at the same time their respect for the beauties of the Saudi penal code and their profound understanding of the sublime verities of Islam.” Here we are 34 years later, with the same groveling response to the “religion of peace” for the “Honor Diaries,” a documentary about Muslim misogyny that the University of Michigan refused to screen last month after complaints from the Muslim Brotherhood subsidiary CAIR. More ominously, “The Hate Crime Reporting Act of 2014,” which will require the government to scour internet, radio, and television content for “hateful activity on the Internet that occurs outside of the zone of First Amendment protection,” as its House sponsor put it, has just been introduced in Congress. Given the subjective latitude for defining “hateful,” if enacted this bill will implement a de facto Islamic blasphemy laws.

Many in our foreign policy establishment are the slaves of defunct ideas. J.B. Kelly saw the folly of such beliefs when they were still young, and he remains an invaluable resource for exploding them today.

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