My critique of Prof. Mark LeVine’s scholarship has ruffled his feathers, especially because, he says, I had the audacity to make blanket assertions about his politics without providing proof and because I missed the alleged nuance of his arguments.
In his long and rambling response to my article on his blog, LeVine can’t imagine what would motivate me to call him “Marxist,” “anti-American,” and “anti-Israel,” though, echoing Bill Clinton, he notes, “the proof is all in how one defines ‘anti-.’” So before I address a few specific points of his rebuttal, perhaps some basic definitions are in order.
I call LeVine “anti-American” and “anti-Israel” because he applies a moral standard and an attitude of perverse American and Israeli exceptionalism to putative crimes against Arab populations that far exceed his indignation at identical or infinitely more horrific offenses committed by Arab countries. Yes, LeVine has, to his credit, criticized Arab governments for fomenting terrorism. Yet he insists, repeatedly, that America and Israel harbor the most responsibility for the continuation of global conflict, implicitly suggesting that the threat of terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists would be drastically reduced if America ceased its supposed imperialism and globalization. “Let’s only hope,” he writes, European leaders “will have the courage to explain to president Kerry (or even Bush) that, without both an acceptance of responsibility for past policy and the transformation of future policy toward the Islamic regions of our planet, there will be no solution to terrorism, only continued violence and war.”
Rarely in LeVine’s work do we see any discussion of Islamic fundamentalism and religious extremism that inspires terrorism. LeVine can’t imagine that Islamic terrorists might attack the West on the basis of precepts derived from religious ideologies. For him, it simply isn’t possible that Islamic fundamentalists oppose not American “imperialism,” but the values of individual rights and freedom that America stands for. Likewise, for LeVine, it isn’t remotely possible that corrupt, dictatorial Arab governments play a greater role in promoting global instability than America and Israel. Four days after 9/11, in fact, LeVine called upon Americans “to engage in the honest introspection of what our role has been in generating the kind of hatred that turns commuter jets into cruise missiles.” For LeVine, Osama bin Laden’s aggression derives not from Islamic ideologies, but from American political dominance and globalization in the Middle East.
LeVine’s scholarly lacunae and the explanations of terrorism he instead proposes explain in part why I call LeVine a Marxist. As his writings indicate, he views the conflict between America and the Arab world almost exclusively in terms of money and class. America, in his view, invaded Iraq for oil and power. LeVine can’t envisage that Saddam’s history of murder and terrorism just might have accounted, at least in part, for America’s invasion. Rather, “[I]n the postmodern global era,” he writes, “global corporations and the government elites with whom they work have great incentive to sponsor global chaos and the violence it generates.” LeVine likewise explains that the Arab intifada in Israel stems from “occupation, discrimination and dispossession.” In an entry on his blog, LeVine asks, “can Wall Streeters get big enough bonuses to buy Ferraris unless the companies they cover are crushing poor third world farmers and workers? And would the multinational food conglomerates be crushing poor farmers if it wasn’t for the myopic, exclusive focus on monetary profits by Wall Street which drives so many corporations to view their bottom line in the most Hobbsian [sic] terms possible?”
LeVine laments the consequences of free markets, a principal tenet of capitalism, and implicitly criticizes the rights of individuals to buy and sell what they please. LeVine can deny he’s a Marxist, but his stated worldview and analyses of political events are entirely consistent with Marxist ideology. His distillation of virtually every global conflict to issues of money and power (or what he grandiosely calls the “modernity matrix”), and his mitigation of or disregard for other salient factors (in the case of Islamic terrorism, religion), reflects the thought of Marx, Engels, and other communist thinkers.
Let me also address a few other points LeVine makes in his response.
LeVine accuses me of plagiarizing a previous critique of his work by Robert Spencer, who directs the web site Jihad Watch. This is a serious charge. It is also false. Pretty much the only overlap in Spencer’s critique and mine lies in our notice of LeVine’s preoccupation with rock music. I didn’t need to read Spencer’s critique to realize this – LeVine announces his musical tastes consistently on his web site and in many of his articles. I invite interested readers to decide for themselves whether I plagiarized, by comparing my article with Spencer’s. I should also note that Spencer himself placed a link to my article on his web site, which would surely be an odd thing to do if he thought I plagiarized him. It is astonishing that a professor of LeVine’s stature could throw about such accusations so carelessly. I challenge him to document the charge of plagiarism; if he does not, then I will take this to mean he concedes the point and implicitly apologizes for what he has written.
LeVine then asks “what’s wrong with blending” art, scholarship, and activism. Nothing per se, except that “art” – by which I take it he means rock ‘n’ roll – has about as much to do with Middle Eastern studies as quantum mechanics has to do with Shakespeare.
My description of LeVine’s reference to 100,000 civilian casualties in Iraq as “exaggerated” prompts him to cite a report in the medical journal The Lancet corroborating that number. But had LeVine read the article in The Lancet more carefully, he would note that the number is based on a statistical extrapolation of 33 individual neighborhoods to the country as a whole, leading the report to acknowledge that 100,000 casualties constitute an extremely loose estimate and that it’s equally possible that the true number is closer to 10,000. For more details, I refer LeVine and interested readers to Fred Kaplan’s more detailed analysis of the report for Slate magazine. A more accurate tally of casualties can be found at www.iraqbodycount.net, which bases its numbers on actual, confirmed reports of death and currently places the number at closer to 20,000.
The number of casualties spurs LeVine to call America a “criminal nation,” which means that anyone who voted for George W. Bush, and hence the war, endorses murdering civilians. Given the logic of LeVine’s argument, I assume he would still call America a “criminal nation” no matter how many casualties there were. The label is absurd and baseless. America fought a just war to unseat a murderous tyrant who deliberately slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocents; in the long term, America has undoubtedly saved many lives from Saddam Hussein’s cruel machine. While individual incidents have taken place where Americans have wrongly killed or injured civilians (e.g., Abu Ghraib), America has not deliberately targeted civilians for its own sake.
Yet since LeVine can’t recognize the inherent justness of America’s decision to destroy the government of one of the Middle East’s most brutal dictators, any civilian deaths that occur make America “criminal.” Interestingly, I don’t remember LeVine ever calling the Palestinians a “criminal nation,” despite their past widespread support for suicide bombings. Perhaps that’s because LeVine has far more sympathy for the Palestinian war against Israel than for America and Israel’s war to defeat terrorism and tyranny. LeVine’s pacifistic and morally relativistic world-view places both sides of the conflict in ethically indistinguishable positions.
LeVine concludes his response by challenging my description of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) as supporters of terrorism, which he characterizes as “utter rubbish.” Then, evidently realizing that some of ISM’s activities and statements could be perceived as endorsing terrorism, he rhetorically asks, “And anyway, what’s terrorism? However he defines it so that whatever the ISM says, it endorses it?” But the ISM’s mission statement states that it is the “right” of Palestinians to engage in “armed struggle” against the “occupation,” effectively condoning suicide bombers that have killed scores of Israeli men, women in children in pizza shops and discos. ISM calls for the full right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel, which would necessarily entail destroying the Jewish state. ISM organizer Susan Barclay once attempted to hide an Islamic Jihad terrorist in ISM’s Jenin office. When the Israel Defense Forces surrounded the compound of the late Yasir Arafat, who had the blood of thousands of Israeli innocents on his hands, ISM activists slipped in to bring him supplies. I could go on.
Yet for LeVine these are “soldiers of peace.” By casting his lot with supporters of violence and terrorism, LeVine undermines his stated goals of peace and justice – and brings considerable shame to academia in general and Middle Eastern studies in particular.
Tzvi Kahn is an intern with the Middle East Forum. This was written on behalf of Campus Watch, a project designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities.