Default analysis and the F-16 theory

From Martin Kramer, “Jihad 101,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2002, pp. 87-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

“Why do they hate us?” The suicide hijackers did nor say, leaving Americans to ponder what drove so many men to commit such horrific acts and sacrifice their own lives in the process. As the evidence accumulated and the identities of the hijackers came into focus, a fascinating picture emerged. Most of them came from the edges of Saudi Arabia, the prime recruiting ground for Saudi-born Usama bin Ladin. Later in the fall, his own recruiting video went up on the website of Columbia University Press, along with a detailed content analysis. “Make no mistake,” wrote one of the editors. “First and foremost bin Ladin is concerned about his home front in Saudi Arabia. His main goal is to challenge and deny the very legitimacy of the Saudi royal family in order to topple it.” Palestine came second in emphasis, Iraq third.4

But the rest of academe decided otherwise. To the question “Why do they hate us?” the professors answered in unison: “Palestine”—or, in many cases, “Palestine, stupid,” a rebuke to Americans for failing to see how U.S. support for Israel had invited the disaster. Few if any of the “experts” bothered to delve into the backgrounds of the known terrorists or analyze the bin Ladin material in video and print. Instead, they did what is done every day in the Middle Eastern studies guild: they fingered Israel, knowing full well their colleagues would nod in automatic agreement. It’s the default analysis, the no-risk explanation, and invoking it requires nothing so onerous as research.

Exhibit “A”: an essay by Harvard social anthropologist Nul Yalman, published in The Harvard Crimson. Yalman lectures to perhaps the most important undergraduate course in the field, “Foreign Cultures 17: Thought and Change in the Contemporary Middle East.” This fall the course was swamped: it had about 250 students (three times the usual enrollment), divided into fifteen sections, taught by ten teaching fellows. (According to a press item, one of the students lost a parent at the World Trade Center.) Yalman was a very big man on campus after September 11.

And this was Yalman’s assessment of the motive behind the attacks (pardon the fractured grammar): “It was obviously an act of blood revenge, a subject about which anthropologists have long written about in terms of the tribal codes of the Middle East. There is, regrettably, nothing very surprising in this. There had been too much murder going on in Israel and the West Bank for no extreme reprisals to take place.” If only Clinton had succeeded in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement, “this disaster could well have been avoided.” And since it was about Palestine, a war in Afghanistan would be pointless. “There are not many men left alive in that unfortunate land,” Yalman calculated. “Most of the population consists of women and children,” and it would be pointless “to bomb ruins further into ruins. In any case, this is a side issue. The main question lies in and around Jerusalem, both in myth, in history, and for the present.”5

Now to my untrained eye, it looked like there were quite a few men still alive in Afghanistan, riding about in tanks and Toyota pickups, and the whole business looked very remote from Jerusalem. But even when it came to al-Qa‘ida and the Arab hijackers, where was Yalman’s evidence that their actions arose from the Palestine blood feud? As it happens, the hijackers left behind only one clue to a possible political motive: their nationalities. These didn’t point to Palestine but to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. One doesn’t have to be a Harvard anthropologist to know that regimes and Islamists have waged bloody feuds over who should rule these two states. They are, respectively, the richest and the most populous in the Arab world, and they are America’s two major Arab allies.

The problem, of course, is that American academe is obsessed with Palestine, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Many professors are tenured homing pigeons. Set their minds aloft anywhere from the High Atlas to the Hindu Kush. They will wind up flying to Jerusalem and congregating on the esplanade of the Dome of the Rock. Every issue must somehow be processed and reduced to an aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And the underlying theory is this: Israel is responsible for everything that goes badly in the Middle East, and if the linkage is not apparent, it is the scholar’s duty to claim otherwise—by bald assertions.

As for Yalman, by mid-semester one of his students couldn’t take it any more and sounded off in the Crimson. “The material from Foreign Cultures 17 is not quite propaganda,” she wrote, “but it comes close.” Students were “being indoctrinated, not educated,” and the course had “not delivered what it promised at the beginning of the term.”6 Harvard’s undergraduate tuition and fees this year are $26,019.

Exhibit “B”: an essay for the website of the Social Science Research Council by Said Amir Arjomand, professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an expert on Iran. Arjomand offered this hierarchy of “causes”: “the [Israeli] use of American weapons against Palestinian civilians, our continued bombing of Iraq, and our support for compliant Arab regimes who maintain our oil supply.” But the first “cause” was so dominant that Arjomand even suggested an immediate linkage: “Who is to say that if the F-16s had not been so visible in the destruction of Palestinian targets a short while ago, some of the plotters in this highly improbable and risky project would not have wavered and caused its failure, as happened in the attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993?”7

Who indeed? But why speculate in only one direction? For example: many Arab and Iranian public figures sanctified a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings over the summer. If they had done otherwise, casting doubt on the bombers’ reward in paradise, might some of the plotters have wavered and failed? It’s an idle speculation as valid as Arjomand’s (to my mind, even more valid). Perhaps on this basis, the FBI should add all those who endorsed Palestinian suicide bombings to the terrorist wanted list. Perhaps the Palestinian Authority bears responsibility as well.

Of course, sociologists and greengrocers are entitled to speculate; in the absence of evidence, there isn’t any reason to prefer one to the other. The problem arises when a sociologist’s idle speculation is stamped with the imprimatur of the Social Science Research Council, as part of its effort “to bring theoretical and empirical knowledge to bear” on September 11. Is this really the best that the grand presidium of the social sciences can muster?

One could go on, with Exhibits “C” through “Z.” The bottom line is that most of academe performed miserably in providing a context for the attacks. They did somewhat better in explaining the attitude of Arab public opinion but then blew it by exaggerating the volatility of the “Arab street” and the fragility of Arab regimes. The Islam “experts” then embarrassed themselves by urging a suspension of the war during Ramadan.8 Happily, they were ignored, and the Taliban did not outlast the Ramadan moon.

4 Fawaz A. Gerges, “Eavesdropping on Osama bin Laden,” at Yalman, “Terrorist Mayhem in America,” Harvard Crimson, Sept..
5 Nur O. Yalman, “Terrorist Mayhem in America,” The Harvard Crimson, Sept. 21, 2001, at
6 Jordana R. Lewis, “Indoctrinating, Not Educating,” The Harvard Crimson, Nov. 15, 2001, at
7 Said Amir Arjomand, “Can Rational Analysis Break a Taboo? A Middle Eastern Perspective,” at
8 Prime example: “John Esposito: War during Ramadan?” CNN chat room discussion, Oct. 29, 2001, at