Columbia Prof Plumbs the Shiite Mind

A lot is being written these days about Iraq’s Shiites, and the media avidly pursue anyone who seems like an expert. When demand exceeds supply, expect tendentious analysis.

Consider, for example, Professor Hamid Dabashi, head of the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) at Columbia. The other day, a correspondent from the Boston Globe asked him about the mood among the Shiites. “The Shiites are horrified,” announced Dabashi.

Not only are their fellow Shiites and, in fact, their fellow Muslims maimed and murdered right in front of their eyes by the Americans, but the most sacrosanct sites in their collective faith are now invaded by foreign armies. The next time the British and Americans ask themselves, “Why do they hate us?,” they better remember the horrid scenes of their armies trampling on the sacred sites.

What in the world is Dabashi talking about? Coalition forces have been absolutely scrupulous about avoiding the sacred Shiite shrines in Najaf, Karbala, Kazimayn, and elsewhere. There have been no “horrid scenes” of coalition forces “trampling” on these sites. As for “murder,” the really horrid scene so far has been the brutal murder of two Shiite clerics—by their “fellow Shiites”—inside the shrine-tomb of the Imam Ali in Najaf. “They cut his body to pieces!” another Shiite leader said about one of the victims. “To pieces!” And if the Shiites are so “horrified” by this war, why did so many of them turn out in Najaf to greet the 101st Airborne as liberators? And how is it that even Robert Fisk reports that, “for the moment,” the massive Shiite slum in Baghdad “smiles at the West”?

Dabashi, of course, doesn’t have a clue as to what “the Shiites” think. He simply knows what he thinks. Dabashi has been a militant opponent of the war from day one. Most recently, he participated in that infamous “teach-in” at Columbia, in which one professor-participant called for “a million Mogadishus.” Dabashi’s contribution to the festival:

Because there are no answers to our questions about this war, we just get angrier and angrier. But this is where the blessed thing called “teach-in” comes in handy. Tonight, we think for ourselves. Revenge of the nerdy “A” students against the stupid “C” students with their stupid fingers on the trigger.

Again, one is left wondering just what Dabashi is talking about. And just what are Columbia students to conclude from such a quote in their campus newspaper? That a pro-war position might drop them to a “C”? Professors (especially departmental chairs) have no business suggesting even the most tenuous correlation between grades and politics. It’s just one more example of Dabashi’s egregiously flawed judgment.

Dabashi finds the war horrid, therefore when asked what “the Shiites” think about it, he says they are “horrified.” It’s pure projection, which is what passes for “expertise” on the Middle East when people don’t know what they are talking about. So we are told that “the Arabs” think this, or “the Muslims” believe that, when in fact they’re just racks on which to hang the prejudices and preferences of the “expert.” Here’s another fresh example. Last week, UCLA’s Gabriel Piterberg, a habitual anti-war demonstrator, told a “teach-in” that the Iraqis who defaced Saddam’s images and welcomed U.S. troops were not representative of typical Iraqi sentiment. How could Piterberg possibly know that? Answer: he doesn’t. He just wants to believe it.

And so the “experts” dwell on events that never happened (the “trampling” of Shiite holy sites), and dismiss events that did (the defacing of Saddam’s icons by Iraqis). Maybe the next time around, U.S. forces should “embed” academics. No group is more desperately in need of a dose of Middle Eastern reality.

UPDATE: Readers of Sandstorm will recall that last month, the renowned composer John Corigliano criticized the politicization of MEALAC during an acceptance speech at a Columbia University award dinner in New York. Department chair Dabashi dashed off an intemperate rejoinder. Since then, Corigliano has weighed in once more. After reviewing Dabashi’s hodge-podge of assertions, Corigliano composes this coda:

Students deserve real self-discipline from their professors. I miss evidence of this quality in the illiberalism, sloppy research, and near-hysterical tone of these statements Dabashi has written for publication. It’s deeply disturbing to me that—at this time, of all times—such a person chairs the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia.

I do hope the administration has the courage—for it will take a lot of courage—to stand up to demagoguery of this nature. Columbia has done so in the past, and, if it is still the institution I remember, I expect it will do so in the future.

The logic for regime change at MEALAC gains momentum.