Don’t believe most of what you hear about the Mideast

In these days of rumors about American or Israeli plans to attack Iran, mysterious holes in the Syrian desert, and so on, we have to be especially careful to keep in mind the old saw “those who know don’t tell, and those who tell don’t know”. Nothing is more true about the Middle East. Barry Rubin discusses this phenomenon.

Mythmakers About the Middle East

By Barry Rubin

People don’t often threaten to murder me face to face. But in the spring of 2007, Alexis Debat, director of the terrorism program at the Nixon Center and consultant to ABC News, did just that.

Precisely why is not clear to me even now, but it seemed to be part of a pattern of bizarre instability that he emanated. I had never met anyone who struck me as a more obvious fabulist. Yet after thirty years of studying the Middle East it was not surprising to meet people like that. The region is full of them, even at the highest political and intellectual levels, and they are by no means absent from the field of studying that area in the West.

I met Debat at the insistence of Robert Leiken, a former Central American expert who reinvented himself quickly as an expert first on immigration and then on Islam, also at the Nixon Center. It was in the period before Leiken decided that the Muslim Brotherhood was a moderate democratic group which should be engaged by U.S. policy. You have to meet Debat, he insisted, and it was clear that this guy was his guru and a great influence on him in his new pretensions to knowing something about the Middle East. Later, it would be clear Debat played a key role in his foolish fantasy that the Muslim Brotherhood was a bunch of liberal reformers who detested violence.

At the lunch, Debat went on and on about his inside links with terrorism and its key figures, providing lots of details. Of course, no one could verify these details, which meant one was given free reign to make them up. I applied the old Arab proverb: “How do you know it is a lie? Because it is so big.” His claims were just too good to be true. And his bragging about having worked with French intelligence only added to my suspicions, since that organization is known for its tendency to, shall we say, get a little too enthusiastic in claiming fabulous inside information.

Perhaps I made my feelings a little too clear, for as we walked from the restaurant, Debat insisted on going along with me to the subway. And there on the corner of Q Street, he said: “I am a great admirer of your work. Some day I might have the great honor of killing you.”

“What did you say?” I asked in astonishment. He was a bit flustered but did not deny what he said. I asked him if he was threatening me, but he just smiled to let me know that his message had been conveyed.

I did not take this seriously as a real threat that he was going to do anything. Years of dealing with revolutionaries, terrorists, soldiers, and people generally carrying guns and committing violence have taught me to distinguish between real potential killers and big talkers. Yet clearly this was someone to stay away from and who should be given no credibility.

It reminded me of an incident thirty years earlier. A fellow had appeared at various Middle East studies meetings saying he was with “army intelligence” and that he had all sorts of internal documents about the decisions of the new revolutionary leadership in Iran. He drew big audiences at such events and was invited by a leading expert on Iran to an elite seminar, where the professor proclaimed that he was a great expert.

A bit of research by a group of people including myself discovered that he was an enlisted soldier at a field intelligence unit—without access to high-level political intelligence of the kind he was fabricating. One of my colleagues intervened to stop a major university from hiring him. The individual did get a job at a smaller school.

Fabulists, suffering from psychological problems, greed, ambitions, and often with a political agenda, are not uncommon in studying or writing about the Middle East. That is in part due to the region’s importance and in part due to the fact that you can apparently get away with saying anything about it, especially if you are anti-American and anti-Israel.

The rules of logic apparently don’t apply to a region where terrorists are magically transformed into freedom fighters; anti-Americanism is covered up or rationalized away; one thing is said in Arabic or Persian and the opposite in English; conspiracy theories are rife and get credibility even in the highest circles of American intellectuals and publishers; and so on.

It is a subject area where completely unqualified people like Leiken and Debat can carry out a major campaign to reverse American policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood and even get U.S. government contracts to do it.

In universities in the United States today, many courses on the Middle East are taught just about as they would be at the University of Damascus or Tehran by people who hold those same ideologies.

Indeed, the work of the biggest current guru for this school, Edward Said, was in itself a gigantic fraud. And what is more telling than when some of his autobiographical lies were exposed, the attacks were on the scholar who published this information and not on the one who fabricated it?

The works of Walt and Mearsheimer have about as much in common with the actual making of U.S. foreign policy as the idea that the American government carried out the September 11 attacks on itself, the sun goes around the earth, or the world is flat.

Yasir Arafat, a major league fabulist himself, once told an Arab leader who complained about his fantasies that if he was willing to die for Palestine he was certainly willing to lie for Palestine.

Yet there are supposed to be checks against such behavior. Two of the main ones are universities and the media. But when large elements in both have gone over to factual fable-making or, more likely, analytical fable-making, who is going to guard against the intrusion of lies, madness, and anti-democratic forces?

Nothing says it better than Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd”:

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.”

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, and author of the recently published The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).

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