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Syria and Our Educational System: A Discussion With Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Lawrence Davidson and Ilan Pappé

Four scholars of the Middle East discuss the context of Syria within our educational system.

Syria’s civil war that started in March 2011 continues to attract Western attention. Although nearly half of the Syrian population does not support US leadership in the world, the United States has shown a “resolve” to make this one of our international priorities. For many citizens outside of the public arena, Syria is an obscure and irrelevant geographic location. Recent events in the diplomatic field have, however, catapulted the country to headlines across the United States. I spoke with four prominent public intellectuals to discuss the context of Syria within our educational system. This is a roundtable format including the eminent linguist and social scientist Noam Chomsky from MIT, Princeton professor emeritus of international law Richard Falk, professor of Middle East studies and author of the Middle East Reader Lawrence Davidson and Israeli historian and author of The Modern Middle East Ilan Pappé.

FALCONE: In The New York Times, recent articles covering Syria keep mentioning the importance of our “resolve.” What is meant by American “resolve?”

CHOMSKY: Alternatively, “credibility.” What I’ve called “the Mafia doctrine” in many publications: when the Godfather issues an edict, others must obey, or else. It’s too dangerous to allow disobedience. A leading principle of world affairs – though, of course, officials and commentators put it more politely.

FALK: I think “resolve” is a coded way of discussing the willingness to use force in support of what Obama calls America’s “core interests.” In this sense, a lack of resolve would denote a weakness of political will that would disappoint expectations of the Syrian rebel forces and indirectly others as well, including Israel. In the end, resolve refers to the credibility of American global leadership, which is especially subject to doubt, given the negative outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan – and given Republican obstructionism in Congress and the so-called war fatigue of the citizenry.

DAVIDSON: Within this context, what is meant is a resolve to be the world’s policeman. To right the alleged wrongs of those we regard as our enemies (we are not similarly concerned with the wrongs of those we designate our friends) even if we ourselves have carried out similar wrongs.

PAPPÉ: I think what the NYT means by resolve is a stance that does not change easily from day to day on the Syrian crisis. If you ask about what should be the American resolve, then I would say that it cannot be addressed only with regard to the present crisis in Syria. It needs to have a wider conceptual and moral infrastructure. Unless this American administration is willing to diverge from the conventional American policy in the Middle East by changing its basic attitudes on crucial questions, foremost of them Palestine, and support genuinely the rights of people for independence, sovereignty and identity across the board, the only “resolve” one would hope from the USA is to stay out of the Middle East for a while.

FALCONE: Also in conjunction with the articles, there is sort of an insinuation that Iran’s “nuclear threat” is being addressed when we address Syria. Doesn’t our sabre rattling only force Iran to entertain the idea of advanced weaponry?

CHOMSKY: Definitely. …

DAVIDSON: … Absolutely. … Threatening to attack a principle ally of Iran (Syria) is not the way to encourage cooperation in terms of armaments. However, what if the saber rattling is not designed primarily with Iran in mind, but rather with special interests that want to hear threats to Iran in exchange for their domestic political support? Then it makes sense.

FALK: It would seem to be the case that pressure on Iran to acquire nuclear weapons is almost totally driven by their need for a deterrent capability to avoid the fate of Iraq, Libya. The use of American military force in Syria thus sends exactly the opposite message as supposedly desired to the leadership in Tehran – and to others. North Korea has been dealt with diplomatically because it has the bomb and might use it if provoked.

PAPPÉ: There was no need for the present charade on Syria to remind the government in Iran that the American dog is wagged by the Israeli tail to be more militant in its policy toward Iran. I am not sure to this very moment that Iran’s objective is to obtain “advanced weaponry.” The present rulers in Iran do not want to be seen as giving up the idea of “advanced weaponry” due to Israeli and American pressure. The myth, carried out from the end of the Second World War, that only “advanced weaponry” – or even the horrific events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – can produce unimaginable human catastrophes continues to blur our judgment. The worst crimes against humanity in the last half of the previous century and this century are carried out with conventional advanced weapons, upgraded daily by a greedy arms industry, super power’s apathy and criminal ideologies. In the Middle East, Iran lags behind many other military powers in this respect.

FALCONE: When President Obama addresses the nation he keeps repeating the phrase, “the international community.” What is meant by the international community?

FALK: As Gandhi famously responded when asked about “Western civilization,” “I wish they had one,” the same applies to “international community”: “I wish there was one.” Of course, its use is a convenient way of invoking the collective actions of the world, as through the actions of the United Nations. The misleading implication, however, is to divert attention from the weakness of central institutions and procedures as compared to the strength of leading states. We live in a state-centric world faced with global-scale problems that cannot be met by the actions of single states, no matter how powerful, if assessed from the perspective of military capabilities.

CHOMSKY: The US and whoever goes along with it, often almost no one, as in this case.

DAVIDSON: This is a bit of verbal sleight of hand. The “international community” implies the world’s nations. In fact what the president is actually referring to is the US and its allies. And, as we have seen when the British Parliament backed out of the potential attack on Syria, the number of those allies is shrinking.

PAPPÉ: The president probably means those governments which agree with US policy. We can refer back to the UN charter, which saw the peoples, not the governments, as providing the basis for an international opinion. More often than not, there is inconsistency between the two.

FALCONE: I have noticed a lot of teachers using an article from The Washington Post that has gone viral: “9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask” by Max Fisher. The author admits the piece has a limited scope of information. Do Westerners get a cheapened version of Near East affairs in our educational system?

FALK: I think it is less the limited amount of information than the filters that information about the Middle East must pass through before being fairly addressed in the mainstream media. In more intellectual and geopolitical terms, the perceptions of the region are distorted by a combination of Orientalism and the priorities of the state of Israel, including the refusal to discuss the relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the context of addressing Iran on its nuclear program.

CHOMSKY: Hopelessly. …

DAVIDSON: … Most of the time, teachers who talk about the Middle East do not know the history, culture or present context of the problems they are discussing. So they go to the media, which quote government or academic “experts” (who often are no such thing) or journalists who, by virtue of working for the media, are supposed to know what they are talking about. In the end they know little or nothing beyond a standard line that reflects the perceptions of the US government and its special-interest supporters. That is what the students get. Indeed, that is what we all get.

PAPPÉ: While in the American academia the knowledge production on the Middle East in general and Syria in particular has been considerably transformed in recent years, the dissemination of these more updated views fails to reach the conventional educational system. For two main reasons: Politics can still subdue and censor views that are not endorsed ideologically, and academics have still not learned how to write openly, directly and, one should say, courageously about these issues.

FALCONE: Can you recommend articles, authors and book titles that can help teachers break the traditional mold of textbook teaching that tend to conceptualize the Near East narrative incorrectly?

DAVIDSON: Well, the best textbook on the market is the one I co-authored with Arthur Goldschmidt, the Concise History of the Middle East (Westview Press). Students and teachers also now have access to web sources that often give an alternate point of view, such as Al Jazeera English and Electronic Intifada. One can balance the standard line on events if one does a bit of searching.

FALK: The literature on the region is generally not very good. The writing on individual countries is far better. There are some books edited by the Iraqi scholar teaching in Canada Tareq Ismael that give good and balanced overviews of regional issues, and I would suggest Edward Said for the cultural underpinnings of misperceptions relating to the region.

FALCONE: Another observation in US media is the marriage of the word terrorist with Muslim. In other words, after last week’s shooting at the D.C Naval Yard, news anchors would say, “We still don’t know if the suspected killer is a terrorist.” What kind of impact might this habitual commentary have on our educational system?

CHOMSKY: The intended meaning is clear: Demonize Muslims, and deflect attention from the obvious but unutterable fact that the US has been the leading terrorist state in the world for many years.

DAVIDSON: The continual linking of the notions of terrorist and terrorism with Muslims and the Middle East is, essentially, an act of propaganda that cannot help but promote “Islamophobia.” Shooting down a dozen innocent people (as happened in Washington, DC, last week) at random is an act of terrorism, no matter who does it. What possible justification can there be to restrict the definition to adherents of a particular religion? If the reply is 9/11, the counter fact is that 99.5 percent of the world’s Muslims were as appalled at that event as everyone else.

PAPPÉ: Similar demonization of Muslims was done in Norway in the first hours after the massacre carried out by a white supremacist. The demonization has been in the US, long before 9/11, as Edward Said’s Unveiling Islam has shown. Films, media, educational system and arts portray Muslims in a racist and negative way. The more interesting question, for which we have no time right now, is who is behind these images.

FALK: There is no doubt that this fusion of terrorist and Muslim feeds virulent forms of Islamophobia, which is also encouraged by such incidents as the Westgate Mall massacre in Nairobi and the Anglican Church bombing in Pakistan. 9/11 greatly intensified this tendency toward fusion, but it had also been nurtured by Israeli propaganda that portrayed their Palestinian and Arab adversaries as “terrorists.” In fact, the US government approach after 9/11 was modeled in many of its features on Israeli tactics developed during the long occupation of Palestine.

FALCONE: Have you ever been invited to speak at a high school on the Muslim world? Why might this be so unlikely to happen?

CHOMSKY: I think you know why it’s unlikely. I’ve occasionally been asked to talk on Israel-Palestine. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it elicits hysteria in the community.

DAVIDSON: I have not been invited into a Muslim high school, but I have been invited to speak to college classes in the Muslim world. I think this is simply because I am better-known in college and university circles. There is no inherent reason why I would be unwelcome at the high school level.

FALK: I have been invited a few times over the years, usually at the initiative of student groups, not the school administration or faculty. This seems unlikely to happen both because of bias and fear of controversy.

PAPPÉ: Yes, but mostly because those who invited me did not know who I was.

FALCONE: Do you read the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs? What are your thoughts on the publication?

CHOMSKY: Not trustworthy in my opinion, though I often agree with their conclusions.

DAVIDSON: Yes, this is a very good source of information. It is one of those sources that people should use to get an alternative view of what is going on in the region and what are the consequences of US foreign policy.

PAPPÉ: Excellent and informative publication.

FALK: I believe that the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs is a valuable resource, probably the best offset to the mainstream treatment of the region. It consistently publishes insightful commentary on delicate issues of US foreign policy bearing on the Middle East and also interprets developments in the region in a more illuminating way.

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