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A professor who thinks Islamism is woke
Elizabeth Thompson rewrites global history to vilify Whites
Historian Elizabeth Thompson has an impeccable academic record. She earned her BA from Harvard, and her MA and PhD from Columbia. Yet like The New York Times’ 1619 Project tries to “reframe” American history, Thompson rewrites the history of the Middle East along the same lines: Blame all the ills on colonial White European men. She thus does her share of being woke and teaching at one of Washington’s universities, where on-campus woke-ism has become as tyrannical as Communism.
To “reframe” history, Thompson breaks all the laws of history methodology, which teach that the most important pitfall to avoid is anachronism — the act of attributing a custom, event or object to a period to which it does not belong — and that historians are not supposed to judge past events and characters by the moral standards of the later time when a history account is written. Instead, historians hypothesize on what happened, and leave the ethical and moral judgement to philosophers and ethicists.
Thompson, however, refuses to play historian. In her book How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs, the American academic offers an “alternative” history and ends up writing a partisan pamphlet.
As Western democracies took shape, they tried to make the world in their image: One based on rights and the rule of law. President Woodrow Wilson therefore put forth a proposal that resulted in the establishment of the League of Nations, the predecessor of the UN. Before the West started experimenting with the concept of global government, there was no international laws or norms, just the classic rule of “might is right.”
By the end of World War I, in 1919, Wilson and the chief executives of Britain, France and Italy — aka the “Big Four” — tried to reconcile the concept of global government with phasing out some five millennia of global lawlessness. Thompson, however, judges Wilson and the European leaders according to ethical and legal standards of 2020 America. She writes that the “Big Four” built their careers “on democratization of domestic politics at the turn of the century,” and had won office by opposing privilege and tyranny. “But they were also older, white men… whose instincts were rooted in nineteenth-century norms and institutions” (any other humans in 1919 whose instincts were not rooted in nineteenth century norms?). Thompson says that these White Europeans freely invoked “white racial superiority in their discussions about non-European territories, including usage of the ‘n-word’.”
In 1919, the n-word had not yet become a taboo racial slur, but was commonly used until Stokely Carmichael’s 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, in which he persuasively argued that the term implied black inferiority. Until then, the n-word was how most black Americans identified themselves. Thompson therefore expects Wilson and the European leaders in 1919 to toe a line drawn in 1967, a clear anachronism.
Thompson also insists that it was racial discrimination, rather than mercantile interests, that shaped the “postwar order,” an order that“disappointed people around the world.” Such disappointment prompted radicalization among Muslims, therefore, Thompson thinks that Islamist terrorism — like every ill in world history — was the fault of White European colonials. Had it not been for European racism, per Thompson’s reasoning, the world — especially Muslim countries — would have been liberal democracies living in peace and harmony.
Thompson’s evidence of “Liberal Islamic consensus” is a short-lived parliament and government of the Syrian Arab kingdom in Damascus. But even if we grant Thompson that that 1920 Arab experiment was in fact a short spell of democracy, nothing in three millennia of Arab history and 1500 years of Islamic history suggests that any Arab or Islamic state, or non-state organization, ever practiced democracy. Furthermore, a few months of deliberations and documents, by the same people who later jumped at the first opportunity to form autocratic regimes or Islamist radical groups, cannot substantiate Thompson’s proof that the Arabs in 1920 presented a nascent democratic experiment that was aborted by the White Man.
Another flagrant mistake in the book is Thompson’s usage of the ethnonyms Arabs and Muslims interchangeably, even though the difference between the two has stirred long and complicated debate since forever. Thompson says that Egyptian King Farouk did not respond to calls “to unify the Muslim world in opposition to Europe’s racist warmongering.” But in what capacity can an Arab Egyptian king rally Muslims of the world against Europeans? And why would non-Arab Muslims of Turkey, who fought Europeans to a standstill and cracked deals with them to form the Republic of Turkey, rally around their rival — the king of Egypt — to fight Europeans?
In fact, even Arab Muslims of the imagined Syrian Kingdom were never united in calling themselves Syrian. Thompson reports that conflict “flared when the Palestinian delegates proposed changing the group’s name to the Syro-Palestinian Congress, to reflect the fact that Syria and Palestine were now ruled by two different powers.”
But the financial sponsor of the Syrian Congress, a Syrian, “opposed the name change because it compromised the Syrian Congress’ claim to unity.” Mind you, Thompson does not substantiate the reasoning she cites behind the Palestinian justification for their demand of name change. Any nation, ruled by two different alien powers, does not classify itself along the lines of its rulers, or else the congress would have been called the Israeli-French Congress. The Kurds, for example, live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but always identify their parties by their transnational Kurdish ethnicity, not their local nationality.
A more plausible explanation for Palestinian refusal to go under the name “Syrian Congress” would have been that Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians and Iraqis had already developed national identities along the lines drawn by the European colonials. Such identities would have made impossible the creation of a united Syrian Kingdom that Thompson blames White European colonials for dismantling.
Thompson also disregards history-writing principles by using value judgement phrases, such as the “notorious Egyptian monarch, Khedive Tawfiq… sold out his citizens to the British occupation in 1882,” and like “Faisal’s son Ghazi in Iraq,” Egyptian King Farouk “was a weak leader with no interest in social reform.” She also writes that “Muslim-hater Lord Curzon [was] in charge of Middle East policy.”
Without substantiating her attacks on past characters, Thompson — a White American Ivy League historian — issues subjective verdicts against three Arab sovereigns: Egypt’s Tawfiq and Farouk, and Iraq’s Ghazi. What Arabs — such as yours truly — think of these past kings is irrelevant. Thompson knows better and instructs readers on what to think about Arab leaders. Then she complains of Orientalism and how White Europeans, in 1919, dictated to the Arabs what they should think and how they should not rule themselves.
Thompson also weirdly endorses the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) view of regulating public space. She writes that MB’s founder Hassan Al-Banna came to study in Cairo after World War I. “He was shocked by the lewd behavior of British troops, who patronized music halls and appeared drunk on the streets.” But why would the behavior — rather than the occupation of Egypt — bother any Egyptian? What did Islamists think of lewd behavior by local Egyptians on the streets of Cairo? Or did all Egyptians at the time behave like devout Muslims?
Thompson tries to connect British “alienation” of local Muslims in Egypt with how White Man in American and Europe “alienated” people of color. White Man, anywhere, has to be wrong all the time, while people of color, even militant Islamists like Al-Banna, have to be right, or else, Critical Race Theory does not work.
In fact, in her unjustifiably long text, Thompson ends up contradicting her own thesis, that the Arabs were liberal and democratic until the Europeans spoiled everything. In describing one liberal Syrian politician, Thompson writes that he was “loathed by a segment of Syria’s population that believed Islam should be the basis of government.” A segment? How big a segment? Thompson does not say, but argues that this “segment” viewed Arab liberal politicians as “westernized secularists,” while these liberals saw themselves “in terms [they] had used in 1920, as pious [men] who could be both Muslim and liberal,” and insisted “that Islam should remain outside politics, in the private sphere, had been accepted in the Syrian Congress of 1920.” How many of those Syrian liberals were active? How big was the “segment” that opposed them? And without knowing what the Syrian majority thought on democracy or Islamism, how could Thompson establish that the 1920 constitution was not an elite stunt that enjoyed little, if any, popular support?
Finally, this gem from Thompson: “Muslim women across the Middle East and South Asia based their demand for equal rights on the egalitarian spirit of Islam.” Thompson does no say who thinks Islam has an egalitarian spirit. Does she think that? Did Muslim women in 1920 Syria think Islam was egalitarian? Whichever the answer is, it would be hard to square with this Quranic verse:
Each man may marry two or three or four but do not exceed this; but if you fear you will not be equitable towards them in terms of their expenses and individual share; then marry only one or restrict yourself to what your right hands own of slave girls since these do not have the same rights as wives; thus by that marrying of only four or only one or resorting to slave girls it is likelier it is nearer in outcome that you will not be unjust that you will not be inequitable. [Quran 4:3 — Tafsir Al-Jalalayn]
So while the Quran allows for polygamy and slavery, Thompson tries to “reframe” Arab history, not in ways to reflect a more accurate narrative of 1920, but in ways that fit a partisan American narrative of 2021, where White European colonials are evil White people basking in their privileges, and are always bad, while the people of color are always the victims, and the victims can never be wrong or capable of having bad ideas.