Each month, we conduct a review of a recent book that deals with issues relating to Palestine and/or the Israel/Palestine conflict. Books that are chosen for review can be academic or non-academic, historical or fictional. Next month we will be reviewing Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: Patterns, Problems, Possibilities by Laura Zittrain Eisenberg and Neil Caplan. If you would like to suggest a book for review, please contact the Palestine Center.

Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S. Arab Relations 1820-2003
written by Ussama Makdisi

Hardcover: 432 pages, PublicAffairs; 1 edition (22 June 2010)

Palestine Center Book Review No. 8 (31 August 2010)

By Yousef Munayyer Makdisi Book 1
“Why do they hate us?” It is probably the most asked question regarding the Arab world since 9/11. Many have ventured to ask and answer this question in the years before and after 9/11, and such works became popular with a broad American readership. Sam Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” which was largely dismissed by the academy when it was first published, became very popular after the terror attacks on the United States in 2001.

But “Why do they hate us?” is also one of the most loaded five-word questions imaginable. Who exactly are they? Who exactly is us? (Or is it U.S.?) Are both of these groups monolithic? Is this so-called hate personal; or rather is hate a misleading term all together?

All of these questions, essentially the unpacking of this loaded and overused question, are explored in Ussama Makdisi’s Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S. Arab Relations 1820-2001.
While many who tell the story of this relationship begin with the American encounter with Barbary pirates off the coast of North Africa, the starting point for Makdisi is representative of his general understanding of the relationship which he tries to convey to his readers. When it comes to the Arab world, and particularly the Levant with which the United States has been so enamored, the origins of this relationship are not in violent clashes at sea but rather through initially unremarkable proselytizing missions.

His description of the early period of American proselytization attempts is valuable and particularly telling. The fiercest opponents of these missions at the time were not the majority Muslim population, as the “Clash of Civilizations” doctrine would have us expect, but rather the leadership of the eastern Christian churches whose flocks were targeted by the missionaries. Makdisi explains that the eastern churches had struck a balance of comfort in a multi-religious society, and perceived the missionaries as threats to that delicate harmony.

Makdisi explains that over time the religious missions, taking into account the resistance they faced from the eastern churches, had morphed into a more secular endeavor. Abandoning preaching and adopting education, American expeditions in the Arab world created institutions like the Syrian Protestant College, which later became the esteemed American University of Beirut.

It would be these institutions that helped create an opening to understanding the West, and the United States in particular, at a time when the Ottoman Empire still ruled the land, and French, British and Israeli occupations where not in the Arab imagination. Likewise, these institutions, Makdisi writes, helped the Arabs form new communal identities:

The emergence of Arabic literary and scientific societies, newspapers and journals in Beirut and Cairo, many of which were founded by men who had worked with or taught alongside missionaries, helped create a feeling of being Syrian, Arab or Egyptian in a national sense that could unite Muslim and Christian Arabic speakers.

While some of the roots of secular Arab nationalism can be traced back to institutions connected with American missionaries, the American failure to account for the general will of the very civil society it helped spark played a significant role in the souring of the relationship. Long before the regular public-opinion polling of Arab populations we have become accustomed to today, the King-Crane Commission of 1919 set out to understand the native feeling about self-determination, mandatory governments, independence and colonialism. This process, which Makdisi devotes a significant part of the book to, was the beginning of a turning point in the relationship. The Commission’s report documented a strong sense of self-determination among the Arabs (who distrusted European colonialism but would be more open to the idea of an American mandate) and, importantly, it noted a strong anti-Zionist sentiment.

When Woodrow Wilson‘s White House failed to respond to the report and the Levant became a drawing board for French and British kingmakers with Zionist aspirations in mind, the new world order established by post-WWI idealists began to crumble, and the stage was set for the United States’ fall from grace in the Arab world. On the creation of Israel, Makdisi writes:

The question of Palestine would remain at the center of Arab concern, both as an embodiment of collective Arab failure and as a spur to Arab unification. Resisting, indeed reversing, Zionism became the mantra of modern anti-imperialist Arab politics- one passionately believed in by millions of Arabs and one also relentlessly exploited by a bevy of competing leaders who sought to seize the mantel of pan-Arab leadership while struggling to consolidate their grip on power at home. Through its championing of partition and its immediate recognition of a Jewish state, America had drawn first blood. The Arab reaction was not long in coming.

Ussama Makdisi’s book tells an important story about a relationship which, in its early years, had tremendous potential based on commonalities and tolerance, but it ultimately soured over time as the spirit of cooperation embodied in the academic institutions established by missions in the Arab world, was replaced with a spirit of domination and dictation from an aspiring superpower to a peoples in the midst of anti-colonialist resistance.

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This book review may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center.

The views in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.