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An interview with Michael Oren

Michael Oren is guilty, and he admits it. He's guilty, he says from his Jerusalem office, of having been taken in by the same Middle East fantasies that beguiled the American diplomats, missionaries and movie-going masses.


'When Americans look at the Middle East, they don't see the Middle East, they see themselves. They think that people are just like Americans. "If we can just tweak it the right way, then we can create New Jersey here in Iraq"' Michael Oren is guilty, and he admits it. He's guilty, he says from his Jerusalem office, of having been taken in by the same Middle East fantasies that beguiled the American diplomats, missionaries and movie-going masses who feature in Power, Faith, and Fantasy. "I'm of a generation of Americans - and American Jews especially - who decided to study Middle East history because we saw the film Lawrence of Arabia. I can't tell you how many people in my class had done the same thing. We saw this Middle East fantasy movie and said, 'That's for us!' When I was 15, the first thing I did when I got here [to Israel] was buy a keffiyeh and run around with it." The American-born and -educated historian, who made aliya in 1979, wrote his latest book in large part, he says, to dispel the myths about the Middle East that came crashing down on September 11, 2001. "The notion that these very romantic people on camels, with their robes flowing behind them and their curved swords dangling from their belts, were the same people who would hijack airliners and smash them into skyscrapers, killing 3,000 Americans in a matter of minutes, came as a huge surprise to Americans in 2001." Partly to blame for that surprise, Oren believes, is the profound effect that Edward Said and his scathing critique of Western attitudes toward the East, Orientalism, had on Middle East studies. "Said, too, was a fantasy," Oren says. "After 9/11, students who grew up on Orientalism were thinking, 'Where did this come from?' because they had been raised on the idea that the Middle East had everything to fear from the United States, and that the United States had nothing to fear from the Middle East. There was nothing that was being taught that could have even prepared them for 9/11." After some 25 years of researching America's involvement in the Middle East, Oren concludes: "When Americans look at the Middle East, they don't see the Middle East, they see themselves. They think that people are just like Americans. 'If we can just tweak it the right way, then we can create New Jersey here in Iraq.' I think it's essential that Americans look at the Middle East as a distinct culture, with its own norms." Principally, he says, that means taking a different tack on the push for freedom in the Middle East. "Americans perceive of their nation as a nation that doesn't exist for itself, but in order to bring liberty to the world. The problem is that we're looking at freedom from the American definition of freedom. For us, freedom is not just sticking a ballot in a box every four years. Our freedom is our freedom to marry whomever we want. Our freedom is for our children to have an education, for them to make their own decisions. It's freedom to see whatever you want to watch on TV, even if what you see conflicts with what you believe politically or religiously. "Freedom is a package. And there are many aspects of that package that are deeply threatening to this area of the world - an area that is traditionally patriarchal, where women don't have rights (certainly not the right to marry whom they choose). Western-style freedom is so devastating to their culture... but we miss that because we don't see them, and we don't see ourselves the way they see us." That failure continues to this day, Oren says, and it is evident in the approach of the Iraq Study Group, whose suggestions for a change in strategy on Iraq and the Middle East challenge the Bush administration's assumptions about what it will take to turn Iraq into a functioning democracy. "What's the underlying belief of the report? That we can change a thousand-year-old civilization with just a little bit more elbow grease. Man, when Lee Hamilton and James Baker [the main authors of the report] say that the Iranians and Syrians share our desire for stability in Iraq and are ready to talk to us, that's on the frontier between faith and fantasy."

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