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Ussama Makdisi on the Tragedy in Gaza

On Feb. 6, 2012, Ussama Makdisi spoke at the University of Montana under the auspices of the President’s Lecture Series. A nephew of Edward Said, he descends from a distinguished academic family.

It was Said in Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978) who analyzed the stereotypes and clichés in Western thinking about Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Orientalism was an imperialist project involving the cultural dehumanization of the peoples living in these non-Western lands.

Since Said’s death in 2003, a new generation of scholars has followed the path that he blazed. By 2012, Makdisi had taken a prominent place in the ranks of Said’s successors. He already had published two prize-winning books and been named as the first holder of the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University.

At UM, Makdisi spoke on the theme of “America and the Arab Struggle for Self-Determination.” The research for this talk came from a book he had published in 2010, Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations 1820-2001. Through most of this history, the American image in the Arab world had been generally positive.

For example, after the First World War, the Arabs expressed a preference for the Americans to take the mandates in the Middle East then being discussed at the Paris Peace Conference. They thought that the Ameri- cans had a relatively good record in running their empire, which then consisted of holdings in the Pacific and Caribbean won during the Spanish-American War. By comparison with the eventual Middle East mandate occupiers, remorselessly imperialistic Britain and France, the United States did indeed look like God’s Country to the Arabs.

Makdisi told us that the break between the U.S. and the Arabs occurred in 1947 and 1948 over Washington’s total support for the Zionist state. This special relationship had remained unchanged because of the powerful Israel lobby. With bipartisan support in Congress, the U.S. continuously had served as Israel’s lawyer, funder, and military backer. When asked about possible solutions for the dilemmas besetting the Middle East, he confessed in 2012, “I do not see any solution right now.”

During the past twelve years, Makdisi has continued to pub- lish voluminously and to rise in the academic world. He now holds the Chancellor’s Chair at the University of California, Berkeley. A forthcoming book of his on the 1919 King-Crane Report regarding Arab sentiments and fears for their future as subalterns of the victors in World War I will be indispensable reading for anyone interested in the historical background of the unfolding disasters in the Middle East today.

I contacted Makdisi recently to discuss current events in Gaza. He answered that since the start of the genocide his life had been consumed by lecturing and podcasting about this tragedy. He added, “Needless to say I have been ashamed by the indifference and silence of so many in Western academe but heartened by the student organization and protest on behalf of decency and ethics and liberation. Long may they continue.”

Makdisi Street is a collaborative podcast that he produces with his brothers Saree and Karim, themselves outstanding scholars. It features interviews with some of the leading critics of the Gaza bombing thus far resulting in more than 35,000 Palestinian deaths. The interviewees include Vijay Prashad, Rashid Khalidi, Peter Beinart, Richard Falk, and Jeremy Scahill. Found on Facebook, Makdisi Street is to be welcomed for its deconstruction of official explanations in Washington and Jerusalem about this latest tragedy to befall the Palestinian people in their star-crossed history.

The Op-Ed Ussama Makdisi on the Tragedy in Gaza first appeared in the Missoulian Newspaper on May 16, 2024.

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