Stranger in a Strange Land: A Historian among Political Scientists


Mr. Furnish, Ph.D (Islamic History), is Assistant Professor, History, Georgia Perimeter College, Dunwoody, GA 30338. Mr. Furnish is the author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Praeger, 2005).

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I like political scientists. Much of what I do as a historian overlaps with what they do (particularly in terms of creating patterns that allow for transnational and transcontinental analysis). In fact, some of my best friends are political scientists.

Nonetheless, it will be a cold day in Baghdad before I ever chair another Middle East panel at a political science conference. The only place I’ve ever encountered more Bush-bashing was among American academics at the American Research Institute in Istanbul. Of course, everyone knows that academia is overwhelmingly populated by liberals (folks who voted for John Kerrey and whose 1978 Volvos are held together by “Bush Lied” and “Somewhere in Texas a Village is Missing its Idiot” bumper stickers) and Leftists (folks who think the former are too conservative, not to mention nice). I’ve long since abandoned any hope that this skewed playing field will be leveled any time soon. But is it too much to ask that political scientists, of all disciplines, allow the latter part of their moniker to even slightly intrude upon the former?

I chaired the panel on “The Middle East in Transition” at the Georgia Political Science Association conference a week ago in Savannah. My paper on “Jihad” was accompanied by one on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and two on Iraq: one on how former Iraqi Interim President Allawi allegedly utilized the at best overrated and at worst fictional “threats” of Iran and Syria to–ultimately unsuccessfully–“wag the dog” and win re-election; the other on what a massive mistake the U.S. invasion and attempted democratization of Iraq has been, and will continue to be.

Normally when I speak at conferences on matters such as jihad, scimitars are being sharpened and menacing fatwas composed before I’m even finishing my introduction. Maybe it was the balmy air of Savannah, or the soporific effects of a large Friday lunch, but the audience seemed about as interested in my discussion of jihad as journalists are in reporting that those marauding “youths” in France are mostly Muslim. They were much more interested in–and almost totally uncritical of–the presentations from the two Iraq War critics. (It couldn’t have been that my linguistic, theological and historical deconstruction of “jihad”–such that it almost always DOES mean holy war–was too concrete, and not abstract enough, for a roomful of political scientists–could it? Nah.)

The Allawi-was-totally-wagging-the-dog panelist had laid out on the presenters’ table his unusable overhead transparencies–no one having thought to get that sort of technology laid on–which consisted largely of caricaturish cartoons, mainly ones portraying Bush as an inbred-looking cowboy. (Nothing like cutting-edge scholarship, eh?) At least the other Iraq War critic panelist had a respectable intellectual position: that under a realpolitik analysis, the war to topple Saddam was a mistake. I suppose it was, if one wants to take a totally hard-boiled, national-interest, amoral stance and ignore Saddam’s poison gassing of Kurds, his torture chambers, his masochistic sons, his mass graves. But I thought it was the Republicans that always took this tack, not the enlightened Democrats? How did we get to the point where a Republican president is emulating Woodrow Wilson, and his liberal critics savage him for not being cynical enough? Oh yes, and did you know that the Brits (allegedly) used poison gas against the Iraqis back in the 1920s? I supposed this was thrown out by Professor Realpolitik to point out the hypocrisy of the Brits and Americans on this issue–although following this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, no nation-state (or at least no Western one, especially all those with a “U.” in their names) can even condemn another for something it had EVER done in its past–so I suppose if Bin Ladin nukes Manhattan, we can’t condemn it because we did likewise to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, post-Pearl Harbor and Bataan?

Later, at the reception I approached this panelist colleague and asked “so are you saying that Iraq would be better off with Saddam still in power?” He asked me if I were serious. Assured that I was he said: “Yes.” If I thought this were an exceptional view among academics, I might not be so dismayed. But, alas, I’m willing to bet it is not. And I am not advocating a conservative or Republican approach to political science, history, or any other discipline. I am, however, bemoaning the fact that the overarching template in such academic conferences–and they’re almost as bad at history ones–is not only Left but snobbish, patronizing, condescending, self-absorbed, self-congratulatory and, yes, close-minded. Would it be too much to ask that the political scientists put a little science–or at least feigned objectivity–into their politics? I won’t entertain the fantasy that they might check their predictably Leftist politics at the conference hotel front desk.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

What is "leftish" about expressing skepticism re an administration that has been wasting taxpayer dollars at record pace on massive and abusive government-sponsored disasters ?

What is "conservative" about being arrogant and hypocritical, for example pretending that Saddam's non existent WMD required a sudden rush to invade him after months and years of first suppporting then tolerating him, while ignoring actual WMD, in Pakistan for instance (which supplied them to North Korea) ?

Max J. Skidmore - 11/24/2005

At your request, I read them again (I'm not a masochist; it was a display of good will). Regardless of tongue placement, I stand by my comments, and note that they remain unanswered.

Glenn Rodden - 11/23/2005


Happy Thanksgiving in return. I am not a liberal-leftist-European Communist, etc. as described by Mr. Furnish. My point is that Furnish is contradicting himself. He seems to be making a plea for studying politics objectively and then undercutting that plea with numerous loaded phrases and biased statements about people that disagree with his position on the Iraq War.

Furnish also seems to be upset with anyone who is critical of the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq including realist who argue that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was not in the national interest of the US. Now that is defensive.

Addressing your comments: "It has always interested me that real leftist governments are the greatest murderers of their own citizens of all time, by factors."

What does this have to do with the political science conference that Furnish wrote about?

"Perhaps there is a Lemming gene loose in academe, or perhaps you could explain this conundrum for me."

I am not an academic and I do not speak for academia, but I wonder how attacking entire groups of people advances objective thinking. Please explain.

Frederick Thomas - 11/23/2005

Mr. Rodden:

First, happy thanksgiving.

Second, I am confused. By your defensive prose I infer that you are one of the left leaners which the author described.

It has always interested me that real leftist governments are the greatest murderers of their own citizens of all time, by factors.

According to "Murder by Government," for example, the Soviets murdered 60.5 million over only 70 years, easily besting Hitler. And of course the "bourgeois intelligencia" such as American liberal arts professors, are the first to go, as Pol Pot demonstrated more recently.

This is not to mention that the worst system for economic productivity is the leftie model. It's the very best way to assure that no one has enough to eat, wear or consume.

And we must consider that the leftist governments in Europe, France and Germany, have choked their economies to death, with 13% unemployment and Islamic riots as a result.

We can further consider that almost all far left governments have now collapsed and changed to relatively free economies, with resultant booms and much higher standards of living. Only N. Korea and Cuba remain, starving.

All this makes it kind of strange that these same profs so hate the system that gives them freedom, life, bounty, culture and beauty, and wish for the system which would kill or empoverish them.

Perhaps there is a Lemming gene loose in academe, or perhaps you could explain this conundrum for me.

Frederick Thomas - 11/23/2005

Mr. Skidmore:

Please place your tongue squarely in your cheek, then read my post again.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Max J. Skidmore - 11/22/2005

Thomas makes a strange comment. Certainly people at both ends of the political spectrum can be shrill and irrational, and certainly both can suppress free speech under a variety of guises. We academicians can be unreasonable and quarrelsome.

In this exchange we have evidence of that from the right, just as "speech codes" can supply similar evidence that comes predominantly from the left. There are far worse examples from any extreme. Some in the West are evidently unconcerned about civilian Arab deaths (unless Saddam Hussein caused them), while at the other extreme one can cite a philosopher who wrote an article for THE CHRONICLE a few months ago in which he justified suicide bombings that take innocent lives because the bombers feel "helpless," and because they are "victims." Well, so are the innocents whom they kill. Both positions are shameful--and shameless. (Note: I am far from being a pacifist--I find both Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, for example, to be most admirable--nor do I "blame America for everything," so please don't resort to such tired a tired retort.

I have never heard anyone, though--on the right or the left--express as his "tenent" (or tenet, either) that God created him or his candidate, and that therefore no one else can take a different position. Nor am I (a political scientist) aware that "lefties" from the sixties as a group are running for office as Thomas must think they are, since he says that their share of the vote is dropping.

What we have here is not "a failure to communicate," (no plagiarist I--that comes from the film "Cool Hand Luke") but rather a failure to present a coherent argument. Thomas clearly dislikes "lefties" but apart from that, does he have anything to tell us? If that's all he has to say, who cares?

Furnish tells us (at least by implication--certainly with regard to political scientists) that no one listens to ideas from the right. I replied that, despite the protests from those holding them, those ideas seem to receive quite a bit of space in the media. One may suspect that conservatives protest too much (I know, that phrase is not original with me, either), and that they will not be satisfied unless their ideas receive receptions such as "Oh. You're right. I see the error of my ways."

I submit that if their ideas are to be accepted, they must, at a minimum, be presented thoughtfully; presenting them with civility and courtesy also wouldn't hurt their cause. That doesn't mean that their ideas will prevail. For that to happen, at least in the long run, their ideas would have to be superior--at least so one would hope. In my opinion, they have a long way to go if they are to develop superior ideas, but I will be happy to give them an audience.

Frederick Thomas - 11/22/2005

No group is quite as mindlessly and rigidly lockstep in political matters as the shrill lefty academics of the 60s and 70s. Stalin was more open minded than some of these guys. Could it have been all that bad marijuana?

Their general tenent is that God made them and their miserable political candidates, and the devil made anyone who moves out of their lockstep.

This is no cause for concern, however. They alienate the general populace more and more every day, and get less and less support. Before they die off, they will probably end up with 20% of the vote, like the French Communists. R.I.P.

Glenn Rodden - 11/21/2005

I am not sure what the author is trying to say. If this is a plea for objectivity then why do write things like: "Of course, everyone knows that academia is overwhelmingly populated by liberals."

That statement is loaded with assumptions. And it only gets worse: "I’ve long since abandoned any hope that this skewed playing field will be leveled any time soon."

This reads like something from a right-wing website.

Just when I thought the author hit rock bottom, he went lower: "Maybe it was the balmy air of Savannah, or the soporific effects of a large Friday lunch, but the audience seemed about as interested in my discussion of jihad as journalists are in reporting that those marauding “youths” in France are mostly Muslim."

I did not attend this conference, but I suspect that the audience was not interested in hearing more whining. What journalists are you refering too? I have not read one report of the riots in France that did not mention that the rioters were Arab. I have not, however, read many articles that try to explain what the violence is about.

Max J. Skidmore - 11/21/2005

The media (electronic and otherwise) seem to devote considerable space to people who whine (poor babies) that no one pays attention to their ideas (who, for example, gets as much attention as Horowitz?). Certainly we should do our best to be objective, even if every idea is not equal. Certainly, too, though, we also should spell the names of presidential candidates correctly.