Rethinking Revolution in the Middle East

Anthropology for academia has long proven unable to outright deny its colonialist legacy. This inheritance is well documented. The search for knowledge about an exoticized Other—the paradigmatic “noble savage” in numerous anthropological publications, museum displays, and other kinds of archives—has set the parameters for scientific explanations of what it means to be human. Extremely exclusivist in terms of both its definition of humanity and its academic practice, the discipline of anthropology resides within and reproduces larger structures of rule established in the West that depend on the production of knowledge about the Other in order to control him/her. Unfortunately, efforts at coming to terms with the past more often perpetuate the tradition of imperialism, aligning its interests once again with those of empire.


The “Most Wanted”


Musing over the political events in Egypt this spring, public statements and commentaries released by anthropological organizations in Europe and the U.S. reflect the interests of empire. A Statement of Support for Egypt issued in February 2011 by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), considered an authority by policymakers and the public, first and foremost expresses concern about the losses to cultural heritage. Similarly, the self-proclaimed presidents of an imagined international community of archaeologists speak out for a “prioritization for the protection of Egypt’s cultural heritage and the preservation of Egypt’s invaluable and irreplaceable archaeological history.”


While presuming to speak for a large number of anthropologists, the statement of the American Anthropological Association clearly reflects the class interests of the upper echelons of Western society in the context of a vast and expanding industry of cultural imperialism. After all, the discipline of anthropology (as many other academic disciplines) is situated in power structures that guarantee its representatives unequal access to symbolic and economic capital, not only within their own society, but also against other societies. If we look at this closely, it is specific class and racial interests that play out in the context of imperialist relations that put academia in place to stress concern for vanishing cultures, near-extinct species and threatened antiquities over concern for the lives and dignity of people. As a consequence, major anthropological organizations were able to ignore in their statements the expressions of self-determination by the Egyptian people or the transformative meaning of the revolution not only for Egypt, but for Northern Africa and the Middle East.


The statements cited here clearly establish the value that the cultural heritage of Egypt holds for human history by referring to the World Heritage List of UNESCO, which assigns outstanding universal value to seven sites in Egypt. This value is, of course, defined in purely economic terms, meaning that: “The richness of this heritage is integral to the country’s economic well-being, particularly in terms of heritage tourism.” Such constructs conceal not only the linked matrices of race, class, and culture that undergird tourist industries, but they also reveal the motives underlying the concern for protecting cultural heritage in the wake of imperial encounters. Followed by commercialization in an ever-expanding tourism industrial complex, antiquities have found their way into the global economy where they serve the interests of those who can afford to excavate, collect, curate, sell, buy, study, and display these objects.


This emphasis on cultural heritage with archaeological artifacts as invaluable and irreplaceable, reflects to some extent the events surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which involved the destruction and looting of major archaeological sites and museums, most notably the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Famous antiquities stolen from the museum were soon put on international “Most Wanted” lists, while black market and public websites like ebay flourished. At the same time, U.S. soldiers received a crash course in ancient history and heritage management when the U.S. Department of Defense issued decks of playing cards depicting many of Iraq’s archaeological sites and artifacts. Ironically, but not surprisingly, these cards complemented the already existing card games showing the heads of the most wanted officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime.


In 2003, the concern that archaeologists working in the area expressed was very much in line with the Defense Department’s phrasing of cultural history, which was written with the help of a cultural resource specialist, who was, not surprisingly, an anthropologist by training. In articles, public statements, and online publications, anthropologists called for the protection of the “universal” and “irreplaceable” cultural heritage of Iraq. In many cases, their concern for Iraq’s material culture either outweighed or was completely divorced from the deeply felt emotional and political despair over an illegal war shared by millions of protesters in major cities all over the world.


The same scholars who worried over the loss of cultural heritage refrained from analyzing the structural meaning not only of the looting, but also of the ethical concerns that were expressed over it. More specifically, they refused to recognize how the destruction and international trafficking of artifacts from Iraq is economic appropriation in the context of neoliberal globalization—all this happening under the guise of cultural intervention. As antiquities move through spheres of exchange from the black market to auction houses and finally to museums or private collections in Europe or North America, they acquire market values that exceed the objects’ original use-value. As valuable material culture, the artifacts and antiquities are claimed for the West’s own purposes of producing knowledge about our “shared human past.” Thus appropriated, the objects turn into commodities—indeed, fetishized commodities—that are essential to structuring the political and economic relations between “the West and the Rest.”


Conquering Hearts & Minds


In Iraq, much of the damage done to archaeological sites resulted from U.S. bombs and not always from looters. As a result, anthropologists demonstrated at least some degree of self-criticism when they expressed their fear over the destruction of cultural heritage. Egypt, by contrast, where events appeared to take place independent from Western intervention, is not conducive to such anthropological reflectivity, which turns the country into the perfect site for reinventing Euro-America’s superiority. This undertaking is, however, not an easy task because the participants in Egypt’s revolution have voiced a desire for democracy. Indeed, the democratization of civil society is a process that should immediately appeal to the middle and upper class of academics in Europe and North America, who frequently embrace freedom, liberty, and democracy as universal values. Therefore, in order for anthropology to be able to claim Egypt as the essential Other—the very “Orient” against which Europe’s enlightened self-fashioning emerges—it had to ignore the meaning and content of the revolution and focus entirely on the looting of cultural heritage, framing these instances as the “barbaric” acts of an uneducated and inherently corrupt populace. At the same time, the reports of looting that reached Europe and the U.S. were highly controversial and could often not be verified. Many of the reports cited by anthropologists came from the blog and website of Zahi Hawass, former Minister of Antiquities in Mubarak’s cabinet. Someone like Hawass, for whom much was at stake before Mubarak’s resignation, would have been well aware of Western interest in Egypt’s cultural heritage and would use this interest to appeal to Western academics and forge political ties.


The decision to dismiss the voices of the Egyptian people collapsed them into what some anthropologists perceived as a populist mass engaged in undifferentiated political agitation. This mass was, whether implicitly or explicitly, brought into contrast with the intelligentsia of professionals and academics trained in the West, such as Hawass himself. In doing so, Western academics dismissed the fact that Egyptians largely acted collectively in calling for the restoration of their dignity. While protesters in Tahrir Square and beyond focused on political change, risking their lives for a better future, anthropologists managed to erase the symbolic meaning of the revolution for the so-called post-colonial world. Egyptians wanted self-determination, but received, in the statement by the “International Archaeological Community,” only a destroyed and lost heritage.


Despite the fact that the people in Egypt exercised autonomous political action to bring them one step closer to a truly decolonial position, anthropological organizations such as the American Anthropological Association continue to speak on behalf of cultural imperialism. The aforementioned statements express a distressing commitment to recreating an Orientalist fantasy in which Egypt serves as the “primitive” mirror image of the Western metropole. Essential to this invigorated Orientalism is a contradictory vision that keeps expressing claims of Euro-American ownership over history, materialized in military interventions and aggressive missions of heritage protection. This vision consists of the idea that the human past has universal value as a “shared” past, exclusively managed by Euro-American academic and military industrial institutions. The ancient cultures of Egypt (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and so forth) are for Euro-America merely the proverbial “cradle of (our) civilization,” kept in perpetual political-economic dependency by the West.


Similar examples can be found everywhere in colonialist and imperialist encounters. The United States justified its invasion of Afghanistan, in part, by explaining that the Afghan cultural heritage must be saved from its destruction by the Taliban. The fact that the timeline is somewhat skewed, with Operation Enduring Freedom (the government name for the U.S. war in Afghanistan) commencing half a year after the destruction of the Bamiyan Statues, is not crucial. The political context of the invasion was, of course, grander than any mission of heritage protection could ever be. The West supposedly embarked on a humanitarian mission that was characterized by a rhetorical push to frame the war in Afghanistan as centering on women’s rights. As a result, the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan was cast as one where white men went off supposedly to save brown women from brown men.


In misrecognition of its own practices, the West reserves labels such as “fundamentalist” and “violent” for all others, while the Western mission is imagined as one of democratization and liberation. This narrative is, of course, ideology at its purest, serving as cover for policies dictated by economic imperatives. For its greater goal, the Western civilizing mission obviously employs means that destroy people, decimate families, kill mothers and fathers, children, and elderly people. The preferred phrase that describes the victims of this violence has become “collateral damage,” thus relegating killing to the realm of unintended consequences. 


Historically speaking, the protection of cultural heritage is almost always embedded in a larger framework of imperialist encounters. The logic of cultural imperialism illustrates how missions of heritage protection are about more than preserving an “authentic culture” or an “irreplaceable heritage,” which are part and parcel of humanitarian-military interventions. Claiming the universality of history, these encounters reach deep into the intimate aspects of political life.


Cultural heritage management in the context of war and conflict seeks to win hearts and minds under the pretense of protecting ancient sites and artifacts. One of the playing cards for U.S. soldiers in Iraq boldly states “showing respect wins hearts and minds,” recalling a long-standing history of U.S. imperialism. The phrase “hearts and minds” was President Lyndon Johnson’s euphemism for a brutal and violent military process of oppression, submission, and destruction  during the Vietnam War.


Complicity in Structural Violence


Statements such as the one issued by the American Anthropological Association, if spun further, make clear that there is obviously no contradiction in “supporting (the people of) Egypt,” on the one hand, and in turning to U.S. government forces to intercept purported activities of looting and the illegal trafficking in antiquities, on the other. These antiquities are, of course, mainly the paraphernalia of great kings and queens—their monuments and treasures, pyramids and palaces. Forgotten are those in slavery and bondage, who helped create the ancient treasures that wealthy tourists admire in Egyptian museums today. Similarly forgotten is the fact that a modern form of slavery exists in present-day Egypt where the brutal Mubarak regime created a vast population of political prisoners. For the American Anthropological Association, however, just as for Zahi Hawass, this merely creates more concern about antiquities. The fear is that “as the prisons are opened, the potential for greater loss [of cultural heritage] is created.” While anthropologists worry about protecting antiquities from attacks by “hoodlums and criminals” (the choice of words on academic listservs), there is no such concern for assault on the bodily, mental, and political integrity of the imprisoned.


It is not surprising that practices of looting, neglect, and damage of objects of cultural heritage are most often documented in those areas of the world that are supposedly characterized by a lesser degree of “civilization” or “democratization.” The classic anthropological idea of a failed modernity still legitimizes Western intervention—or what Slavoj Žižek calls “humanitarian militarism”—in all kinds of affairs, including the safeguarding of heritage. As such, this call for intervention employs the kind of psuedo-urgency that is otherwise only encountered in humanitarian work.


Žižek highlights the paradox that lies at the heart of humanitarianism and makes Western violence its necessary precondition. Only by participating in the structural violence that results in humanitarian intervention can we afford to partake in this discourse of fake urgency. This formulation also applies to anthropologists who call for intervention for the sake of heritage protection. Western academia is essential to the functioning of structural violence, which creates the kinds of political situations that apparently require interference by Euro-American military and economic powers. As academics, we are complicit in this process when our work defends the interests of the state, of capital, of empire. While this complicity is not always discernible, certain situations are quite demonstrative of this process. Recently, the presence of military personnel in civilian attire or in combat fatigues has become a familiar sight at major anthropological conferences, such as the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association.


In spite of this, the discipline of anthropology as a whole does not seem to perceive itself as complicit in neo-imperialist encounters. A North American anthropologist—who, in all sincerity, claims American innocence by calling the U.S. a former imperial power—blatantly ignores continued Western interests in Egypt (among countless other places). While this viewpoint is certainly not shared by all anthropologists or all academics, the structural, and even direct, complicity of the U.S. government in the brutal politics of the Mubarak regime—Egypt is after all the second-largest recipient of U.S. military and economic aid, after Israel— is not a point that is opened up to analysis by the American Anthropological Association, which is first and foremost an academic organization. This complicity of silence has for many years been a convenient placeholder for U.S. economic interests, for keeping the so-called post-colonial status quo in Northern Africa as oppressive and disenfranchising as was intended by its initial colonizers.


Cynical Reason and the Post-Political


The statement by the American Anthropological Association shows something else: the fact that it is possible as an anthropologist to sever issues of heritage management from political culture. It is indeed considered methodologically rigorous and analytically sound to fashion oneself as the post-political anthropologist who merely collects and protects traits of a shared human past. Yet, any slight disapproval of the values associated with an imagined universal heritage triggers moral anxiety among those very anthropologists. The “post-political being” is, after all, an ideological illusion with no foundation in the real world. Under the pretense of being completely apolitical, the post-political anthropologist (or academic in the wider sense) simply commits to politics that do not “dwell on issues and will never ask the question, ‘who has power and why’.” Being post-political, of course, also means having “absolutely no interest in class, whose very acknowledgment [is] the bases of all real politics and whose acknowledgment would only lead to an existential crisis in its ranks.”


In response, anxious anthropologists present only a psychological mechanism of self-defense. We are not to blame, they cry, because our expertise is after all not in politics, but in (material) culture. Our “scientific” interests are entirely dispassionate. Is this just a case of Freudian moral anxiety over the internalized belief in Western universalisms? If that was so, it would not be the individual scholar who was to blame, but his/her “superego.” More likely, we suffer from a severe case of what Sloterdijk has called “cynical reason.” This suggests that we are not only aware of our ideologically-warped beliefs, but we consciously accept that these constructs constitute reality as we pursue our interests as privileged academics. For Žižek this paradox reflects an enlightened false consciousness in which those who partake in the ruling culture “know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.”


As anthropologists and academics we should really know that our disciplines are oftentimes essential to colonial missions and imperialist encounters. To ignore this is to ignore countless texts written about the colonial entanglements of anthropology and other academic disciplines and it is also to ignore the endless protests staged in opposition to it. From their seat of power, anthropologists, in particular, have mapped language groups and kinship systems, collected cultural artifacts, and named territories and peoples. Further, the discipline is crucial in assisting the desire for ever-increasing cultural domination for the ultimate purpose of economic expansion that is founded upon and perpetuated by capitalism, of which academia as a whole is a constituent part. What started in the 18th century with early European explorers found its continuation in the anthropology of counterinsurgency, probably most often associated with the prominent figures of U.S. anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Today the so-called “embedded anthropologists” continue these practices in the context of the Human Terrain System (HTS) Project and other U.S. military programs worldwide.


While this direct involvement of anthropologists with military missions, and their often clear ideological and economic alignment, has led to major controversies in academia and beyond. The cynical reason that features so prominently in dominant anthropological discourses on popular culture and everyday politics is difficult to unmask. Similarly difficult to unmask is the very fact that the cynical anthropologist is not so different from the embedded anthropologist. Cynical reason is after all not naïveté and anthropologists who work in the service of the military industrial complex cannot be called uninformed. They know all too well what they are doing and what the real interests are behind humanitarian missions in the name of universal principles. If these anthropologists have struggled against moral anxiety, their efforts have long been rendered meaningless in the face of a wholly altered reality. Fear of (self-)punishment and guilt are Freudian remnants that may affect our private lives, but they are irrelevant in a world where values of white Euro-America want to be defended once more in the name of exceptional power. At a particularly important and politically meaningful junction in Egypt’s recent history, anthropology has chosen to side with empire rather than with the people of Egypt, for whom anthropology has no solidarity left.


Maresi Starzmann is an anthropologist working and writing at the Free University Berlin, Germany. She critically engages with the history and politics of anthropology, and more recently has started writing about pop culture responses to anthropological research.