Book Review: Contending Visions of the Middle East

Lockman, Zachary. Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Annotation

Zachary Lockman is professor of history of the Middle East and Islamic Studies at New York University. His book, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalismseeks to introduce readers to the history of Orientalism and Islamic studies from an American perspective from the mid-twentieth century to the year of the book’s publication, 2010.[1]His primary focus is how different theories or methods of interpretation have influenced the study of Islamic thought and the Middle East in the West.[2]He is particularly concerned with the essentialist approach that has been applied to the study of the Orient which negates or ignores the variations found in culture, politics and religious practices in different countries which are predominantly populated with those adhering to the Muslim faith. Unlike Said, Lockman more clearly and effectively places his arguments about Orientalism and its evolution in the historical record. He elucidates the trends and events which have impacted the changes in the field that have occurred particularly from the middle of the last century onward.

Application

Lockman offers historians of the Middle East and Islamic world advice that is practical to all historians. In the writing of history, generalizations and essentialism must be avoided. The historian must also avoid excessive statements about a people, events or trends. Interdisciplinary studies is a highly valued approach when seeking to understand those peoples, events or trends through a lens which is not clouded by one’s own cultural or religious biases.

On a personal level I have often felt as if the policies promulgated by our government and the reports by our media about the Middle East have been misrepresented in ways that I’ve found difficult to articulate. I’ve found that Lockman offers a comprehensive explanation for this in his summaries of the work of neoconservatives like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. Lockman argued that Lewis ignored “the impact of colonialism, various Muslim societies’ complex and quite different engagements with the transformations of the modern era” to the detriment of the field and state of affairs in the United States concerning the Middle East.[3]

Lockman argued that the shift which occurred in scholarship during the Cold War, which was funded by governmental grants and private foundations for the purpose of learning more about the Soviet Union, to a disinvestment in university departments who worked in this field, to private right wing think tanks has seriously affected our standing on the world stage and our ability and will to diplomatically intercede in world affairs. This arrogance which he calls, “overweening power” that “often makes those who exercise it stupid, preventing them from accurately comprehending what is going on around them and leading them to grossly underestimate the resolution and capabilities of those who oppose them” has led to disastrous results in the Middle East characterized by a seemingly never-ending 15 yearlong war.[4]

[1]Zachary Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1.

[2]Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East, 3.

[3]Zachary Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010),251.

[4]Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East, 275-276.