Embellishing Muhammad & the Islamic Conquests, Long Before Edward Said
"the member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council responsible for the Middle East in 1961."Perhaps even Said would have admitted that a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council responsible for the Middle East would likely have been an important person in making US policy in the Middle East. Now, Polk was the senior author of a three-man work on the rise of the State of Israel, which the book describes as "tragedy" [Backdrop to Tragedy: The Struggle for Palestine (Boston: The Beacon Press 1957)]. Polk apparently was the one to recruit two younger scholars, a Jew and an Arab, to produce this book with him. The Jew wrote a section on "Jewish Interests in Palestine," the Arab wrote a section on "The Economic Framework of the Palestine Problem," and Polk himself wrote the section entitled "The Arabs and Palestine." The section called "The Historical Background" is indicated as having been written by all three, although since Polk was the senior personality and the only historian in the group, it is likely that he was dominant in writing this section, in setting the tone, in deciding what to include and what to leave out. Here is how Polk and his manservants saw Muhammad:
[from the official bio of Polk on the website of his publisher, Simon & Schuster]
A "Hero," to borrow Carlyle's term, Mohammed was unquestionably a man of genius and great sensitivity. Although . . . he was a successful merchant in his own right [like the dominant men in Mecca] . . . , Mohammed belonged to a branch of the patrician tribe which seems to have been losing its political and economic footing in the community [Mecca]. Perhaps partly because of this he was acutely aware of Mecca's social problems. And although his personal motivations were surely complex, it is striking that both Mohammed's acts and words exhibit a considerable desire for a new social order in which men could assay to attain that brotherhood which he understood to have been the goal of "the prophets who went before." [p 11]Our hero was sensitive, like Mother Theresa and Francis of Assisi. And he was a social visionary, just like the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, like Eugene Debs or Norman Thomas, perhaps. He desired the brotherhood, the fraternite', that the French revolution called for.
. . . Mohammed was hardly the wild-eyed fanatic he has often been pictured as being . . . He was a practical, shrewd merchant and man of affairs. [p 12]So maybe he wasn't a socialist revolutionary. Maybe just a shrewd bourgeois. But then,
Mohammed was able to formulate [in the Constitution of Medina] one of the most characteristic and praiseworthy features of Islamic society, organized tolerance, which we will subsequently meet in Palestine as it comes to be called the millet or community system. [p 12]Aha, our hero was a champion of tolerance, "organized tolerance" no less. This was unfailingly demonstrated of course over the centuries of Islamic history by Muslim governments and rulers, and by rank and file Muslims. Let us just recall the Bulgarian contretemps of the late 19th century, the unfortunate Armenian affair during World War One, the unpleasant Smyrna Affair of 1922, and the Baghdad misunderstanding of 1941, called the Farhud. In the Land of Israel, called "palestine" by Polk & Company, this organized tolerance was demonstrated towards both local Jews and local Christians. Tolerance did exist, if the local dhimmi community, part of a larger dhimmi millet, could pay for it. Our experts go on to portray Muhammad's tolerance:
Very early in the Madinah period, however, Mohammed was disappointed by the Jews. Of first importance, naturally, was the refusal of the Orthodox Jewish community to accept his Mission. We know from the Koran itself that the Jews openly ridiculed the Islamic version of the Old Testament episodes. [p 12]Of course, this doesn't mean that Muhammad was not tolerant. He was merely "disappointed by the Jews." Otherwise, brotherly love would have prevailed between Jews and Muslims. Polk & Co. go on about Islamic tolerance:
The price for this tolerance was acceptance of the civil authority of Islam. It was this unwillingness of the Jews of Yathrib [= Medina] . . . which led to a rupture between Mohammed and the Jewish community and to the final expulsion from Madinah of the Jews. . . . it was a similar unwillingness by Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, and others to pay the same price which was to be the reef on which the great multinational, multireligious Ottoman Empire was to crash in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [p 13]So it was the Jews' unwillingness which caused the problem. Anyway, Polk and Friends really put on a show to embellish the story of Muhammad's career, unless the reference to Greeks and Armenians is meant to be a hint, only for the cognoscenti of course, only for those already in the know. That is, if we already know the treatment of Greeks and Armenians --not to mention Serbs and Bulgarians-- in the 19th and 20th centuries by the Islamic caliphate embodied in the Ottoman Empire, then we may construe and extrapolate into the past what the Jewish experience in Medina may have been in Muhammad's time. By the way, are Polk et al. trying to hint that the Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and others ought to have simply submitted to Muslim authority without a fight??
Be that as it may, Polk & Cie. do not want to directly state that Muhammad perpetrated massacre and enslavement on the Jews of Medina, in addition to "expulsion." On the other hand, Alfred Guillaume, a Britisher no less, supplies a more graphic account --indeed a far bloodier one-- than that supplied by Polk et Cie. After the Battle of Badr,
Muhammad began a series of operations which was to end with the expulsion of the Jews from Hijaz [not just from Medina, but from all the Hijaz]. They had irritated him by their refusal to recognize him as a prophet; by ridicule and by argument. . . At his instigation one or two Jews were murdered and no blood-money was paid to the next-of-kin. [A Guillaume, Islam (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1956), p 43]Now there's a man of peace and tolerance.
Muhammad's relations with the Jews had never been easy. [p 43]Indeed. Hence, besides their refusal to accept his moral and religious authority,
. . . the existence of pockets of disaffected Jews in and around his base was a cause of uneasiness and they had to be eliminated if he was to wage war without anxiety. [p 44]Let's remember that some things are really important, like waging war. Muhammad later turned on the Jewish Medinan tribe of Qurayza:
The execution of some 800 men occupied the whole day and went on far into the night. Only one Jew abjured his religion to save his life. The rest, after prayer and reading of the scriptures, went calmly to their deaths.[p 48]The women and children were sold into slavery. This picture or narrative was just too gory for Polk & Friends, I suppose. Instead, they give us a picture of positive agape which they quote from a certain Sir William Fitzgerald. The latter writes of the conquest of Jerusalem:
Never in the story of conquest up to that time, and rarely since, were such noble sentiments displayed by a victor as those extended by Omar to the conquered. The lives, churches, and property of the Christians were spared. Freedom of religious worship was guaranteed. Muslim and Christian lived in amity.The conqueror, far out-numbered by the conquered, lived with him in amity. Anyway, Fitzgerald's tone demonstrates how much the foreign policy establishment in the UK wanted to view Arab history through rosey-colored glasses. International Affairs has long been published by the Royal Institute of Intenational Affairs, Arnold Toynbee's old home base. It is of interest that all three authors credited with this book were connected to Oxford University, the foremost university in the United Kingdom. Besides Polk, these are David M Stamler, a Jew, and Edmond Asfour, an Arabic-speaking Christian. Polk was a Fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1951 to 1955, and at the time of producing the book, he was on the staff of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. He went over to the State Dept in 1961, as discussed above.
[Polk et al., p 16; quoted from W Fitzgerald, "The Holy Places of Palestine in History and in Politics," International Affairs, XXVI, (1950), 4]
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Coming: more on James Baker & US Middle East policy, more on Jews in Jerusalem and Hebron, peace follies, propaganda, etc.