An overview of rhetoric in the Middle East should begin with the recognition that the terms “rhetoric” and the “Middle East” are not neutral, as they reflect the ideological and cultural values of the Occident. There is a general consensus that the notion of rhetoric, coined by Plato in the fourth century bce to define the art of public discourse and oratory practiced in ancient Greece and the western tradition, should be challenged for its Hellenocentrism. Western scholars of rhetoric have moved beyond the belief that those outside the constellations of Occidental thought lack a “rhetorical consciousness.” The ancient Africans, Egyptians, Hebrews, and Chinese reflected on the role of symbols and argument. Western rhetoric owes a deep dept to the Arab world, which preserved and translated the classical rhetorical texts of Greece and Rome during the Islamic world’s renaissance in the ninth and tenth centuries ce, a period in which Athens yielded to Baghdad as the center of humanistic scholarship. Between 711 and 1492, the art of rhetoric flourished in Spain during the period known as La Convinencia (“the coexistence”) as Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in a cosmopolitan community. The discourse of and in the modern Middle East is a tangle of religious, national, and sectarian myths and arguments, often prompted by traumas (e.g., the crusades, Muslim expansion, the rise of the Ottoman empire, colonialism, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, 9/11, etc.) that are the result of conflict between the west and the Middle East.
The Middle East is the geographical descriptor used in the modern west to name the region of predominantly Arab and Muslim peoples who, from the vantage point of Europe and the west, live in lands that are to the east. The symbolic construction of the Middle East and its people by those in the Occident is often expressed as one part of a much larger reductive narrative about the east, which Edward Said (1978) termed “Orientalism.” According to Said, western speakers, writers, artists, and media depict the Orient, Arabs, and Islam in essentialist terms.
The peoples of the Middle East (the term Mashriq is used by Arab language speakers to describe the region) have an understanding of symbols and discourse (the Arabic term balagha is closely related to the meaning of rhetoric) and are prompted to discourse by the exigencies of the region. Their view of the Occident is not immaculate as the symbolic construction of the west in this region clusters around a series of interpretations that Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit call “Occidentalism” (2004). According to this frame, the west celebrates the sloth of the sinful city over the grounded rural; favors the economic over the heroic; values matter over spirit; and endorses the wicked and evil. Accordingly, the scholarship on rhetoric/balagha in and about the Middle East/Mashriq can be organized around three notions: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and cosmopolitanism.
Arabs are often depicted in the west as fundamentally inhuman, warlike, emotional, and barbaric. Such essentializations, Said argued, reduce Arabs and Islam to an ideology of Orientalism, one that is both ahistorical and reductive. Many in the west reduce Islam to jihad or holy war, and the violence of some Muslims in the name of their religion is seen as representing the main rather than the marginal tenets of a faith held by over a billion people. A recent Pew report explains this view with data unveiling a significant “attitudinal divide” between the west and the Muslim world; many in the United States believe Muslims are fanatical, violent, and arrogant.
Said’s Orientalism argument has been heavily criticized, but the scholarly consensus is that he captured a previously unrecognized dichotomy in western thought, one that defined the Orient against the Occident. This dichotomy extends into western literature and philosophy, as Martin Bernal documents in his Black Athena (1987). Bernal’s argument, which is also contested in the literature, corroborates Said’s thesis by setting forth evidence that the west has demonized the Orient, suppressing evidence that the Egyptians (a “Middle Eastern” people) provided the philosophical touchstones of western civilization. Bernal provides ample evidence that the Orient and the Occident were in relationship during the axial age.
Occidentalism is the ideological frame of the west used by many residents of the Middle East, one that shares with Orientalism a commitment to an essentialist and bipolar vision of the social cosmos. A prime illustration of Occidentalism is the response of Palestinian Arabs to Zionism. The conflict between the Zionists and Palestinians was, in part, a clash between Orientalism and Occidentalism. Many Zionists brought with them colonial and Orientalist attitudes, viewing their mission as bringing civilization to a barren land and its backward people in need of enlightenment. The Palestinians saw the Zionists as invaders, a disease upon the Arab nation. They were foreign, with evil intention, bent on destroying Islam and the mosques of Palestine. The European Jews were viewed as communist, seeking to impose the material values of western civilizations on the land of Palestine and the indigenous Arab people.
The conflict between Zionism/Israel and Palestinian nationalism has often served as the primary exigency of discourse in the Middle East. Zionism and the creation of Israel, for example, are rarely placed in context by those in the region. Even those European Jews who did not yearn to return to an ancient homeland did so because their choices were severely restricted. The leading historian of Palestinian identity, Rashid Khalidi (1997), historizes Zionism and notes that Jews fleeing the Nazis and the Holocaust were barred from entering most western countries, and, irrespective of a commitment to the “land of Israel” ideology, had nowhere else to go. Tragically, these refugees from Europe, with a historical connection to the land of Palestine, participated in the dispersion of 800,000 Palestinian Arabs (the Necba), who also had deep religious and secular connections to the land. Edward Said was highly critical of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, but he also condemned the Palestinian leadership for its failure to understand the “many wests” and its reliance on stereotypes of the Occident.
Cosmopolitanism, an ideology affirming cultural and identity change due to contact with others, an inclusive universalism, and a commitment to conversation and argument, has been offered by some as a third perspective. From this perspective, those who subscribe to the ancient hatreds theory of conflict in the Middle East (e.g., “Jews and Arabs have and always will hate each other”), or believe the conflict is an expression of a “clash of civilizations” often fail to contextualize the evidence justifying their beliefs and fall prey to a fatalism that is not supported by history. This history includes religious texts that are open to rhetorical interpretations and periods in history in which Jews, Arabs, and Muslims lived in creative harmony.
The alternative to Orientalism, accordingly, is to view Arabism and Islam as diverse, heterogeneous movements, rooted in rhetorical situations that host demanding exigencies. Not all Arabs are religious Muslims and not all Muslims are Arab. The notion of Arabism is largely secular, and is expressed in the communal connection felt by those who speak Arabic and share a narrative of common origins. In the twentieth century, Arabism was closely linked to the nation-state, introduced into the region by the Europeans. The most compelling exigency of the twentieth century for the people in the region was colonialism – the British and French divided the Middle East as the reward for their victory in World War II. They created the modern map of the region, and twentieth-century rhetoric from the region has featured calls for decolonization and national unity. Arabism has not prevented conflict and war between and among Arab states. For example, there are profound cultural differences between Gulf Arabs and those of the Levant, reflecting religion, class, and societal structure.
Islam, which is often intertwined with Arabism, lends itself to a host of different and sometimes competing interpretations of the Koran (the central religious text of Islam) and its expressions. A number of Arab scholars have approached the study of the Koran as a rhetorical document, seeking to provide exegesis that displays how the text invents and persuades. Modern scholars illustrate the Koran’s commitment to reason; rhetorical interpretations place the text in its context, rejecting apodictic or literal understanding of its language. For example, the claims made by some that the Koran mandates jihad or suicide bombing or anti-Semitism are tempered and contextualized when the relevant texts are placed in their context. There are, of course, those who seek literal interpretations of the Koran, and derive from them fundamentalist principles dictating purity and cathartic violence, but they deviate significantly from normative Islam.
Orientalism yields in the face of experience that Arabism and Islam are contested notions, that self and group identity are in process, and, as Bernard Lewis has written, that the Middle East is a region of multiple and conflicted identities. Edwin Black, in his Rhetorical questions, provides the ideal frame for an understanding of the discourse of this region. As Black observes, human identity is mutable and open to revision and change. Although there may be a diachronic or historical continuity in identity, the notion of identity itself is plastic, altered by the physical and symbolic forces that confront it.
A rhetoric of cosmopolitanism, which many scholars have advocated, features the need for people to narrate in the context of competing narratives about identity and place. Two key works of scholarship are important in gaining an appreciation of this alternative. The nature of a cosmopolitan rhetoric is what Chaïm Perelman and his colleague Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca develop in the most important and influential philosophical rhetoric of the twentieth century, the New rhetoric (1969). Their work deals with confused identities and value conflicts, and has its roots in the writings of the ancient Hebrews. Perelman saw great value in the Talmudic holding that multiple truths could coexist and that human argument rather than divine revelation should yield humane judgments. Scholars have used their work to highlight the use of argumentative reason in the Torah, the Christian Bible, and the Koran. In turn, Marc Gopin, in his Holy war, holy peace (2002), draws on this shared sense of reason expressed in the Abrahamic faiths to identify the touchstones necessary for rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians. These religious texts, he argues, can yield points of convergence and myths needed to create a new reality in the region.
- Bernal, M. (1987). Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Black, E. (1992). Rhetorical questions: Studies of public discourse. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Buruma, I., & Margalit, A. (2004). Occidentalism: The west in the eyes of its enemies. New York: Penguin.
- Gopin, M. (2002). Holy war, holy peace: How religion can bring peace to the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Khalidi, R. (1997). Palestinian identity: The construction of modern national consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Lewis, B. (1998). The multiple identities of the Middle East. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
- Perelman, C., & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969). The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (trans. J. Wilkinson & P. Weaver). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Roland, R. C., & Frank, D. A. (2002). Shared land/conflicting identity: Trajectories of Israeli and Palestinian symbol use. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press. Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.