May 8, 2010 | 9:19 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun,” or so goes a famous line that is commonly (but wrongly) attributed to Hermann Goering and various other Nazi leaders.
Stripped of its odious associations, however, these words serve to remind us that culture is always a weapon in the clash of civilizations, “a sort of theatre where various political and ideological causes engage one another,” as the late Edward Said put it. The point is made by Jennifer M. Dueck, a post-doctoral fellow at Oxford University, with clarity, elegance and color in “The Claims of Culture at Empire’s End: Syria and Lebanon Under French Rule” (Oxford University Press: $85.00).
“Those who purported to lead, whether in a small community or on the national stage, did not fight solely over economic or political matters,” writes Dueck. “They also sought to control the institutions that would, in their view, alter or perpetuate the people’s understanding of the symbols that breathed life and meaning into the languages they spoke, the values they held, and the identity that made them part of a family, a community, or a nation.”
The focal point of Dueck’s monograph is a territory that is often overlooked when we consider the making of the modern Middle East — the portion of the defeated and dismantled Ottoman Empire that was handed over to France after World War I. Just as Palestine was a British mandate until 1948, Syria and Lebanon were ruled between the wars by the French, who took it upon themselves “to better the lives of ‘primitive’ indigenous populations by offering them the wonders of French civilization.” Thus did a former backwater of the Levant become, in Dueck’s words, “a crucible of international strategic interests,” and remains so today.
While Dueck maintains a tight focus on the “cultural enterprises” of French colonialism — language, education, cinema, tourism and even scouting — her book also offer a way to reframe the way we see the Middle East. Indeed, the subtext of her work includes the very notion of what constitutes national identity in a place where pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism were already in play. “One reason why scouting attracted such enthusiastic attention is the political symbolism with which it quickly became associated,” explains Dueck. “Frequently accompanied by one flag or another on their outings, scout groups associated themselves with particular political visions for their region, whether Lebanese, Syrian or Pan-Arab.”
Dueck’s book is a specialized work of scholarship, but she offers a crucial insight in to the latest efforts of the West to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. She compares the “cultural diplomacy” of France in Syria and Lebanon to “the soft power seduction trade” as it is being conducted today by the United States elsewhere in the Middle East. And she reminds us that the Arab street is also a kind of fighting front when it comes to culture war.
“The success or failure of foreign cultural initiatives ultimately depended on their reception on the ground,” she concludes, “where they might be welcomed, dismissed, or absorbed and reinvented.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.
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