Anthropology and Iraq

American sergeant Nick Crosby helps an Iraqi woman cross a water-filled street during a cordon and search mission in Al Risalah (by Army.mil)

I would like to react briefly to Lahay Hussein’s talk as well as to the concerns expressed in her earlier post. These concerns are primarily about (re)building a healthy and democratic political and social order, and within it a healthy academic discipline and educational system, from a condition in which academic qualifications and infrastructure are sorely inadequate. She expects this process to be inspired and aided by colleagues and institutions in the West.

These concerns are very different from the preoccupations of Western anthropologists when it comes to Iraq: imperialism; the complicity of anthropology in the occupation (a term Lahay herself disagrees with, preferring to use the term liberation); and, more generally, the expectation of staking out a critical anthropological position from a Middle Eastern/Muslim perspective vis-a-vis Western concepts (à la Lila Abu-Lughod, for example).

Although part of Lahay’s work is on classical Islamic thought, the hope she expresses for progress, perceived in universal terms, sits very uncomfortably with Western anthropological critiques. This disjuncture should get us thinking about the possibility that we underestimate the weight of positivist-universalist world views among scholars whom, by virtue of their location, we expect to elaborate alternatives to these.

However one evaluates America’s role in Iraq and the issue of progress, though, I am somewhat surpised that the discussions of “Arab culture”, “Iraqi culture” and so on that informed American occupation and state-building, the subsequent debate on the need for more “cultural expertise” and the deployment of anthropologists in the Human Terrain Teams does not seem to be a concern for Iraqi anthropologists. Would this not be an opportunity both to contribute to very important public debates within Iraq, influence American public discourse and raise the visibility of Iraqi anthropology?

By Pál Nyiri, Professor of “Global History from an Anthropological Perspective” at VU University. Pál blogs regularly at Culture Matters, his latest book Seeing Culture Everywhere: From Genocide to Consumer Habits will be out soon.

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