Islam’s New ‘Native Informants’ | by Nesrine Malik | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books
Returning from Lebanon and Egypt in 2003, Edward Said wrote an angry dispatch in the London Review of Books on how the Iraq War as reported on Arabic TV channels portrayed a different conflict from the one reported by the American media, in which journalists were “as lost as the English-speaking soldiers they have been living with.” He argued that the stream of Western commentary “has obscured the negligence of the military and policy experts who planned it and now justify it.” The misguided belief that the Iraqis would welcome the Americans with glee after a period of aerial bombardment, a fundamental flaw in the planning of the military mission, he pinned squarely on the out-of-touch exiled Iraqi opposition and the two Middle East experts who, at the time, held the most sway over US foreign policy in the region: Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami.
Said dismissed Bernard Lewis as an Orientalist, a generalist, and an ideologue. But the Lebanese-born Fouad Ajami was damned in fewer words: he was a “native informant.” By that was meant one who deploys “we,” Said wrote, “as an imperial collectivity which, along with Israel, never does anything wrong. Arabs are to blame for everything and therefore deserve ‘our’ contempt and hostility.” In a profile of Ajami written for The Nation that appeared at almost the same time, Adam Shatz observed that Ajami’s failure to predict the Saudi conveyor-belt of radicalization that brought about 9/11 (so focused was he on “the menace of Saddam and the treachery of Arafat) still had not dented his Middle East expert credentials as far as the US media were concerned. “America was going to war with Muslims,” Shatz wrote, “and a trusted native informant was needed.”
Fifteen calamitous years later, the scorn that the late Ajami received at the time has been vindicated. But the term “native informant” has become a troubling one. As a derogatory description of an indigenous person considered a collaborator with the colonial or invading power, it sits too closely for comfort to slurs such as “house slave” and its derivatives. In the discipline of postcolonial studies, “native informant” was once useful in understanding the way certain cultural brokers from former colonies could benefit from helping more powerful Western authorities objectify their people. In an essay on the Lebanese-American academic Evelyne Accad, the scholar Dorothy Figueira described native informants as “disciplinary gatekeepers providing an authoritative version of history for the upper classes (reformers or nationalists), and the West.” But in a world where these “authoritative versions” are not simply academic, but can also be the ideological underpinnings of military aggression, the native informant’s role is that of enabler.