Myths, Mummies and Nonsense

9 08 2011

Category; Literature, Middle East, Politics

Professor Roger Luckhurst

For academics to lure media interest their theories need to be catchy and controversial. Radio 3 had a discussion recently on the dangers that arise when academics appear on the media.

Roger Luckhurst is a good example of what can happen to scholarship when the media calls. He’s Professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. See here for biography. The media calls him, a lot, and he has a theory that’s leakier than a wedding marquee on an August Bank Holiday.

He wrote an article in the Times Higher Education recently – see here –  justifying public funding for his research into the mummy’s curse

I am writing a cultural history of the ‘mummy curse’, its origins, spread and meanings in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

Professor Luckhurst’s justification is simple. His work is not just about an interesting historical oddity: It’s ‘relevant’.

If you pay close attention to the narratives of popular culture – for instance, in order to unravel the origins of spooky superstitions such as the mummy’s curse – you might learn a lot about our social attitudes, the fantasies that structure our political life, and our diplomatic and military engagements with the wider world.

Unfortunately Prof. Luckhurst’s attempt to find relevance entails the kind of fast footwork that leaves cartoon characters hurtling past the edge of the canyon to momentarily hover before gravity asserts itself.

In Professor Luckhurst’s case it is history, logic and reality that reassert themselves over a reasoning that starts out interesting and ends up fanciful and dangerous. What Luckhurst manages to do, quite spectacularly, is to entirely undermine the logic of his own argument.

And here is that logical progression hurtling at full pelt towards the canyon’s rim:

This is not just a historical point. Rather, it helps us to read the hesitancy apparent in the West’s responses to the ‘Arab Spring’. You could hear the ambivalence about Egypt in the speeches of Barack Obama and William Hague earlier this year. Could the Egyptians be trusted with self-determination? As a symptom of doubt about their self-command, it was reported that mummies were being stolen from Cairo Museum. One can pull at the thread of why that story ran in our press and trace it back to late-Victorian ambivalence about a self-determining Arab Middle East. It is represented in the unruly mummy of popular culture, a superstition that has always done a lot of cultural work. You can see an undead version of this Victorian fantasy still shuffling through our foreign policy.

But it needs one more point, made in a BBC Radio 4 interview, to propel this argument past the point of no return:

Well it’s a very controversial area obviously but I think there’s always a sense in which there is an anxiety about Arab self-determination where there isn’t so much anxiety about Israeli self-determination

Thinking Allowed, BBC Radio 4, 8/8/11 – see below for clip

Whoa Professor Luckhurst. Look down; your argument is suspended only by empty rhetoric and incoherent fancy. An interesting point and idea pushed way too far.

Let’s start with the Cairo Museum point. He’s right that a common argument against the return of antiquities is that the West is better able to preserve them. But just because there is the possibility of dated, prejudiced, colonial attitudes underpinning that attitude does it automatically undermine the point?  Inconveniently for Luckhurst the Cairo Museum, which borders Tahir Square, was looted, including mummies.

Have a look here, or here, or here, or here or here.

There may be orientalist false assumptions and prejudice in comments about Egypt but there are also facts, and they ought to be at least considered before being dismissed because they don’t fit the assumptions of theories. There might be some people who are not simply out to denigrate the inhabitants of former colonial territories, but are genuinely interested in preserving artifacts that are treasured by all humanity.

And the museum’s director Dr Zahi Hawass who is invariably described as a ‘colourful character’ is under suspicion for using his role to enrich himself, and for closeness to the Mubarak family.

See here, here, and here.

It might also be the case that Western leaders had  reasons other than the irrational for concerns about what would happen in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Real concerns about an army takeover and Salafist manoeuvring. See here for context.

And consider the findings, of the Pew Research Center, that Egyptian society has some pretty hardline attitudes on stoning, delimbing and executing apostates;

% of Muslim Egyptians in favour of;

Stoning people who commit adultery:      82

Whippings/cutting off hands for theft and robbery:      77

Death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion:      84

Click here for the source

additionally, 85% of people feel that Islam’s role in politics is positive and 2% negative. Click here for the source.

see here for full research

But Prof Luckhurst is not talking about how the political system functions; his point is a wider one. It is about ‘self-determination’. It is not entirely clear what he means by this; whether he is referring to what type of government a country has or whether it should be an independent country at all. On a natural reading of the phrase it must include the latter. Which would be ludicrous. No-one is suggesting that Egypt does not have the right to be an independent country.

But Prof. Luckhurst’s point is wider still; this persistent Victorian fear extends to and determines policy towards all Arab countries; 21 states with 280 million people covering 5,000,000 square miles (Click here for source).

Is he seriously suggesting there is a western intellectual and political conspiracy against them stemming from Victorian fantasies? Yes, that is exactly what he is suggesting.

Professor Luckurst has a PhD in literature and while his early research seemed to concentrate on science fiction,  he must surely be familiar with L.P. Hartley’s phrase ‘The past is another country: they do things differently there’. To talk in such terms as he does is as ludicrous as talking about a Georgian British ambivalence about a self-governing North America. Or Roman ambivalence about a self-governing Britain.

There was of course an ambivalence in Victorian times about a self-governing Middle East, sorry, self-governing Arab Middle East much as there was an ambivalence about a self-governing Ireland and pretty much everywhere that showed pink on the globe.

And now the stony cherry on top of his inedible cake:

I think there’s always a sense in which there is an anxiety about Arab self-determination where there isn’t so much anxiety about Israeli self-determination.

Prof Luckhurst seems to think that the default academic comparison for the Arab world is Israel. It is not clear why that should be. In terms of academic study it’s difficult to see clearly the basis on which you ought to compare the Arab world with a country of c. 8 million people and 8,000 square miles. The Arab world has more than 600 times the space and 35 times the people.

And politically there is little point in comparing them because, of course, Israel is a liberal democracy. And the Arab world isn’t. Let me clarify; not a single one of the Arab countries qualifies as having political liberty according to Freedom House, a New York based monitor of human rights and democracy see here and here. Not a single Arab country qualifies as a democracy according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index – see here. Israel comfortably makes it onto both lists.

Prof Luckhurst also fails to consider, or perhaps realise, that the majority of the Jewish population of Israel comes from the 800,000 – 1,000,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries, or their descendents. Add in the 20% non-Jewish Arab citizens of Israel and Israel is an overwhelmingly Arab country. Many of those Arabs just happen to be Jewish. See here and also here.

In terms of his own thesis, and that is the basis he is discussing the matter, if he wants to look at Israel while he’s considering the Middle East, he would be better served by considering Victorian British superstitions, fantasies, and prejudices held about Jews, and how they affect current policy. There was certainly no lack of those views in Victorian Britain.

Or if he wants to frame his argument in terms of colonial prejudice affecting post-colonial regions it would make more sense to look at non-Arab Iran as a point of comparison for Egypt, or the Indian subcontinent. The one he chose does not make sense.

Prof. Luckhurst has a fantasy of his own in his Times Higher Education article; that of cornering the British Universities Minister in a stuck lift and browbeating him on the relevance of his research and why it is imperative it continues to be funded. I hope that conversation does take place and that once the lift starts moving again the Minister asks him for his, for our, money back.

Click below to hear Professor Luckhurst on BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed from 8/8/11

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