Middle East studies in the News
by Ibn Warraq
Late in life, Edward Said made a rare conciliatory gesture. In 1998, he accused the Arab world of hypocrisy for defending a Holocaust denier on grounds of free speech. After all, free speech "scarcely exists in our own societies." The history of the modern Arab world was one of "political failures," "human rights abuses," "stunning military incompetences," "decreasing production, [and] the fact that alone of all modern peoples, we have receded in democratic and technological and scientific development."
Those truths aside, Mr. Said, who died last week, will go down in history for having practically invented the intellectual argument for Muslim rage. "Orientalism," his bestselling manifesto, introduced the Arab world to victimology. The most influential book of recent times for Arabs and Muslims, "Orientalism" blamed Western history and scholarship for the ills of the Muslim world: Were it not for imperialists, racists and Zionists, the Arab world would be great once more. Islamic fundamentalism, too, calls the West a Satan that oppresses Islam by its very existence. "Orientalism" lifted that concept, and made it over into Western radical chic, giving vicious anti-Americanism a high literary gloss.
In "Terror and Liberalism," Paul Berman traces the absorption of Marxist justifications of rage by Arab intellectuals and shows how it became a powerful philosophical predicate for Islamist terrorism. Mr. Said was the most influential exponent of this trend. He and his followers also had the effect of cowing many liberal academics in the West into a politically correct silence about Islamic fundamentalist violence two decades prior to 9/11. Mr. Said's rock-star status among the left-wing literary elite put writers on the Middle East and Islam in constant jeopardy of being labeled "Orientalist" oppressors -- a potent form of intellectual censorship.
"Orientalism" was a polemic that masqueraded as scholarship. Its historical analysis was gradually debunked by scholars. It became clear that Mr. Said, a literary critic, used poetic license, not empirical inquiry. Nevertheless he would state his conclusions as facts, and they were taken as such by his admirers. His technique was to lay charges of racism, imperialism, and Eurocentrism on the whole of Western scholarship of the Arab world -- effectively, to claim the moral high ground and then to paint all who might disagree with him as collaborators with imperialism. Western writers employed "a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." They conspired to suppress native voices that might give a truer account. All European writings masked a "discourse of power." They had stereotyped the "Other" as passive, weak, or barbarian. "[The Orientalist's] Orient is not the Orient as it is, but the Orient as it has been Orientalized," he said.
By the very act of studying the East, the West had manipulated it, "politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively." This conspiracy of domination, he said, had been going on from the Enlightenment to the present day. But while deploring "the disparity between texts and reality," Mr. Said never himself tried to describe what that reality was, merely sighing that, "To look into Orientalism for a lively sense of an Oriental's human or even social reality . . . is to look in vain."
Mr. Said routinely twisted facts to make them fit his politics. For example, to him, the most important thing about Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" was that its heroine, Fanny Price, lived on earnings from Jamaican sugar -- imperialist blood money. In his writings, verbal allusion and analogy stood in for fact, a device to reassure the ignorant of the correctness of his conclusions. Of these he found many over the years in American universities. His works had an aesthetic appeal to a leftist bent of mind, but even this now can be seen as a fad of the late 20th century. The irony, of course, is that he was ultimately grandstanding for the West -- for Western eyes, Western salons, and Western applause.
Ibn Warraq (a pseudonym used to protect himself and his family from Islamists) is the author of "Why I am Not a Muslim" and the editor of "Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out," published by Prometheus Books in 1995 and 2003 respectively.
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