Middle East studies in the News
Edward Said jammed our view of Arab world
by Zev Chafets
As far as we know, Saddam Hussein is on the loose in Iraq, Osama Bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the tribal lands of Pakistan and Sheik Ahmed Yassin is still dodging Israeli bombs in Gaza. But the jihad lost a hero last week right here in New York City. Edward Said, Columbia University's famous warrior-scholar, is dead, felled at age 67 by leukemia.
Columbia mourns. "This death is an irreplaceable loss to the realm of ideas," said President Lee Bollinger.
Bollinger's grief is shared by many. CounterPunch, a journal of the radical left, has run a series of fervid tributes to Said's life and work. The Saudi government-controlled Arab News has extolled him in almost glowing terms. Not since the Soviet-Nazi nonaggression pact of 1939 has there been such ideological harmony.
Said not only united fascists and Communists, he also served as an ecumenical bridge. He was the rare Episcopalian admired by Hamas, whose goal of eradicating Israel he shared; Hezbollah - which was his host in southern Lebanon on his famous rock-throwing expedition - and other pillars of Islamic orthodoxy.
This is not as incongruous as it might seem. Said was a dapper fellow, known in the salons of New York for his fine piano playing and nuanced appreciation of Jane Austen's novels. But beneath the foppish exterior beat the heart of a martyr. His most famous book, "Orientalism," published in 1979, did more for the jihad than a battalion of Osamas.
Like all great polemics, "Orientalism" rests on a simple thesis: Westerners are inherently unable to fairly judge, or even grasp, the Arab world. In fact, any attempt to do so amounts to an act of intellectual imperialism.
This idea was seized upon by American students of the Middle East as a liberating insight. If they couldn't understand the Arab world - if, indeed, studying the subject was tantamount to colonialist aggression - then they could skip class and go out for hummus. All they needed to become qualified Arabists was a humble attitude and a mastery of the orthodoxies propounded by Said and other experts.
"Orientalism" made Said a hero not only in the mosques of Gaza, but in the halls of ivy. Not since CliffsNotes has a work so simplified scholarship. Since 1979, a generation of Saidists - professors, diplomats and foreign correspondents - has dominated polite discourse on the Middle East. Their animating principle is politically correct simplicity itself: see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil about the Arab world.
Of course, Said allowed himself to criticize Arab regimes - usually on the grounds that they weren't sufficiently revolutionary. But he carefully remained within the bounds of acceptable Arab opinion. He was until his death a valued contributor to Al Ahram, the house organ of the Egyptian government.
Said wasn't responsible for the depredations of Hosni Mubarak's regime or any other Arab tyranny. He didn't blow up Marines in Lebanon in 1983, ignite the Palestinian intifadeh or send Wahhabi missionaries to preach violence against infidels. He certainly didn't fly a plane into the World Trade Center. What he did do was jam America's intellectual radar. He wasn't the architect of 9/11, but he was the father of the 9/12 inability to comprehend it.
Ah, well, Said is in paradise now. As an Episcopalian, he's ineligible for the customary 72 virgins, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's honored with a couple of female doctoral candidates. No one deserves it more. Meanwhile, the legacy lives. Like George Steinbrenner, Bollinger has recruited a new superstar for Columbia's "realm of ideas." Rashid Khalidy is now the enforcer of Arab authenticity in Morningside Heights, and he's got the title to prove it: Edward Said professor of Middle Eastern studies.
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