Middle East studies in the News
Orientalism is alive and well in Iraq
by Abdelwahab El-Affendi
During congressional hearings held earlier this summer, a leading advocate of higher education was forced to deny that Edward Said's influential work Orientalism (1978), is being regularly taught in American universities. In the climate of intimidation hanging over US academic institutions in the post-Sept. 11, 2001 era, many other academics will be forced to repeatedly disavow Said, and the cock has not crowed yet. As Said's critics agree with his admirers that he has single handedly effected a revolution in Middle Eastern studies in the US, these denials remain unconvincing. That is why these critics wanted government intervention to reverse the "Said revolution," arguing that US tax dollars were being pumped into universities to subsidise anti-American scholars who had crowded out the "good" scholars from the field.
"Where are the professors," lamented another, "with a strong sense of the national interest, lots of knowledge acquired in the field, good intelligence connections, a willingness to recruit their students, and an eagerness to serve in times of war? No such person exists in Middle Eastern studies." And all this because Said has "browbeaten" scholars into submission to his warped "Stalinist" vision.
Said had indeed deployed weapons of intellectual mass destruction against that archaic and jaundiced orientalist paradigm, but if he had a militia and a secret police force which he had used to force Middle East departments to teach his work, then he and his enforcers had kept this army completely hidden from view. What was most remarkable about Said's feat, in fact, was that he had undertaken his assault on orientalism from a position of triple marginality: being of foreign origin (and a Palestinian at that), a left-wing radical and an outsider to the discipline.
However, those seeking to undo his work are certainly bringing in the cavalry. Bernard Lewis, the epitome of the traditional orientalist, is now recognized as the favorite Middle East expert in the While House and, even more important, in the Pentagon. Last year, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz praised Lewis who he said had taught him and his colleagues "how to understand the complex and important history of the Middle East and use it to guide us where we will go next to build a better world for generations"
Wolfowitz, it is to be recalled, is the chief architect of the administration's now troubled Iraq campaign, which is supposed to be a textbook operation inspired by the orientalist paradigm and guided by Lewis and his disciples, and some sympathetic anti-Said scholars of Muslim origin, such as Fouad Ajami, Kanan Makiyya and Farid Zakaria. It is notoriously difficult to deduce policy prescriptions from the confusing and self-contradictory analyses offered by Lewis in such works as What Went Wrong (2001), said to be a required reading for the US military. But Lewis and his disciples make up for that by direct recommendations, often in private, in meetings with top officials. His prescriptions call for a direct recolonization of the Arab world, while disregarding Arab public opinion, including that of the so-called moderates who support America. The Arabs will always be ruled by tyrants, he told a Pentagon briefing recently, so we better make sure that they are friendly ones. Arab anger against America has nothing to do with its policies, so the US must not try to appease the Arabs by leaning on Israel or by reversing some of its more belligerent and insensitive policies in the region.
Lewis and his fellow orientalists are preaching to the converted in Washington these days. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had earlier joined him in writing a letter to former President Clinton in February 1998 calling for the invasion of Iraq. (One perceptive commentator said that the Lewis and co. epistle came out one day after Osama bin Laden's declaration of jihad against the Jews and Crusaders.)
Only after having secured the acquiescence of the executive and the military have the orientalists turned their attention to "reforming" academia, most probably by deploying the Third Infantry Division to places such as Columbia University, already described by one of Lewis's most faithful disciples as "Bir Zeit on the Hudson." Another prescription, also favored by this same disciple, is to have academic programs vetted by "an interagency group which would include representatives of the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA, and other agencies like Homeland Security."
Even Said's admittedly harsh indictment of the orientalism could not have envisaged such a caricature. Said has merely accused the discipline of subtle collusion with imperialism by internalising and reproducing prevalent prejudices and stereotypes which disregarded the complexity of realities on the ground. The new resurgent orientalism does not even put up the pretence of scholarly detachment or search for truth. Not only are its proponents eager to work for the CIA and Pentagon, preferably on the front line of recolonization, but it also wants to bring the CIA and the army into the classroom. The argument is no longer about what the student should be taught, but about what they should not be taught. Students should not be permitted to read Said, or Robert Fisk or Arundhati Roy. And above all, Middle East scholars must be discouraged from learning Arabic. The new colonial power which hopes to encounter its first major success in Iraq is one which does not apparently believe that knowledge is power but it certainly hopes that ignorance is.
Like Karl Marx, they also believe that in the Middle East, the weapon of criticism must now be replaced with the criticism of weapons. If the Middle East does not conform to its description in orientalism texts, then why not "bomb it into shape." We will have to wait and see how this prescription works itself out in Iraq. The omens from Baghdad and Basra do not look too good for a revived orientalism.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi is a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
Campus Watch contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org