Stephen Howe chases the storm of controversy surrounding the ideas of Edward Said
Five years after his death and 30 after the appearance of his most famous book, Orientalism, Edward Said casts longer shadows than ever. Conferences, books and documentaries about him continue to pour out. His name and supposed influence are constantly invoked in media and political debate, especially in America.
Some of this is fairly narrowly academic – after all, the man was first and foremost a university-based literary and cultural critic. And some of it comes from Said’s admirers, followers, even disciples: he certainly has many of these. But much extends far beyond academia, and has included an astonishing proliferation of ferocious attacks on his reputation and legacy. Not only is Said accused of academic fraud – of factual mistakes, historical ignorance, false claims and pervasive inconsistencies, forged quotations. He is claimed to have lied about his own early life, and much besides. He is also, and above all, blamed for misleading and corrupting a whole generation of intellectuals by his pernicious example, for perverting the entire disciplines of literary and of Middle East studies – in such ways that, most disastrously, the latter became culpably blind to the threat from Islamic terrorism.It is even said that under Said’s influence many so-called scholars became agents and apologists for that terrorism. As one of the wilder critics, David Frum, puts it: “If the United States was caught unawares on 9/11, Edward Said’s name belongs high on the list of those responsible.”
What has been going on here? How come a New York-based university professor is credited with such enormous influence – even, or especially, long after his death? The answers tell us a lot not only about the intense, partisan politicisation of academic life but about a climate of anti-intellectualism and anti-Arabism, there and in many other places. Yet it must also be said that some of Said’s more responsible critics have a point, albeit not always the one they want to make. There are deep, damaging flaws in Said’s most influential work, and even more in the way it was interpreted and used by some who came after him.
The most heavyweight and credible aspect of the anti-Said assault comes in the form of three major books, all published in the past couple of years: Daniel Martin Varisco’s Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (University of Washington Press), Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (Allen Lane) and Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West (Prometheus Books). All centre on Said’s best-known book, Orientalism, first published in 1978. This was an angry but erudite analysis of how “Western” writings about “the East” – his focus was the Arab and Muslim Middle East – stereotyped, traduced, scorned or even downright invented what they claimed to find there.
The three critiques are, in some ways, very different kinds of book. Varisco’s is perhaps the best, certainly the most tightly focused, though also far the least publicised. It engages in an extremely detailed reading of Orientalism and the debates it provoked, and although it accuses Said of many errors and of an often misleading rhetoric, it is not entirely unsympathetic, and aptly describes the fiercer polemics the book provoked as a “comic and at times tragic sideshow” to the real issues involved.
Irwin’s main purpose, by contrast, is to defend the scholarly tradition of “Orientalism” (the study of the region) against Saidian attacks, and most of the book is actually devoted to a potted history of that tradition. The critique of Said’s work is, in a sense, just a long, angry footnote to that. Irwin’s key argument is that the roots of anti-Islamic, anti-Arab and other “Orientalist” (in Said’s pejorative sense) prejudices are to be found not in the elite academic circles where Said hunted for them but in popular culture. The Western Orientalist scholars were mostly fair-minded, indeed sympathetic, toward the cultures they studied: it’s the Hollywood producers, the pulp-fiction authors, the gutter journalists we should blame for a bigotry which – here Irwin actually agrees with Said – is indeed pervasive in the West today.
Ibn Warraq (a pseudonym for a man who, as an “apostate” from Islam, hides his real identity from potential Islamist persecutors) has a far wider agenda. It’s well encapsulated in his title: he seeks to “defend the West” against the denigration, resentment and rage he thinks many non-Westerners, especially Muslims, express towards it, which is mirrored by their own pervasive self-pity, and which Said has allegedly fed and furthered.
All these attacks, even those by Ibn Warraq, who is clearly more sweepingly hostile than Irwin or Varisco, are at least serious and honest in intent, mostly measured in tone rather than crudely ad hominem towards Said. Arguably, they get the man and his message badly wrong: Said’s purpose had, he insisted, never been to act as a cheerleader for “Third World”, let alone Islamist, anti-Westernism. Far from it: he repeatedly scorned what he called “the politics of blame”, and valued not national, cultural or religious “purity” but global interconnection and cultural mingling. As a cosmopolitan Palestinian of Christian orgin living in New York, how could he not? Yet it might still fairly be said that the effect of his writing, despite his own intentions, was in some (perhaps especially Arab) quarters to encourage the tendencies – knee-jerk anti-Westernism, victimhood, an over-sensitivity to language – that his critics lament.
Indeed most of the substance of these debates had already, repeatedly, been rehearsed during Said’s lifetime – and intriguingly the most cogent and pungent criticism had often come not from Americans or Europeans but from Middle Eastern and other “Third World” analysts. Syrian Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, in his essay “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse”, made two closely related criticisms of Said. First, Al-Azm claims, Said fails to recognise that in some important respects the stereotypes produced by Orientalist thought corresponded to reality. Whereas Said claimed that Western scholars misrepresented the Orient as a region in thrall to supersitition, Al-Azm argues that “in general the Unseen is much more immediate and real to the common citizens of Cairo and Damascus than it is to the present inhabitants of New York and Paris. . . . It is true that religion ‘means everything’ [in the Middle East].”
Al-Azm’s second main charge is that Said tends to encourage an “Orientalism in reverse” by which non-Western thinkers produce essentialising, ahistorical and wildly misleading images of cultural difference, sometimes self-denigrating ones, sometimes self-glorifying. These are, al-Azm suggests, just as pervasive and as damaging, as “reactionary, mystifying, ahistorical and anti-human”, as Western ones have been, and are indeed largely derivative of the latter.
Similar but still more sharply pointed accusations came in Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya’s 1993 book Cruelty and Silence. Makiya (writing as Samir al-Khalil) attacked a range of attitudes that he saw among Arab intellectuals towards Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. These attitudes ranged from a dishonourable silence about Saddam’s brutalities, through various kinds of evasion and double standard (typically assailing the crimes of “imperialism” while downplaying those committed in the name of Arab nationalism), to outright approval for the Iraqi dictator. Among those Makiya singled out for blame was Said. Orientalism, in Makiya’s view, “influenced a whole generation of young Arab scholars” – and did so in what proved to be disastrous ways, for it “fed into a deeply rooted populist politics of resentment against the West.” Said’s work, then “is premised on the morally wrong idea that the West is to be blamed in the here-and-now for its long nefarious history of association with the Middle East. Thus it unwittingly deflected from the real problems of the Middle East at the same time as it contributed more bitterness to the armoury of young impressionable Arabs.”
There was thus a fundamental disagreement about the nature of conflict in the contemporary Middle East. One tendency, spearheaded by Said, saw it primarily as a fight between the Arab world and the West: what Said had called the West’s “cultural war against the Arabs and Islam”. The other current, most sharply formulated by Makiya, thought the battle-lines were mostly internal to the region, and to Arab culture. Makiya argued that the tendency to blame all the region’s ills on outsiders – above all those monstrous abstractions, Zionism and Imperialism – was a politically disastrous exercise in self-pity, evasion of responsibility and moral blindness. The widespread support for Saddam among Arab intellectuals was in Makiya’s view the logical outcome of this legacy. The ensuing controversy was bitter: Said could be an intensely combative, even savage polemicist, and some of his friends were still more so. Even these exchanges, though, seem almost mild-mannered compared to some of what’s been going on more recently.
So why, if the key themes in the debate over Said’s ideas were mostly well rehearsed 15, 20 or more years ago, are there such storms over him today? It’s tempting to say the answer can be given in three digits and two words: 9/11, Iraq and Israel.
The present attacks could be said to have started with Martin Kramer, in his 2001 book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Kramer, with a small coterie of like-minded rightwing ideologues, aimed to “reform” US academia’s teaching, writing and research on the Middle East so that it reflected more pro-Israeli views and ones more supportive of US government policies. They charge that Middle East studies is dominated by pro-Arab, even pro-Islamist, left-wing scholars whose pervasive addiction to fashionable cultural theories makes them blind to real political developments, whose hatred of Israel is in step with their scorn for American values and interests, and some of whom are in effect secret agents for the terrorists.
Edward Said is claimed to be the mastermind behind all this. At best, he supposedly pioneered the anti-Westernism, hatred of America and Israel, and trendy postmodernism that, it’s said, dominate the universities. (Actually Said was no more a postmodernist than he was a Muslim.) At worst, in the words of Edward Alexander – writing in Commentary back in 1989, but echoed repeatedly by others ever since – Said is said to have pursued a “double career as literary scholar and ideologue of terrorism” in which he “spills ink to justify their [the PLO’s] spilling blood.”
Equally wild charges and unfair personal attacks, it must be added, have often come from the “other side” of these battles too. Amidst such entrenched bitterness and bad faith, what Edward Said really wrote and thought is increasingly hidden from view, and comes to seem almost irrelevant. Said the real, immensely talented if flawed man and scholar disappears under the weight of name-calling and lunatic polemic.
Both admirers and assailants see Said’s continuing importance as resting on his particular combination of scholarship, political engagement and media prominence. He became the best-known Arab intellectual of his and perhaps of any time; indeed one of the few modern public intellectuals whose reputation was genuinely global. He deliberately operated on the frontiers: those of national identity (Palestinian and American, Western and Arab), of academic disciplines, of public roles – simultaneously scholar, political activist and freewheeling cultural critic.
There are also very good reasons, after the critical dust settles, for continuing to engage with the work itself. Orientalism is arguably not his best book. But it has a unique blend of polemical verve, breadth of address and theoretical elaboration. Said was simultaneously engaging in the battles over anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice, which have become ever more heated since his death, and trying to shift the ground of the argument to a more general, a more complex and a more sophisticated plane.
His central credo – despite the repeated claims of his foes and indeed despite his own inconsistencies – was humanist and universalist. He urged that “great anti-authoritarian uprisings made their earliest advances, not by denying the humanitarian and universalist claims of the general dominant culture, but by attacking the adherents of that culture for failing to uphold their own declared standards, for failing to extend them to all.” There’s no need, in the end, to “defend the West” against Edward Said’s posthumous influence: he was himself a defender of the best Western values.