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The Sins of Edward Said

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, he observed, free speech "scarcely exists in our own societies." The history of the modern Arab world was, he admitted, 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."

At last, Said was right about something. Sadly, Said will go down in history for having practically invented the contemporary intellectual argument for Muslim rage. Orientalism, Said's bestselling multiculturalist manifesto, introduced the Arab world to the art and science of victimology. Unquestionably the most influential book of recent times for Arabs and Muslims, Orientalism stridently blamed the entirety of Western history and scholarship for the ills of the Muslim world. It justified Muslim hatred of the West, taught them the Western art of wallowing in self-pity over one's victimhood, and gave vicious anti-Americanism a sophisticated, high literary gloss. Said was naturally quite popular in France.

Were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists, the Arab world would be great once more, Orientalism said. Islamic fundamentalism too, as we all now know, calls the West a great Satan that oppresses Islam by its very existence. Orientalism simply lifted that concept, and made it over into Western radical multiculturalist chic.

In his recent book Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman traces the absorption of 20th century Marxist justifications of rage and terror by Arab intellectuals, and shows how it became a powerful philosophical predicate for the current Muslim campaign of terror. Said was the last and most influential exponent of this trend. Said and his followers also had the effect of cowing liberal academics in the West into a politically correct, self-censoring silence about Islamic fundamentalist violence for much of the two decades prior to 9/11. Orientalism's rock star status among the literary elite put middle eastern scholars in constant jeopardy of being labelled "orientalist" oppressors. And some of these scholars, most famously Salman Rushdie, and less famously myself, must to this day remain in hiding in order to protect ourselves and our families from Islamic extremists who regard us apostates from Islam and targets for murder.

Orientalism was a political polemic that masqueraded as a work of scholarship. Its historical analysis was over the years gradually debunked, mostly in academic journals, by numerous scholars of impeccable skills and integrity. A literary critic, it became clear that Said used poetic license, not empirical inquiry, while couching his conclusions as facts. His scholarly technique was to spray his charges of racism, imperialism, and Eurocentrism on the whole of Western scholarship of the Arab world. This technique, familiar to anyone in the field of higher learning in America over the past 20 years, was to claim a moral high ground due to his race and his Ivy League faculty chair, then to deploy slippery, deceptive rhetoric, lies, and ad hominem smears to paint all scholars who might disagree as racists and collaborators with imperialism. Orientalism was larded with half-truths, errors and lies. Said had a convenient excuse for this. In his philosophy, he acknowledged, there was no "truth." Alleged "truths" were merely relative at best.

To Said, Western writers and scholars all employed, "a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." They were all complicit with imperialism, and had conspired to suppress the emergence of native voices that might paint a truer picture. All European writings masked a "discourse of power." They had stereotyped the "Other" as passive, weak, or barbarian, and in need of civilizing. "[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, it seemed, of studying the East, the West had dominated it and 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.

While deploring "the disparity between texts and reality," Said never himself tried himself to describe that betrayed reality was. He merely complained that, "To look into Orientalism for a lively sense of an Oriental's human or even social reality....is to look in vain." In response to critics who over the years have pointed to errors of fact and detail so mountainous as to destroy his thesis, he finally admitted that he had "no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are."

Employing the flowery yet turgid style of Marxist theory, Said routinely failed even to try to support any of his assertions with anything resembling evidence or logic. At best, his writings were poetic excursions filled with unsupported assertions and bitterness. He was fond of making lists of books with nothing in common, but seemed to display his erudition. In fact, any scholar of the field could see that they were grab bags to delude the ignorant; and of these he found many in American universities. Said used verbal allusions and analogies, and treated them as if they were statements of fact. Exercises in hyperbole and histrionics, they can be said to have an aesthetic appeal to a certain leftist bent of mind.

Every now and then he acknowledges that an Orientalist did something positive. He calls Lane's work Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians "a classic of historical and anthropological observation because of its style, its enormously intelligent and brilliant details," and refers to "a growing systematic knowledge in Europe about the Orient." Orientalism, he admitted, produced "a fair amount of exact positive knowledge about the Orient," such as "philological discoveries in comparative grammar made by Jones..." as well as certain "objective discoveries."

Yes, but this objective knowledge was only "knowledge of another kind"—"a form of paranoia..." The only thing that really became more "refined and complex" over the years was not Western knowledge of the East, but Western ignorance. At one point he denies that the Orientalists acquired any objective knowledge, but a little later he backtracks, saying that their knowledge is just "less objectively true than we often like to think."

He even dismisses the invaluable memoirs of Lane and Burton, crucial primary sources based on personal first hand experience, calling them "imitations" (of what he does not say) and likening them to esoteric charlatanry. He says that Muslims don't read them. This is false. James Aldridge in his study Cairo (1969) called Lane's account "the most truthful and detailed account in English of how Egyptians lived and behaved." F.E.Peters' The Hajj cites it as a primary source and Lane's Arabic Lexicon (5 vols; 1863-74) is to this day one of the first lexicons consulted by any Muslim scholar who wishes to translate the Koran into English. Maulana Muhammad Ali, who began his English translation in 1909, constantly refers to Lane in his copious footnotes. So does A.Yusuf Ali in his 1934 translation. Muslim scholars not only admire and cite Lane's work, they are responsible for preserving and popularizing Lane in their own cultures. Today, the only place where one can still buy a reasonably priced copy of Lane's indispensable reference is Beirut, where it is published by the Librairie du Liban.

Historical and Other Howlers

Orientalism is full of errors that reveal his ignorance of his subject. He gets history wrong repeatedly, saying for instance that Britain and France dominated the eastern Mediterranean in the 17th century. In fact, the Ottomans ruled the Levant then and for the next hundred years. He describes Egypt and Pakistan as British colonies, which neither were. Pakistan was created in 1947 when the British left India. Egypt was briefly a protectorate but was never colonized. By contrast the colonies of Australia or Algeria were settled by numerous Europeans—not Egypt. Said uses words such as colony in a broad and elastic sense, seemingly to deceive unsophisticated readers.

Said says that Muslim armies conquered Turkey before overrunning North Africa. Not so. Arabs invaded North Africa first in the seventh century; Christian Turkey was conquered by Seljuk Turks in the final crumble of the Eastern Roman Empire in the late 11th century. He mischaracterizes the Portuguese empire as colonists. Portugal was a trading, not a colonial, power that dominated trade in the 16th century and collapsed at the beginning of the 17th, after which the Dutch reigned supreme in the Indian Ocean and Indonesia through the early eighteenth century. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch did not subjugate the Orient but worked through diplomacy with native rulers, and through a network of trading stations.

Intellectual Dishonesty and Tendentious Reinterpretations

Said is no historian. His competence as a literary critic to speak on the subject of Oriental scholarship at all was questionable. But his sins exceed mere error and incompetence. He deliberately misrepresented distinguished scholarly work and conclusions in a fashion that can only be described as dishonest. For instance, Said quotes with approval some conclusions of R.W.Southern's Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. It is worth quoting Southern at length to see the extent of Said's willful misreading.

"Most conspicuous to us is the inability of any of these systems of thought [European Christian] to provide a fully satisfying explanation of the phenomenon they had set out to explain [Islam]—still less to influence the course of practical events in a decisive way. At a practical level, events never turned out either so well or so ill as the most intelligent observers predicted; and it is perhaps worth noticing that they never turned out better than when the best judges confidently expected a happy ending. Was there any progress in Christian knowledge of Islam? I must express my conviction that there was. Even if the solution of the problem remained obstinately hidden from sight, the statement of the problem became more complex, more rational, and more related to experience....The scholars who labored at the problem of Islam in the Middle Ages failed to find the solution they sought and desired; but they developed habits of mind and powers of comprehension which, in other men and in other fields, may yet deserve success."

Said sets out to kidnap the above quote and turn it on its head. He interprets R.W. Southern to be saying that the West never really understood the East. Southern says nothing of the kind. He says that whatever its shortcomings, scholarly understanding of the East progressed. Said then characterizes him as saying that actually it was "Western ignorance" that became ever more "refined," and that Western scholarship existed to serve imperialist goals. In fact Southern's point is that Orientalist scholarship usually failed to affect the world of practical affairs in any decisive way.
Said also reproaches the great scholar Friedrich Schlegel for saying that Sanskrit, Persian, Greek and German were related. Said also implies that they are more related to Semitic, Chinese, American, or African languages than they are to each other. Schlegel is correct to connect Sanskrit, Persian, Greek and German and posited no opposition between Sanskrit and Persian on the one hand and Greek and German on the other. These languages all belong to the same family, the Indo-European, and have more in common with each other than any of them do with Semitic, Chinese, American or African, languages that belong to other families.

Said quotes Sir William Jones' famous encomium on Sanskrit and its affinities to Greek and Latin as though it were of sinister significance:

"[Jones'] most famous pronouncement indicates the extent to which modern Orientalism, even in its philosophical beginnings, was a comparative discipline having for its principal goal the grounding of the European languages in a distant, and harmless, Oriental source: 'The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitively refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source'..."

Finding an Oriental source for European languages was no "goal" of Orientalist scholars. Why should it have been? And is it only Said who regards Orientals as "distant and harmless." The similarities between Sanskrit and Greek and Latin was not only observed by Jones, but, as early as the 16th century, by Filippo Sassetti, and in 1767 by P. Coeurdoux. Jones' independent reflections led him, too, to conclude that there was a similarity. This was a discovery—a very exciting one of the time that has since been amply confirmed. To say that Orientalists wanted to ground the European languages in Oriental sources is absurd. They discovered that they were related. They did not concoct a theory to fit a pre-existing goal. Anyway, Greek and Latin do not have their "sources" in Sanskrit. They simply belong to the same genetic family, possibly descended from some common ancestral proto-Indo-European language.

As Professor K. Paddaya of Pune, India, said in his appreciation of Sir William Jones, "[I]t was genuine curiosity and admiration which made some of these officers [of the East India Company like Jones] voluntarily take up the study of [India's] past conditions." Jones' eulogy on Sanskrit is still quoted with pride by many Indian scholars, who honoured Jones' memory by holding conferences in Calcutta and Pune in April, 1994 to mark the bicentenary of his death. The bicentenary of the establishment of the Asiatic Society that Jones founded was celebrated in 1984 in New Delhi and Calcutta.

Said also does not come across as a careful reader of Dante or his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. In his trawl through Western literature for dirt to cast on Western civilization, Said finds Dante's description of Muhammad in Hell and concludes that "Dante's verse at this point spares the reader none of the eschatological [sic!] detail that so vivid a punishment entails: Muhammad's entrails and his excrement are described with unflinching accuracy." Said mistakes scatalogical for eschatological here and comically vouches for the "unflinching accuracy" of Dante's description. Well, perhaps he would know.

Said blasts Dante's Inferno for the "anachronism" and "anomaly" of putting three "post-Christian" Muslims [the great philosophers Avicenna and Averroës and King Saladin] in the company of "pre-Christian luminaries" like Plato and Aristotle—to Said, a gross and inequitable insult, given the fact that "the Koran specifies Jesus as a prophet." The conclusion Said draws is that "Dante chooses to consider the great Muslim as having been fundamentally ignorant of Christianity." Professor Said is sadly confused here. These people of much worth to Dante—gente di molto valore—had not sinned. But they had not been baptized, baptism being the first Sacrament and the "gateway to the faith," and thus could not be saved. The three Muslims were in the outer circle of Hell—not for their ignorance of Christianity, but because they had died unbaptized. Since regions of Hell are timeless and its inhabitants dwell there for ever, the question of anachronisms does not arise—certainly not in an allegory. Virgil, who died in 19 B.C., was Dante's guide, and his voice fulfills an allegorical function—representing the voice of reason or philosophical wisdom. Allegory is central to any understanding of the Divine Comedy: literra gesta docet, quid credas, allegoria—the literal sense teaches the facts; the allegory what you should believe.

Dante included these illustrious Muslims precisely because of his profound reverence for all that was best in the non-Christian world. Their exclusion from salvation, inevitable under Christian doctrine, saddened Dante and put a great strain on his mind—gran duol mi prese al cor quando lo 'ntesi (great grief seized me at heart when I heard this). Dante was much influenced by the Averroistic concept of the "possible intellect." The same generous impulse that allowed Dante to revere the nobility of non-Christians like Avicenna made him relegate Muhammad to eternal punishment in the eighth circle of Hell, namely his strong sense of the unity of humanity and all its spiritual values—universalis civilitas humani generis—the universal community of the human race. Dante and his contemporaries in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century had only the vaguest idea about the history and theology of Islam and its founder. Dante believed that Muhammad and Ali were the initiators of the great schism between Christianity and Islam. Like his contemporaries, he thought Muhammad was originally a Christian and a cardinal who wanted to become a pope. Hence Muhammad was a divider of humanity whereas Dante stood for the unity—the essential organic unity—of humankind. What Said refuses to see is that Dante perfectly exemplifies Western culture's strong tendency towards universalism, not the reverse.

Self-Pity, Post-Imperialist Victimhood and Imperialism

In order to achieve his goal of painting the West in general, and the discipline of Orientalism in particular, as negatively as possible, Said resorts to several tactics. One is to depict the Orient as a perpetual victim of Western imperialism, dominance, and aggression. The Orient is never seen as an actor, an agent with free-will or designs or ideas of its own. Said first articulated for an elite intellectual audience the popular belief that all the ills of the Middle East are the result of Western-Zionist conspiracies, and first struck the deep, bathetic notes of self-pity that have characterized contemporary Middle Eastern attitudes ever since. In "The Question of Palestine" Said asserts that the zionist movement and Israel were invented to hold Islam and communism at bay.

Said himself is a self-indulgent practioner of victim politics. He fairly wallows in self-pity: "My own experiences of these matters are in part what made me write this book. The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. There exists here an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny."

In his memoir, Out of Place, this wealthy, tenured and much-celebrated Columbia University professor—enjoying privileges of which lesser mortals can only dream—spews his hatred of the country that took him in and heaped upon him high honors. Of this book Ian Buruma remarked, "The more he dwells on his suffering and his exile status, the more his admirers admire him. On me, however, it has the opposite effect. Of all the attitudes that shape a memoir, self-pity is the least attractive."

Napoleon's conquest of Egypt plays an important symbolic role for Said. He accuses Napoleon of having conquered, dominated, engulfed, possessed and oppressed Egypt, which is described as the passive victim of Western rapacity. Said omits to mention that, after less than four years, the French were defeated and had to beat an ignominious retreat. Napoleon arrived in July 1798 and left a little over a year later. His forces lingered on until September 1801, during which time the French failed to capture Murad Bey and its fleet was destroyed at the Battle of the Nile. Riots broke out in Cairo and its lieutenant-governor, the French general Dupuy, was killed. When the French left to confront the Turks at Mataria, more riots broke out among the Muslims of Cairo. The chief victims were Christians, usually at Muslim hands. Kléber, the French general was also assassinated. Far from seeing the Egyptians as "the Other" and denigrating Islam, the French were highly sensitive to Muslim opinion even in 1798. Napoleon displayed an intimate knowledge of the Koran. After the assassination of Kléber, the command of the French army passed to General J.F. ( Baron de Menou), a convert to Islam, who set about enacting various measures to conciliate the Muslims.
Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist, once said that it was thanks to Napoleon's campaign in Egypt that his country emerged from centuries of obscurantism into the modern world.

Had he bothered to glance at the subsequent history of Egypt, Professor Said might have come across the history of Muhammad Ali, often considered the founder of Modern Egypt. Ali's story puts Western imperialism in perspective. It was never the intention of the Western powers to see the Ottoman Empire dismembered, nor was it ever in their geostrategic interest. Time and time again the Ottomans sought and received European support to preserve their imperial possessions. After the humiliating retreat of the French, the Ottoman's greatest challenger was a Muslim, the able but ambitious governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha. Pasha "aspired to nothing less than the substitution of his own empire for that of the Ottomans." Inspired by Napoleon, Muhammad Ali modernized many of Egypt's archaic institutions. Ali's dreams of empire were thwarted by the Ottomans aided by Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia, who in fact declined to use the Sultan's plight to expand their own imperial possessions. Later, Muhammad Ali's grandson too, Ismail, dreamt of transforming Egypt into a modern imperial power, and by the mid-1870s "a vast Egyptian empire had come into being, extending from the Mediterranean in the north to Lake Victoria, and from the Indian Ocean in the east to the Libyan desert."

I recount this history in order to put nineteenth century imperialism in context and to show that Middle Eastern history was created by Middle Eastern actors who were not "hapless victims of predatory imperial powers but active participants in the restructuring of their region." Said, by contrast, always portrays this history as Orientals being passive victims of Western imperialism unable to control their own destiny. This, ironically, makes him guilty of the very sin of which he accuses others—namely, suppressing indigenous voices by attributing their lives and their culture solely to the actions of others.

In Orientalism, Said asserts that: "Both before and during World War I secret diplomacy was bent on carving up the Near Orient first into spheres of influence, then into mandated (or occupied) territories." The destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East was, according to most historians, including Ephraim Karsh of Oxford, "set in motion not by secret diplomacy bent on carving up the Middle East, but rather by the decision of the Ottoman leadership to throw in its lot with Germany. This was by far the single most important decision in the history of the modern Middle East, and it was anything but inevitable. The Ottoman Empire was neither forced into the war in a last-ditch bid to ensure its survival, nor maneuvered into it by an overbearing German ally and an indifferent or even hostile British policy. Rather, the [Ottoman] empire's willful plunge into the whirlpool reflected a straightforward [Ottoman] imperialist policy of territorial aggrandizement and status acquisition."

Prime Minister Asquith noted in his diary in March, 1915: "[Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and I] both think that in the interests of our own future the best thing would be if at the end of the War we could say that we had taken and gained nothing...." Similarly, the Bunsen Committee of April-May,1915 preferred an independent but decentralized empire comprising five major provinces: Anatolia, Armenia, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq-Jezirah. Nearly a year after the outbreak of the First World War, Britain still did not wish to see the destruction of Turkey-in-Asia. It was an Arab, Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who wanted to establish his own empire on the ruins of the Ottomans'.
Of T.E. Lawrence, Said writes: "The great drama of Lawrence's work is that it symbolizes the struggle, first, to stimulate the Orient (lifeless, timeless, forceless) into movement; second, to impose upon that movement an essentially Western shape." It is Said who assumes that the Arabs were passive and had decisions imposed upon them, as if they were children or imbeciles incapable of having desires and acting freely. Certainly, the forceful personalities of the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, and his son Faisal played some of the most important parts in the drama of the First World War. These men were as responsible for what emerged after it as the Western powers.
Said's emotionalism about Western imperialism's evils belies the real overall historical background of the region. The French presence lasted less than four years, being ignominiously expelled by the British and the Turks. The Ottomans had been the masters of Egypt since 1517, a total of 280 years. Counting the British and French protectorates, Egypt was under Western control for 67 years, Syria for 21 years, and Iraq for just 15. Saudi Arabia was never under Western control. Contrast this with Southern Spain, which was under the Muslim yoke for 781 years, and Greece for 381 years. The splendid new Christian capital that eclipsed Rome—Byzantium—is still in Muslim hands. At last report, neither the Spanish nor the Greeks have taken up the politics of victimhood.

Said's Anti-Westernism

In a deeply disingenuous 1994 Afterword, Said denies that he is anti-Western. He denies that the phenomenon of Orientalism is a synecdoche of the entire West. He claims that he believes there is no such stable reality as "the Orient"and "the Occident," no enduring Oriental reality, and even less any enduring Western essence. He asserts that he has no interest in much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are.

Denials to the contrary, Orientalism does all of that and more. While Said does occasionally use quote marks around "the Orient" and "the Occident," the force of Said's polemic comes from the polar opposites and contrasts of the East and the West, the Orient and Europe, Us and the Other, that he sets up throughout the work.

"I doubt that it is controversial," he says, "...to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact [of imperialism]—and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism." [Emphasis in original]
Said characterizes Europeans thus: "It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric." Not only is every European a racist, he is necessarily so. Said claimed in 1994 that he was not essentialist, but explicitly anti-essentialist, particularly about "the West." Yet historian Keith Windschuttle finds Said saying, explicitly, the following: "Consider first the demarcation between Orient and West. It already seems bold by the time of the Iliad. Two of the most profoundly influential qualities associated with the East appear in Aeschylus's The Persians, the earliest Athenian play extant, and in The Bacchae of Euripides, the very last one extant...The two aspects of the Orient that set it off from the West in this pair of plays will remain essential motifs of European imaginative geography. A line is drawn between two continents. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant." According to Said these essentially Western motifs and values persisted all the way from ancient Greece right down to the present day, which, Windshuttle reminds us, conflates the wildly different perspectives of Aeschylus, Dante, Victor Hugo, and Karl Marx. "This is, of course, nothing less than the use of the very notion of 'essentialism' that he elsewhere condemns so vigorously. In short, it is his own work that is essentialist and ahistorical. He himself commits the very faults he says are so objectionable in the work of Orientalists."

Said seems unaware of his tendency to essentialize the West, as in, "The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be 'Oriental' in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be—that is, submitted to being—made Oriental." (emphasis added) What is an average nineteenth-century European but an essentialist stereotype?

Said leaves out Western writers and scholars who do not conform to his theory. Since all Europeans are a priori racist, he simply pretends that those who are not don't exist. Of course, using this technique, anyone could write a book—one that would be very long indeed—composed exclusively of quotations from Western writers who romanticized or elevated non-European cultures over the decadence, bigotry, intolerance, and bellicosity of the West. The theme has been a popular one throughout history.

Said makes much of Aeschylus's The Persians, and its supposed creation of the "Other" in Western civilization. You would think that Aeschylus might be forgiven his moment of triumphalism in describing the battle on which the very existence of fifth-century Athens depended and in which he very likely took part—the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. There the Greeks destroyed or captured 200 ships and lost forty. For Aeschylus it symbolized the triumph of liberty over tyranny, Athenian democracy over Persian Imperialism. The Persians were ruthless imperialists, hated by several generations of Greeks.

Had Said bothered to delve into Greek civilization and history, or even simply to read Herodotus, ... click to continue

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