A Meeting of Minds

There is an interesting convergence on Arts and Letters Daily today: one article about Ibn Warraq and his disavowal of Islam, and one by Christopher Hitchens taking issue with Edward Said, especially his new preface to Orientalism. This pairing interests us at B and W, of course, because we have a fascinating article by Ibn Warraq critiquing Edward Said’s Orientalism, and also because we admire Christopher Hitchens’ writing, particularly the anti-godbothering variety. So there we all are.

I’ve been wondering for some time what Hitchens’ opinion of Orientalism is now. I know they are friends of long standing – the friendship was Htichens’ defense, or at least reply, when Martin Amis shouted at him for insisting on quarreling with Saul Bellow over Israel, despite Amis’ multiple advance warnings to refrain from doing exactly that. ‘But Edward is a friend of mine,’ Amis reports Hitchens as saying, in Experience, to Amis’ fury (‘I’m a friend of yours too!’). But I also know, as who doesn’t, that Hitchens’ views on some things have changed since September 11. I also know, what is probably less common knowledge, that there is a highly enthusiastic blurb for Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am not a Muslim by Christopher Hitchens on the back cover (‘My favorite book on Islam is the rationalist critique Why I Am not a Muslim…’). I’ve been wondering, ever since we published ‘Debunking Edward Said’, exactly what Hitchens thought of Said’s best-known book. The answer turns out to be, not altogether surprisingly, that he has some reservations.

When he addresses the general Arab audience, he makes admirable use of this duality or multiplicity. In his columns in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram he is scornful and caustic about the failures and disgraces of Arab and Muslim society…Every year more books are translated and published in Athens than in all the Arab capitals combined. Where is there a decent Arab university? Where is there a “transparent” Arab election? Why does Arab propaganda resort to such ugliness and hysteria?…He is a source of stern admonition to the uncritical, insulated Arab elites and intelligentsia. But for some reason-conceivably connected to his status as an exile-he cannot allow that direct Western engagement in the region is legitimate.

Hitchens also mentions point-missing on a heroic scale, as well as pointing out many ways he considers Said got things right, and a certain amount of sly wit.

To the extent that American academics now speak about the “appropriation” of other cultures, and seldom fail to put ordinary words such as “the Other” between portentous quotation marks, and contest the very notion of objective inquiry, they are paying what they imagine is a debt to Edward Said’s work.

Yes. If I’ve seen one capital-O Other decorated with quotation marks, I’ve seen a million. What is it about American academics that makes them as slavishly sheepishly fashion-following as any pathetic junior high school girl in her little Britneyesque midriff-baring shirts? Now that would be a good subject for a book.

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