Debunking Edward Said

This is an edited version of the article, Debunking Edward Said – Edward
Said and Saidists: or Third World Intellectual Terrorism, which
is here
. For the purposes of ease of reading, references and bibliographical
information have been removed from this edited version of the article, but the
longer version is fully referenced. Interested readers should follow the link!

Consider the following observations on the state of affairs in the contemporary
Arab world :

The history of the modern Arab world – with all its political failures,
its human rights abuses, its stunning military incompetences, its decreasing
production, the fact that alone of all modern peoples, we have receded in democratic
and technological and scientific development – is disfigured by a whole series
of out-moded and discredited ideas, of which the notion that the Jews never
suffered and that the holocaust is an obfuscatory confection created by the
Elders of Zion is one that is acquiring too much – far too much – currency;

….[T]o support Roger Garaudy, the French writer convicted earlier this year
on charges of holocaust denial, in the name of ‘freedom of opinion’ is a silly
ruse that discredits us more than we already are discredited in the world’s
eyes for our incompetence, our failure to fight a decent battle, our radical
misunderstanding of history and the world we live in. Why don’t we fight harder
for freedom of opinions in our own societies, a freedom, no one needs to be
told, that scarcely exists?

It takes considerable courage for an Arab to write self-criticism of this kind,
indeed, without the personal pronoun ‘we’ how many would have guessed that an
Arab, let alone Edward Said himself, had written it? And yet, ironically, what
makes self-examination for Arabs and Muslims, and particularly criticism of
Islam in the West very difficult is the totally pernicious influence of Edward
Said’s Orientalism. The latter work taught an entire generation of Arabs
the art of self-pity – “were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists
and Zionists, we would be great once more” – encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist
generation of the 1980s, and bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam,
and even stopped dead the research of eminent Islamologists who felt their findings
might offend Muslims sensibilities, and who dared not risk being labelled “orientalist”.
The aggressive tone of Orientalism is what I have called “intellectual
terrorism,” since it does not seek to convince by arguments or historical
analysis but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism, Eurocentrism, from
a moral high ground; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him.
The moral high ground is an essential element in Said’s tactics; since he believes
his position is morally unimpeachable, Said obviously thinks it justifies him
in using any means possible to defend it, including the distortion of the views
of eminent scholars, interpreting intellectual and political history in a highly
tendentious way, in short twisting the truth. But in any case, he does not believe
in the “truth”.

Said not only attacks the entire discipline of Orientalism, which is devoted
to the academic study of the Orient, but which Said accuses of perpetuating
negative racial stereotypes, anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudice, and the myth
of an unchanging, essential “Orient,” but he also accuses Orientalists
as a group of complicity with imperial power, and holds them responsible for
creating the distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority,
which they achieve by suppressing the voice of the “oriental,” and
by their anti-human tendency to make huge, but vague generalizations about entire
populations, which in reality consist of millions of individuals. In other words,
much of what was written about the Orient in general, and Islam and Islamic
civilisation in particular, was false. The Orientalists also stand accused of
creating the “Other” – the non-European, always characterised in a negative
way, as for example, passive, weak, in need of civilizing (western strength
and eastern weakness).

But “Orientalism” is also more generally “a style of thought
based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the
Orient” and (most of the time ) “the Occident.” “Thus European
writers of fiction, epics, travel, social descriptions, customs and people are
all accused of “orientalism”. In short, Orientalism is seen “as
a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the
Orient.” Said makes much of the notion of a discourse derived from Foucault,
who argued that supposedly objective and natural structures in society, which,
for example, privilege some and punish others for noncoformity, are in fact
“discourses of power “. The putative “objectivity ” of a
discipline covered up its real nature; disciplines such as Orientalism participated
in such discourses. Said continues, “…[W]ithout examining Orientalism
as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline
by which European culture was able to manage – even produce – the Orient politically,
sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively
during the post-Enlightenment period.”

From Pretentiousness to Meaninglessness

There are, as I shall show, several contradictory theses buried in Said’s impenetrable
prose, decked with post-modern jargon (“a universe of representative discourse”,
“Orientalist discourse”) (and some kind editor really ought to explain
to Said the meaning of “literally” and the difference between scatological
and eschatological), and pretentious language which often conceals some banal
observation, as when Said talks of “textual attitude”, when all he
means is “bookish” or “bookishness”. Tautologies abound,
as in “the freedom of licentious sex “.

Or take the comments here: “Thus out of the Napoleonic expedition there
issued a whole series of textual children, from Chateaubriand’s Itinéraire
to Lamartine’s Voyage en Orient to Flaubert’s Salammbô,
and in the same tradition, Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians
and Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah
and Meccah
. What binds them together is not only their common background
in Oriental legend and experience but also their learned reliance on the Orient
as a kind of womb out of which they were brought forth. If paradoxically these
creations turned out to be highly stylized simulacra, elaborately wrought imitations
of what a live Orient might be thought to look like, that by no means detracts
from the strength of their imaginative conception or from the strength of European
mastery of the Orient, whose prototypes respectively were Cagliostro, the great
European impersonator of the Orient, and Napoleon, its first modern conqueror.”

What does Said mean by “out of the Napoleonic expedition there issued
a whole series of textual children” except that these five very varied
works were written after 1798? The pretentious language of textual children
issuing from the Napeolonic expedition covers up this crushingly obvious fact.
Perhaps there is a profound thesis hidden in the jargon, that these works were
somehow influenced by the Napoleonic expedition, inspired by it, and could not
have been written without it. But no such thesis is offered. This arbitrary
group consists of three Frenchmen, two Englishmen, one work of romantic historical
fiction, three travel books, one detailed study of modern Egyptians. Chateaubriand’s
Itinéraire (1811) describes superbly his visit to the Near East;
Voyage en Orient (1835) is Lamartine’s impressions of Palestine,
Syria, and Greece; Salammbô (1862) is Flaubert’s novel of ancient
Carthage; Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836) is
a fascinating first-hand account of life in Egypt, particularly Cairo and Luxor,
written after several years of residence there, Burton’s account of his audacious
visit to Mecca was first published in three volumes between 1855-6. Lane and
Burton both had perfect command of Arabic, Classical and Colloquial, while the
others did not, and Lane and Burton can be said to have made contributions to
Islamic Studies, particularly Lane, but not the three Frenchmen.

What on earth do they have in common? Said tells us that what binds them together
is “their common background in Oriental legend and experience but also
their learned reliance on the Orient as a kind of womb out of which they were
brought forth “. What is the background of Oriental legend that inspired
Burton or Lane? Was Flaubert’s vivid imagination stimulated by “Oriental
legend”, and was this the same legendary material that inspired Burton,
Lane and Lamartine? “Learned reliance on the Orient as a kind of womb…”
is yet another example of Said’s pretentious way of saying the obvious, namely
that they were writing about the Orient about which they had some experience
and intellectual knowledge..

Orientalism is peppered with meaningless sentences. Take, for example,
“Truth, in short, becomes a function of learned judgment, not of the material
itself, which in time seems to owe its existence to the Orientalist”. Said
seems to be saying :‘Truth’ is created by the experts or Orientalists, and does
not correspond to reality, to what is actually out there. So far so good. But
then “what is out there” is also said to owe its existence to the
Orientalist. If that is the case, then the first part of Said’s sentence makes
no sense, and if the first part is true then the second part makes no sense.
Is Said relying on that weasel word “seems” to get him out of the
mess? That ruse will not work either; for what would it mean to say that an
external reality independent of the Orientalist’s judgement also seems to be
a creation of the Orientalist? That would be a simple contradiction. Here is
another example: “The Orientalist can imitate the Orient without the opposite
being true.” Throughout his book, Said is at pains to point out that there
is no such thing as “the Orient”, which, for him, is merely a meaningless
abstraction concocted by Orientalists in the service of imperialists and racists.
In which case, what on earth could “The Orient cannot imitate the Orientalist”
possibly mean? If we replace “the Orient” by the individual countries,
say between Egypt and India, do we get anything more coherent? No, obviously
not : “India, Egypt, and Iran cannot imitate the Orientalists like Renan,
Bernard Lewis, Burton, et al.”. We get nonsense whichever way we try to
gloss Said’s sentence.


At times, Said seems to allow that the Orientalists did achieve genuine positive
knowledge of the Orient, its history, culture, languages, as when 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”; or when he talks of “a growing systematic
knowledge in Europe about the Orient”, since Said does not have sarcastic
quotation marks around the word knowledge, I presume he means there was a growth
in genuine knowledge. Further on, Said talks of Orientalism producing “a
fair amount of exact positive knowledge about the Orient”. Again I take
it Said is not being ironical when he talks of “philological discoveries
in comparative grammar made by Jones,…”. To give one final example, Said
mentions Orientalism’s “objective discoveries”.

Yet, these acknowledgements of the real discoveries made by Orientalists are
contradicted by Said’s insistence that there is no such thing as “truth”;
or when he characterizes Orientalism as “a form of paranoia, knowledge
of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge”. Or again, “it
is finally Western ignorance which becomes more refined and complex, not some
body of positive Western knowledge which increases in size and accuracy”.
At one point Said seems to deny that the Orientalist had acquired any objective
knowledge at all, and a little later he also writes, “the advances made
by a ‘science’ like Orientalism in its academic form are less objectively true
than we often like to think”. It is true that the last phrase does leave
open the possibility that some of the science may be true though less
than we had hitherto thought. Said also of course wholeheartedly endorses Abdel
Malek’s strictures against Orientalism, and its putatively false “knowledge”
of the Orient.

In his 1994 Afterword, Said insists that he has “no interest in,
much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are”.
And yet he contradicts this outburst of humility and modesty, when he claims
that, “[The Orientalist’s] Orient is not the Orient as it is, but the Orient
as it has been Orientalized”, for such a formulation assumes Said knows
what the real Orient is. Such an assumption is also apparent in his statement
that “the present crisis dramatizes the disparity between texts and reality”.
In order to be able to tell the difference between the two, Said must know what
the reality is. This is equally true when Said complains that “To look
into Orientalism for a lively sense of an Oriental’s human or even social reality…is
to look in vain”.

Historical and Other Howlers

For a work that purports to be a serious work of intellectual history, Orientalism
is full of historical howlers. According to Said, at the end of the seventeenth
century, Britain and France dominated the eastern Mediterranean, when in fact
the Levant was still controlled for the next hundred years by the Ottomans.
British and French merchants needed the permission of the Sultan to land. Egypt
is repeatedly described as a British colony when, in fact, Egypt was never more
than a protectorate; it was never annexed as Said claims. Real colonies, like
Australia or Algeria, were settled by large numbers of Europeans, and this manifestly
was not the case with Egypt.

The most egregious error surely is where Said claims Muslim armies conquered
Turkey before they overran North Africa. In reality, of course, the Arabs invaded
North Africa in the seventh century, and what is now Turkey remained part of
the Eastern Roman Empire and was a Christian country until conquered by the
Seljuk Turks in late eleventh century. Said also writes “Macdonald and
Massignon were widely sought after as experts on Islamic matters by colonial
administrators from North Africa to Pakistan”. But Pakistan was never a
colony, it was created in 1947 when the British left India. Said also talks
rather oddly about the “unchallenged Western dominance” of the Portuguese
in the East Indies, China, and Japan until the nineteenth century. But Portugal
only dominated the trade, especially in the 16th century, and was
never, as historian J.M.Roberts points out, “interested in the subjugation
or settlement of large areas”. In China, Portugal only had the tiniest
of footholds in Macao. The first decades of the seventeenth century witnessed
the collapse of much of the Portuguese empire in the East, to be replaced by
the Dutch. In the early eighteenth century there was a Dutch supremacy in the
Indian Ocean and Indonesia. However, the Dutch like the Portuguese did not subjugate
“the Orient” but worked through diplomacy with native rulers, and
through a network of trading-stations. Said thinks that Carlyle and Newman were
‘liberal cultural heroes’! Whereas it would be more correct to characterize
Carlyle’s works as the intellectual ancestry of fascism. Nor was Newman a liberal,
rather a High Church Anglican who converted to Catholicism. Said also seems
to think that Goldziher was German; Goldziher was of course a Hungarian. (One
hopes that it is simply a typographical error in his 1994 Afterword which
was responsible for the misspelling of Claude Cahen’s name.)

Tendentious Reinterpretations

The above errors can be put down to ignorance, Said is no historian, but it
does put into doubt Said’s competence for writing such a book.

Said also does not come across as a careful reader of Dante and his masterpiece,
The Divine Comedy. In his trawl through Western literature for filth
to besmirch Western civilization, Said comes across Dante’s description of Muhammad
in Hell, and concludes “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”. First,
Said does not seem to know the difference between scatological and eschatological,
and second, we may ask how does he know that Dante’s description is unflinchingly
accurate? He simply means, I presume, that it was highly graphic.

Furthermore these illustrious Muslims were included precisely because of Dante’s
profound reverence for all that was best in the non-Christian world, and their
exclusion from salvation, inevitable under Christian doctrine, saddened him
and put a great strain on his mind – gran duol mi prese al cor quando lo
– great grief seized me at heart when I heard this. Dante was even
much influenced by the Averroistic concept of the “possible intellect”.
The same generous impulse that made him revere non-Christians like Avicenna
and their nobleness made Dante relegate Muhammad to eternal punishment in the
eighth circle of Hell, namely Dante’s strong sense of the unity of humanity
and of all its spiritual values – universalis civilitas humani generis
the universal community of the human race. He and his contemporaries
in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century had only the vaguest of
ideas 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. Dante like his contemporaries 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 does not see is that Dante perfectly exemplifies Western
culture’s strong tendency towards universalism.

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, in as negative a way as possible, Said has recourse
to several tactics. One of his preferred moves 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. It is to this propensity that we owe that immature and unattractive quality
of much contemporary Middle Eastern culture, self-pity, and the belief that
all its ills are the result of Western-Zionist conspiracies. Here is an example
of Said’s own belief in the usual conspiracies taken from “The Question
of Palestine”: It was perfectly apparent to Western supporters of Zionism
like Balfour that the colonization of Palestine was made a goal for the Western
powers from the very beginning of Zionist planning: Herzl used the idea, Weizmann
used it, every leading Isreali since has used it. Isreal was a device for holding
Islam – later the Soviet Union, or communism – at bay “. So Isreal was
created to hold Islam at bay!

As for the politics of victimhood, Said has “milked it himself to an indecent
degree”. Said wrote: “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”.

Such wallowing in self-pity from a tenured, and much-feted professor at Columbia
University, where he enjoys privileges which we lesser mortals only dream of,
and a decent salary, all the while spewing forth criticism of the country that
took him in and heaped honours on him, is nauseating. As Ian Buruma concluded
in his review of Said’s memoir, Out of Place, “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”.

 Said’s Anti-Westernism

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

Denials to the contrary, an actual reading of Orientalism is enough
to show Said’s anti-Westernism. While he does occasionally use inverted commas
around “the Orient” and “the Occident”, the entire 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 himself has rather
crudely set up.

Said wrote, “I doubt that it is controversial, for example, 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
in this study of Orientalism”.[ Emphasis in original ]

Here is Said’s characterisation of all Europeans: “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”. In other words
not only is every European a racist, but he must necessarily be so.

A part of Said’s tactics is to leave out Western writers and scholars who do
not conform to Said’s theoretical framework. Since, arguably, for Said, all
Europeans are a priori racist, he obviously cannot allow himself to quote
writers who are not. Indeed one could write a parallel work to Orientalism
made up of extracts from Western writers, scholars, and travellers who were
attracted by various aspects of non-European cultures, which they praised and
contrasted favourably with their own decadence, bigotry, intolerance, and bellicosity.

Said makes much of Aeschylus’ The Persians, and its putative permanent
creation of the “Other” in Western civilization. But Aeschylus can
be forgiven his moment of triumphalism when he describes a battle in which he
very probably took part in 480 B.C., the Battle of Salamis,
on which the very existence of fifth-century Athens depended. The Greeks destroyed
or captured 200 ships for the loss of forty, which for Aeschylus was symbolic
of the triumph of liberty over tyranny, Athenian democracy over Persian Imperialism,
for it must not be forgotten that the Persians were ruthless imperialists whose
rule did not endear them to several generations of Greeks.

Furthermore had he delved a little deeper into Greek civilization and history,
and looked at Herodotus’ great history, Said would have encountered two features
which were also deep characteristics of Western civilization and which Said
is at pains to conceal and refuses to allow: the seeking after knowledge for
its own sake, and its profound belief in the unity of mankind, in other words
its universalism. The Greek word, historia, from which we get our “history”,
means “research” or “inquiry”, and Herodotus believed his
work was the outcome of research: what he had seen, heard, and read but supplemented
and verified by inquiry. For Herodotus, “historical facts have intrinsic
value and rational meaning”. He was totally devoid of racial prejudice
– indeed Plutarch later branded him a philobarbaros, whose nearest modern
equivalent would be “nigger-lover”- and his work showed considerable
sympathy for Persians and Persian civilization. Herodotus represents Persians
as honest – “they consider telling lies more disgraceful than anything
else” – brave, dignified, and loyal to their king. As to the religions
of the various peoples he studied, Herodotus showed his customary intellectual
curiosity but also his reverence for all of them, because “all men know
equally about divine things”.

It was left to Montaigne, under the influence of Peter Martyr, to develop the
first full- length portrait of the noble savage in his celebrated essay “On
“,( c. 1580) which is also the source of the idea of cultural
relativism. Deriving his rather shaky information from a plain, simple fellow,
Montaigne describes some of the more gruesome customs of the Brazilian Indians
and concludes:

I am not so anxious that we should note the horrible savagery of these
acts as concerned that, whilst judging their faults so correctly, we should
be so blind to our own. I consider it more barbarous to eat a man alive than
to eat him dead; to tear by rack and torture a body still full of feeling, to
roast it by degrees, and then give it to be trampled and eaten by dogs and swine
– a practice which we have not only read about but seen within recent memory,
not between ancient enemies, but between neighbours and fellow-citizens and,
what is worse, under the cloak of piety and religion – than to roast and eat
a man after he is dead.

Elsewhere in the essay, Montaigne emphasises their inevitable simplicity, state
of purity and freedom from corruption. Even their “fighting is entirely
noble”. Like Peter Martyr, Montaigne’s rather dubious, second hand knowledge
of these noble savages does not prevent him from criticising and morally condemning
his own culture and civilisation: “[We] surpass them in every kind of barbarity”.

The attitude of Voltaire can be seen as typical of the entire 18th century.
Voltaire seems to have regretted what he had written of Muhammad in his scurrilous,
and to a Muslim blasphemous, play Mahomet (1742), where the Prophet is presented as
an impostor who enslaved men’s souls: “Assuredly, I have made him out to
be more evil than he was”.

But, Voltaire, in his Essai sur les Moeurs,1756, and various entries
in the Philosophical Dictionary, shows himself to be prejudiced in Islam’s favour
at the expense of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular.

Gibbon, like Voltaire, painted Islam in as favourable a light as possible in
order to better contrast it with Christianity. He emphasised Muhammad’s humanity
as a means of indirectly criticising the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ. His
anti-clericalism led Gibbon to underline Islam’s supposed freedom from that
accursed class, the priesthood. Gibbon’ s deistic view of Islam as a rational,
priest-free religion, with Muhammad as a wise and tolerant lawgiver enormously
influenced the way all Europeans perceived a sister religion for years to come.

The important thing to emphasize here is the biased nature of Said’s apparently
learned and definitive selection; I could just as easily go through Western
Literature and illustrate the opposite point to the one he is making. Furthermore,
my selection is not of some peripheral figures culled from the margins of Western
culture, but the very makers of that culture, figures like Montaigne, Bayle,
Voltaire, Gibbon, Lessing and some I have not quoted like Montesquieu (The
Persian Letters
, 1721) and Diderot (Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville,
1772), the latter two exemplifying the European Enlightenment’s appeal to reason,
objective truth and universalist values.

Misunderstanding of Western Civilization

The golden thread running through Western civilization is rationalism. As Aristotle
said, Man by nature strives to know. This striving for knowledge results in
science, which is but the application of reason. Intellectual inquisitiveness
is one of the hall marks of Western civilisation.

Vulgar Marxists, Freudians, and Anti-Imperialists, who crudely reduce all human
activities to money, sex, and power respectively, have difficulties in understanding
the very notion of disinterested intellectual inquiry, knowledge for knowledge’s

One should remind Said that it was this desire for knowledge on the part of
Europeans that led to the people of the Near East recovering and discovering
their own past and their own identity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth
century archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia, Ancient Syria, Ancient Palestine
and Iran were carried out entirely by Europeans and later Americans – the disciplines
of Egyptology, Assyriology, Iranology which restored to mankind a large part
of its heritage were the exclusive creations of inquisitive Europeans and Americans.
Whereas, for doctrinal reasons, Islam deliberately refused to look at its pre-Islamic
past, which was considered a period of ignorance.

It is also worth pointing out that often the motives, desires, and prejudices
of a scholar have no bearing upon the scientific worth of a scholar’s contribution.
Again, vulgar Marxists, for example, dismiss an opponent’s arguments not on
any scientific or rational grounds but merely because of the social origins
of the scholar concerned.

Said, Sex, and Psychoanalysis

If Said can be said to have a bête-noir, it must surely be Bernard
Lewis. Said has a sentence where he accuses Lewis of persisting “in such
‘philological’ tricks as deriving an aspect of the predilection in contemporary
Arab Islam for revolutionary violence from Bedouin descriptions of a camel rising”.
Said, twenty five years on, still has not forgotten his battle with Lewis on
the issue of a camel rising, to which I will now turn. In Orientalism,
Said quotes from Lewis’ essay “Islamic Concepts of Revolution”:

In the Arabic-speaking countries a different word was used for [revolution]
thawra. The root th-w-r in Classical Arabic meant to rise up (e.g.
of a camel), to be stirred or excited, and hence, especially in Maghribi usage,
to rebel. It is often used in the context of establishing a petty, independent
sovereignty; thus, for example, the so-called party kings who ruled in eleventh
century Spain after the break-up of the Caliphate of Cordova are called thuwwar
(sing. tha’ir). The noun thawra at first means excitement, as
in the phrase, cited in the Sihah, a standard medieval Arabic dictionary, intazir
hatta taskun hadhihi ’lthawra
, wait till this excitement dies down – very
apt recommendation. The verb is used by al-Iji, in the form of thawaran
or itharat fitna, stirring up sedition, as one of the dangers which should
discourage a man from practising the duty of resistance to bad government. Thawra
is the term used by Arabic writers in the nineteenth century for the French
Revolution, and by their successors for the approved revolutions, domestic and
foreign, of our own time.

Among Said ’s conclusions is :

Lewis’s association of thawra with a camel rising and generally
with excitement (and not with a struggle on behalf of values) hints much more
broadly than is usual for him that the Arab is scarcely more than a neurotic
sexual being. Each of the words or phrases he uses to describe revolution is
tinged with sexuality: stirred, excited, rising up. But for the most
part it is a ‘bad’ sexuality he ascribes to the Arab.

Can any rational person have drawn any conclusion which even remotely resembled
that of Edward Said’s from Lewis’s scholarly discussion of Classical Arabic

Orientalists’ Complicity in Imperialism

One of Said’s major theses is that Orientalism was not a disinterested activity
but a political one, with Orientalists preparing the ground for and colluding
with imperialists: “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization
of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified
in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact”. The Orientalist
provides the knowledge that keeps the Oriental under control: “Once again,
knowledge of subject races or Orientals is what makes their management easy
and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and
so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control”.

This is combined with Said’s thesis derived from the Coptic socialist thinker,
Anwar Abdel Malek, that the Orient is always seen by the Orientalists as unchanging,
uniform and peculiar, and Orientals have been reduced to racist stereotypes,
and are seen as ahistorical ‘objects’ of study “stamped with an otherness…of
an essentialist character….”. The Orientalists have provided a false
picture of Islam: “Islam has been fundamentally misrepresented in the West”.
Said adds Foucault to the heady mix; the French guru convinced Said that Orientalist
scholarship took place within the ideological framework he called ‘discourse’
and that “the real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation
of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are
representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture,
institutions, and political ambience of the representer. If the latter alternative
is the correct one (as I believe it is), then we must be prepared to accept
the fact that a representation is eo ipso implicated, intertwined, embedded,
interwoven with a great many other things besides the ‘truth,’ which is itself
a representation”.

It takes little thought to see that there is a contradiction in Said’s major
thesis. If Orientalists have produced a false picture of the Orient, Orientals,
Islam, Arabs, and Arabic society – and, in any case, for Said, there is no such
thing as “the truth” – then how could this false or pseudo- knowledge
have helped European imperialists to dominate three-quarters of the globe? ‘Information
and control’ wrote Said, but what of ‘false information and control ’?

Orientalists Fight back

For a number of years now, Islamologists have been aware of the disastrous
effect of Said’s Orientalism on their discipline. Professor Berg has
complained that the latter’s influence has resulted in “a fear of asking
and answering potentially embarrassing questions – ones which might upset Muslim

For Clive Dewey, Said’s book “was, technically, so bad; in every respect,
in its use of sources, in its deductions, it lacked rigour and balance. The
outcome was a caricature of Western knowledge of the Orient, driven by an overtly
political agenda. Yet it clearly touched a deep vein of vulgar prejudice running
through American academe”.

The most famous modern scholar who not only replied to but who wiped the floor
with Said was, of course, Bernard Lewis. Lewis points to many serious errors
of history, interpretation, analysis and omission. Lewis has never been answered
let alone refuted.

Negative Arab and Asian Reaction to Said’s Orientalism

It must have been particularly galling for Said to see the hostile reviews
of his Orientalism from Arab, Iranian or Asian intellectuals, some of
whom he admired and singled out for praise in many of his works. For example,
Nikki Keddie, praised in Covering Islam, talked of the disastrous influence
of Orientalism, even though she herself admired parts of it:

I think that there has been a tendency in the Middle East field to adopt
the word ‘orientalism’ as a generalized swear-word essentially referring to
people who take the ‘wrong’ position on the Arab-Israeli dispute or to people
who are judged too ‘conservative’. It has nothing to do with whether they are
good or not good in their disciplines. So “orientalism” for many people
is a word that substitutes for thought and enables people to dismiss certain
scholars and their works. I think that is too bad. It may not have been what
Edward Said meant at all, but the term has become a kind of slogan.

Kanan Makiya, the eminent Iraqi scholar, chronicled Said’s disastrous influence
particularly in the Arab world:

Orientalism as an intellectual project influenced a whole generation
of young Arab scholars, and it shaped the discipline of modern Middle East studies
in the 1980s.The original book was never intended as a critique of contemporary
Arab politics, yet it fed into a deeply rooted populist politics of resentment
against the West. The distortions it analyzed came from the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, but these were marshalled by young Arab and “pro-Arab “scholars
into an intellectual-political agenda that was out of kilter with the real needs
of Arabs who were living in a world characterized by rapidly escalating cruelty,
not ever-increasing imperial domination.

Though he finds much to admire in Said’s Orientalism, the Syrian philosopher
Sadiq al- ‘Azm finds that “the stylist and polemicist in Edward Said very
often runs away with the systematic thinker”. Al-‘Azm also finds Said guilty
of the very essentialism that Said ostensibly sets out to criticise, perpetuating
the distinction between East and West.

Nadim al-Bitar, a Lebanese Muslim, finds Said‘s generalizations about all Orientalists
hard to accept, and is very skeptical about Said having read more than a handful
of Orientalist works. Al-Bitar also accuses Said of essentialism, “[Said]
does to [Western] Orientalism what he accuses the latter of doing to the Orient.
He dichotomizes it and essentializes it. East is East and West is West and each
has its own intrinsic and permanent nature….”

The most pernicious legacy of Said’s Orientalism is its support for
religious fundamentalism, and on its insistence that “all the ills [of
the Arab world] emanate from Orientalism and have nothing to do with the socio-economic,
political and ideological makeup of the Arab lands or with the cultural historical
backwardness which stands behind it”.

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