Operating on the very margin

Hitchens’s review of Robert Irwin’s Dangerous Knowledge starts well. Attentive readers of B&W may be able to answer his opening question.

Of what book and author was the following sentence written, and by whom? “Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home — all in one act.”

This was the quasi-articulate attack recently leveled, by a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, on Reading Lolita in Tehran…The professor described Nafisi’s work as resembling “the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India,” and its author as the moral equivalent of a sadistic torturer at Abu Ghraib. “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi,” Hamid Dabashi…said.

Remember Dabashi and his way with words (and thoughts)? He’s a piece of work.

I cannot imagine my late friend Edward Said, who was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, either saying or believing anything so vulgar. And I know from experience that he was often dismayed by the views of people claiming to be his acolytes. But if there is a faction in the academy that now regards the acquisition of knowledge about “the East” as an essentially imperialist project, amounting to an “appropriation” and “subordination” of another culture, then it must be conceded that Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism, was highly influential in forming this cast of mind.

Yep. As Ibn Warraq argued in an article right here on B&W nearly four years ago.

[T]hough Irwin does not say so explicitly, the general academic reticence about Islam that he so much deplores may well have something to do with the potentially atheistic consequences of any unfettered inquiry. As he phrases it: “Because of the possible offense to Muslim susceptibilities, Western scholars who specialize in the early history of Islam have to be extremely careful what they say, and some of them have developed subtle forms of double-speak when discussing contentious matters.”

This is to say the very least: “Western scholars” and authors like Karen Armstrong and Bruce Lawrence have adopted the strategy of taking Islam’s claims more or less at face value, while non-Western critics who do not believe in revealed religion at all, such as Ibn Warraq, are now operating on the very margin of what is considered tactful or permissible. Even a relatively generous treatment of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, such as that composed by Rodinson, is considered too controversial on many campuses in the West.

Yep again. Many people consider Ibn Warraq well over the margin of what is considered tactful or permissible. Worries about offense to theistic susceptibilities are not good for free and unimpeded inquiry. You already knew that, but I thought I would remind you.

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