Over-Rated: On Edward Said

By Ibn Warraq


[First Published in Standpoint (U.K.),  August 2008.]  

Edward Said, who died in September 2003, was Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University , and the author of more than twenty books on cultural, literary, and political subjects. Said also defended the Palestinian cause with passion, and rage, writing influential books on the conflict such as The Question of Palestine, The Politics of Dispossession, and Peace and Its Discontents. Arguably his most influential-and in my view the most pernicious – work was Orientalism (1978), giving birth to entire new disciplines, such as Postcolonial Studies, and influencing several others such as Subaltern Studies. Universities round the world heaped honours on Said. From the The Oxford Classical Dictionary, the novels of Jane Austen, Kipling, and George Eliot to a book on Mozart’s Operas, one can see Said’s influence at work in all the humanities, almost negating centuries of Western scholarship of the highest order.

For a number of years now, Islamologists have been aware of the disastrous effect of Said’s Orientalism on their discipline. Said’s influence has resulted in a fear of asking and answering potentially embarrassing questions – ones which might upset Muslim sensibilities.[1] Said’s influence makes cross-cultural judgements well-nigh impossible.

Said deliberately misrepresents the work of distinguished scholars such as Richard Southern and Raymond Schwab. Scholars such as Justus Reid Weiner have also shown how Said fabricated all sorts of autobiographical information, concerning his lfe in Palestine and Egypt.

Edward Said’s Orientalism gave those unable to think for themselves a formula.

His work had the attraction of an all-purpose tool which his acolytes, eager, intellectually unprepared, aesthetically unsophisticated, could apply to every cultural phenomenon without having to think critically or without having to conduct any real archival research requiring mastery of languages, or research in the field requiring the mastery of technique and a rigorous methodology. Said’s Orientalism displays all the laziness and arrogance of the man of letters who does not have much time for empirical research or, above all, for making sense of its results. His method derives from the work of fashionable French intellectuals and theorists. Existentialists, structuralists, deconstructionists, post-modernists all postulate grandiose theories, but, unfortunately, these are based on flimsy historical or empirical foundations.

Post- Second World War Western intellectuals, and leftists were consumed by guilt for the West’s colonial past and continuing colonialist present, and wholeheartedly embraced any theory or ideology that voiced or at least seemed to voice the putatively thwarted aspirations of the peoples of the Third World . Orientalism came at the precise time when anti-Western rhetoric was at its most shrill, and was already being taught at western universities, and third-worldism was at its most popular. Jean-Paul Sartre  preached that all white men were complicit in the exploitation of the Third World , and that violence against westerners was a legitimate means for colonized men to re-acquire their manhood. Said went further: “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, for Said, is every European a racist, but he must necessarily be so. Western Civilisation has been more willing to criticize itself than any other major culture.These self-administered admonishments are, however, a far cry from Said’s savage strictures, and yet they found a new generation ready to take them to heart. Berating and blaming the West, a fashionable game in the 1960s and 1970s which impressionable youth took seriously, had the results we now see when the same generation appears unwilling to defend the West against the greatest threat that it has faced since the Nazis.

Said’s influence, thus, was a result of a conjunction of several intellectual and political trends: post-French Algeria and post-Vietnam tiers mondisme [third-worldism], the politicization of increasingly post-modernist English departments which had argued away the very idea of truth, objective truth, and the influence of Michel Foucault. In effect Said played on each of these confidence tricks to create a master fraud which bound American academics and Middle East tyrants in unstated bonds of anti-American complicity.

Said attacks not only the entire discipline of Orientalism, which is devoted to the academic study of the Orient, and which Said accuses of perpetuating negative racial stereotypes, anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudice, and the myth of an unchanging, essential “Orient,” but 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. For Said, 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 by the advanced West (contrasting western strength with eastern weakness).

Said claims he is explicitly anti-essentialist particularly about “the West.”  But Said ascribes to the West a coherent self-identity that has produced a specific set of value judgements – “Europe is powerful and articulate: Asia is defeated and distant” – that have remained constant for the past 2500 years!  This is nothing less than the use of the very notion of “essentialism” that he elsewhere condemns so vigorously.[2]

It takes little thought to see that there is a contradiction in Said’s major thesis.[3] 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’?

To argue his case, Said very conveniently leaves out the important contributions of German Orientalists, for their inclusion would destroy – and their exclusion does indeed totally destroy – the central thesis of Orientalism, that all Orientalists’ produced knowledge which generated power, and that they colluded and helped Imperialists found empires. Germans Orientalists were the greatest of all scholars of the Orient, but, of course, Germany was never an imperial power in any of the Oriental countries of North Africa or the Middle East. 

The most pernicious legacy of Said’s Orientalism is its implicit support for religious fundamentalism, and on its insistence that, to quote an Arab critic of Said, “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.”[4]  

Edward Said has much to answer for.

[1] Herbert Berg, “The Methods and Theories of John Wansbrough,” The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, ed.Ibn Warraq, Prometheus Books: Amherst, 2000, p.  502

[2] Windschuttle, “Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ revisited” in The New Criterion, Vol.  17, No.  5, January 1999.

[3] Windschuttle, “Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ revisited.”

[4] Al-Bitar, quoted in Emmanuel Sivan, Interpretations of Islam: Past and Present, Princeton, NJ: The Darwin Press, 1985, p.  151.