The Bertrand Russell of Islam

By MICHAEL WEISS | December 12, 2007, New York Sun.
134
Book Review
Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism
by Ibn Warraq

As of last April, the late Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” originally published in 1978, was no. 2 on the best-seller list in Cairo. No. 1was a book arguing that Saddam Hussein hadn’t really been executed — all cell phone video evidence to the contrary, the writer argued, was a fabrication of the CIA.

Ibn Warraq, a scholar of Islam and the author of the recently released “Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism,” pointed out this macabre fact to me over the phone as a sign of what went wrong with postcolonial studies — the academic field more or less founded by Said, which, in an effort to examine the relationship of conqueror to conquered, placed a dime-store psychology of empire at the center of every discussion of “East meets West.” Not only did the British and French colonize and expropriate the East, according to Said, their imperial prejudice clouded their understanding of those they conquered. More than that, they “invented” an entire sham epistemology, Said and his followers contend, with which every Western observer has since approached the East and used to his advantage in further colonizing and expropriating it. Said’s legacy, however, accomplished exactly what anyone professing sympathy with the Islamic world should have wished to avoid, Mr. Warraq believes. That is, in defending the virtue of traditional cultures, it gave that world a high-minded rationalization for a persisting status quo of medievalism and intellectual poverty throughout the Middle East.

“‘Orientalism,'” Mr. Warraq writes, “taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity … encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist generation of the 1980s, and bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam.” Though it’s Mr. Warraq’s plaint that the book “stopped dead the research of eminent Islamologists who felt their findings might offend Muslims’ sensibilities,” it is not merely an abstract charge, but personally felt. “Ibn Warraq” is an Arabic pseudonym, meaning “son of a stationer, book-seller, paper-seller,” which this Indian-born writer assumed after witnessing the critical reception Islamists gave Salman Rushdie, all the while claiming themselves as victims.

Said, Mr. Warraq argues, contributed to the Islamic ideology of victimization, practically inviting offense by writing, “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” This sentence is repeated multiple times throughout “Defending the West,” which otherwise might have been titled “Not In My Name.” Applying the cool, thin steel of Occam to these and other follies of logic and critical analysis, Mr. Warraq asks, “If Orientalists have produced a false picture of the Orient, Orientals, Islam, Arabs, and Arabic society… then how could this false or pseudo-knowledge have helped European imperialists to dominate three-quarters of the globe?”

As with all theories that attempt to explain everything and end up explaining little, Said’s suffers from the added vice of being dangerous. “I delivered a paper at the American Enterprise Institute two weeks ago on Robert Conquest,” Mr. Warraq said. “I talked about Foucault. He made a complete ass of himself and he refused to retract anything he said when he endorsed the revolution in Iran. He was very much pro-Khomeini. When secularists wrote to him, he dismissed them as inauthentic because they were too Westernized!”

Mr. Warraq’s esteem for Conquest, the premier truth teller of Stalinism, comports neatly with his defense of what he terms the three pillars of Western thought: rationalism, self-criticism, and universalism. By Orientalism’s lights, these are mere masquerades for prejudice, hubris, and condescension — ironically, the very faults Mr. Warraq ascribes to Said and his epigones, particularly when it comes to such an urgent question as Kurdish autonomy in Iraq. “Anybody who wants to modernize must be a stooge of the imperialists,” Mr. Warraq said, paraphrasing their worldview. “Anyone who thinks rationally is suspect. Foucault once said, ‘[Iranians] have a different regime of truth than ours.’ This is cultural relativism gone berserk. If anything is ‘Orientalist’ in the pejorative sense, it is that.”

In “Defending the West,” Mr. Warraq catalogs Said’s many solecisms and howlers — mistaking “scatological” for “eschatological,” assuming the great Hungarian Orientalist Ignaz Goldhizer to be German, ignorantly assigning territories to the British and French imperiums that really belonged to the Ottoman one. But his real aim is more ambitious still: to create a “parallel work … made up of extracts from Western writers, scholars and travelers who were attracted by various aspects of non-European cultures, which they praised and contrasted favorably with their own decadence, bigotry, intolerance and bellicosity.” In this, Mr. Warraq excels like a latter-day Voltaire, compiling an exhaustive and painstakingly researched “Encyclopedie” of the many humanist European surveyors of the East. In a series of illuminating pen portraits, he shows that the West very often exalted the “rest.”

Mr. Warraq starts with the color-blind, cosmopolitan Greeks. The ancient inhabitants of the island of Chios thought Zeus was black. Herodotus was an unabashed philobarbaros. Aeschylus rendered Darius tragically and sympathetically for the theater, and Alexander the Great, who intermarried and encouraged the practice among his soldiery, had the Persian king’s actual corpse wrapped in his own cloak as a gesture of respect for a vanquished opponent. The Greco-Bactrians of Eurasia believed they came to India with the descendants of Dionysus. Even the Dark Ages allow rarely glimpsed shafts of light. Isidore of Seville (560-636) “introduced Aristotle to his countrymen before the Arabs,” whom Adelard of Bath, in the 12th century, credited with having the best critical faculties of any race of man. In the Renaissance, the Muslim philosophers Averroes and Avicenna were read compulsively in Padua and Bologna, not least of all by Pico della Mirandola.

Antiquity had the basic philosophical underpinnings right, Mr. Warraq writes, but the Enlightenment broadened man’s scope and gave him a secular, scientific basis for the study of natural law. Indeed, as a proud atheist, the author of “Why I Am Not a Muslim,” and an anthologist of several books devoted to Muslim apostasy and exegesis of the Koran, Mr. Warraq would happily color himself an “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” to borrow Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma’s shared animadversion on Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Mr. Buruma had problems with Said’s methodology and is cited approvingly in “Defending the West,” so I was curious to hear what Mr. Warraq thought of his treatment of the Somali dissident. “[Buruma] wrote a disgraceful book full of an incredible number of errors blaming the victim for bringing it all on herself.”

And what about Tariq Ramadan, the “moderate” Islamic philosopher, son of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who is Buruma’s preferred dragoman for liberal Europe? Mr. Warraq debated him in London last month on the question of the superiority of Western values. “When [Ramadan] gives interviews in English, he’s incredibly evasive. He’s not the kind of guy I’d buy a secondhand car from. If you ask him, ‘Do you think lapidation for adultery should be banned?,’ he never says ‘yes’ categorically. He says things such as, ‘At this moment, it is not applicable’ or ‘it is not advisable.’ Always this prevarication.”

Mr. Warraq’s beef with Said, however, is more a matter of reductionism than prevarication: that “Orientalism” misses two crucial points about human nature in its discussion of relations between East and West. The first is that even the worst offenders aren’t always motivated by bigotry or grand imperial designs. The second is that the institutions they erect are often more significant and enduring than their venality and greed.

Mr. Warraq praises the British of the 18th and 19th centuries for their role shepherding India’s cultural renewal — not to mention in combating the corruption of British colonialism. Edmund Burke led the moral and legislative charge against Warren Hastings, the notorious head of the East India Company. James Prinsep, a secretary of the celebrated Asiatic Society of Bengal, drained the malarial swamps of Calcutta, restored the collapsing mosque of Aurangzeb stone by stone, and discovered that once-indecipherable rock inscriptions were made by the emperor Asoka Maurya. Mr. Warraq relies on several modern Indian historians, such as A.L. Basham and Nirad Chaudhuri, to emphasize the great esteem in which British Orientalists are still held — men such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke, who agitated for the end of the East India Company’s monopoly and composed a systematic study of Sanskrit and Hindu law as well as the only authoritative analysis of the Veda; Sir William Jones, the “father of Indian history” and one of the early discoverers of the Indo-European linguistic nexus (he thought Sanskrit “more exquisitely refined” than Latin or Greek), and William Carey, the “father of Bengali prose,” who single-handedly restored a lost literature.

Mr. Warraq is no admirer of the “clash of civilizations” thesis, and — as if to prove his own point about self-criticism — he says he absorbed a lot of the negative feedback on “Why I Am Not a Muslim.” This is why, in the current volume, he employs a useful tripartite distinction of Islam borrowed, he says, from Bernard Lewis: Islam One is the Koran, Islam Two is the hadith, or oral tradition relating to the words and deeds of the prophet, and Islam Three is Muslim civilization, which is as variegated as it is large. One and two, Mr. Warraq says, are incompatible with democracy and human rights. As for three, “many Muslim feminists try to re-interpret or ignore Koranic passages in order to improve the lives of all Muslim women. Only time will tell if such strategies will work.” Mr. Warraq tells me: “We’re not going to eradicate Islam from the face of the earth, and I have no wish for it to be… Islam Three is going to require a lot of sociological and empirical research. One has to be careful when we talk about Islam, one has to be more specific.” This is a courtesy Said botched, or simply failed to accord, in his examination of the West.

Mr. Weiss is a contributor to Slate, the Weekly Standard, and the New Criterion.

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