Occidental Truth

Reviewed by Daniel Mandel

Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's 'Orientalism'
by Ibn Warraq
Prometheus Books, 2007, 343 pages.

It is one of today’s sad truths that to be an open critic of Islam is to incur mortal risk—even while living in the West. For this reason, the author of such daring works as Why I Am Not a Muslim goes by the pseudonym “Ibn Warraq,” an alias favored by Muslim apostates for centuries. Since 1995, this 61-year-old, Indian-born, ex-Muslim secularist has devoted his considerable talents to raising awareness in the West of the dangers posed to democratic liberties by radical Islam. He is also a strident opponent of the tendency—stemming from political correctness and general academic culture—to refrain from critically examining Islam. It is fitting, therefore, that his new work, Defending the West, is a spirited rebuttal of post-colonialist thought and its originator, the late Columbia University professor Edward Said.
For the most part, Warraq concentrates on Said’s seminal 1978 book, Orientalism, a scathing assault on traditional Western scholarship of Islam and the Middle East. There is a very good reason for this choice of target: Said’s theories laid the groundwork for “post-colonial studies,” the academic discipline whose founding principle is the belief that the West—and everything identified with its intellectual and cultural traditions—is guilty of oppressing and exploiting those foreign cultures that came under its power and influence at one time or another. Warraq’s critique of Said, therefore, is not only an intellectual polemic, but also a forceful refutation of an academic onslaught that for three decades has derogated and condemned almost everything connected to the Western tradition.
Edward Said, who played a defining role in this cultural polemic, was born in 1935 in Jerusalem to a Palestinian Christian family. Contrary to much of what he said or implied before his eleventh-hour memoir, Out of Place (2000), he was raised not in Jerusalem but in Egypt. He enjoyed a childhood of considerable privilege, was educated at the Victoria College in Alexandria, and eventually took up residence in the United States. He subsequently studied literature at Prince-ton, Harvard, and Oxford universities, establishing himself as a major literary theorist. Eventually, he became a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Said often noted that, his origins notwithstanding, “most of my education, and certainly all of my basic intellectual formation, are Western.”
Israel’s crushing defeat of the neighboring Arab armies in 1967 was a source of humiliation for many Arabs both in the Middle East and abroad. In the case of Edward Said, it was the catalyst for his increasingly vocal role on behalf of the Palestinian nationalist movement. Soon, he became its intellectual spokesman in the West, publishing such polemics as The Question of Palestine (1979), The Politics of Dispossession (1994), and The End of the Peace Process (2000). In these and other works, he presented Zionism as a colonialist movement imposed by the West upon a hapless and oppressed people. During the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when the Palestine Liberation Organization was openly waging a terrorist campaign against Israel and advocating its elimination and replacement with an Arab state, Said penned the hagiography of the movement and its leader, Yasser Arafat. According to Said’s heroic narrative, the Palestinian cause was a national liberation movement in its purest form. In his 1983 essay, “Solidly Behind Arafat,” Said claimed that Arafat “built institutions, dispensed arms, and instilled a sense of hope and pride.” He went on to say:
Beyond that, Mr. Arafat did two supremely important things. First, he made the PLO a genuinely representative body. Even his enemies knew that Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian will—though not always clearly and consistently articulated—were in a sense interchangeable.... Second, he was the first popular Palestinian leader to formulate the notion that Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews would—indeed must—seek a future together on an equal footing in a shared territory.
Such thoroughly disingenuous language—“equal footing,” for instance, is misleading shorthand for an Arab-dominated unitary state—was typical of Said. His adulation of Arafat, however, did not last: When the PLO chairman signed the Oslo accords with Israel in 1993, Said denounced the agreement as an “instrument of surrender.” Galvanized, perhaps, by the Palestinian leader’s seeming betrayal of the anti-Zionist cause, Said also wrote starkly of Arafat’s corrosive habits: “Political discourse no longer exists: People discuss matters that affect survival, and politics is discredited”—leaving one to wonder what became of the “genuinely representative” leader he had once valorized.
Despite occasional conciliatory words about Jews and criticism of Arafat, Said was openly opposed to Israel’s existence. In an August 2000 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he said of the Jews that “They can certainly be a minority… in Israel. A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived.” Given the historical treatment of Jews in the Muslim world, it is hardly surprising that Said’s largesse met with little enthusiasm from its intended beneficiaries. By the end of his life, Said had degenerated into referring to New York City as “the citadel of Zionist power” and promulgating conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of American politics. At his passing in 2003, even some of his old comrades, most notably the literary critic Christopher Hitchens, found it difficult to sing his praises.
Orientalism, however, has demonstrated remarkable staying power. Beyond turning Said into an academic superstar, it turned “Orientalist”—once an entirely unexceptionable term describing scholars of Islam and Eastern cultures—into a dirty word: academic shorthand for racism, colonialism, and oppression. At the beginning of Orientalism, Said declares:
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 which 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 saying in this study of Orientalism. (Emphasis in original.)
Said put it most succinctly when he wrote that “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.”
Following the massive success of Orientalism, Said’s work became ubiquitous in university syllabi, and his columns appeared regularly in such bastions of the mainstream media as the New York Times. As a result, Middle Eastern studies became deeply politicized, a situation Said did his best to promote through the heated and often personal rhetoric he employed against his opponents. None of this in the least affected the cult of personality which grew up around him. Following his death, a chair was endowed in his honor at Columbia, largely as a result of donations provided by Saudi Arabian plutocrats.
To be sure, Warraq is not the first to chronicle and critique Said’s impact on the intellectual world: Distinguished Orientalists of diverse political leanings—such as Ernest Gellner, Albert Hourani, Nikki Keddie, Malcolm Kerr, Bernard Lewis, and Maxime Rodinson—repudiated Said’s ideas in scholarly fashion decades ago, though they largely proved exceptions to the acquiescent rule of their colleagues. Robert Irwin, an Orientalist of note, published the book-length critique Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents in late 2006, as Warraq’s own work was nearing completion. Nonetheless, Warraq deserves credit for his pioneering work in this field, particularly the long essay “Edward Said and the Saidists,” which has been adapted—without major changes—into the first of the three parts which constitute Defending the West.
Warraq sees Said’s oeuvre as deeply pernicious. He believes that it laid the foundation for the cultural and moral relativism of Western intellectuals who indict the West for aggression and imperialism, all the while exculpating the East of any responsibility for its own dysfunctions. As a result, Said’s theories provided (and continue to provide) aid and comfort to radical Islam’s assault on Western liberties. Warraq sets out to demonstrate and critique this malign influence, first by exposing Said’s defective scholarship, and second by providing a survey of the Orientalist tradition that refutes Said’s central claim that it is based on Western supremacism and imperial power. Third, and last, Warraq defends Western works of art that depict the Orient and demonstrate, he believes, impressive cultural openness—something that, according to Saidian post-colonial theory, is simply impossible.

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