I denounce European colonialism. But I respect the learning and the profound discoveries of Western civilisation.
C.L.R. James, ‘The Making of the Caribbean People’
C.L.R. James was one of the great radicals of the twentieth century. He was an anti-imperialist, a superb historian of black struggles, a socialist who remained one even when it was no longer fashionable to be so. Like most radicals of old, he understood the problem of imperialism not as a Western ideology, but as an obstacle to the pursuit of the progressive ideas that emerged out of the Enlightenment, i.e. reason, humanism and universalism. As Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian nationalist, once put it:
All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought. But Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission that fell to them. (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961)
For James, it was evident that all progressive ideas were rooted in the Western tradition. The scientific method, democratic politics, universal values – these are palpably better concepts than those that existed previously, or continue to exist in other cultures. This is not because Europeans are a superior people, but because superior ideas flowed out of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Thus, the aim of anti-imperialism was not to reject Western ideas, but to reclaim them for all of humanity.
Today, however, James’ defence of Western civilisation would most likely be dismissed as “Eurocentric”, or even “racist”. Indeed, where it was once accepted wisdom for Western civilisation to be characterised as uniquely rooted in individual freedom, representative government, scientific inquiry and exploration, today, the West is more often presented as a historical backwater whose success is mainly due to luck rather than anything unique, or certainly anything that might be seen in a positive light.
This disturbing tendency betrays a contagion of self-doubt in the academic world, whereby one cannot celebrate the achievements of Western civilisation without having ulterior motives. Since the mid-to-late 1960s, with the atrocities of Nazi Germany still fresh in the public consciousness, academics of this persuasion have steadily been gaining influence at the highest levels throughout Europe. This has since given rise to the state-sponsored creed of multiculturalism, with disastrous results.
In the case of Islam, this self-doubt has allowed for levels of Muslim immigration so massive, one would swear that Suleiman the Magnificent had broken through the gates of Vienna in 1529 AD. In the manifest failure of our political establishment to stand up for Western values of religious tolerance, women’s rights, secularism and animal welfare, this mass migration has led to such moral obscenities as extremist mosques, Muslim rape gangs, shari’a courts and halal slaughterhouses becoming the norm.
Indeed, shari’a law has been implemented in the United Kingdom since the early 1980s by Shari’a Councils and by Muslim Arbitration Tribunals since 2007. That the rulings of these courts are arbitrary and discriminatory, particularly against women and children, doesn’t faze those who hold up the UK as a beacon of multiculturalism. Owing to a climate of intellectual fascism on Islam, we now see atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins being lambasted for their “militancy”, while religious fascists who openly incite hatred are welcomed in the name of “diversity”. We see ex-Muslims being deported like common criminals, while Islamist fanatics are protected by new “hate speech” laws.
This intellectual cowardice must come to an end, for the end result is dominance by those who are most resistant to progress. It starts by realising that, while a hundred percent objectivity may be unachievable, ultimately, there is nothing inherently precluding the European from an honest appraisal of foreign cultures – just as there is nothing endemic to the Arab preventing him from understanding concepts such as democracy, secularism and human rights. To assume as much, in fact, would be the height of racism – the bigotry of low expectations – for we are all ultimately members of the same species, with the same fundamental capacity for reason and empathy.
Indeed, when we speak of Western values, what we are actually talking about are values that are conducive to our species’ well-being, and are thus universally applicable. For example, it is objectively better that victims of rape are treated with sympathy and understanding, rather than having their throats cut for “bringing shame” upon the family. It is objectively better that atheists and homosexuals are treated with dignity and respect, rather than being stoned to death or beheaded for their “depravity”. It is objectively better that children are taught their bodies are inviolable, rather than having their genitals mutilated to “keep them chaste”. To quote Sam Harris in this regard:
Of course, honor killing is merely one facet in that terrible kaleidoscope that is the untutored, male imagination: dowry deaths and bride burnings, female infanticide, acid attacks, female genital mutilation, sexual slavery – these and other joys await unlucky women throughout much of the world. Any culture that raises men and boys to kill unlucky girls, rather than comfort them, is a culture that has managed to retard the growth of love. Such societies, of course, regularly fail to teach their inhabitants many other things – like how to read. Not learning how to read is not another ‘style’ of literacy, and not learning to see others as your equals is not another ‘style’ of ethics. It is a failure of ethics. (The End of Faith, 2004)
One must state it plainly: anyone who wishes to live in and benefit from membership of a liberal society must be prepared to live by its basic values. This entails that when religious or cultural traditions come into sharp conflict with them, the espouser must either accommodate himself or yield. If he cannot do either, then he must give up membership of the liberal society and seek a place where he can live according to his alternative values. As the ex-Muslim scholar Ibn Warraq has so brilliantly put it:
While respect for other cultures is indeed a hallmark of a civilised society, multiculturalism is based on some fundamental misconceptions. For one thing, there is the erroneous and sentimental belief that all cultures, deep down, have the same values; or, at least, if different, are equally worthy of respect. But the truth is that not all cultures have the same values, and not all values are worthy of respect. There is nothing sacrosanct about customs or cultural traditions: they can change under criticism. After all, the secularist values of the West are not much more than two hundred years old. If these other values are destructive of our own cherished values, are we not justified in fighting them both by intellectual means – that is by reason and argument, and criticism – and by legal means, by making sure the laws and constitution of the country are respected by all? It becomes a duty to defend those values that we would live by.
Like most people, members of Alliance of Former Muslims (Ireland) are in favour of multiple races and cultures living together, cooperating to build a better world. What we do not favour is a multi-ethical society, where common-sense morality is under constant siege from medieval value systems which are of obvious detriment to our species’ well-being. Diversity is not an unconditional good, despite the insistence of multicultural appeasers to the contrary. As the Christian theologian Thomas D. Williams has put it:
In many things, diversity is indeed a good to be pursued; in others, it is not. In art, literature, and music, the loss of specific cultural traditions would mean a genuine loss for humanity. Imagine if we could listen only to ragtime piano tunes! No folk music. No classical or jazz. No big bands. This would be a real loss. On the other hand, no one calls the loss of belief in a flat world an assault on scientific “diversity”. No one calls for more diversity in mathematics, rather than admitting only one possible answer for each equation. Education surely reduces the diversity of beliefs as people come to know the truth, but who would consider this a setback? The same is true in the case of morality. Society is not made richer by mixing injustice with justice, dishonesty with honesty, or treachery with loyalty. The discovery of universal moral truth may lessen diversity, but it makes the world better, not worse. (Knowing Right from Wrong, 2008)
Those who deny the status of Western culture as something to aspire to, invoking the endurance of racism and sexism to argue their case, fail to realise that were it not for the Enlightenment and its universal view of human values, racial and sexual equality would not have such a common-sense appeal to us today. While imperialism has undoubtedly played a huge role in the development of the West, we should understand that there is a reason the West has been such a dominant power historically – namely, an unparalleled spirit of endeavour and curiosity, framed as a question by sociologist Ricardo Duchesne:
The question is not whether we approve or not of British imperialism. The question is why was the West so dynamic and original in empire-making, warfare, political theory, philosophy, architecture, and poetry? Why was it that the same England that created the greatest maritime empire in history cultivated religious toleration, freedom of expression, and representative government? (The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, 2012)
Indeed, it was Britain’s development of its navy and civil institutions, as well as the implementation of bold administrative and financial reforms, that made it possible for her to appropriate raw materials and slaves from faraway lands. We can take pride in this ambitious nature without supporting the crimes that it has been – and continues to be – misused for. We can affirm the ideas of the Enlightenment without having to defend the horrors of slavery. That is the essential failing of the Regressive Left here: they haven’t learned to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As the great philosopher Albert Camus once put it:
It is fitting for a nation long in tradition and with a strong sense of honour to find the courage to denounce its own errors. But it should not forget all the reasons it could still have for self-esteem. In any case it is dangerous to ask it to confess that it alone was guilty, and to doom it to perpetual penitence.
Assuming the reader requires no further explanation of the problem, we will proceed to mount a robust defence of the West by dissecting Edward Said’s Orientalism – a major source of the rabid anti-Westernism which so defines the modern discourse on Islam. We will achieve this by co-opting the critical writings of Ibn Warraq, who takes Said to task for his wilful misrepresentation of Western culture, denouncing those ‘academics’ who enjoy its liberties and denigrate them at the same time. To quote Efraim Karsh, author of Islamic Imperialism: A History, in this regard:
For decades, Edward Said enjoyed the best that Western academic life had to offer – international celebrity, plaudits, honours and fame beyond the wildest dreams of most professors – while constantly bashing the history, values, and policies that have made this privileged existence possible… Ibn Warraq exposes with razor sharp precision the hypocrisy of Said’s writings, as well as the perverted academic culture that has made his great success possible.
Before we delve into all of that, however, we are obliged to share a brilliant quote from Kenan Malik on the anti-Western resentment that unites Islamic fundamentalists and the Regressive Left. Malik explains that the reason many Western liberals and radicals have become disenchanted with modern civilisation – to the extent that some have even welcomed the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist atrocities as “anti-imperialist” acts – is because contemporary society has lost belief in social transformation, in the possibility of progress, in the beliefs that animated anti-imperialists like James and Fanon:
To regard people as ‘temporarily backward’ rather than ‘permanently different’ is to accept that while people are equal, cultures definitely are not; it is to accept the idea of social and moral progress; that it would be far better if everybody had the chance to live in the type of society or culture that best promoted human advancement.
But it’s just these ideas – and the very act of making judgements about beliefs, values, lifestyles, and cultures – that are now viewed as politically uncouth. In place of the progressive universalism of James and Fanon, contemporary Western societies have embraced a form of nihilistic multiculturalism. We’ve come to see the world as divided into cultures and groups defined largely by their difference with each other. And every group has come to see itself as composed not of active agents attempting to overcome disadvantages by striving for equality and progress, but of passive victims with irresolvable grievances. For if differences are permanent, how can grievances ever be resolved?
The corollary of turning the whole world into a network of victims is to transform the West, and in particular the USA, into an all-powerful malign force – the Great Satan – against which all must rage… In this fatalism lies a common thread that binds contemporary Western radicalism and fundamentalist Islam. On the surface the two seem poles apart: fundamentalists loathe Western decadence, Western radicals fear Islamic presumptions of certainty. But what unites the two is that both are rooted in contemporary nihilistic multiculturalism; both express, at best, ambivalence about, at worst outright rejection of, the ideas of modernity, universality, and progress. And both see no real alternative to Western power.
Most importantly, both conflate the gains of modernism and the iniquities of capitalism. In this way the positive aspects of capitalist society – its invocation of reason, its technological advancements, its ideological commitment to equality and universalism – are denigrated, while its negative aspects – the inability to overcome social divisions, the contrast between technological advance and moral turpitude, the tendencies toward barbarism – are seen as inevitable or natural…
The fury that drove the planes into the Twin Towers was nurtured as much by the nihilism and fatalism that now grips much of Western society as by the struggle in Palestine or anywhere else in the developing world. There was nothing remotely anti-imperialist or progressive about the attack; nor is there about the visceral anti-Westernism that today animates Islamic fundamentalists and Western radicals alike.
Said’s Intellectual Terrorism
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… To 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?1
It takes 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, had written it? And yet, ironically, what makes self-examination very difficult for Arabs and Muslims is the pernicious influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism2. This book 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” – bludgeoned into silence any critics of Islam, and put a halt to the research of eminent Islamologists who dared not risk being labeled as “Orientalist”.
The aggressive tone of Orientalism is what many have deemed ‘intellectual terrorism’, since it seeks to convince not by arguments or historical analysis, but by levelling charges of racism, imperialism and Eurocentrism at anyone who disagrees with its author. The moral high ground is an essential element in Said’s tactics: since he believes his position is morally unimpeachable, he feels justified in using any possible means to defend it, including distorting the views of respected scholars and interpreting history in a highly tendentious way – in short, twisting the truth.
Historical Howlers and Intellectual Dishonesty
For a work that purports to be a serious work of intellectual history, Orientalism is full of historical howlers3. 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; indeed, 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, which was manifestly not the case with Egypt4.
In an attempt to excuse Muslim dominance of Turkey as part of Islam’s formative years, Said claims that Muslim armies conquered Turkey before they overran North Africa in the seventh century. In reality, what is now Turkey remained part of the Eastern Roman Empire (Christian) until it was conquered by the Seljuk Turks in the late eleventh century5. On Pakistan, Said 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: rather, it was created in 1947 when the British left India.
Said talks 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 sixteenth century, and was never interested in the subjugation or settlement of large areas6. In China, Portugal only had the tiny foothold of 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. Indeed, by the early eighteenth century, Dutch supremacy reigned supreme in the Indian Ocean and Indonesia. However, like the Portuguese, the Dutch did not subjugate the Orient, but worked through diplomacy with native rulers and a network of trading stations7.
Most of these errors can be put down to ignorance, for Said was certainly no historian. However, we can only describe as intellectual dishonesty the way in which Said misrepresents a distinguished scholar’s work. Said quotes with approval and admiration some of the conclusions of R.W. Southern’s Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages:
Most conspicuous to us is the inability of any of these systems of thought [European Christianity] to provide a fully satisfying explanation of the phenomenon they had set out to explain [Islam] – still less to influence the course of practical events in a decisive way. At a practical level, events never turned out either so well or so ill as the most intelligent observers predicted; and it is perhaps worth noticing that they never turned out better than when the best judges confidently expected a happy ending. Was there any progress [in Christian knowledge of Islam]? I must express my conviction that there was. Even if the solution of the problem remained obstinately hidden from sight, the statement of the problem became more complex, more rational, and more related to experience… The scholars who labored at the problem of Islam in the Middle Ages failed to find the solution they sought and desired; but they developed habits of mind and powers of comprehension which, in other men and in other fields, may yet deserve success.8
Now here is Said’s extraordinary misinterpretation of the quote from Southern:
The best part of Southern’s analysis…is his demonstration that it is finally Western ignorance which becomes more refined and complex, not some body of positive Western knowledge which increases in size and accuracy.9
This is absolutely not what Southern is saying, and Said knows it. Southern asks a question about Western knowledge of the Orient, with a particular emphasis on Islam, and replies: “Was there any progress? I must express my conviction that there was.” Southern adds that the medieval scholars’ methodology became increasingly sophisticated: they were more mature intellectually, since they developed habits of mind that would pay dividends later. How Said can speak of “Western ignorance which becomes more refined” is a mystery, but it is in keeping with his aim of painting the West as negatively as possible.
Incidentally, the same passage from Southern contradicts one of Said’s principal theses about Oriental studies being a cause of imperialism. All this thinking about the Orient failed, Southern says, “to influence the course of practical events in a decisive way.”
Said 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 civilisation with, 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 detail that so vivid a punishment entails: Muhammad’s entrails and his excrement are described with unflinching accuracy.10
First, Said doesn’t seem to know the difference between scatological and eschatological. Second, how does he know that Dante’s description is unflinchingly accurate? He simply means that it was highly graphic. One would swear that Said had seen Muhammad’s innards for himself, so careless is his language here. Said makes much of the fact that, earlier in the Inferno, three Muslims turn up in the company of virtuous heathens like Plato and Aristotle. He continues:
But the special anachronisms and anomalies of putting pre-Christian luminaries in the same category of ‘heathen’ damnation with post-Christian Muslims does not trouble Dante. Even though the Koran specifies Jesus as a prophet, Dante chooses to consider the great Muslim philosophers [Avicenna and Averroes] and king [Saladin] as having been fundamentally ignorant of Christianity.11
This comment betrays Said’s ignorance of Christian doctrine, even though he himself was raised as a Christian. The three Muslims were in the outer circle of hell not because they were ignorant of Christianity, but because they had died unbaptised. Since these regions of hell are timeless and their inhabitants are there forever, the question of anachronism does not arise, especially as these historical figures have an allegorical significance. Allegory is central to understanding Dante’s work: literra gesta docet, quid credas, allegoria – the literal sense teaches the facts, the allegory what you should believe.
Furthermore, these illustrious Muslims were included precisely because of Dante’s reverence for the non-Christian world; 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 ‘ntesi – great grief seized me at heart when I heard this. The same generous impulse that made him revere non-Christians like Avicenna made Dante relegate Muhammad to eternal punishment in the eighth circle of hell – namely, Dante’s belief in the universal community of the human race: universalis civilitas humani generis.
Dante believed that Muhammad and his followers were the initiators of the great schism between Christianity and Islam. Like many of his contemporaries, he suspected that Muhammad was originally a Christian who wanted to become a pope. Hence, Muhammad was a divider of humanity, whereas Dante stood for the unity of all. Said fails to see how Dante exemplifies Western culture’s strong tendency toward universalism, mainly because he does not want to see it12.
Self-Pity, Victimhood and Imperialism
In order to achieve his goal of portraying the West as negatively 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 and aggression, without any free will or designs of its own. It is to this propensity that we owe the self-pity and the general ugliness of contemporary Middle Eastern culture, with its belief that Muslim decadence is the result of imaginary Western-Zionist conspiracies13. Here is an example of Said’s own belief in such 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 Israeli since has used it. Israel was a device for holding Islam – later the Soviet Union, or communism – at bay.14
As for the politics of victimhood, Said has himself milked it to an indecent degree. Said writes:
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, (and) 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.15
Such wallowing in self-pity from a tenured and much-trumpeted professor at Columbia University, where he enjoyed privileges and a salary that most academics could only dream of, all the while spewing forth hatred of the country that took him in and heaped honours upon 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.16
In Said’s quest to discredit Oriental studies as a vehicle for imperialism, the supposed conquest of Egypt by Napoleon plays a very important role. For Said, Napoleon dominated Egypt, oppressing its people and plundering its vast riches. In reality, the French were defeated and had to retreat hastily after fewer than four years: Napoleon arrived in July 1798 and left for good just over a year later, with the French forces only remaining until September 1801. During this brief interlude, the French fleet was destroyed at the Battle of the Nile, and the French failed to capture Murad Bey after the Battle of the Pyramids. Riots broke out among the Muslims in Cairo when the French left to confront the Turks at Mataria, but the chief victims were Christians, many of whom were slaughtered by the Muslims.
Far from seeing the Egyptians as “the Other” and denigrating Islam, the French were highly sensitive to Muslim opinion, with Napoleon showing an intimate knowledge of the Qur’an. Perhaps the ultimate irony was that after the assassination of General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the command of the French Army passed to General J.F. Baron de Menou, who had converted to Islam and set about enacting measures to pacify the Muslims. Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist, once stated that it is thanks to Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt that his country emerged out of centuries of obscurantism17. Another result of Egypt’s encounter with the West was the discovery of its ancient pre-Islamic past, thanks to the work of scholars such as Auguste Mariette and Jean-Francois Champollion.
Had he bothered to pursue the subsequent history of Egypt, Said would have come across Muhammad Ali, often considered to be the founder of modern Egypt. After the humiliating retreat of the French, the Ottomans’ greatest challenger was a Muslim, the able but ambitious governor of Egypt, who aspired to nothing less than the substitution of his own empire for that of the Ottomans18. Although he was ultimately thwarted by the Ottomans, who had the help of Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia, he was nonetheless able to modernise many of Egypt’s archaic institutions. A little later, Muhammad Ali’s grandson Ismail sought to transform Egypt into a modern imperial power. By the mid-1870s, a vast Egyptian empire had come into being, extending from the Mediterranean in the north to Lake Victoria, and from the Indian Ocean in the east to the Libyan desert19.
It is these kinds of historical details which Said deliberately omits, for they belie the image of Middle Eastern actors as hapless victims of predatory imperial powers, instead revealing them as active participants in the restructuring of their region. It is Said who is guilty of the sins he accuses the Orientalists of – namely, suppressing the voice of Egyptian Arabs and Muslims, the true history of the Near East, which was created by indigenous trends, desires and actions of people in control of their own destiny.
In Orientalism, Said claims that both before and during World War I, secret diplomacy was bent on carving up the Middle East first into spheres of influence, and then into occupied territories20. In actual fact, while economic interests on the part of the Allies cannot be denied, the division of the Middle East was primarily a consequence of the Ottomans deciding to support Germany in the war. With their comprehensive defeat, Britain and France found themselves in control of large swathes of the Middle East, with little recourse but to govern these territories as protectorates until they could be dissolved into individual nation-states. To quote Efraim Karsh in this regard:
The chain of events culminating in the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East was set in motion not by secret diplomacy bent on carving up the Middle East, but rather by the decision of the Ottoman leadership to throw in its lot with Germany. This was by far the single most important decision in the history of the modern Middle East, and it was anything but inevitable. The Ottoman Empire was neither forced into the war in a last-ditch bid to secure its survival, nor maneuvered into it by an overbearing German ally and indifferent or even hostile British policy. Rather, the empire’s wilful plunge into the whirlpool reflected a straightforward imperialist policy of territorial aggrandizement and status acquisition.21
Indeed, it is worth reading what UK Prime Minister Henry Asquith noted in his diary for March 1915:
Edward and I both think that in the interests of our own future, the best thing would be if at the end of the War, we could say that we had taken and gained nothing.22
Similarly, the De Bunsen Committee of April/May 1915 had a clear preference for the maintenance of a decentralised empire comprised of five major provinces: Anatolia, Armenia, Syria, Palestine and Iraq-Jezirah. And yet, when referring to T.E. Lawrence, Said writes:
The great drama of Lawrence’s work is that it symbolises the struggle, first, to stimulate the Orient (lifeless, timeless, forceless) into movement; second, to impose upon that movement an essentially Western shape.23
Once again, Said is assuming that the Arabs were passive, with decisions being made for and imposed upon them as though they were imbeciles. In reality, the forceful personalities of Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his son Faisal had a tremendous impact upon the Ottomans’ decision to enter the war, and were at least as responsible as the Western powers for what emerged after it.
Said’s use of emotive language concerning Western imperialism conceals the real historical background of the entire region. Whereas the French presence in Egypt lasted fewer than four years before they were expelled by the British and the Turks, the Ottomans had been the masters of Egypt since 1517, a total of 280 years. Even if we count the post-war British and French protectorates, Egypt was under Western control for sixty-seven years, Syria for twenty-one years, and Iraq for fifteen. Contrast this with southern Spain, which was under the Muslim yoke for 781 years, Greece for 381 years, and Constantinople, which is still in Muslim hands24. But no Spanish or Greek politics of victimhood seem to exist, a fact which is surely worth celebrating.
In a disingenuous 1994 afterword, Said denies that he is anti-Western and that the phenomenon of Orientalism is a synecdoche of the entire West. He claims that there is no such thing as ‘the Orient’ or ‘the Occident’, and that he has no interest, much less capacity for, in showing what the true Orient and Islam really are25. But a casual reading of Orientalism is enough to demonstrate 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 East and West, the Orient and Europe, Us and the Other, which he himself has crudely set up. Said writes:
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 saying in this study of Orientalism… 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.26
In other words, not only are all Europeans racist, but they must necessarily be so. Said claims to reject the dichotomy of East and West, but here he is again:
Consider first the demarcation between Orient and West. It already seems bold by the time of the Iliad. Two of the most profoundly influential qualities associated with the East appear in Aeschylus’ The Persians, the earliest Athenian play extant, and in the Bacchae of Euripides, the very last one extant… The two aspects of the Orient that set it off from the West in this pair of plays will remain essential motifs of European imaginative geography. A line is drawn between two continents. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant.27
As Keith Windschuttle comments on that passage:
These same motifs persist in Western culture, [Said] claims, right down to the modern period. This is a tradition that accommodates perspectives as divergent as those of Aeschylus, Dante, Victor Hugo, and Karl Marx. However, in describing “the essential motifs” of the European geographic imagination that have persisted since ancient Greece, he is ascribing 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 2,500 years. This is, of course, nothing less than the use of the very notion of “essentialism” that he elsewhere condemns so vigorously. In short, it is his own work that is essentialist and ahistorical. He himself commits the very faults he says are so objectionable in the work of Orientalists.28
A key part of Said’s tactic is to leave out Western writers and scholars who do not conform to his theoretical framework. Since, for Said, all Europeans are a priori racist, he obviously cannot allow himself to quote writers who are not. Had he delved a little deeper into Greek civilisation and history (rather than only looking at Aeschylus), had he bothered to read up on Herodotus, Said would have encountered two of the key features of Western civilisation that he is at pains to conceal: seeking knowledge for its own sake, and belief in the unity of mankind.
The Greek word historia, from which we get ‘history’, means ‘research’ or ‘inquiry’. Herodotus believed his work was the outcome of research: what he had seen, heard and read, but also 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, a ‘nigger lover’ – and his work shows considerable sympathy for Persians and Persian civilisation. 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.”29
Even in the Middle Ages, we find figures in the Christian Church prepared to make, in the words of the French Islamologist Maxime Rodinson, an “outstanding effort…to gain and to transmit an objectively based scientific knowledge of the Islamic religion.” Rodinson is here describing Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny. Rodinson is convinced that Peter the Venerable was motivated not just for polemical reasons, but “was moved by a disinterested curiosity.”30
From the sixteenth century, European writers and scholars began to take up the theme of the ‘noble savage’ as a vehicle to criticise their own culture and to encourage tolerance of those outside the West. Perhaps the pioneer of this trend was Peter Martyr Anglerius. In his De Orbe Novo of 1516, Peter Martyr criticised the Spanish conquistadores for their greed, their narrow-mindedness, their intolerance and their cruelty, contrasting them with the Native Americans, “who are happier since they are free from money, laws, treacherous judges, deceiving books and the anxiety of an uncertain future.”31
The seventeenth century saw some truly sympathetic accounts of Islam, such as those of Pierre Jurieu and Pierre Bayle. Bayle contrasts the tolerance of the Turks with the persecutions of Brahmins in India by the Portuguese and the atrocities committed by the Spaniards in America: “The Turks have always had more humility for other religions than the Christians.”32 For Jurieu and Bayle, ‘Turk’ was synonymous with ‘Muslim’, thus Turkish tolerance turned into Muslim tolerance in general. Bayle was a champion of toleration, being himself the victim of intolerance and forced to flee to Holland.
Count Henri de Boulainvilliers’ apologetic biography of Muhammad appeared posthumously in London in 1730. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book in shaping Europe’s view of Islam and its founder; it certainly influenced Voltaire and Edward Gibbon. Boulainvilliers was able to use Muhammad and the origins of Islam as a weapon against Christianity, the clergy in particular. He found Islam reasonable: it did not require one to believe in impossibilities – no mysteries, no miracles. Muhammad, though not divine, was presented as an incomparable statesman and a greater legislator than anyone produced by ancient Greece.
In his The Sermon of the Fifty (1762), Voltaire attacks such Christian mysteries as transubstantiation as being absurd, Christian miracles as incredible, and the Bible as full of contradictions. The God of Christianity was a cruel and hateful tyrant. By contrast, Voltaire found the dogmas of Islam to be simplicity itself: there is but one God, and Muhammad is his Prophet. For all deists, the supposed rationality of Islam was appealing33. To this was added other beliefs, such as the absolute tolerance of other religions, in contrast to Christian intolerance.
Gibbon, like Voltaire, painted Islam in as favourable a light as possible in order to undermine Christianity. He emphasised Muhammad’s humanity as a means of indirectly criticising the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. Gibbon’s anti-clericalism led him to highlight Islam’s supposed freedom from the accursed class, the priesthood. His 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 work that exemplifies the Enlightenment’s receptivity to the Other is surely Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, written in 1778-79. The two themes – “it suffices to be a man” and “be my friend” – run through the play and give it its humanity. Preaching friendship among the three monotheistic religions, Lessing recounts the allegory of the father (God) who gives each of his three sons (representing Judaism, Christianity and Islam) a ring (representing religion):
If each of you has had
A ring presented by his father, then
Let each believe his own the genuine ring.
’Tis possible the father did not wish
To suffer any longer in his house
The one ring’s tyranny! And certainly,
As he all three did love, and all alike,
He would not willingly oppress the two
To favour one. Well, then! Let each one strive
To imitate that love, so pure and free
From prejudice! Let each one vie with each
In showing forth the virtue of the stone
That’s in his ring! Let him assist its might
With gentleness, forbearance, love of peace,
And with sincere submission to his God!34
One could multiply examples of Said’s quite deliberate omissions. There are writers such as W.S. Blunt, whose travels in Egypt and Arabia produced in him a violent reaction against British imperialism; indeed, the second half of his life was spent publishing a stream of poems, books and pamphlets championing the nationalist cause in Egypt, India, Arabia and Ireland.35 There is also Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who wrote:
Sir, these people [the Turks] are not so unpolished as we represent them. ‘Tis true their magnificence is of a different taste from ours, and perhaps of a better. I am almost of (the) opinion they have a right notion of life, consumed in music, gardens, wine, and delicate eating, while we are tormenting our brains with some scheme of politics or studying some science to which we can never attain.36
We would be remiss to overlook Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, who translated the Qur’an (1930) and wrote numerous novels about Egypt. There is also E.G. Browne, who wrote the monumental Literary History of Persia (1902-24) and who took up the cause of Iranian nationalism.
Thus we understand the grossly biased nature of Said’s scholarly selection. The figures he omits are not obscure thinkers from the margins of Western culture, but the very makers of that culture: Bayle, Voltaire, Gibbon, Lessing, and many others we have not mentioned such as Michel de Montaigne (Essais, 1580), Montesquieu (The Persian Letters, 1721), and Denis Diderot (Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville, 1772), with the latter two exemplifying the Enlightenment’s appeal to reason, objective truth and universal values.
Misunderstanding of Western Civilisation
The golden thread running through Western civilisation is rationalism. As Aristotle once said, “Man by nature strives to know.” This thirst for knowledge results in science, which is but the application of reason to the natural world. Intellectual inquisitiveness is one of the hallmarks of Western culture. As the historian J.M. Roberts put it:
The massive indifference of some civilisations and their lack of curiosity about other worlds is a vast subject. Why, until very recently, did Islamic scholars show no wish to translate Latin or western European texts into Arabic? Why, when the English poet Dryden could confidently write a play focused on the succession in Delhi after the death of the Mogul emperor Aurungzebe, is it a safe guess that no Indian writer ever thought of a play about the equally dramatic politics of the English seventeenth-century court? It is clear that an explanation of European inquisitiveness and adventurousness must lie deeper than economics, important though they may have been. It was not just greed which made Europeans feel they could go out and take the world. The love of gain is confined to no particular people or culture. It was shared in the fifteenth century by many an Arab, Gujarati or Chinese merchant. Some Europeans wanted more. They wanted to explore.37
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. Science undoubtedly owed some of its impetus to attempting to solve practical problems, but surely science owes just as much to the desire to know; this is why philosophers such as Karl Popper have described science as a spiritual achievement. Said’s attempts to smear Orientalist scholars with base motives fail to give due weight to this achievement, and are all the more reprehensible for it.
Indeed, Said forgets that it was precisely this desire for knowledge which allowed the peoples of the Near East to rediscover their own past and identity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia, ancient Syria, ancient Palestine and Iran were carried out entirely by Europeans and, later, Americans. The disciplines of Egyptology, Assyriology and Iranology, each of which restored to mankind a major part of its heritage, were the exclusive creations of inquisitive Europeans and Americans – whereas for doctrinal reasons, Islam deliberately refused to examine its pre-Islamic past, which was considered a period of ignorance38.
Said’s Contempt for the Orient
At times, Orientalism reveals Said’s contempt for non-Europeans and the Orient, far greater than many of the imperialists he so resolutely condemns. Said speaks of “books and journals in Arabic (and doubtless in Japanese, various Indian dialects and other Oriental languages).”39 As Bernard Lewis notes, this is indeed contemptuous, with its assumption that what Indians speak and write are not languages, but dialects. Even earlier, Said talks of “innumerable Indian dialects”40, despite the fact that in India, there are twenty-two official languages, each of which is spoken by tens of millions of people, and each with a long and rich literary tradition.
What Said taketh away, the Orientalist restoreth, for it was during the British period in India that Sir George A. Grierson carried out the Linguistic Survey of India, a monumental study of several thousand pages in which he identified and studied 179 Indian languages. All later research is indebted to this magnificent work of scholarship, which, for Grierson, was a token of his love for India. What is more, far from being neglected or reviled, this Orientalist classic is still in print in India, over ninety years after its publication in 1927. This work illustrates perfectly just how much Orientalist research gave back to, for instance, the Indians, their own rich and varied heritage of which they themselves were not aware.
Another one of Said’s contemptuous claims is that:
No Arab or Islamic scholar can afford to ignore what goes on in scholarly journals, institutes, and universities in the United States and Europe; the converse is not true. For example, there is no major journal of Arab Studies published in the Arab World today.41
Firstly, Said simply chooses to ignore such distinguished journals as Majallat al-Ahfad (Sudan), Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics (Egypt), Al-Majalla al-‘Arabiya li-l ’Ulum al-Insaniya (Kuwait), Al-Tawasul al-Lisani (Morocco), Review of the Arab Academy (Syria), Al-Abhath (Lebanon), Review of Maghribi History (Tunisia), and the bulletins of the faculties of arts and social sciences of Cairo, Alexandria and Baghdad, to name but a few.
Secondly, if no Arab can afford to ignore the contents of Western journals, does this not contradict Said’s thesis that all Orientalist research is worthless? If Orientalism is inherently steeped in racism, then why keep up with the work published in these journals?
Said, Sex and Psychoanalysis
If Said can be said to have a bête noire, it must surely be Bernard Lewis. When it comes to the history and development of Islam, Said seems hell-bent on ascribing the lowest conceivable motives to Lewis’ observations. 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. 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.42
Among Said’s conclusions is this gem, which was either written out of the most intense spite for Lewis or with carnal sex on the mind. In the case of the latter, Said fully lives up to the stereotype of the sexually-repressed Arab male:
Lewis’ 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. In the end, since Arabs are really not equipped for serious action, their sexual excitement is no more noble than a camel’s rising up. Instead of revolution there is sedition, setting up a petty sovereignty, and more excitement, which is as much as saying that instead of copulation the Arab can only achieve foreplay, masturbation, coitus interruptus. These, I think, are Lewis’ implications.43
Can any rational person have drawn such a conclusion from Lewis’ scholarly discussion of Classical Arabic etymology? If one were to indulge in psychoanalysis, one might be tempted to ask, “What guilty sexual anguish is Said trying to cover up? Just what did they do to him at his Cairo English prep school?” Indeed, in Orientalism, Said seems to be obsessed with sexual imagery. He finds D.G. Hogarth’s account of the exploration of Arabia “aptly titled The Penetration of Arabia”.44 And yet, Said himself wrote:
Burton was able to penetrate to the heart of Islam and disguised (himself) as an Indian Muslim doctor to accomplish the pilgrimage to Mecca.45
He also said this:
The point here is that the space of weaker or underdeveloped regions like the Orient was viewed as something inviting French interest, penetration, insemination – in short, colonization.46
Orientalists’ Supposed Complicity in Imperialism
One of Said’s major theses is that Orientalism was not a disinterested, scholarly activity but a political one, with Orientalists preparing the ground for and colluding with imperialists. This is combined with the notion, derived from the Coptic socialist thinker Anwar Abdel Malik, that the Orient is always seen by the Orientalists as unchanging, uniform and peculiar47. The Orientalists have thus painted a false picture of Islam: “Islam has been fundamentally misrepresented in the West.”48
It takes little to see that there is a major contradiction in Said’s thesis. If Orientalists have produced a false picture of the Orient, then how could this pseudo-knowledge have helped European imperialists to dominate three quarters of the globe?
To argue his case, Said conveniently omits the contributions of German Orientalists, for their inclusion would destroy the central thesis of Orientalism, i.e. that all Orientalists produced knowledge that generated power and colluded with imperialists to create empires. German Orientalists were the greatest of all scholars of the Orient, but Germany was never an imperial power in any of the Oriental countries of North Africa or the Middle East. Neither would it have made sense for German Orientalists to assist England or France in empire building, so this could not have been the impetus for their work. To quote Bernard Lewis in this regard:
At no time before or after the imperial age did [the British and French] contribution, in range, depth, or standard, match the achievement of the great centers of Oriental studies in Germany and neighbouring countries. Indeed, any history or theory of Arabic studies in Europe without the Germans makes as much sense as would a history or theory of European music or philosophy with the same omission.49
Those omitted are not peripheral figures, but the very creators of the field of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Arabic studies: scholars such as Paul Kahle (Masoreten des Ostens, 1913), Georg Kampffmeyer (Die Welt des Islams, 1912), August Fischer (Arabische Chrestomathie aus Prosaschriftstellern, 1953), Hubert Grimme (Mohammed und die Theologie des Koran, 1892-1895), Carl Anton Baumstark (Lucubrationes Syro-Graecae, 1894), Gotthelf Bergstrasser (Die Negationen im Kur’an, 1911), Alfred Von Kremer (Diwans des Abu Nuwas, 1855), Karl Vollers (Volksprache und Schriftsprache im alten Arabien, 1906), and many more.
But German scholars are not the only ones omitted. Russians such as E.A. Belayev and S.P. Tolstov (Drevnyaya kultura Uzbekistana, 1943), Italians such as Leone Caetani (Annali dell’ Islam, 1905-1907), and many Jewish scholars who studied Islam with sympathy, regarding it as a sister religion, e.g. Abraham Geiger (Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judentume aufgenommen?, 1833) and Paul Kraus (Essai sur l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, 1935), do not warrant a mention.
To argue that the French and British Orientalists somehow prepared the ground for imperialism is to seriously distort history. The first chair of Arabic in France was founded in 1538 at the Collége de France, yet the first French venture into an Arab country was Napoleon’s in 1798. In England, the first chair of Arabic was founded in 1633 at Cambridge, yet the first British incursion into Arab territory was not until the nineteenth century. Where is the complicity between Orientalists and imperialists here? When the first two chairs of Arabic were founded in the West, it was the Muslims who dominated the Mediterranean, while the Balkans were under Turkish rule and the Turkish Siege of Vienna was still to come50.
To substantiate his thesis, Said quotes speeches and essays by such British statesmen as Lord Cromer, Arthur Balfour and Lord Curzon which mention the work of some Orientalists. Said quotes Curzon as saying:
Our familiarity, not merely with the languages of the people of the East but with their customs, their feelings, their traditions, their history and religion…is the sole basis upon which we are likely to be able to maintain in the future the position we have won.51
But in this speech, delivered in 1909, Curzon is addressing the House of Lords to advocate the establishment of a new London school of Oriental studies, not to justify imperial conquest. Said’s distortion of history is at its most blatant here.
Silvestre de Sacy and Ernest Renan
The historian of Near Eastern medicine, Lawrence I. Conrad, has shown with superb clarity how Said’s account of the development of European Orientalist scholarship – that is, one of racist intellectuals dependent on the success of British and French imperialism for their advancement – is not just flawed, but fundamentally wrong:
It is difficult to credit the curious linearity that Said postulates for the development of Orientalism from Silvestre de Sacy. As is amply attested by the vast Oriental collections of such centers of Orientalist learning as Leiden and Berlin, where there were no imperial considerations to stimulate interest in the Orient, or at least (in the case of the Netherlands) not in the Middle East, it is a gross error to characterize European Orientalist scholarship as dependent upon “imperial Britain and France” for access to texts. The Orientalist tradition in the Netherlands and Germany was already well-established by the eighteenth century. In Leiden the decisive impetus (if one is to think in terms of contributions of individuals) had been provided by Jacob Golius (1596-1667), and the treasures of the Warnerian Library provided materials for study by an expanding circle of scholars; in Germany a founding father figure may be identified at Leipzig in Johann Jacob Reiske (1716-74), who had been trained at Leiden.52
In an attempt to prove the dependency of Orientalists on French imperialism, Said claims that those scholars who came after Silvestre de Sacy merely reiterated his words. He exaggerates the influence of de Sacy on Ernest Renan, and then compounds his error by further overestimating both of their importance in the history of Orientalism. In actual fact, Renan felt he was continuing the work of the German linguist Franz Bopp, and, according to Conrad, only makes “a few passing references to Silvestre de Sacy and assigns him no particular importance for his own intellectual or professional development.”53 Renan had little esteem for de Sacy’s scholarship, compiling, editing or translating54.
The reception of Renan’s Langues sémitiques in the nineteenth century is further evidence against the charge that Orientalism became a static system of ideas bound by European imperialism, failing to generate any new ways of conceptualising the subject of its study55. As Conrad concludes, “All this speaks decisively against Said’s claim that Orientalists after Silvestre de Sacy simply copied and rewrote him.”56
As regards the charge of racism, it is worth pointing out that Renan himself changed his views. Those who label Renan as a racist would do well to read his celebrated lecture of 1882, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?’, in which he repudiates his earlier views on racial inequality put forward in the Dialogues, and rejects the idea that nationhood should depend on race, language, economics, geography or religion57. Shmuel Almog has also argued that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Renan was not consciously anti-Semitic, and points to his protest against the Tisza-Eszlar blood libel in 1882, as well as his efforts with Victor Hugo to organise relief committees for the Jews of Russia58.
Basing himself on Muslim sources, Renan drew an exceedingly favourable portrait of the Prophet Muhammad while recognising his moral failings:
On the whole, Muhammad seems to us like a gentle man, sensitive, faithful, free from rancour and hatred. His affections were sincere, his character in general was inclined to kindness… Neither ambition nor religious rapture had dried up the personal feelings in him. Not at all akin to this ambitious, heartless and Machiavellian fanatic [depicted by Voltaire in his drama Mahomet].59
Renan is at pains to defend Muhammad from possible criticisms:
As to the features of the life of Muhammad which, to our eyes, would be unpardonable blots on his morality, it would be unjust to criticize them too harshly… It would also be unjust to judge severely and with our own considered ideas, the acts of Muhammad, which in our days would be called swindles.60
The Prophet was no impostor, according to Renan:
It would be to totally lack a historical sense to suppose that a revolution as profound as Islam could be accomplished merely by some clever scheming, and Muhammad is no more explicable by imposture and trickery than by illuminism and religious fervour.61
Being a religious humanist, Renan valued Islam and religion in general, “because it manifested what was divine in human nature”62 and seemed to answer the needs of seventh-century Arabia. Renan concludes his essay with the following observation:
It is superfluous to add that if ever a reformist movement manifests itself in Islam, Europe should only participate in it by the influence of a most general kind. It would be ungracious of her to wish to settle the faith of others. All the while actively pursuing the propagation of her dogma which is civilisation, she ought to leave to the peoples themselves the infinitely delicate task of adjusting their own religious traditions to their new needs; and to respect that most inalienable right of nations as much as of individuals, the right to preside oneself, in the most perfect freedom, over the revolutions of one’s conscience.63
These are hardly the words of a cultural imperialist.
Orientalists Fight Back
For a number of decades now, Islamologists have been aware of the disastrous effect of Said’s Orientalism on their discipline. For Professor Herbert Berg of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the book has resulted in “a fear of asking and answering potentially embarrassing questions – ones which might upset Muslim sensibilities.”64 Professor Montgomery Watt, one of the most respected Western Islamologists of the twentieth century, takes Said to task for asserting that Sir Hamilton Gibb was wrong in saying that the master science of Islam was law, and not theology. “This”, says Watt, “shows Said’s ignorance of Islam.”65 Watt also decries Said’s tendency to ascribe dubious motives to various writers, scholars and statesmen, with Said committing doctrinal blunders such as not realising that non-Muslims could not marry Muslim women66.
R. Stephen Humphreys, Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, finds Said’s book important because it showed how certain Orientalists were indeed “trapped within a vision that portrayed Islam and the Middle East as in some way essentially different from ‘the West’.”67 Nonetheless, “Edward Said’s analysis of Orientalism is overdrawn and misleading in many ways, and purely as a piece of intellectual history, Orientalism is a seriously flawed book.”68 Even more damning, Humphreys argues that Said’s book actually discouraged the modernisation of Middle Eastern societies:
In an ironic way, it also emboldened the Islamic activists and militants who were then just beginning to enter the political arena. These could use Said to attack their opponents in the Middle East as slavish ‘Westernists’, who were out of touch with the authentic culture and values of their own countries. Said’s book has had less impact on the study of medieval Islamic history – partly because medievalists know how distorted his account of classical Western Orientalism really is.69
Even scholars praised by Said in Orientalism do not particularly like his analysis, arguments or conclusions. Maxime Rodinson judged that “as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements”70, due to the fact that Said was “inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists.”71 Rodinson also calls Said’s polemic and style “Stalinist”72, while P.J. Vatikiotis wrote, “Said introduced McCarthyism into Middle Eastern Studies.”73 Jacques Berque, also praised by Said, wrote that the latter had “done quite a disservice to his countrymen in allowing them to believe in a Western intelligence coalition against them.”74 For the English historian of India 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.75
The most famous modern scholar who rebuked Said was, of course, Bernard Lewis. Lewis takes exception to the choice of British and French scholars on whom Said concentrates, leaving out such key figures as Claude Cahen (L’histoire économique et sociale de l’Orient musulman médiéval, 1955), Henri Corbin (Histoire de la philosophie islamique, 1964) and William Wright (A Grammar of The Arabic Language, 1859-62), and only briefly touching upon Reynold A. Nicholson (Literary History of the Arabs, 1907), Guy Le Strange (Palestine Under the Moslems, 1890), Sir Thomas Walker Arnold (The Preaching of Islam, 1896) and the aforementioned E.G. Browne. He goes on to state:
Even for those whom he does cite, Mr. Said makes a remarkably arbitrary choice of works. His common practice is to omit their major contributions to scholarship and instead fasten on minor or occasional writings.76
Said even fabricates lies about eminent scholars:
Thus in speaking of the late eighteenth century French Orientalist Silvestre de Sacy, Mr. Said remarks that “he ransacked the Oriental archives… What texts he isolated, he then brought back; he doctored them…” If these words bear any meaning at all, it is that Sacy was somehow at fault in his access to these documents and then committed the crime of tampering with them. This outrageous libel on a great scholar is without a shred of truth.77
Another false accusation by Said is that Orientalists never properly discussed the Orient’s economic activities until Rodinson’s Islam and Capitalism (1966). This shows Said’s total ignorance of the works of Adam Mez (Die Renaissance des Islams, 1922), J.H. Kramers (Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1953), and Vasily Barthold (Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, 1928), all of whom dealt with the economic activities of Muslims.
Said also accuses Orientalist scholars of being cut off from developments in other fields in the humanities, particularly sociology. But as Rodinson writes, the sociology of Islam is a well-covered subject, citing the works of Ignaz Goldziher (Vorlesungert fiber den Islam, 1925), Reuben Lévy (The Social Structure of Islam, 1957), and others. Rodinson further points out that for every year, starting from the first decades of the twentieth century, Émile Durkheim’s celebrated journal L’Année sociologique has listed a certain number of works on Islam78.
Negative Arab and Asian Reaction to Said’s Orientalism
It must have been especially galling for Said to see the hostile reviews of Orientalism written by Arab, Iranian and Asian intellectuals, many of whom he admired and singled out for praise in his works. For example, Nikki Keddie, praised in Covering Islam, spoke of the disastrous influence of Orientalism, even though she admired certain 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.79
Keddie noted that the book “could also be used in a dangerous way because it can encourage people to say, ‘You Westerners, you can’t do our history right, you can’t study it right, you really shouldn’t be studying it, we are the only ones who can study our own history properly’.”80 Albert Hourani, much admired by Said, made a similar point:
I think all this talk after Edward’s book also has a certain danger. There is a certain counter-attack of Muslims, who say nobody understands Islam except themselves.81
Kanan Makiya, the eminent Iraqi scholar, chronicled Said’s pernicious influence 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.
The trajectory from Said’s Orientalism to his Covering Islam…is premised on the morally wrong idea that the West is to be blamed in the here-and-now for its long nefarious history of association with the Middle East. Thus it unwittingly deflected from the real problems of the Middle East at the same time as it contributed more bitterness to the armory of young impressionable Arabs when there was already far too much of that around.82
Makiya goes on to say that Orientalism, in its demonisation of the Western civilisation,
makes Arabs feel contented with the way they are, instead of making them rethink fundamental assumptions which so clearly haven’t worked… They desperately need to unlearn ideas such as that “every European” in what he or she has to say about the world is or was a “racist”… The ironical fact is that the book was given the attention it received in the “almost totally ethnocentric” West largely because its author was a Palestinian.83
Though he finds much to admire in Orientalism, the Syrian philosopher Sadiq al-‘Azm finds that “the stylist and polemicist in Edward Said very often runs away with the systematic thinker.”84 Al-‘Azm also criticises Said for his negative appraisal of Karl Marx. What Said finds insufferable is the nineteenth-century European’s feelings of superiority, but al-‘Azm remarks that indeed,
nineteenth-century Europe was superior to Asia and much of the rest of the world in terms of productive capacities, social organisation, historical ascendancy, military might, and scientific and technological development.85
Nadim al-Bitar, a Lebanese Muslim, finds Said’s generalisations about Orientalists difficult to accept, and is very sceptical about Said having read more than a handful of Orientalist works. Al-Bitar also accuses Said of the very essentialism he claims to reject:
[Said] does to 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.86
Al-Saghir, an Iraqi scholar, also scolds Said for dismissing all Orientalists by default. He looks at Orientalist works on the Qur’an, and finds them, on the whole, to be “carefully researched and intellectually honest”; their “overall characteristic is purely scholarly.”87
The most baneful legacy of Said’s work is his insistence that all the ills of the Muslim world emanate from Orientalism, and have nothing to do with the socio-economic, political and ideological makeup of the Middle East. Thus, despite being a Christian agnostic, Said becomes a de facto apologist and protector of Islam. Despite his claims that he doesn’t know anything about Islam, Said has always assumed the role of an Islamic expert in the West, never flinching from telling us what the “real” Islam is. One is tempted to respond, “Stop telling us what Islam is, let the Muslims do that, stop speaking for the Muslims.”
Said spent his life as a secularist defending Islam, despite the fact that, as a concept, secularism has never existed in the faith. One must ask: if Islam is such a great religion, then why did Said not convert to it any stage, or accept it as the basis for any new constitution? Could it be that, for all of his apologetics, ultimately, Said could not get over the historical mistreatment of non-Muslims under Islamic rule? To quote Sir Jadunath Sarkar in this regard:
Islamic theology…tells the true believer that his highest duty is to make “exertion (jihad) in the path of God”, by waging war against infidel lands (dar-ul-harb) till they become part of the realm of Islam (dar-ul-Islam) and their populations are converted into true believers. After conquest, the entire infidel population becomes theoretically reduced to the status of slaves… The men taken with arms are to be slain or sold into slavery and their wives and children reduced to servitude. As for the non-combatants among the vanquished, if they are not massacred outright – as the canon lawyer Shafi’i declares to be the Qur’anic injunction – it is only to give them respite till they are so wisely guided as to accept the true faith.
The conversion of the entire population to Islam and the extinction of every form of dissent is the ideal of the Muslim State. If any infidel is suffered to exist in the community, it is as a necessary evil, and for a transitional period only. Political and social disabilities must be imposed on him, and bribes offered to him from the public funds to hasten the day of his spiritual enlightenment…
A non-Muslim therefore cannot be a citizen of the State; he is a member of a depressed class; his status is a form of slavery. He lives under a contract (zimma, or dhimma) with the State: for the life and property grudgingly spared to him by the commander of the faithful, he must undergo political and social disabilities, and pay a commutation money. In short, his continued existence in the State after the conquest of his country by the Muslims is conditional upon his person and property made subservient to the cause of Islam. He must pay a tax for his land (kharaj), from which the early Muslims were exempt; he must pay other exactions for the maintenance of the army, in which he cannot enlist even if he offers to render personal service instead of paying the poll tax; and he must show by humility of dress and behavior that he belongs to a subject class. No non-Muslim can wear fine dresses, ride on horseback or carry arms; he must behave respectfully and submissively to every member of the dominant sect…
The dhimmi is under certain legal disabilities with regard to testimony in law courts, protection under criminal law, and in marriage… He cannot erect new temples, and has to avoid any offensive publicity in the exercise of his worship… [In short], every device short of massacre in cold blood was resorted to in order to convert heathen subjects.88
Edward Said has much to answer for. Orientalism, despite its systematic distortions and very limited value as intellectual history, has left Western scholars in fear of asking questions, and thus inhibited their research. Said’s work, with its strident anti-Westernism, has made the goal of modernising the Middle East that much more difficult to achieve. His writings, wherein all the ills of Middle Eastern societies are blamed on the wicked West, has rendered much needed self-criticism by Muslims – Arab and non-Arab alike – nearly impossible. His work has encouraged Islamic extremists of all stripes, whose impact on our species’ well-being needs no underlining.
Basawan, The Sufi Abu’l Abbas Rebukes the Vain Dervish (1595). This is but one of countless Western masterpieces hidden away for fear of offending Muslims, who are assumed to be brainless when it comes to art. One can only hope that, as Europeans become more vocal about the importance of free speech, fearful museum curators who keep Orientalist paintings in storage will soon dust them off for all to see.
1. Edward Said, ‘Israel-Palestine: A Third Way’, Le Monde Diplomatique (September 1998).
2. Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).
3. Keith Windschuttle, ‘Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ Revisited’, New Criterion 17, no. 5 (January 1999).
6. J.M. Roberts, History of the World, page 503 (1993).
7. Ibid, page 504.
8. R.W. Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, pages 91-92, 108-109 (1962).
9. Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).
12. See Keith Windschuttle, ‘The Ethnocentrism of Clifford Geertz’, New Criterion 21, no. 2 (October 2002).
13. See Daniel Pipes, The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy (1998).
14. Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, page 29 (1980).
15. Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).
16. Ian Baruma, review of Out of Place: A Memoir by Edward Said, New York Times Book Review (October 1999).
17. Quoted in Courrier International 395 (May 1998).
18. Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923, page 27 (2001).
19. Ibid, page 45.
20. Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).
21. Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923, page 3 (2001).
22. Reeva S. Simon and Eleanor Harvey Tejirian, The Creation of Iraq, 1914-1921, page 136 (2004).
23. Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).
24. Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History, page 231 (1995).
25. Edward Said, Orientalism (1994 afterword).
28. Windschuttle, ‘Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ Revisited’.
29. Herodotus, The Histories, book II.3, quoted by J.L. Myers, ‘Herodotus’, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (1978).
30. Maxime Rodinson, ‘The Western Image and Western Studies of Islam’, in The Legacy of Islam, edited by Joseph Schacht and C.E. Bosworth, pages 15-16 (1974).
31. William Brandon, New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800, page 6 (1986).
32. Pierre Bayle, ‘Mahomet and Nestorius’, in Dictionnaire historique et critique, 5th edition.
33. Voltaire, The Sermon of the Fifty (1762).
34. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan the Wise (1830).
35. P.J. Keating, ‘W.S. Blunt’, in The Penguin Companion to Literature, volume 1, page 55 (1971).
36. Quoted in Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West, pages 83-84 (1993).
37. J.M. Roberts, The Triumph of the West (1985), page 176.
38. Bernard Lewis, ‘La carte du Proche-Orient’, in Islam et Politique au Proche-Orient aujourd’hui, pages 162-163 (1991).
39. Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).
42. Quoted from Bernard Lewis, ‘Islamic Concepts of Revolution’, in Revolution in the Middle East, and Other Case Studies: Proceedings of a Seminar, edited by P.J. Vatikiotis, pages 33, 38-39 (1972).
43. Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).
49. Lewis, Islam and the West, page 108.
50. Ibid, page 126.
51. Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).
52. Lawrence I. Conrad, ‘Ignaz Goldziher on Ernest Renan: From Orientalist Philology to the Study of Islam’, in The Jewish Discovery of Islam, edited by M. Kramer, pages 137-180 (1999).
54. Ibid, page 142.
55. Ibid, page 139.
57. Ernest Renan, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?’ (1882).
58. Shmuel Almog, ‘The Racial Motif in Renan’s Attitude to Jews and Judaism’, in Antisemitism through the Ages, edited by Shmuel Almog, pages 255-278 (1988).
59. Ernest Renan, ‘Muhammad and the Origins of Islam’, in The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq, pages 127-166 (2000).
62. H.W. Wardman, Ernest Renan: A Critical Biography, page 89 (1964).
63. Renan, ‘Muhammad and the Origins of Islam’, pages 163-164.
64. Herbert Berg, ‘The Methods and Theories of John Wansbrough’, in The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq, page 502 (2000).
65. William Montgomery Watt, Muslim-Christian Encounters, page 110 (1991).
67. R. Stephen Humphrys, Tradition and Innovation in the Study of Islamic History: The Evolution of North American Scholarship since 1960 (1997).
70. Maxime Rodinson, Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1987).
72. Interview with Rodinson in Approaches to the History of the Middle East, edited by Nancy Elizabeth Gallagher, page 124 (1994).
73. P.J. Vatikiotis, Among Arabs and Jews: A Personal Experience, 1936-1990, page 105 (1991).
74. Jacques Berque, ‘Au-delá de l’Orientalisme: Entretien avec Jacques Berque’, in Qantara 13, pages 27-28 (1994).
75. Clive Dewey, ‘How the Raj Played Kim’s Game’, Times Literary Supplement, page 10 (April 1998).
76. Lewis, Islam and the West.
78. Maxime Rodinson, La Fascination de l’Islam (1978).
79. Interview with Nikki Keddie in Approaches to the History of the Middle East, edited by Nancy Elizabeth Gallagher, pages 144-145 (1994).
80. Quoted by M. Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand, page 38.
81. Interview with Albert Hourani in Approaches to the History of the Middle East, edited by Nancy Elizabeth Gallagher, page 41 (1994).
82. Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence, pages 317-318 (1993).
83. Ibid, page 319.
84. Sadiq al-‘Azm, ‘Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse’, Forbidden Agendas: Intolerance and Defiance in the Middle East, edited by Jon Rothschild, page 350 (1984).
85. Ibid, page 363.
86. Quoted in Sivan, Interpretations of Islam, page 136.
87. Ibid, page 139.
88. Sir Jadunath Sarkar, History of Aurangzib, five volumes (1912-1924).