Thursday, September 20, 2018

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls—t.
Part 4: The other things Said got wrong.
By Michael Isenberg.

In Part 3 of this series, “Polluters of the Brain,” I began to lay out all the flaws in Edward Said’s “Orientalism” hypothesis, the notion that Western scholarship of the Middle East is irredeemably tainted by imperialism and racism. In particular, I discussed how his eponymous book is polluted from intro to index by the philosophy of postmodernism. I quoted extensively from Said admirer and postmodernism critic Camille Paglia.

While Ms. Paglia was willing to overlook Professor Said’s postmodernist tendencies, she is too honest an intellectual to overlook his fundamental unfairness to Western scholars. Despite her praise for his brilliance, she felt compelled to point out “reservations” that she had about Mr. Said’s “caricature of the disciplines of anthropology, Egyptology, and Oriental studies.” (Which seems to me a little like saying that despite Camille Paglia’s brilliance, one has reservations about her views on feminism, the sixties, and that business about art and culture being man’s attempt to come to terms with nature.) Paglia is quite right that Orientalists’ “massive scholarship in the nineteenth century is the foundation of today’s knowledge…[Said] tends to accept others’ dismissal of a massive body of work of awesome learning and continuing relevance.” That massive body of work was sure relevant to my own research; it helped me out greatly.

Professor Said is so certain that Westerners can't tell Muslims anything about the Muslim world, that he ignores instances where they really have uncovered Muslim achievements long forgotten in the East. Abu Zayd ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), for instance, developed cyclical theories of history that were way ahead of their time. And in economics, no less a figure than Arthur Laffer acknowledges that ibn Khaldun preceded him by half a millennium in developing the principles underlying supply side theory and the Laffer curve. And yet, except for a brief revival in the seventeenth century Ottoman Empire, ibn Khaldun’s works were nearly dead to the world, until a French Orientalist, Silvestre de Sacy, breathed new life into them in the early 1800s.

More generally, Professor Said takes a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude toward Western scholars. He condemns them for appropriation if they adopt the works of Middle Eastern culture, and Eurocentrism if they ignore them. Those who disparage the Muslim are “racist” and “ethnocentric,” those who embrace the “Wisdom of the East” are appropriators. On the one hand, he is infuriated by Western representations of Muhammad as a fraud and a child molester, or criticism that Islam is “totalitarian.” On the other hand, he is infuriated by any suggestion that Muhammad and Islam are of any relevance to the modern Middle East, which he thinks is better understood in terms of the socialist, nationalist revolutionary movements which seemed to be in the ascendant at the time he was writing. Similarly, he argues that Orientalism creates artificial barriers between people. Then he damns one of the greatest achievements of human history, the Suez Canal, for shortening the distance to the East and thereby bringing the barriers down. “The logical conclusion of Orientalist thought,” he calls it.

As I noted in Part 2, there is some merit to Professor Said’s argument that many Orientalists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were racist and in the service of imperialism. But it’s a stretch to extend that argument to the post-World War II era, when the European powers pulled up their stakes in their one-time colonies and the civil rights movement in America made racism socially unacceptable. Professor Said is the first to object when Western scholars characterize the Middle East as static and unable to evolve. And yet he is in denial that the West can evolve as well, even though he has to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to stay in denial.

The first hoop is language; in the absence of colonialists, he redefines his terms to create new ones. Oil companies are the new “empires,” America the new “imperium.” It’s been said that Americans make lousy imperialists—all they want to do is go home—but that doesn’t deter Professor Said from stretching the definition of “empire” beyond recognition in order to make his case.

Unable to find enough criticisms of twentieth century scholars by redefining his terms, he resorts next to package dealing by bringing pop culture into the mix. Yes, there are some pretty cringe-worthy stereotypes of Arabs in 1960s television, but one can hardly draw conclusions about the academics toiling in the Middle Eastern sections of university libraries based on what appeared on The Beverly Hillbillies.

Indeed, the very name that Professor Said chose for his book, Orientalism, is an exercise in package dealing. As I noted previously, the term was more common during the Imperialist era than it is today. Even at the time the book was published in 1978, it had fallen into disuse. The International Congress of Orientalists voted to drop the term in 1973 and is now the International Congress of Asian and North African Studies. Even Professor Said concedes that “Today an Orientalist is less likely to call himself an Orientalist,” although he correctly points out that the name lingers (even in 2018) in institutional names such as Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies. But by reviving the nearly-extinct term, Professor Said is able to associate modern scholars with their imperialist predecessors, and thereby visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, even unto the third and fourth generation.

Said has yet another technique to make his case against scholars: he has the clairvoyance to read between the lines and uncover the coded racism and imperialism in their work. For example, consider his analysis of Bernard Lewis’s article, “Islamic Concepts of Revolution.” As noted above, revolution is central to Said's understanding of the modern Middle East. He objects that Professor Lewis disagrees, and finds particular fault with Lewis’s discussion of—etymology. Lewis points out that the root of the Arabic word for revolution, thur, means to rise, excite, or stir up, and originally referred to the motion of a camel rising up. It's a mildly interesting if somewhat pedantic discussion. Professor Said's response is completely out of proportion: “The entire passage is full of condescension and bad faith. Why introduce the idea of a camel rising as an etymological root for modern Arab revolution except as a clever way of discrediting the modern?” [I don’t know—maybe because a camel rising is the etymological root for modern Arab revolution?] Furthermore Professor Said argues that words like rise, excite, and stir up, are Freudian in nature and therefore evoke the racist stereotype of the oversexed Arab. Said’s “gotcha” tone reminds me of Dennis, the anarcho-syndicalist in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “What a giveaway! Do you hear that? Do you hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about. Do you see him repressing me?”

The only difference is that in the movie, King Arthur really does call Dennis “Bloody peasant,” whereas the insults to Professor Said in Lewis’s article are figments of his imagination.

But Professor Said’s attacks on Professor Lewis did not stop with the latter’s etymological analyses, and I shall discuss that in the final part of this series.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo Credit(s): Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), Old Scholar; YouTube

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