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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

How to Stand up to Putin

Russia/Syria Attack on Idlib off the Table—For Now.
By Michael Isenberg.

What a difference a few days make.

I wrote in my Mideast Week in Review on Friday that Idlib province, in northwest Syria, was under siege by Russian and Syrian government forces. Idlib is the last rebel stronghold in the country (not counting Turkish and Kurdish-controlled areas) and a government victory there would signal that Syria's long, bloody civil war was nearing its end, with the ruthless dictator Bashar Assad coming out on top. World leaders were alarmed about a looming humanitarian disaster for the three million civilians living in Idlib. The possible use of chemical weapons was a particular concern, with all parties staking out their positions in case of that eventuality.

Although fears of an imminent ground attack had eased—Russian air strikes had tapered off at the end of the week—the prospect of a negotiated settlement was dim. There was just too little that the government and the rebels, who are overwhelmingly jihadist, had to offer each other. An attempt was made nevertheless; it failed. A summit was held the previous weekend in Tehran between Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Russia’s Vladimir Putin—who are allied with the Assad regime—and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, who sides with the rebels. But the conference broke up without reaching agreement on Idlib.

So the world breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan emerged from a meeting in Sochi, Russia and announced in a press conference that they had agreed to create a 10-to-20 mile demilitarized buffer zone between Russian/Syrian and rebel forces. The attack on Idlib was off—for now.

There appears to have been two factors in President Putin’s change of heart between Tehran and Sochi. One was that he has bigger fish to fry. It is significant that in his statement at the press conference, he led off with remarks about Russian-Turkish trade and cultural ties, rather than Idlib. One can only hope that he is beginning to find the Russian commitment to propping up Syria’s Assad to be a drain on his country’s resources, and wishes to focus on more productive pursuits.

But perhaps more significant is the buildup of Turkish forces in and around Idlib. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported seeing a military convoy cross the border from Turkey into the region on Thursday. According to The Independent,

Turkey has amassed armoured vehicles, artillery guns, and tanks along the border with Syria, with some equipment moving across the frontier, according to Turkish news outlets and video footage posted to the internet.

Turkey has also begun to bolster a dozen outposts it operates in and around Idlib with additional troops and military vehicles...

It has transferred arms and ammunition to its Free Syria Army (FSA) rebel allies, pro-Ankara newspapers reported, though some experts say the distribution of weapons won’t affect the outcome of any conflict...

Syrian forces aided by Russian air power could easily overrun the outposts. But Turkey’s moves have upped the geopolitical cost of any attempt to take Idlib by the pro-Assad camp.

Although the Turkish escalation wasn’t considered enough to alter the military outcome, it appears to have given Putin second thoughts. There’s a lesson here. It doesn’t take much to get a bully to back down—provided you show you’re serious about backing up your words with action.

US President Donald Trump had some words of his own on the subject—he tweeted on September 3 that “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province”—but he does not appear to have influenced Mr. Putin significantly. That Sochi was a Turkish/Russian show just goes to demonstrate how far the US has to go to regain a leadership role in the region after so many years of Barack Obama’s feckless policy of unenforced "redlines."

While the delay of any attack is good news for the people of Idlib, it is unclear what the long term result will be. The Syrian government, through its official news agency SANA, said that it “welcomed the agreement on Idleb Province.” But it described the plan as “time-bound” and promised that the Assad regime was still committed to “reestablishing security and stability to each inch that was struck by terrorism as it stresses determination to go ahead in its war against terrorism until all the Syrian territories are liberated whether by military operations or by local reconciliations.”

The end game in Syria is now very much up in the air.

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): Reuters

Monday, September 17, 2018

Polluters of the Brain

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls—t.
Part 3: Orientalism and Postmodernism.
By Michael Isenberg.

In Part 2 of this series, I gave credit where credit is due to the things that Edward Said got right in his influential book Orientalism, in which he attacks Western scholars of the Middle East as racist lackeys of imperialist oppressors.

It will take two more posts for me to cover all the things he got wrong.

Let me start by addressing something that I don’t hold against him. Professor Said’s critics have made a great deal out of an infamous gaffe in Orientalism: “After Mohammed’s death in 632, the military and later the cultural and religious hegemony of Islam grew enormously. First Persia, Syria, and Egypt, then Turkey, then North Africa fell to Muslim armies.” Said got the sequence wrong—Turkey fell to Islam centuries after North Africa. But having written a couple books myself, I know just how hard it is to eliminate every last error and typo. I’m willing to give Said a pass on this one. If you consider the book as whole, it’s clear that he knows his history (Albeit I’m surprised the error wasn’t corrected in the book’s 25th Anniversary edition).

Of far more concern than a probably unintentional error of chronology is that Orientalism is based on a fundamentally flawed philosophy.

That philosophy is postmodernism.

Postmodernism is an approach to art and literary criticism that hit its stride on college campuses in the 1960s, just as Said was doing his graduate work. But its roots extend to older philosophies of the “we know that we know nothing” variety, such as the positivism of August Comte and the skepticism of David Hume. It’s closely associated with “poststructuralism,” “social constructionism,” “deconstructionism,” and the “French Theory” (or just “Theory”) of Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault. Despite the nuanced theoretical distinctions that academics draw between these terms, as far as I can tell, in practice they’re used interchangeably.

The basic idea is that reality is ultimately unknowable by human beings. We can only know “narratives” and “representations,” which are inevitably warped by race, culture, language, socioeconomic group, and the interests of the powerful—especially the last. Foucault’s “big squishy pink-marshmallow word is ‘power,’” writes Said admirer and postmodernism critic Camille Paglia, “which neither he nor his followers fully understand.”

Needless to say, in a world where there is no truth, only “social constructs,” the effort to find Grand Themes running through history is pure folly (which is a problem for me personally, since my novel The Thread of Reason is the first installment in a series about one of those Grand Themes).

In Professor Said’s words, “The real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer.”

Applying that philosophy to western scholarship of the Middle East, he says, “My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence—in which I do not for a moment believe—but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting.” Note that he’s inconsistent on whether a thing called the Orient actually exists apart from its representations. Here he says he does “not for a moment believe” in the existence of an “Oriental essence,” but in another passage, which I cited in Part 2, he says that “human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures.” In any case, the inconsistency makes little difference in the postmodernist world view. We fallible humans can only grasp the representations anyway.

In her 1970 essay, “The Comprachicos,” Ayn Rand identifies the problem with this kind of philosophy, and the implications of teaching it to students. She was talking about “Progressive” ideas in general, but her critique certainly applies to postmodernism in particular.

They are being taught, by implication, that there is no such thing as a firm, objective reality, which man’s mind must learn to perceive correctly; that reality is an indeterminate flux and can be anything the pack wants it to be; that truth or falsehood is determined by majority vote. And more: that knowledge is unnecessary and irrelevant, since the teacher’s views have no greater validity than the oratory of the dullest and most ignorant student—and therefore, that reason, thinking, intelligence and education are of no importance or value.”

One has to wonder, if knowledge bears such little relationship to any sort of reality, what benefit there is in funding universities, or paying the comfortable salaries of postmodernist academics.

Camille Paglia has expressed similar reservations:

The fashionable French posturing—‘there are no facts’—has got to stop. There are no certainties, but there are well-supported facts which we can learn and build on, always with the flexible scholarly skepticism that allows us to discard prior assumptions in the face of new evidence. If there are no facts, surgeons couldn’t operate, buildings would collapse, and airplanes wouldn’t get off the ground.

Professor Paglia does not always employ such scholarly and measured tones when discussing postmodernism: “Empty word play,” she calls it. “Pedantic jargon, clumsy convolutions, and prissy abstractions.” “Positively idiotic.” “Abject philistinism masquerading as advanced thought.” And my favorite: “Polluters of the brain commit crimes against humanity. Dante’s Inferno has a special reserved foxhole for the followers of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, who will boil for eternity in their own verbal sludge.”

Remarkably, Ms. Paglia does not include Mr. Said among those she would boil for eternity. She writes, “Said’s thinking has been influenced by Michel Foucault and Frantz Fanon, but he uses their ideas sparingly and judiciously.” I find Professor Paglia's opinion mystifying in view of the implicit postmodernism that pollutes every page of Orientalism, not to mention Mr. Said’s own numerous explicit acknowledgments of his debt to Foucault. In all fairness, when she wrote this she was reviewing a different Said book, Culture and Imperialism. She may also have gone easy on him in view of their common ground on the New Historicism, yet another academic movement, this one popular in the 1990s. Said and Paglia both found it lacking in rigor.

It is now generally accepted that postmodernism has run its course. “Gone out of fashion,” say Jose Lopez and Garry Potter, editors of After Postmodernism. “Moribund,” says Paglia. Alas, reports of postmodernism’s near death are greatly exaggerated. Its noxious influence lives on in the persistent belief that there is no truth, only narrative. The main thing that's changed is now there’s less of a focus on text as a source of narrative, and more of a focus on race and gender, a trend to which Orientalism contributed in no small way.

And yet, getting into bed with postmodernism isn’t the only thing Orientalism gets wrong, as I shall discuss in Part 4, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

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): Judy Horacek

Friday, September 14, 2018

Mideast Week in Review

by Michael Isenberg.

  • Idlib Offensive.
  • Trump Administration to close PLO Office in DC.

    Idlib Offensive: As is so often the case these days, the big story in the Middle East is Syria, where government forces and their Russian backers have besieged Idlib province.

    Idlib is located in the northwest of the country. It is one of the last major strongholds of rebellion against the regime of dictator Bashar Assad, not counting the Turkish- and Kurdish-controlled regions along the northern border. Some 30,000 rebels from various factions are holed up in Idlib, most notably from the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front and the jihadist Hay'at Tahrir ash-Sham, the group which absorbed the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front (For the record, Hay'at Tahrir ash-Sham denies al-Qaeda ties).

    Idlib is also home to nearly three million civilians, many of them refugees from fighting in other parts of the country. The presence of such a large population of non-combatants has prompted concern among world leaders and international relief agencies of a looming “humanitarian disaster” including severe shortages of food supplies and medical services.

    A negotiated settlement to avoid the fighting and prevent such a disaster is unlikely. A summit last week in Tehran between Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin broke up without reaching agreement on Idlib. The Assad regime has little incentive for negotiations in the wake of its battlefield successes elsewhere in the country. Further, there is the problem of what could be offered to the rebels to convince them to lay down their arms. As government forces cleared out other rebel-held areas over the past year, agreements were reached to evacuate them to other parts of the country, notably Idlib province. But with Idlib as their last stronghold, there are few places they could go now.

    Following the failure of the Tehran conference, Russian forces have resumed pounding opposition targets in airborne attacks.

    The biggest wild cards are how the Trump administration will react, and whether the Assad regime will use chemical weapons.

    President Trump’s policy on Syria has been, to put it nicely, inconsistent—always a mistake when dealing with children, animals, and dictators. Last July, I reported that the president had apparently given up on Syria, in the wake of reports that he planned to end CIA support to the allegedly moderate rebels fighting Assad. The only things that seemed to spur the administration into action were attacks on the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces—the coalition of Arabs and Kurds that has been in the forefront of the fight against ISIS—and any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, such as the chlorine gas attack in Douma this April (The Syrian government denies any use of chemical weapons).

    However, in a tweet last week, Mr. Trump warned that “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province,” potentially signaling a more active US role going forward.

    As for whether chemical weapons will be used in Idlib, both the Trump Administration and the Assad regime are staking out their positions in case of that eventuality. According to the BBC, “The US state department warned on Monday that Washington would respond to any new chemical attacks by the Syrian government or its allies.” President Assad, meanwhile, is already preparing his alibi. Virginia state senator Richard Black emerged from a meeting with Assad claiming “British intelligence was working toward a chemical attack in order to blame the Syrian government.”

    As I write this, the situation is uncertain. According to Reuters, “Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow would keep bombing militant targets in Syria’s Idlib Province if need be.” However, Fox News reports, “In the previous 24 hours, air strikes from Russian aircraft in rebel-held areas significantly decreased, and lowered in intensity.” The Syria Campaign’s Kenan Rahmani claims, “The offensive is certainly on hold, and that is in large part a result of the renewed commitment from the United States to establish consequences should Russia and the regime continue with reckless bombing of Idlib.” It remains to be seen whether the easing of Russian air strikes is in response to Trump Administration saber rattling, or merely a tactical pause to make way for an imminent ground offensive.

    Read more—

  • The looming fight for Idlib, Syria’s last main rebel stronghold, explained (Vox)
  • Va. state senator who met with Assad says British are planning fake chemical attack (Washington Post)
  • Syria war: How Idlib may be changing Trump's strategy (BBC)
  • Syria war: Idlib rebels targeted by 'fiercest raids in weeks' (BBC)
  • Russia says will keep bombing Syria's Idlib if need be: Ifax (Reuters)


    Trump Administration to close PLO Office in DC: In contrast to its Syria policy, the Trump Administration has shown great consistency toward the Palestinians.

    On Monday, the State Department notified the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that it was ordering the closure of the PLO’s office in Washington DC. By way of explanation, department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement, “The PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel. To the contrary, PLO leadership has condemned a U.S. peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the U.S. government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise.”

    The closure comes in the wake of the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem in May, in the face of Palestinian objections, and the cancellation of $200 million in aid for Palestinian “refugees” in August.

    The move brought outraged protests from Palestinian leaders. Diplomat Saeb Erekat called it a “dangerous escalation” and a “slap by the Trump Administration against peace and justice.” He promised that Palestinians “will not succumb to US threats and bullying.”

    Although the Palestinians so far show no signs of moderating their stance, some observers have noted that the Trump Administration’s policies have had an effect on the rest of the Arab world. Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, said during an embassy reception last week that “Despite the best efforts of Palestinian leaders to whip up opposition to President Trump’s Jerusalem decision, the response in the Arab world was mostly silence” and “What is new is the behavior of many Arab states. They are no longer reflexively dancing to the Palestinians’ tune.”

    Read more—

  • Trump admin. closing Palestine Liberation Organization D.C. office (CBS)
  • Dermer ‘Confident’ Trump Peace Plan will Incorporate Arab States (Jerusalem Post)
  • Dr. Saeb Erekat on the Announcement to Close the Palestinian Mission in Washington (State of Palestine)
  • Closure of the PLO Office in Washington (Dept. of State)


    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): Fox News, BBC, Twitter

  • Thursday, September 13, 2018

    Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls--t

    Part 2: What is Orientalism?
    By Michael Isenberg.

    In Part 1 of this series I introduced Edward Said and his 1978 book Orientalism. I observed that they “have been significant forces in the field of Middle Eastern studies—not for the better” and that “the book was a precursor to today’s ugly politically correct attacks on ‘dead white men,’ and ‘cultural appropriation’—decades before those terms were in common use.”

    I did not say much, however, about what Orientalism is, which I’ll address in this part, along with some of the things that Said got right.

    Professor Said never explicitly defines Orientalism anywhere in his 300 page magnum opus. The closest he comes is in the Introduction:

    Orientalism derives from a particular closeness experienced between Britain and France [and later America] and the Orient…Out of that closeness, whose dynamic is enormously productive even if it always demonstrates the comparatively greater strength of the Occident (British, French, or American), comes the large body of texts I call Orientalist.

    Not a lot of help. Nevertheless, read the rest of the book and certain recurring themes emerge:

    1. Orientalism is a discipline for studying the Middle East “systematically.”

    2. Orientalism is a vocabulary, a body of work, and a set of structures.

    3. Orientalism is about power. The relationship between Orient and Occident is one of weak to strong. “Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority.”

    4. Orientalism created the Orient. The distinction between Orient and Occident was made up by Western scholars. “For that is the main intellectual issue raised by Orientalism. Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences?”

    5. Orientalism is racist. In creating the Orient, Orientalism imposed negative stereotypes on the Middle East. The Orient of Orientalists is monolithic. “Its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness” make it “static, frozen, fixed eternally.” The Oriental is passive (and therefore feminine), fatalistic, and sex-obsessed, possessed of “untiring sensuality, unlimited desire.” “Orientalists are neither interested in nor capable of discussing individuals.”

    6. Orientalism is the self-serving handmaiden of Imperialism. The Orient of Orientalists is a constant menace and must be dominated by the West, whose colonial officials then need the services of Orientalists in order to govern their subject peoples. Orientalism creates Imperialism creates Orientalism.

    7. More self-serving: The technical training required to master the field ensured that Orientalists owned Orientalism, and therefore the Orient. “From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was represent itself.”

    8. Orientalism is theft of Eastern culture. Well before the term “cultural appropriation” was in common use, Professor Said refers to the Description de l'Égypte, the collected findings of the scholars who accompanied Napoleon on his 1798 Egyptian adventure, as “that great collective appropriation of one country by another.” But serious scholars weren't the only thieves. European novelists such as Flaubert and Disraeli appropriated exotic Eastern characters and mythology to titillate their readers.

    9. The collected body of work of Orientalism is a representation or simulacrum of the Orient, not the Orient itself. “It needs to be made clear about cultural discourse and exchange within a culture that what is commonly circulated by it is not ‘truth’ but representations.” Note Said’s ironic quotation marks around the word truth.

    10. Designating the Oriental as an object of study is dehumanizing.

    11. Orientalism is based on the study of classical texts, rather than “modern Oriental realities.” Learning about the modern Middle East by studying the Quran is “anachronistic.”

    There are some things that are fair in Professor’s Said’s criticisms.

    Nineteenth century writing on the Middle East is chock full of racism. While I don't generally approve of "trigger warnings," I'm going to make an exception in this case and say that the examples in the next two paragraphs are pretty egregious. Read them at your own risk.

    Said cites the work of Ernest Renan (1823-1892) as among the worst. Despite considerable contributions to the field of philology, Renan held cringe-worthy opinions of Arabs and Jews: “The Semitic race appears to us to be an incomplete race…like those individuals who possess so little fecundity that, after a gracious childhood, they attain only the most mediocre virility, the Semitic nations experienced their fullest flowering in their first age and have never been able to achieve true maturity.”

    Frankly, Said’s examples are mild compared to some of the racism I found in my own research. Alfred von Kremer (1828-1889), for example, laces his The Orient under the Caliphs with loathsome stereotypes about Arabs and money. In discussing the tribesmen who served the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), he writes, “The Arab passion for gold had no limits,” and “The genuine Semitic character of these people shows itself clearly in money matters; love of gold is one of the most marked features of their national character. It is accordingly undoubted that the troops would scarcely allow any opportunity to escape for the enhancement of their pay. Matters soon went so far that in disputes about succession it was the golden purse that decided.” It was only by diluting the Arab blood in the ranks, Kremer tells us, with soldiers drawn from the conquered peoples, that later rulers were able to afford their militaries.

    Said is also correct that Orientalism and Imperialism went hand-in-hand. Napoleon brought along a host of scholars to advise him in his occupation of Egypt. The party included one polymath who is near and dear to the hearts of those of us who have backgrounds in math and science, Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier. A century and change later, on the eve of World War I, Imperialist icons like Lord Balfour and the Earl of Cromer were still extending their patronage to Orientalist scholars, writing learned essays and making speeches in Parliament on the necessity of cultivating Orientalism in order to lubricate the machinery of Empire.

    Sadly, what Said got right pales in comparison to what he got wrong and it will take the next two installments in this series, "Polluters of the Brain" and "Damned if you do, damned if you don’t," for me to cover it all.

    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):

    Tuesday, September 11, 2018

    Seventeen Years Later Maybe They Don’t Hate Us as Much

    The moderate Muslims speak up.
    by Michael Isenberg.

    Four years ago, I posted a September 11 column titled, “Thirteen Years Later They Still Hate Us.” In it I presented a sampling of tweets from the Middle East about the 2001 attacks. “I was curious what they were saying in the Arab world,” I wrote,

    so I went to Twitter and searched on “September 11” in Arabic. I expected to find a mixed bag—some tweets celebrating the attack and expressing solidarity with Osama bin Laden, others condemning it and expressing solidarity with America. So it surprised me that what I found was overwhelmingly the former: anti-American, pro-terrorist, and pro-hatred…I really did set out to write a balanced piece and make today a day about healing, but all I found on Twitter was extremism. We keep hearing about moderate Muslims, but they weren't speaking up today.

    I decided to repeat the exercise this afternoon and see what showed up. There was still plenty of hostility toward America—

    —but I also found no shortage of tweets like these:

    Here was a response to another user who had just gotten out of Twitter jail and wanted to know if he had missed anything:

    Tongue in cheek, perhaps inappropriately so, but the writer did put the 2001 terrorist attack in New York on a par with 1979 terrorist attack in Mecca.

    Several people wanted to make sure we didn’t misinterpret any celebrations we might see in the Muslim world today.

    Finally, a sentiment we can all subscribe to:

    It was very encouraging to see these tweets, a welcome change from four years ago, and I hope a harbinger of more to come.

    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

    Monday, September 10, 2018

    Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls--t

    Part 1: Who is Edward Said?
    By Michael Isenberg.

    In my recent obituary for Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis (1916-2018), I noted that he had been party to a number of controversies during his long career. Among these were his involvement with the two Bush Administrations, his “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis, and the bitter accusations leveled against him in Edward Said’s book, Orientalism.

    Professor Said and his Orientalism hypothesis have been significant forces in the field of Middle Eastern studies—not for the better—and they would be worth discussing in their own right, even if Professor Lewis had not been involved. In this post I will give some background on Professor Said and his magnum opus. Part 2 will go into more detail about what is Orientalism and give credit where credit is due for the things Professor Said got right. Then in Parts 3 and 4 I’ll cover what he got wrong. Finally, in Part 5, I’ll come full circle back to the Lewis/Said feud.

    Edward Wadie Said (1935-2003) was born in Jerusalem, at the time part of the British Mandate of Palestine. His father was a Palestinian who had earned American citizenship through his service in the US Army during World War I. His mother was Lebanese. Both were Christian.

    Growing up, shuttling between Cairo and Jerusalem, Edward felt alienated, part of many worlds, belonging to none. As he wrote in 2002’s Between Worlds, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays,

    With an unexceptionally Arab family name like "Saïd", connected to an improbably British first name (my mother much admired Edward VIII the Prince of Wales in 1935, the year of my birth) I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity, at all. To make matters worse, Arabic, my native language, and English, my school language, were inextricably mixed: I have never known which was my first language, and have felt fully at home in neither, although I dream in both. Every time I speak an English sentence, I find myself echoing it in Arabic, and vice versa.

    Said came to the United States in the 1950s (is it called “immigration” if you’re already a citizen?), where he completed his education, earning degrees from Princeton and Harvard. In 1963 he joined the faculties of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia.

    Professor Said soon became an academic superstar. His colleague in the field of literary criticism, Camille Paglia sang his praises in her review of his book Culture and Imperialism. She called him “one of the leading literary critics of his generation…a brilliant and unique amalgam of scholar, aesthete, and political activist, an inspiring role model for a younger generation of critics searching for their cultural identity.” He penned over two dozen books, but Orientalism, published in 1978, is the one he is remembered for. The book was a precursor to today’s ugly politically correct attacks on “dead white men,” and “cultural appropriation”—decades before those terms were in common use.

    The terms “Orient” and “Oriental” on the other hand, had a long history. For most of us in the twenty-first century, they are somewhat old-fashioned and possibly racist terms (opinions are divided) referring to the Far East: China, Japan, and so on. However, Said’s use of “Orient” hearkens back to an earlier era, the eighteenth century, when it referred to what we now call the Middle East. And although Said bemoans that the term “Orient” expanded along with nineteenth century European imperialism to encompass all of Asia, he generally continues to use it throughout the book to refer to the Middle East. His choice of this outdated usage is not accidental. I’ll have more to say about that in Part 4.

    The Introduction to Orientalism is not promising, fraught as it is with opaque academic-ese. For example, “My whole point is to say that we can better understand the persistence and durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture when we realize that their internal constraints on writers and thinkers were productive, not unilaterally inhibiting.” But don’t be discouraged by this. The language becomes marvelously readable once the introduction is over and the main body of the text begins.

    The flow of the book is more or less chronological, a series of theatrical tableaus—to use one of Said’s favorites metaphors—tableaus that the West has staged to represent the East. These go back to ancient times, where Euripides’ The Bacchae portrays the drunken, demonic, and ultimately murderous acolytes of Dionysus as, according to Said, symbols of Asian Persia, in contrast to the Apollonian rationality of European Greece. From there, Said races through the millennia, slowing only when he gets to nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the bulk of his book. Along the way we meet a cast of prominent scholars and authors whose work has been indispensable to those of us who have done research in the field: William Jones, “the undisputed founder of [modern] Orientalism,” Silvestre de Sacy, Ernest Renan, Edward William Lane, Sir Richard Francis Burton, H.A.R Gibb, Louis Massignon, and of course, Professor Lewis.

    Professor Said concedes that the book is personal for him.

    In many ways my study of Orientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.

    The nexus of knowledge and power creating “the Oriental” and in a sense obliterating him as a human being is therefore not for me an exclusively academic matter.

    As we shall see, when Said says that he does not always approach his subject in a spirit of unemotional, academic emotional detachment, we should believe him.

    Perhaps you’ve notice that so far, I have not defined “Orientalism.” That’s problematic, because neither does Professor Said. At no point in his three hundred page doorstop does he provide a concise statement of what Orientalism is. Nevertheless, during the course of the book, certain recurring themes emerge, and we can piece together a definition from that. Which I will do in the next installment 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

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