Edward Said and Middle Eastern studies in America

On May 11, 2017, the Persian intellectual journal Ghalamro interviewed me about the state of Middle Eastern studies. A Persian translation appeared in the journal. Below is an edited version of the original English transcript. Posted retroactively on Sandbox.

Interviewer: Is it correct to say that Edward Said was the first one who raised the issue of politics in Middle Eastern studies by his book Orientalism, arguing that behind this kind of study, there is politics leading in a specific direction?

Kramer: Edward Said was not the first one to do it. He published Orientalism in 1978, but already from the late ’60s and into the early ’70s, there was criticism of Middle Eastern studies coming from a Marxist point of departure. The Egyptian Anouar Abdel-Malekwrote a very influential piece critical of Orientalism, to which some Orientalists responded at the time. And there was a group called MERIP [Middle East Research and Information Project] which had a strong left orientation, and in the early ’70s published attacks on some of the leading scholars, accusing them of complicity with the Pentagon and so forth.

Said’s critique came from a different corner. It wasn’t a Marxist critique; one might say it was a humanist critique, and while it won sympathy on the left, I think its basic premises were rather different. Nevertheless, Said had much more of an effect than the left-Marxist critics precisely because he came from the very center of the academy and from the humanist rather than the Marxist tradition. So very soon people forgot the leftist criticism, and the Saidian critique became the dominant one.

Interviewer: And several decades after the publication of Orientalism, what can you say about the impact of Orientalism on Middle Eastern studies?

Kramer: It had a very profound impact because it came at a particular moment in the history of the academy. There was a crisis of self-confidence in Middle Eastern studies because scholars failed to anticipate the rise of the Palestinian movement, of which Said was an avatar, and they failed to see the rise of the Islamic movement as well. Many in Middle Eastern studies were probing their own premises—why did we not anticipate, why could we not predict? 

So they were vulnerable and incapable of mounting a spirited defense. Said entered, and delegitimated the mandarins, the leading figures in the field, including my teacher Bernard Lewis.

This also coincided with a very particular moment in institutional Middle Eastern studies. There had been larger and larger numbers of Middle Easterners coming to do their work in the field. There were not a lot of positions open at the time, it was a period of retrenchment in the academy, and so there was a very acute struggle over each academic appointment. Said’s book was a kind of manifesto for affirmative action for Muslims and Arabs, because once Orientalism was defined as a kind of racism, you wanted to be sure when you made an appointment that you didn’t select someone who was tainted with it. 

And if Said was right that no Westerner could escape the influence, the gravitational force, of Orientalism, then the way to be sure that you didn’t appoint someone who might be a latent Orientalist, a latent racist, was to appoint a Muslim or an Arab.

Orientalism became a kind of manifesto on which many built their careers; it opened up entry-level positions to Muslims and Arabs. They owed their livelihoods to Edward Said, and they formed a huge constituency which has carried forth his critique of Middle Eastern studies and institutionalized it. Just as there was an old establishment, today there is a newer establishment, and the present-day establishment is the one which gained entry through the work of Edward Said.

Interviewer: Was impact of Said on Middle Eastern studies departments in the United States different from his impact on other departments?

Kramer: Said’s book had an impact in several fields. It was considered the founding text of postcolonial studies, and it had some broader impact in cultural studies. It had a later effect on Middle Eastern studies because there was initial resistance to it and it took some time for the battle to be decided. It was twenty years after publication of the book, in 1998, when Edward Said appeared at the Middle East Studies Association to celebrate the anniversary of publication. There he was finally acclaimed as having won the debate. 

But it took a while. In fact, in 1986, there was an actual debate between Bernard Lewis and Edward Said at the Middle East Studies Association. So it took time for Said to achieve his decisive victory in Middle Eastern studies.

We’re now many years later and Said’s influence in other disciplines has waned. Elsewhere, Said’s portrayal of the interaction of East and West is seen as too black-and-white. Today, the emphasis is on hybridity. But in Middle Eastern studies, Said’s influence has persisted because it still fulfills that same function that I mentioned earlier: it encourages preferential treatment for certain practitioners over others.

Interviewer: How do we evaluate this impact? Was it good or was it bad? What was missed or what was uncovered?

Kramer: Oh, there’s no question that the net effect was negative. It’s always important for a discipline or a field to revisit its premises, but I think that the only valid criticism of what was called Orientalism in the old tradition could have come from within the Orientalist tradition itself, not from the outside. 

For all its limitations, the Orientalist tradition did put the study of Islam and the study of the Middle East on a scientific footing. It was that scholarly tradition which was responsible for banishing medieval prejudices and false assumptions, fake knowledge, and replacing it with a more accurate representation based on a careful reading of the Islamic texts. It is to Orientalism that we owe the assembly and translation of the core texts of Islamic civilization, and it is to its careful philological methods that we owe the critical readings of these texts.

The criticism of Orientalism threw out the good with the bad. It presumed that the tradition was one of prejudice and bias against Islam, when in fact it was precisely the Orientalist tradition which broke the medieval prejudice and bias against Islam. That’s not to say that there weren’t individual scholars with their own prejudices. Some of them came from the missionary tradition, for example, and they may not have made the full transition to scholarly research. But on the whole, it was a tradition which was making progress, just as archaeology, philology, and any other science were making progress. This progress was arrested by the Saidian revolution, which elevated politics above competency. Your ability to interpret a text and its context was less important than your fealty to a certain set of political convictions.

Interviewer: When you look at Middle Eastern studies in the United States since the publication of Orientalism, what are the main turning points in its development?

Kramer: In its initial phase (and I’m going back here to the early twentieth century), Middle Eastern studies were driven to some extent by missionaries or children of missionaries. Some were associated with the American University of Beirut. The department from which I graduated, Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, had a very close association with this tradition.

Then when you get to the ’40s and into the ’50s, you have the influx of scholars from Europe. Some of them were Jews who were fleeing from Nazi persecution, others were not Jews but refugees from tyranny like Gustave von Grunebaum. And they were some of the founders of major Middle East centers—for example, von Grunebaum, first at the University of Chicago and then at UCLA. Then you also had people who came from the Middle East. Princeton was much influenced by Phillip Hitti, and Farhat Ziadeh came to the University of Washington. So you had the great minds of Europe and the wise men from the East. These were the founding fathers of the field.

When you get into the ’60s and ’70s, you have the rise of American-born and trained social scientists in Middle Eastern studies. They did not come from the Orientalist tradition, they came from within the disciplines. Leonard Binder was a good example of this trend in the field. It was very American, and it was very oriented toward modernization theory. Edward Said made his appearance toward the end of that phase. 

Since then, you’ve had the present phase, which is third-worldist, anti-Orientalist, left-oriented, characterized by the marked presence of people from the region in leading positions. So that’s where we stand now, and really the question is whether we’re on the verge of another shift. 

9/11 represented a kind of watershed. 9/11 was as much a shock to the new establishment as Edward Said was a shock to the old establishment, because Said had a blind spot when it came to Islam and Islamic movements. Bernard Lewis saw them coming. In 1976, he published a very prescient article entitled “The Return of Islam.” Edward Said did not see them. He saw the Palestinian revolution, and the Palestinian revolution caught many people by surprise, but he didn’t see the Iranian revolution coming.

He wrote a book after Orientalism called Covering Islam. It was an attempt to cover his own failure to anticipate the new salience of Islam. It’s not surprising that someone who was himself not a Muslim, was strongly secular, and was living in Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan, wouldn’t have seen this. Someone who had a disdain for the the study of Islamic texts and was unfamiliar with them would not have seen Khomeinion the horizon. That’s always been the weak spot of the Saidian critique.

After 9/11, Said himself retreated from the media because he had no answers. He said something like: “Who am I to pronounce on the motives of these people?” Well, Bernard Lewis did pronounce on their motives, and he became a best-selling author twice in the aftermath of 9/11. 

So I think that there’s a sense that this newer establishment is under siege, and its premises have now been called into question, just as Said and followers had called into question the premises of the previous generation.

Today we have many Americans who have been out to the Middle East in far greater numbers than ever before, several million in various capacities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. They represent, perhaps, the next phase, that is, one of direct experience. Those people are beginning to make their way to academic careers, and I think that will be a major challenge to the Saidian aristocracy in Middle Eastern studies.

Interviewer: And what could be the new premises for this kind of approach?

Kramer: The new premises would first of all give religion its due place—not as simply an effect of some other cause, but as a prime mover in its own right. Not exclusively so, but it can no longer be seen as a subordinate element or a mere trace of something deeper. 

There will be a much greater awareness of the subnational identities in the Middle East. Said emphasized the Palestinians, others emphasized the nation-state, but the Palestinians and the nation-state in the Middle East are in disarray. So I think there’s more interest in sects and tribes, and you can talk about these things today, unlike in the past. Before, it was deemed to be a colonialist agenda. Well, a lot of Americans have been out to the Middle East and back, and they don’t see tribes as part of a colonialist agenda, but as realities. So there will emerge a more empirically-based and less ideological view of the region.

It’s not totally unconnected to the expanded role of American power in this part of the world. But just because knowledge is acquired through the exercise of power doesn’t make it invalid. Even if you think that the United States is a thief in the night, the thief still has to know which windows can be opened easily and where the safe is hidden in the house. That’s actual knowledge, and it can’t be so readily dismissed. 

So, yes, there’s an association between this new trend and the exercise of American power over the past fifteen years in the Middle East, but that doesn’t invalidate the knowledge; in fact, to a considerable extent, it gives it an empirical base.

Interviewer: So can we say that your book Ivory Towers on Sand was an effort to legitimize such knowledge anew?

Kramer: You can never go back. I think that even if there had been no book such as Orientalism, there would have been a revision. I think that there would have been a greater interest in social movements, there would have been an understanding of the limitations of modernization theory. Right through the ’70s, it was generally assumed by leading scholars that the Middle East was on the same track to modernization as parts of East Asia, and that it was simply a matter of time. Now we know, of course, that that did not happen. 

I think there would have been a crisis of Middle Eastern studies one way or another, but it would have produced a new synthesis, which would have been much superior to the ideological and the highly politicized kind of Middle Eastern studies that emerged from the Saidian revolution.

My purpose was not to legitimize things which had their day; the aim of my book was just to create more space. One of things I noticed among the acolytes of Edward Said was a high degree of intolerance for views other than their own. They were almost militant in closing out other approaches and assuring that only their associates were appointed to academic positions, creating a kind of an academic monolith. It’s happened in other areas in the humanities; Middle Eastern studies are not unique in that respect. So the purpose of my book was just to open some space for other views. 

I might have had a small effect there. The larger effect was the events that happened in the Middle East. I’m not a young student anymore, but I’m not too old that I might not hope to see further change before I retire.

Interviewer: Please give us your assessment of the impact of your book in different academic circles in the United States.

Kramer: The book received a lot of attention at the time it was published because it appeared six weeks after 9/11, and people were asking, what did we not see and why did we not see it? When I wrote the book, I thought the only people interested in it would be in Middle Eastern studies. When you write a book, you always think of your reader looking over your shoulder. The reader looking over my shoulder was someone in the field. 

But because of 9/11 many, many other people read the book. Journalists read it, policy people read it, other academics outside of Middle Eastern studies read it, college presidents, university presidents, and provosts read it. There was an article in the New York Times about it, which gave it a lot of momentum, and in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was much discussed in the journals, including two critical reviews in Foreign Affairs. It created a stir because the timing was right.

What was the actual effect it had? Not surprisingly, those I criticized circled the wagons, and did everything to try to discredit me. They said the publisher was The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and “they obviously have an agenda.” “Martin Kramer is a student of Bernard Lewis, he obviously is taking the Saidian critique personally.” 

But it wasn’t enough to stop the discussion. I remember being told by Larry Summers, who was at the time president of Harvard, that after he received a copy of the book, he took it to a meeting with the Middle East faculty, held it up and said, “Is any of this true?” They were not pleased. They had to defend themselves. It made many university presidents and provosts say to themselves, “You know, I’ve got one of these programs or departments in my university, and I haven’t been paying attention. Maybe I should.” So it brought more scrutiny. 

The then-president of Brandeis, Jehuda Reinharz, ordered a carton of the books and used them to mobilize support for a new alternative Middle East center which was founded shortly thereafter. I spoke at the inauguration.

Now, it would be presumptuous of me to say that this made for some huge change in Middle Eastern studies. And yet, I think that it did open, in a few places, some space for people to feel a little bit more confident in asking: What did we not see that manifested itself on 9/11? What did we not see that has manifested itself in the Iranian revolution? And it made a little bit of space for bringing religion back in. People went back and maybe read Bernard Lewis a little more carefully and Edward Said a little more critically.

Fifteen years on, it would be useful for someone else younger than I am to go back and do this again, repeat the exercise, because there were other things which since then have surprised us—the Arab Spring, most notably. We need an account of what went wrong in academe’s understanding of the Arab Spring, for which there was a huge amount of enthusiasm and an overestimation of its potential for change. So there’s more to be done, and I hope to have successors.