Enough Said

Review by Martin Kramer of Robert Irwin, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2006). The review appeared in Commentary, March 2007. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

THE British historian Robert Irwin is the sort of scholar who, in times past, would have been proud to call himself an Orientalist.

The traditional Orientalist was someone who mastered difficult languages like Arabic and Persian and then spent years bent over manuscripts in heroic efforts of decipherment and interpretation. In Dangerous Knowledge, Irwin relates that the 19th-century English Arabist Edward William Lane, compiler of the great Arabic-English Lexicon, “used to complain that he had become so used to the cursive calligraphy of his Arabic manuscripts that he found Western print a great strain on his eyes.” Orientalism in its heyday was a branch of knowledge as demanding and rigorous as its near cousin, Egyptology. The first International Congress of Orientalists met in 1873; its name was not changed until a full century later.

But there are no self-declared Orientalists today. The reason is that the late Edward Said turned the word into a pejorative. In his 1978 book Orientalism, the Palestinian-born Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, claimed that an endemic Western prejudice against the East had congealed into a modern ideology of racist supremacy—a kind of anti-Semitism directed against Arabs and Muslims. Throughout Europe’s history, announced Said, “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”

In a semantic sleight of hand, Said appropriated the term “Orientalism” as a label for the ideological prejudice he described, thereby neatly implicating the scholars who called themselves Orientalists. At best, charged Said, the work of these scholars was biased so as to confirm the inferiority of Islam. At worst, Orientalists had directly served European empires, showing proconsuls how best to conquer and control Muslims. To substantiate his indictment, Said cherry-picked evidence, ignored whatever contradicted his thesis, and filled the gaps with conspiracy theories.

Said’s Orientalism, Irwin writes, “seems to me to be a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations.” Dangerous Knowledge is its refutation. An Arabist by training, Irwin artfully weaves together brief profiles of great Orientalist scholars, generously spiced with telling anecdotes. From his narrative, Said’s straw men emerge as complex individuals touched by genius, ambition—and no little sympathy for the subjects of their study.

SOME of the Orientalist pioneers were quintessential insiders. Thus, Silvestre de Sacy founded the great 19th-century school of Arabic studies in Paris; Bonaparte made him a baron, and he became a peer of France under the monarchy. Carl Heinrich Becker, who brought sociology into Islamic studies, served as a cabinet minister in the Weimar government. But it was marginal men who made the most astonishing advances. Ignaz Goldziher, a Hungarian Jew, revolutionized Islamic studies a century ago by applying the methods of higher criticism to the Muslim oral tradition. Slaving away as the secretary of the reformist Neolog Jewish community in Budapest, Goldziher made his breakthroughs at the end of long workdays.

Some great scholars were quite mad. In the 16th century, Guillaume Postel, a prodigy who occupied the first chair of Arabic at the Collège de France, produced Europe’s first grammar of classical Arabic. Irwin describes him as “a complete lunatic”—an enthusiast of all things esoteric and Eastern who believed himself to be possessed by a female divinity. Four centuries later, Louis Massignon, another French great at the Collège, claimed to have experienced a visitation by God and plunged into the cult of a Sufi mystic. When lucid, Massignon commanded a vast knowledge of Islam and Arabic, but he held an unshakable belief in unseen forces, including Jewish plots of world domination.

Above all, many Orientalists became fervent advocates for Arab and Islamic political causes, long before notions like third-worldism and post-colonialism entered the political lexicon. Goldziher backed the Urabi revolt against foreign control of Egypt. The Cambridge Iranologist Edward Granville Browne became a one-man lobby for Persian liberty during Iran’s constitutional revolution in the early 20th century. Prince Leone Caetani, an Italian Islamicist, opposed his country’s occupation of Libya, for which he was denounced as a “Turk.” And Massignon may have been the first Frenchman to take up the Palestinian Arab cause.

Two truths emerge from a stroll through Irwin’s gallery. First, Orientalist scholars, far from mystifying Islam, freed Europe from medieval myths about it through their translations and studies of original Islamic texts. Second, most Orientalists, far from being agents of empire, were bookish dons and quirky eccentrics. When they did venture opinions on mundane matters, it was usually to criticize Western imperialism and defend something Islamic or Arab. In fact, it would be easy to write a contrary indictment of the Orientalists, showing them to be wooly-minded Islamophiles who suffered from what the late historian Elie Kedourie once called “the romantic belief that exquisite mosques and beautiful carpets are proof of political virtue.”

IN other words, Edward Said got it exactly wrong. Other scholars said as much in the years after his book came out; Irwin’s critique echoes those made by Jacques Berque, Malcolm Kerr, Bernard Lewis, and Maxime Rodinson. These doyens of Islamic and Arab studies came from radically different points on the political compass, but they all found the same flaws in Said’s presentation. Even Albert Hourani, the Middle East historian closest to Said personally, thought that Orientalism had gone “too far” and regretted that its most lasting effect was to turn “a perfectly respected discipline” into “a dirty word.”

Yet the criticisms did not stick; what stuck was the dirt thrown by Said. Not only did Orientalism sweep the general humanities, where ignorance of the history of Orientalism was (and is) widespread; not only did it help to create the faux-academic discipline now known as post-colonialism; but the book’s thesis also conquered the field of Middle Eastern studies itself, where scholars should have known better. No other discipline has ever surrendered so totally to an external critic.

As it happens, I witnessed a minute that perfectly compressed the results of this process. In 1998, to mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of Orientalism, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) invited Said to address a plenary panel at its annual conference. As Said ascended the dais, his admirers leaped to their feet in an enthusiastic ovation. Then, somewhat hesitantly at first, the rest of the audience stood and began to applaud. Fixed in my seat, I surveyed the ballroom, watching scholars whom I had heard privately damn Orientalism for its libel against their field now rising sheepishly and casting sideways glances to see who might behold their gesture of submission.

This may help us understand something in Irwin’s account that might otherwise leave a reader bewildered. Why should Said have singled out for attack a group of scholars who had done so much to increase understanding of Islam, and who had tirelessly explained Muslim views to a self-absorbed West? The answer: for the same reason that radicals usually attack the moderates on their own side. They know they can browbeat them into doing much more.

By exposing and exaggerating a few of the field’s insignificant lapses, Orientalism stunned Middle East academics into a paroxysm of shame. Exploiting those pangs of guilt, Said’s radical followers demanded concession upon concession from the Orientalist establishment: academic appointments and promotions, directorships of Middle East centers and departments, and control of publishing decisions, grants, and honors. Within a startling brief period of time, a small island of liberal sympathy for the Arab and Muslim “other” was transformed into a subsidized, thousand-man lobby for Arab, Islamic, and Palestinian causes.

THE revolution did not stop until Said was universally acclaimed as the savior of Middle Eastern studies and, in that ballroom where I sat in 1998, virtually the entire membership of MESA had been corralled into canonizing him. It did not stop until he was elected an honorary fellow of the association—that is, one of ten select scholars “who have made major contributions to Middle East studies.” (No similar majority could be mustered to accord the same honor to Bernard Lewis.) It would not stop until it achieved the abject abasement of the true heirs of the Orientalist tradition.

This is the missing final chapter of Dangerous Knowledge. The established scholars in Middle Eastern studies never did deliver the crushing blow to Orientalism that it deserved. With the exception of Bernard Lewis, no one went on the warpath against the book (although, according to Irwin, the anthropologist Ernest Gellner was working on a “book-long attack” on Orientalism when he died in 1995). Going up against Said involved too much professional risk. He himself was famous for avenging every perceived slight, and his fiercely loyal followers denounced even the mildest criticism of their hero as evidence of “latent Orientalism”—or, worse yet, Zionism.

Still, the power of Said and his legions did begin to wane somewhat after the attacks of 9/11. Said had systematically soft-pedaled the threat of radical Islam. In a pre-9/11 revised edition of Said’s Covering Islam, a book devoted to exposing the allegedly biased reporting of the Western press, he mocked “speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airliners, and poison water supplies.” After the planes struck the towers, Said declined to answer his phone. Irwin writes that when, unrepentant, he finally responded, “he put the terrorists’ case for them, just as he had put the case for Saddam Hussein.” September 11 broke Said’s spell. “Does this mean I’m throwing my copy of Orientalism out the window?” quipped Richard Bulliet, a professor of Islamic history at Columbia, in the week following the attacks. “Maybe it does.”

Since Said’s death in 2003, more doubters have found the courage to speak out. Some of Columbia’s own students did so in 2005, when they took on a number of Said’s most extreme acolytes, whom he had helped to embed as instructors in the university’s department of Middle East studies. Irwin’s Dangerous Knowledge is a challenge to that minority of scholars in the field who still preserve a spark of integrity and some vestige of pride in the tradition of learning that Said defamed. They won’t ever call themselves Orientalists again. But it is high time they denounced the Saidian cult for the fraud that it is, and began to unseat it. Irwin has told the truth; it is their responsibility to act on it.

Hamas of the Intellectuals

The late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American icon, described the role of the intellectual as “speaking truth to power.” In that spirit, many Palestinian academics and thinkers broke with Yasir Arafat and Fatah, accusing them of corruption and compromise.

These intellectuals are nearly all secularists, who’ve long insisted to the world that the cause of Palestine is also the cause of revolution, equality, and democracy. So now that Hamas rules, are these intellectuals speaking the same truth to (and about) the Islamists who’ve become the new power?

No one knows what guidance Edward Said would offer were he alive today. But during his last decade (he died in 2003), he made occasional reference to Hamas (and Islamic Jihad). When these references are assembled, as they are below, they convey a consistent message. Palestinian intellectuals seem to have ignored it, as they rush headlong to embrace an Islamist regime.

Said made his first reference to Hamas in 1993, after two visits to the West Bank. At the time, Hamas hadn’t yet become a household word in the West. Nor had it perfected the method of the suicide attack. Said was underwhelmed by the encounter:

In 1992 when I was there, I briefly met a few of the student leaders who represent Hamas: I was impressed by their sense of political commitment but not at all by their ideas. In 1993 I arranged to spend some more hours with them and with their rivals for political sway, Islamic Jihad. I found them quite moderate when it came to accepting the truths of modern science, for instance (interestingly the four young men I spoke to were students with outstanding records: all of them were scientists or engineers); hopelessly reductive in their views of the West; and irrefragably opposed to the existence of Israel. “The Jews have to leave,” one of them said categorically, “except for the ones who were here before 1948.” … In the main, their ideas are protests against Israeli occupation, their leaders neither especially visible nor impressive, their writings rehashes of old nationalist tracts, now couched in an “Islamic” idiom. (The Politics of Dispossession, pp. 403-5.)

In 1994, Tariq Ali interviewed Said for the BBC, and Said repeated his opinion that Hamas had no ideas on offer:

In my opinion, their ideas about an Islamic state are completely inchoate, unconvincing to anybody who lives there. Nobody takes that aspect of their programme seriously. When you question them, as I have, both on the West Bank and elsewhere: “What are your economic policies? What are your ideas about power stations, or housing?”, they reply: “Oh, we’re thinking about that.” There is no social programme that could be labelled “Islamic.” I see them as creatures of the moment, for whom Islam is an opportunity to protest against the current stalemate, the mediocrity and bankruptcy of the ruling party.

That same year, 1994, Said sharpened his critique of Hamas, even as the movement gained momentum as an oppositional force:

As to Hamas and its actions in the Occupied Territories, I know that the organization is one of the only ones expressing resistance…. Yet for any secular intellectual to make a devil’s pact with a religious movement is, I think, to substitute convenience for principle. It is simply the other side of the pact we made during the past several decades with dictatorship and nationalism, for example, supporting Saddam Hussein when he went to war with “the Persians.” (Peace and its Discontents, p. 111.)

By placing Hamas in the same box as Saddam, and by equating Islamism with dictatorship, Said left little room for doubt as to the responsibility of the secular critic.

In 1996, the year Hamas gained international notoriety with a series of devastating suicide bombings, Said found still more disparaging adjectives for the growing movement of “Islamic resistance”:

Unfortunately, it is not to my taste, it is not secular resistance. Look at some of the Islamic movements, Hamas on the West Bank, the Islamic Jihad, etc. They are violent and primitive forms of resistance. You know, what Hobsbawn calls pre-capital, trying to get back to communal forms, to regulate personal conduct with simpler and simpler reductive ideas. (Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 416.)

In 2000, Said again returned to the poverty of ideas in Hamas:

They don’t have a message about the future. You can’t simply say Islam is the only solution. You have to deal with problems of electricity, water, the environment, transportation. Those can’t be Islamic. So they’ve failed on that level. (Culture and Resistance, p. 62.)

In 2002, in the midst of the second intifada, Said made his last and most devastating critique of the Islamists, chiding Arafat for allowing them to wreak havoc with the cause:

He [Arafat] never really reined in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which suited Israel perfectly so that it would have a ready-made excuse to use the so-called martyrs’ (mindless) suicide bombings to further diminish and punish the whole people. If there is one thing that has done us more harm as a cause than Arafat’s ruinous regime, it is this calamitous policy of killing Israeli civilians, which further proves to the world that we are indeed terrorists and an immoral movement. For what gain, no one has been able to say. (From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, p. 185.)

So from an early date, Said discovered that Hamas hadn’t a clue as to how to govern. He described it as gripped by “hopelessly reductive” ideas. He dismissed its violent resistance as “primitive” and “mindless,” and deplored that violence for doing more harm to the Palestinian cause than the harm done by Arafat. Above all, he warned secular intellectuals against concluding a “devil’s pact” with Hamas that would sacrifice principle to convenience. Said would not compromise his secularism. In 1999, he succinctly explained why he could not ally himself with Islamists, even in the shared cause Palestine: “First, I am secular; second, I do not trust religious movements; and third, I disagree with these movements’ methods, means, analyses, values, and visions.” (Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 437.)

Given Said’s standing as the guiding light of Palestinian intellectuals, it’s remarkable that not a single one has echoed his critique of Hamas since the Palestinian elections. To the contrary: several of them have rushed to enter that “devil’s pact” against which he warned.

For example, there is Said’s own nephew, Saree Makdisi, a professor of literature at UCLA, who keeps a weblog, “Speaking Truth to Power.” (The title suggests that he’s especially qualified to keep Said’s flame alive.) But Makdisi seems to have forgotten his uncle’s dismissal of Hamas rhetoric as “rehashes of old nationalist tracts,” when writing these fawning words in praise of an article by the Damascus-based commissar of Hamas, Khalid Meshaal.

Meshaal revives the language of genuine struggle rather than that of hopelessness and defeat; he relies on the unapologetic rhetoric of national liberation, rather than the tired cliches and bureaucratic language (“performance,” “interim status”) borrowed from Israeli and American planners…. What was refreshing about Meshaal’s piece was his use of a defiant language of struggle.

Similarly, George Bisharat, a University of California law professor and activist, wrote an op-ed praising the Palestinians for doing exactly what Said said he could never do on principle: trust a religious movement:

The Palestinians have gained a government with spine—one they trust will be far less yielding of their fundamental rights. It is to the shame of the secular nationalist Palestinian movement that it was not the one to offer this alternative. One day, Palestinians will have to wrestle with questions of what kind of polity they truly want, Islamic or other. For now, they have entrusted their future to Hamas, and the world will have to grapple with their democratic choice.

Issa Khalaf, Palestinian-American author of a book on Palestinian politics and holder of an Oxford Ph.D., shared nothing of Said’s view of Hamas policy as a danger to the Palestinian cause. To the contrary: in an op-ed he hailed the Hamas “strategy” as “eminently sound, including its principled defense of the Palestinians’ core interests, its efforts to create a national consensus and a countervailing balance to the one-sided American-Israeli alliance.” He also added his expert assurance that “its Islamist militancy will be dramatically curtailed upon assumption of the perquisites and symbols of state power.” (“There is no question in my mind,” he insisted.)

After the elections, Rami Khouri, the Palestinian-Jordanian columnist now based in Beirut, went to meet a few Hamas members, in the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh in Beirut. Unlike Said, he came away glowing from his encounter (which lasted all of two-and-a-half hours). In an article entitled “Talking to the Guys from Hamas,” he reported his epiphany:

What does one learn from such encounters? The two most significant themes that emerge from discussions with Hamas officials, and from their many statements, are a commitment to national principles and a clear dose of political pragmatism… Hamas will surely continue its three-year-old slow shift towards more pragmatism and realism, because it is now politically accountable to the entire Palestinian population, and to world public opinion. Incumbency means responsibility and accountability, which inevitably nurture practicality and reasonable compromises.

All the evidence so far indicates that the promise of such an “inevitable” transformation has not been kept. Of course, it’s a promise Hamas itself never made; it was made instead by Palestinian intellectuals and their Western academic allies. In making it, they hurriedly jettisoned their own secular principles. “I do not trust religious movements,” said Edward Said. Since the election of Hamas, not a single Palestinian intellectual has dared to repeat that sentence. Instead, an entire raft of them (the sample above is comprised entirely of nominal Christians) has insisted that those whom Hamas openly reviles should trust the “Islamic Resistance,” and conclude just the sort of “devil’s pact” that would strengthen its grip on the Palestinian cause. (Rami Khouri has gone the farthest, openly urging Arab liberals to ally with the mighty Islamists on the basis of their shared “core values.”)

Admittedly, there is no more dangerous enterprise in the Middle East than speaking truth to (and about) Islamist power. But it’s another sign of the weakness of the Palestinian people that it hasn’t a single intellectual who remembers how to do it.

Edward Said, Malcolm Kerr, and Honors at AUB

On Saturday, the American University of Beirut (AUB) will hold its annual commencement, and will award honorary doctorates for the first time in over thirty years. Among the recipients: Edward Said.

Edward Said is a big celebrity in Beirut, and AUB is his favorite theater. In 1999, he addressed 1,000 students there. “The atmosphere was almost like a carnival,” reported Beirut’s Daily Star. In 2000, he delivered AUB’s commencement address. In March of this year, he spoke once more at AUB; the Daily Star likened it to “an American rock concert for the learned and the not-so.” So there’s nothing daring or controversial in AUB’s decision to honor Edward Said. Yet there’s a bit of irony in it.

During AUB’s long night of war and instability, the university lost one of its presidents: Malcolm Kerr, assassinated at gunpoint on campus on January 18, 1984. Kerr had a special bond with AUB. His parents had been American educators there, and he was born in the AUB hospital. He studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins, became a political scientist, and built an academic career at UCLA, where he became one of America’s leading interpreters of contemporary Arab politics. Kerr was also one of the founders and early presidents of the Middle East Studies Association. He returned to Lebanon to become the president of AUB in 1982, at the university’s darkest hour. Eighteen months later, his choice cost him his life.

Why mention Malcolm Kerr on the eve of this commencement? Kerr was the only American scholar to take a chisel to Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, the work that catapulted Said to academic fame. In a review published in an academic journal in 1980, Kerr described the book as

spoiled by overzealous prosecutorial argument in which Professor Said, in his eagerness to spin too large a web, leaps at conclusions and tries to throw everything but the kitchen sink into a preconceived frame of analysis. In charging the entire tradition of European and American Oriental studies with the sins of reductionism and caricature, he commits precisely the same error.

It’s a great read. For all of it, click here.