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When Ibn Warraq met Edward Said

| 17 Comments | 2 TrackBacks
It is commonly supposed that pursuing knowledge in a systematic, scientific manner is good scholarship. There is an excellent reason for this - the frontiers of human understanding are advanced only by modifying or discarding theories that fail to explain reality in favour of those that do. In other words, it takes a theory to beat a theory. In intellectual circles, this has become the obvious standard against which the quality of scholarship is held. And yet, in some cases, it isn't so obvious. In an important sense, such scholarship is regarded as more valuable in some cultures than in others. In a culture driven by a sense of justice that derives itself from positional authority, as opposed to a rational authority, extending scholarship to its logical conclusions can fraught with problems. Good scholarship does not allow itself to be subordinated to issues of shame and honour – it carries on regardless. But in cultures where the claims of the community against its members take unconditional priority over individuals against the community, the costs of renegade scholarship are considerably greater than the short-term benefits. In other words, works that cross the boundaries of defection exact a very high price. In the U.S., as well as Britain, Middle Eastern Studies seems a culture unto itself. Since the publication of Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient by Edward Said, the study of the Middle East has been driven more by insidiously shaming scholars into harbouring particular viewpoints, rather than analysing the intellectual merits of the subjects under scrutiny. Never has an established academic field so widely degenerated into emulating what is meant to be the remote object of its study. And the recent, albeit timely, advent of Campus Watch reflects an overwhelming need to readdress such unwarranted bias in an era where silencing critics of Said and his followers has become more widely institutionalised ever since the days when Orientalism was first published.
Said's book was purportedly aimed at "deconstructing" the writings of past and present Orientalists, who served, according to Said, only to justify and advance the New Imperial Order, where Europe’s and America’s mighty armadas moved to subjugate the stupid and hapless Oriental. Orientalism ignited a whole field of “post-colonial studies” which reiterated the standard quasi-Marxist accusations towards Western nations, especially America, for having hijacked the Orient for its own evil ends, thus taking much of the blame for the present pathetic and humiliating state of the Arab world. And yet, in spite of claiming to “deconstruct” Orientalists whose fallacious writings, Said believed, were seen to be always infused with an air of contempt directed against the Oriental, nowhere did Said introduce a new way of thinking about the Arab world; nowhere did he provide an alternative, superior theory and framework that contained none of the alleged defects of Orientalist theories. As Martin Kramer has pointed out, Said admitted in the afterword of the 1994 edition of Orientalism that "I have no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are." In other words, Said was not interested in advancing scholarship, but only anti-Western polemical screeds, being mostly content with hurling vitriolic and malicious invective against past and present Orientalists, such as Silvestre de Sacy and Bernard Lewis. Despite his Arab heritage, there is also a peculiar condescension towards Arabs and Muslims that runs throughout many Said’s works. This is disturbing, given that many Arabs and Muslims share much of Said’s conclusions of who is to blame for their mess. And yet for Said to place much of the blame on Western shoulders strongly implies that Arabs and Muslims are inherently incapable of beginning to sort out their societies; that such people are pathetic, downtrodden children, utterly bereft of any capacity for being instrumentally rational, aside from a talent simply for acting to gain attention the way a two-year-old child throws a tantrum to get Mommy's attention. Surely this is condescension of the worst kind. Despite what the Arab world has been through, no reasonably sane person could believe that of Arabs and Muslims. And yet it is there hidden away, couched beneath Said’s heavy denunciations of the Western “rape” of the Orient. It is, in fact, not surprising that this is so. In implying such a contemptible viewpoint – whether consciously made or otherwise – Said is forced to necessarily raise the intensity of abuse hurled against his Western targets in order to increasingly obscure the obvious insinuation made within. This also acts as a useful relief mechanism for assuaging such pent-up guilt from such condescension by releasing it elsewhere, much of it at the usual suspect – the West. Incidentally, this is common practice among quasi-Marxist interpretations of history. Said's writings have received rebuttals in the past, of which among the most notable are by Bernard Lewis and Keith Windschuttle. More recently, Ibn Warraq of the Institution of the Secularisation of Islamic Society (ISIS), has also joined the fray. Ibn Warraq, an ex-Muslim who is no stranger to defecting from established conventional wisdom having written and edited some excellent books on the origins of Islam, has now turned his attention towards the Saidian polemicists and penned a rather exhaustive essay decrying the pretensions of Edward Said towards harbouring any conceptions of intellectual scholarship.

Ibn Warraq’s dissection of Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient is a masterfully written, albeit long, catalogue of Said’s errors and misconceptions. Indeed, one of the most absurd charges made by Said was one levelled against Bernard Lewis. In an essay, Lewis had discussed the etymological root of the classical Arabic term thawra [revolution] as follows: bq. “The root th-w-r in Classical Arabic meant to rise up (e.g. of a camel) , to be stirred or excited, and hence, especially in Maghribi usage, to rebel. It is often used in the context of establishing a petty, independent sovereignty; thus, for example, the so-called party kings who ruled in eleventh century Spain after the break-up of the Caliphate of Cordova are called thuwwar ( sing. tha’ir ).” Said responded thus: bq. “Lewis’s association of thawra with a camel rising and generally with excitement (and not with a struggle on behalf of values) hints much more broadly than is usual for him that the Arab is scarcely more than a neurotic sexual being. Each of the words or phrases he uses to describe revolution is tinged with sexuality: stirred, excited, rising up. But for the most part it is a ‘bad’ sexuality he ascribes to the Arab. In the end, since Arabs are really not equipped for serious action, their sexual excitement is no more noble than a camel’s rising up. Instead of revolution there is sedition, setting up a petty sovereignty, and more excitement, which is as much as saying that instead of copulation the Arab can only achieve foreplay, masturbation, coitus interruptus. These , I think , are Lewis’s implications ....” To which Ibn Warraq has this to say: bq. "Can any rational person have drawn any conclusion which even remotely resembled that of Edward Said’s from Lewis’s scholarly discussion of Classical Arabic etymology? Were I to indulge in some prurient psycho-biography, much in fashion, I would be tempted to ask, “What guilty sexual anguish is Said trying to cover up? Just what did they do to him at his Cairo English prep school?”. Lewis’s concise and elegant reply to Said’s conclusions is to quote the Duke of Wellington: “If you believe that, you can believe anything”." And that is not all. Ibn Warraq’s essay is full of delightful rejoinders at Said’s expense. In reading this piece, one recalls the apt words of Stephen Schwartz on Said's book: bq. "Said's Orientalism, a ridiculous imposture from its first page to its last, is now a standard text in Anglo-American universities, but reads like the product of a rather dense college student who has just discovered Marxism; there can be no more telling condemnation of the present state of the American academy than the ascendancy of Said.” Indeed. JK UPDATE: More Said-related resources.

2 TrackBacks

Tracked: October 9, 2003 8:01 PM
Excerpt: I had the cold today, so I stayed at home and surfed the net. It is worse than flipping channels on a TV. I found Shi’a Pundit and his "Unmedia, principled pragmatism” blog. His post from yesterday is titled “Israel...
Tracked: October 23, 2003 8:41 PM
Excerpt: When Ibn Warraq met Edward Said Rhetoric vs. Reality: The Department of Justice defends the Patriot Act. Hillary is Most Poisoned Baby Name in History...

17 Comments

Thank you for this clear-eyed dismissal of the intellectual lightweight and loudmouth Edward Said.

I have been a big fan of "Muslimpundit", your web journal, and through it discovered Windsofchange.Net.

Please continue writing, your voice is gratefully appreciated.

Great article! I found Said's "deconstruction" of Bernard Lewis works to be so petty. E. Said has similar criticism of V. S. Naipaul(Among Believers) in the afterward of the 1994 edition of Orientalism. Bernard Lewis is a national treasure.

It is well-known that Bernard Lewis is a Zionist and that Edward Said is an advocate of the basic rights of Palestinians. Lewis is the spokesman of the strong Iraelis, Said the defender of the weak Palestinians.

Ibn Warraq missed the point in this case, because Edaward Said was not defending Islam as a religion, he is not a Muslim, but cricising the colonial point of view of the orientalists.

I don't know much about Ibn Warraq. He's more infamous than a popular leader in literature, sociology or politics. From what I gather he has had an axe to grind against Islam for some time and comes from the angle that Islam [like Christianity] needs a reformation of sorts. I don't think that its quite as simple. Media spotlights on trouble spots where 'Islamic-terrorism' don't take into account a lot of things. Without going into a mile long argument I would make analogous to the situation facing 'Israel' and 'Palestine' today. Its too easy to have it black and white - with clear soundbite shorts of history. The crisis we are seeing now is the offshoot of terrorism and fascism AS WELL AS a long and complicated tapestry of political blunder and vested interests. In other words you can't isolate the so called problem of Islamic terror or 'Islam' itself from the bigger picture.

Sociological and historical reasons play a big part in where we are today. To let the media, the government or a few "learned" internet pundits SWAY the argument towards market-based capitalism or semi-Marxist thought is very passe and very dangerous.

Examining PEOPLE's [not in terms of DNA] and local philosophy and hard-wired daily practices will tell us a lot more about each other than these very nebulous concepts of DEMOCRACY, RIGHT and WRONG, etc etc...

There's my two cents worth.

Cheers

Toby

This was great! The links make it a real gem. I have already read Warraq's essay and found it to most informative. I don't know why Omar above talked about Zionism. Perhaps he just wants to blame it on the Jews; that old stockpot response from anti-Semites, especially the new breed that developes in media, academic, and circles that you hear about all the time. Perhaps the "other view should be spoken of: the one where their not blaming Jews, such as Iranians living in exile.

Said was an apologist for atrocities committed in the name of religion. His views contribute to a "Dark Age" in intellectual thought, where nihilism has replaced reason, and anti-semitism goes unchallenged. Academia needs a reformation almost as much as Islam.

Omar:

Have you read any of Bernard Lewis works? And I don't mean "deconstructed exceprts".

I am aamused by one commentor, who says Lewis a Zionist (that dismisses him for usre) but tha Said was something or other else...sure. He was a gentleman and did not want to bomb Israel out of existence. He merely wanted one state with an Arab majority and a democracy so they could like Hitler vote to change things...one state solution? The UN, The British Madante and the Peele commisiion all called for Two states!

Said a fine writer and scholar. But he detested Arafat, and that was ok

I note that Omar dismisses Lewis as a Zionist. Since when has the messanger become more important than the message? Lewis' or Said's political views are completely irrelavant to the discussion. The message, what they say, and whether it is true (corresponds to reality as it is) or not is the only question I got. Who is right, Said or Lewis.

The politics of the individuals is irrelevant and the attempted dismissal of Lewis is nothing but name calling. This is a bad tactic, as it suggests that the attacker, (Omar) has no rational argument against Lewis' work. He cannot say Lewis is wrong, so he calls him a Zionist.

I never met the man. I am sure, in person, he was a decent human being (at least to those who agreed with his political point of view).

However, there are unpleasant things that need to be said about Said. The first of these, and most important, is that Said is responsible for the destruction of an entire academic discipline. The travesty of Orientalism has sent hundreds of scholars on a fruitless path to...nowhere. Indeed, it has to be so given the epistomological framework that he operated under, a post-Modern/post-Structuralist point of view in which denies the existence, or at least the ability to know, truth. This was a particularly necessary dodge for Said who, whatever the virtues of his literary analysis, simply did not have the knowledge of the Middle East on which to base his vast theoretical framework.

Said simply didn't believe in the abstract notion of "truth." Truth is as it is perceived...and given this point of view, the pursuit of truth is not a search for knowlege but rather a bullying struggle to shout louder than others. Said's Orientalism, at its heart is the manifesto of a bully: Europeans cannot know the Middle East and that even seeking to understand the Middle East necessarily makes them part of the West's nefarious designs. This is intellectual fascism and in poisoning the study of the Middle East with it, Said perverted an entire academic discipline.

But was it in a good cause? Did Said's polemics at least lead to a better life for those he putatively cared about? The sad answer is that it did not. While Said was comfortably ensconsed in the metaphorical and actual towers of New York City, his "people" (and what would an examination of Said be without the use of quotes to convey irony) were falling further and further into a morass. He supported the PLO when they really were terrorists. He refused to denounce Abu Abbas. When the Palestinians were given the opportunity to have self-determination, at Oslo, unsatisfied with the deal (or perhaps upset that the victimhood he cherished was being taken away), he worked for an utterly unworkable set of demands that has left two peoples much more grievously wounded than need be.

Edward Said was a disaster, for his academic discipline and for his people. While we can mourn for him as a person, and for those who are hurt by his passing we should should never mourn that the toxic ideas he promoted and the hopeless causes he espoused have had the voice of their greatest champion silenced.

The comments in this forum regarding the late Edward Said are nothing short of prejudiced and biased. Without any significant analysis of the content of his work, other than simplistic and chimirical cyclical reasoning. Rather than assess the validity of his arguments vis a vis the context in which it was written, there is a feeble attempt at reverse pyshcology. shameful and easily discerned by the insightful reader....Moreover, since when have an individuals political affiliations not in some shape or form influenced their philosophical underpinnings? Isn't politics ultimately about human interaction, power and the legitimization of the use of power...concerning Israel...it is obvious to all those honest scholars that the real obstacle to peace is the Israeli government and its state-sponsered terrorism...Facts: the the Jewish population of Palestine was 3% prior to the Balfour declaration...well-documented and an obvious FACT!!! How is it that these foreign immigrants forget the atrocities that they are committing daily on the Palestinians...If you belive in honesty and integrity then you must acquiesce to the reality of the Israeli government's thuggery...to deny it would be to live in intellectual impotence...

Thank you for that demonstration of why "Thinking European" is seen by many as equivalent to "jumbo shrimp, "military intelligence," and other famous misnomers.

"...it is obvious to all those honest scholars that the real obstacle to peace is the Israeli government and its state-sponsered terrorism"

Of course. Even as Palestinians blow up women, children & old people while the Israeli government attempts to negotiate peace. Couldn't be the Palestinians' fault at all, must be the Jewwwwws. After all we know all about them and what they're like, don't we? All those hundreds of years of experience with them by us "thinking Europeans," don't ya know.

I can see why Edward Said would be your hero.

Goodness gracious, Thinking European. Its not "prejudice" and "bias" to dismiss the thesis that absolutely nothing written in the West before 1978 about the "Orient" isn't positively "violated" by "gross political fact". It is common sense to dismiss such an assertion as overblown and histrionic, and yet that assertion is precisely what Said stated as bald fact. Read the book, please. "Influenced in some shape or form" does not mean "violated", and it is not strictly honest for you to imply otherwise.

Now go and flagellate yourself in your corner. Thinking non-Europeans do NOT like to watch.

"It is well-known that Bernard Lewis is a Zionist...."

We can thank “scholars” like Edward Said for providing an intellectual justification for anti-Semitism.

Pokiotherm,
You still didnt answer europeans observers "occupation question and that only 3 percent jews were in palastine before the divide" you must be crazy, living in the dream world of yours. Justifying brutal atrosaties and supression by isreal of palastinian people. SIKOS

I never thought so many people could verbally masterbate over imperialism. The imperial loyalist of today is like a common rapist, justifying his behavior: "She was a slut, she wanted it, she didn't really try to defend herself." All too often I find the criminals painting themselves as the victim and the victims as the criminal.

I would not be surprised to find attacks on this page against Martin Luther King Jr., or Cesar Chavez, or Jesus Christ or anyone who spoke against oppression and fought for fair play. I suppose many of the participants consider themselves "Christian", but I do not believe that there is much in the bible that advocates oppression. There is another religion I have heard about in college that advocates the "Might is right" philosophy, and that would be Satanism. I suppose that the path towards righteousness is described as "The Straight and narrow" for a reason. It is hard to stay on it when you take a 90 degree turn.

I also read a lot of attacks against the religion of Islam, about this major threat of terrorism ooooh scary. Every time I put on the television I hear a talking head fantasizing about the extermination of brown people in the middle east, or south america, or asia.. People at my school joke about population control and genocide. It isn't an isolated incident. I hear this wherever I go.. IN THE COUNTRY. I myself am a blue collar worker, and I don't see muslims or illegal immigrants making any dividends lately. I do however see rich people getting richer and richer everytime there is a terrorist attack, or a latin american country is taken over/economically destroyed. I see them getting richer everytime security gets tightened, there is a war, or a company goes bankrupt (Enron ring a bell?).

I know that most of my fellow americans won't wake up because their heads are buried so far up their butts, encouraging hate and intolerance against Arabs and Muslims when over 2,000 boys are officially dead, 15,000 wounded (what is the unofficial count?). Since Vietnam we replaced Gook with Raghead but the lessons were obviously not learned. Us Americans are just hard headed. Hopefully the rest of the world will learn and when we burn in hell for our ignorance they'll forgive us.

A delightful reminder of the absurdity of Edward Said. Kramer's book, of course, is excellent but I wasn't fully aware of bin Warraq's commentary. Thanks.

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