“Changing the meanings of previously understood words is what ideologues do.”
Edward Said is someone who is on the must read list for many students. His writing on Middle-Eastern history has come to be seen as almost gospel-like in its arguments on how Westerners view Middle-Eastern history and the people who made it. He is someone who is seen as having blown away the cobwebbed way of doing things, ushering in a new age of openness, tolerance, and diversity. As Joshua Muravchik notes, Said’s works have been assigned as reading in many courses in American colleges and universities. These included “literary criticism, politics, anthropology, Middle East studies, and other disciplines including post-colonial studies, a field widely credited with having grown out of Said’s work that examines the ongoing effects of colonialism.” Stuart Schaar, professor emeritus of Middle East history at Brooklyn College, wrote that “the academic community has been transformed and the field of literary criticism has been revolutionized as a result of [Said’s] legacy.” The problem is, his scholarship is ill-informed and ideologically-driven. And personally, Said was a resentful, ideologically-driven charlatan.
The book that launched Edward Said to fame was his magnum opus Orientalism.
First, let’s look at what “Orientalism” was before Said redefined it. Before Said, Orientalism was divided in two: one part was a school of art adopted by painters who visited North Africa and the Middle East and painted what they saw or imagined. Sometimes the depictions were less than flattering and did show “Orientals” as decadents who were happy to spend the day seeking mindless pleasure, while their societies decayed away. The other part of Orientalism concerned the study of language. As Bernard Lewis writes, “There were Hellenists who studied Greek, Latinists who studied Latin, Hebraists who studied Hebrew; the first two groups were sometimes called classicists, the third Orientalists. In due course they turned their attention to other languages … Basically these early scholars were philologists concerned with the recovery, study, publication, and interpretation of texts.” Back when this scholarship was at its height, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Orientalism was concerned only with Middle Eastern languages and cultures, but this gradually expanded. As exploration discovered more regions, languages and cultures, the term became less and less useful, until in 1973 at the Twenty-ninth International Congress of Orientalists where it was decided that the name should be dropped. The problem was that this term was then reused as a term of abuse; changing the meanings of previously understood words is what ideologues do.
The aim of Said’s book was to expose the West’s inability to gain an identity except in opposition to the “Other.” Said argued that this “other” was the “Oriental”, a figure “to be feared … or to be controlled.” For Said, every European “in what he could say about the Orient, was … a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” Also, that “Orientalism derives from a particular closeness experienced between Britain and France and the Orient, which until the early nineteenth century had really meant only India and the Bible lands”. Furthermore: “Knowledge of subject races or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control.” According to Said, Orientalists were “anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient.” Further, Orientalists were people who said anything about the Orient. Orientalism was “a style of thought based upon a … distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident.’” Orientalism was also “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient … by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it.” Orientalism could be summed up as a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”
It must be pointed out that Western imperialism in the Middle East was not a thing to be proud of. Britain and France, in drawing the map of Iraq and Syria as they did, laid the groundwork for the sectarian chaos we see today. There were abuses, exploitation and atrocities. This was true of European imperialism in general. It is also true of all societies who engaged in imperialism throughout history. The problem comes when those like Said reject nuance in favor of ideology, and paint in black and white, which ends up mostly black. Said, like his New Left comrades, saw the battle lines along demographic lines, whether of race or religion. We’re still living with this toxic legacy today with the Left-wing identity politics of immutable characteristics. No room for the individual here; all white people are bad, all brown-skinned Middle Easterners are redemptive icons. Each depiction is dehumanizing in its own way. The whole point of Orientalism was to show that white Europeans were a unique scourge of the earth, a “cancer” as Susan Sontag called them. White people supposedly were unique in their ethnocentrism, their desire to abuse, exploit and dominate other races. For Said, portraying the “Orientals” as decadent, dissolute, lazy and culturally inferior through the Western academy was the soft despotism that went along with the hard despotism of colonialism. As Muravchik notes, Said was unique in portraying “Orientals” as “the epitome of the dark-skinned; Muslims as the representative Orientals; Arabs as the essential Muslims; and, finally, Palestinians as the ultimate Arabs.” A handy byproduct of this for Left-wing anti-Israel activists was that Israel could now be portrayed as a white supremacist stronghold, behaving in the same way as the Nazis who had annihilated so many Jews.
Said’s goal was the simultaneous liberation of the ‘Orientals’ from the soft despotism of academic condescension and the hard despotism of European colonialism, now represented by Israel. As Robert Irwin has pointed out in For Lust of Knowing, “there has been a marked tendency for Orientalists to be anti-imperialists, as their enthusiasm for Arab or Persian or Turkish culture often went hand in hand with a dislike of seeing those people defeated and dominated by the Italians, Russians, British or French.” Generations of students and academics have been in awe of this book, feeding as it does the relativism that strangles true intellectual pursuit in the academy, which says that no-culture is better than any other, so why should we display any judgement of merit towards others? Except, now this relativism has been updated to a self-hatred which says that we are the worst societies to ever have existed, and we need constant reminding of this so we can display our moral fiber by flagellating ourselves to the role-call of our historical sins. Edward Said thus fills the role as the thinker who provides the intellectual cat o’ nine-tails with which we lacerate ourselves into an ecstasy of moralistic self-loathing.
So, having said all that, what of his actual scholarship? This ideological motivation is seen throughout Said’s work. For example, he restricts the Orient to mean only the Middle East, and only part of the Arab world at that, ignoring Turkish, Persian studies and Semitic studies, leaving Arabic studies isolated and bereft of their historical and cultural context, and thus their historical richness. One gets the feeling from Lewis that this is an act of arbitrary vandalism for political ends, and all the more painful for it. Said also restricts the timeframe of Oriental study, dating its rise to the 18th century, when as Lewis says it was well established in the 17th, with the Chair of Arabic at Cambridge founded in 1633. Its main centers meanwhile were in Germany. Indeed, German Arabic Studies are crucial to understanding European study of the Middle East, and leaving that out leaves a black-hole at the heart of Said’s argument. For Said, Orientalism began in Britain and France when they colonized the Middle East (which is wrong) and was then “refined” in Germany, rather than happening in all three nations simultaneously. The collections of texts in Germany and Austria provided a vital resource for the study of ancient Middle Eastern texts and thus the languages and the surrounding culture. Imperial Britain and France were not the leaders in this. Furthermore, Said argues that he ignored German Orientalists because Germany didn’t practice imperialism in the Middle East, so it wasn’t relevant to his argument. So, is imperialism a relevant factor or not? If imperialism influenced the British and French Orientalists, why were the German scholars similar? None of this matters, better to ignore it.
This selectivity, sticking to what Said called “historical generalizations,” is applied when looking at Orientalist scholars. Many leading figures are not mentioned at all, or only in passing. Major works are omitted and in favor of minor works which bolster his biased argument. The anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco argued that “one of Said’s rhetorical means for a polemical end is to partially … quote a phrase while judiciously neglecting words that would qualify and at times refute what the phrase alone might imply.” Meanwhile, professor of comparative literature at American University of Cairo John Rodenbeck criticizes Said’s treatment of Orientalist Edward Lane, saying that “persistent misconstruction and misquotation of Lane’s words are so clearly willful that they suggest . . . bad faith.” Said pays significant attention to the 19th century French racial theorist Arthur de Gobineau as an example of a typical bigoted Orientalist. This is another example of selective use of sources to represent Orientalism as such when the author is derided by Orientalists themselves.
As Irwin says, “Gobineau’s work in the field of ancient languages had the sort of importance for Oriental studies that attempts to patent perpetual motion machines have had for the history of science.” Said also singles out Ernst Renan as a leading scholar, which no other Orientalist scholar does in this way. According to Varisco, “Renan is rarely cited by Orientalist scholars; when this happens, the French author is usually disparaged.” Indeed, the leading Orientalist Ignaz Goldhizer had written a critique of Renan’s work; critiquing each other was common among Orientalists. Said mostly ignores Goldhizer – except to castigate him as anti-Islamic when he wasn’t – and the critical dialogue between Orientalists. Lastly, Said misquoted Bernard Lewis to portray him as anti-Islam and bigoted towards Middle Eastern peoples, when anyone who has an ounce of familiarity with Lewis’s work knows that this borders on the libelous.
Said calls the process of Orientalist study of the Middle East itself a “gathering” of texts, myths, ideas and languages, instilling in the mind of a reader the intellectual pillage of the Middle East, stealing the cultural history of the peoples who lived there. Learning is now theft. This theme is echoed today in the outcry against “cultural appropriation”. For Said, scholarship and inquiry are a finite resource, a zero-sum activity with winners and losers. By studying the languages and later the cultures of the Middle East, the West stole their scholarly and scientific abilities. This view is demonstrated when Said writes about the French Orientalist Silvestre de Sacy, saying that “he ransacked the Oriental archives…. What texts he isolated, he then brought back; he doctored them…” There is no evidence that this tampering occurred, and simply serves as an examples of Said’s larger goal to discredit generations of serious scholars as rapacious intellectual vandals. As Bernard Lewis points out, it is interesting that Said ignored the Russian Orientalists who could be said to fit precisely his description of bigoted Orientalist scholarship. His Marxism bleeds through in this, as it does in his support for the republic of South Yemen, which became a Marxist state in 1970. Again, Said is libelous in his treatment of the Orientalists, conscripting them to his narrative where they provide the intellectual backbone to Western imperialism.
In reality, the goal of the Orientalists was to save the treasures of the Middle East and further afield, from Western imperialism and internal cultural chaos alike. They wanted to understand these cultures, not to exploit them and to use them for their supposedly grandiose aims, but to celebrate and save for future generations the knowledge and wisdom contained in the cultures in this part of the world. The West, before and during its imperialist phase, wrote thousands of books about the Middle East. Why did Middle Eastern scholars not do the same when their rulers were leading wars of conquest against the West? To repeat, imperialism is not unique to Western history, and there has been much non-Western imperialism that didn’t have any study of the “Other.” If Orientalist scholarship was indeed distorted by hatred, how would that have helped Western imperialists rule effectively? No, the Orientalists’ impulse, largely born of admiration, was to learn and conserve, not to conquer and exploit. Said’s slander on generations of scholars amounts to an academic crime.
From the ideologically-driven interpretation, misrepresentation, and omission of key scholars and texts, let’s look at where Said is simply, factually wrong. One example is his statement that Britain and France dominated the Eastern Mediterranean from the end of the 17th century. Er, no. The Ottomans were only just being beaten back by Austria at this point. Said also believes that Turkey was conquered before North Africa by the Arab Muslim armies, which gets the timeframe backwards, and ignores the Byzantine Empire completely. Also, Britain apparently “annexed” Egypt, which is historically wrong. He also talked about British colonial administrators of Pakistan, which was formed once the British left India. Meanwhile, the one Arabic phrase he actually quotes is spelled and translated incorrectly. When quoting Tawhid, Said says it means “God’s transcendental unity” when it actually means professing the unity of God, or monotheism. Said also speaks of “books and journals in Arabic (and doubtless in Japanese, various Indian dialects and other Oriental languages),” which reeks of the very contempt and condescension in its attitude to Indian languages that he accuses Europeans of exhibiting.
In addition, Said seemed unaware of the intellectual scene in the Middle East of his time, complaining that “No Arab or Islamic scholar can afford to ignore what goes on in scholarly journals, institutes, and universities in the United States and Europe; the converse is not true. For example, there is no major journal of Arab studies published in the Arab world today.” Once again, a self-centered worldview is on display that is surprisingly common among the supposedly universalist Left, who are often, in fact, some of the most parochial in society’s conversation. This claim was simply untrue of the time. One could say that it is more the case now that there is perhaps less self-criticism from Arab writers, thinkers, and philosophers themselves. But that is probably because those who do engage in this sort of intellectual pursuit often end up dead or at risk of their lives, a situation which Said helped bring about by his support of political extremists, which, in turn, laid the groundwork for the religious extremists that today shoot cartoonists for blasphemy.
Finally, let’s turn to Said himself. Edward W. Said, like many would-be revolutionaries, had an upbringing as far from the world he claimed to represent as could be. Born and raised in Cairo to a wealthy family, he was sent to an exclusive New England prep school at age 15, attended Princeton and then Harvard, and then taught literary criticism. He was awarded with an endowed chair at Columbia by forty and later rose to become a university professor, the faculty’s most senior title. Said cultivated an image of himself as a Palestinian exile, who had grown up in Palestine until the nasty Zionists (Jews) stormed in and turfed him and his family out. This was false. In 1999, Commentary published an investigation by Justus Reid Weiner demonstrating that Said had largely falsified his life story. A slew of documents showed that, until he moved to the United States to attend prep school in 1951 and never left, Said had resided his entire life in Cairo, not in Palestine as he often claimed. The claim that Said lived in Palestine centered on a house in Ramallah and the St. George’s School in Jerusalem. He hadn’t grown up in the house he claimed, which his aunt owned. He only attended the school at most for a short period of his school-life, around several months, and Weiner reports that there was no record of Said in St. George’s registry books. He even lied about a student who denied remembering him.
Said’s claims in The Pen and the Sword about being a refugee after 12-13 in Palestine are lies, and his claim in The London Review of Books of the same was also a lie. As we have seen, his parents had made their home in Cairo years before he was born, and that’s where he’d spent most of his life before going to school in the United States at aged 15. His autobiography finally showed this fact, which surprised many who had been taken in, including Stephen Howe in the Independent, by the romantic tale of Said’s Palestinian upbringing. All this matters because Said had chosen to cultivate an image of himself as a Palestinian exile in order to give his academic work a revolutionary authenticity, allowing him to fight for the rights of what he saw as his people. This mendacity in life combines with his mendacity in academia.
Said was a man whose scholarship was made up of selective ignorance and widespread ineptitude. He mishandled, misrepresented, and misinterpreted sources in Orientalism and mistranslated the little Arabic he actually did use. He made elementary mistakes in his use of history. He stretched other history to its breaking point to suit his ideological narrative. He repurposed the term Orientalism without seeming to realize or care what it actually meant. He misused certain sources and authors, ignored other sources and authors, all to bolster his ideological narrative that white Europeans have been and forever will be oppressors, and brown-skinned Middle Easterners have been and forever will be oppressed. Never mind the condescension or dehumanization in such a worldview towards those he claimed to speak for. Said’s self-image, as a Palestinian exile fighting for these oppressed Middle Easterners is built on the quicksand of lies. Said lied to strengthen his bona fides among Third Worldist revolutionaries and then dropped his story when it became untenable. Said is a poor scholar and a charlatan. Said’s work deserves to be read as an example of what this combination produces: ideological junk. This all matters because his work has been the launchpad for grievance studies like Postcolonial Studies and other pseudo-academic rubbish, imbibed by thousands of students today, giving them a heady dose of hatred for those gone before, mixed with resentment at those ‘privileged’ today. As a result, students leave less enlightened about the world than when they went in. They have had real knowledge stolen from them and thus lack the resources to gain wisdom and a deeper perspective on the world. And that’s perhaps the greatest scandal of all.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.