Skip to comments.Debunking Edward Said
Posted on 09/08/2003 7:05:38 PM PDT by JerseyHighlander
Consider the following observations on the state of affairs in the contemporary Arab world :
The history of the modern Arab world with all its political failures , its human rights abuses , its stunning military incompetences , its decreasing production , the fact that alone of all modern peoples , we have receded in democratic and technological and scientific development is disfigured by a whole series of out-moded and discredited ideas , of which the notion that the Jews never suffered and that the holocaust is an obfuscatory confection created by the Elders of Zion is one that is acquiring too much far too much currency;
....[T]o support Roger Garaudy , the French writer convicted earlier this year on charges of holocaust denial , in the name of freedom of opinion is a silly ruse that discredits us more than we already are discredited in the worlds eyes for our incompetence , our failure to fight a decent battle , our radical misunderstanding of history and the world we live in .Why dont we fight harder for freedom of opinions in our own societies , a freedom , no one needs to be told , that scarcely exists ?
It takes considerable courage for an Arab to write self-criticism of this kind , indeed , without the personal pronoun we how many would have guessed that an Arab , let alone Edward Said himself , had written it ? And yet, ironically , what makes self-examination for Arabs and Muslims , and particularly criticism of Islam in the West very difficult is the totally pernicious influence of Edward Saids Orientalism . The latter work taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity were it not for the wicked imperialists , racists and Zionists , we would be great once more - encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist generation of the 1980s , and bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam , and even stopped dead the research of eminent Islamologists who felt their findings might offend Muslims sensibilities , and who dared not risk being labelled orientalist . The aggressive tone of Orientalism is what I have called intellectual terrorism , since it does not seek to convince by arguments or historical analysis but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism , Eurocentrism ,from a moral highground ; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him. The moral high ground is an essential element in Saids tactics ; since he believes his position is morally unimpeachable , Said obviously thinks it justifies him in using any means possible to defend it , including the distortion of the views of eminent scholars , interpreting intellectual and political history in a highly tendentious way , in short twisting the truth . But in any case , he does not believe in the truth .
Said attacks not only the entire discipline of Orientalism , which is devoted to the academic study of the Orient , but which Said accuses of perpetuating negative racial stereotypes , anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudice , and the myth of an unchanging , essential Orient , but he also accuses Orientalists as a group of complicity with imperial power , and holds them responsible for creating the distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority , which they achieve by suppressing the voice of the oriental , and by their anti-human tendency to make huge , but vague generalizations about entire populations , which in reality consist of millions of individuals .In other words , much of what was written about the Orient in general , and Islam and Islamic civilisation in particular , was false. The Orientalists also stand accused of creating the Other the non-European ,always characterised in a negative way , as for example , passive , weak , in need of civilizing .( western strength and eastern weakness )
(Excerpt) Read more at secularislam.org ...
I've just converted it to a PDF file for later reading and keeping.
Some of the characters mentioned in the long article, from my point of view -
Rodinson - a marxist but a reasonably serious historian. Has his own bias issues, ideological rather than civilization-identity politics ones. Gets off easily with Said because the latter is an ideologue as well. But not a modern Foucault type po-mo. Instead, old left rather than new. Wanted to see Islam as a revolutionary force, but had to admit its superstitious, anti-modern aspects (to him "counter-revolutionary") as well.
Renan - liberal anti-clerical, a typical 19th century French enlightenment boosting type. A deist heir to Voltaire. This leads to a conflicted position on Islam. On the one hand, he prefers its absence of theology and hierarchy compared to catholicism (in its 19th century, political, "ultramontane" forms in France), its "simplified" deism.
On the other, he fundamentally favors secular politics and it is resolutely theological about politics. He likes the Islamic philosophers, particularly Averroes, who he reads as a kind of early freethinker pantheist or pre-Voltaire. But much of this is projection or bias - just not western boosting or imperialist bias. Argued that Islamic civilization went into decline because it rejected Averroes and philosophic tradition in favor of theology.
Goldhizer - Austrian Jewish liberal, (yes a Hungarian by nationality, at the time of Austria-Hungary however, and wrote in German) who reacted against the distortions of Renan. Much more extensive knowledge of Islamic thought in all its dimensions than any of his predecessors.
Made the key point, contra Renan, that rationalism is not tolerance and the two need not have anything to do with each other. Saw rationalizing tendencies in early Islamic theology - the Mutazilites e.g. - of the Abbassid era - without any tolerance going along with that rationalism. His point is that anti-clerical rationalism is not enough to arrive at tolerance. Tolerance is a seperate, positive value and one learned much later in the west. It is also open to religions in a way rationalism is not.
MacDonald - gets only a passing mention. A classic British orientalist. Student of Goldhizer, in terms of what he studied anyway. Great learning. Developed our understanding of Islamic sufi traditions and of the figure of Al-Ghazali in particular. That matters because the Islamic rejection of rationalism had its internal reasons, within their traditions of thought.
As an example of where Orientalism really comes from and what motivates it, he shows that imperialism had precious little to do with it, and studying German language 19th century scholarship much more. (The German tradition was systematic and exhaustive, and studied Islamic thought because Islamic thought existed, not for political reasons).
The two previous are the real intellectual ancestors of someone like Bernard Lewis.
Leonard Binder is not mentioned, but wrote a book, Islamic Liberalism, undermining Said. Essentially he does to Said what Said does to Orientalists. Not a Foucaultean ideologue, but perfectly up to date on his po-mo theory and thus able to wield it confidently against its own proponents. He basically situates Said in a western originating discursive formation that includes Foucault and before him Heidegger.
Said is just re-cycling the "jargon of authenticity", as Adorno called it. Read "Aryan" for "Muslim" and "Jewish" for "western", and Said is just a Nazi ideologue using exactly the same rhetoric and "moves". (Notice how the article author detects a tendency in Said to make "Islamic" into a race? Origins stick out in odd places). The beauty of this in Binder is that he proves ethnic identity politics as practiced by Said is a western import to the Islamic world, not home grown. "Authenticity" is not itself authentic, it is recycled. Said is a fake German wannabe.
Incidentally, something I don't think anyone has noticed (though I certainly have, and mentioned it once to Fazlur Rahman who was in a position to appreciate it) is the similarity between Heidegger and Ghazali on some basic philosophical positions. Both see an extra-rational source of inspiration in a kind of trained intellectual openness to things, the former calling it "thinking" and the latter mysticism. Both are very intelligent philosophers trained in previous rationalist traditions who abandoned those traditions as inadequate (Heidegger for essentially historicist reasons, Ghazali for skeptical reasons).
Hourani - Arab Christian from Lebanon, French traditions, studied Renan. Basically a liberal politically. Sensitive to imperialism issues as an Arab nationalist of sorts, but thinks liberalism as an import to the Arab world is worthwhile. Important because he shows the Arab - western divide is not the Islamic - Christian divide; they simply do not line up, though obviously they do overlap in places.
He also learned from the German and orientalist traditions, about Islamic thought, and particularly its philosophic and rationalist elements in their own high middle ages. Fundamentally accepted Renan's thesis that by rejecting Averroestic rationalism the Islamic world went into decline. Argues that a recovery of those traditions plus imported liberalism is the way forward.
Which I mostly agree with, with the proviso already pointed out by Goldhizer, that rationalism is not tolerance and tolerance is the true test of political liberalism. Which means even more is required philosophically or politically, though rather less needs to be given up religiously.
What is noteworthy in all of the above is the trans-civilizational character of all the important, basic positions in the argument. Far from Said's essentially Nazi division of everything into Aryan vs. Jewish thinking, what is really happening is that Marxists, Nazis, orthodox and liberals, philosophers and theologians, all of various stripes are having at it across both civilizations and several centuries. Said is not wrong that there is bias present, but he is completely wrong about the basic causes and character of such bias, in which moreover he shares.