Edward Said, Orientalism

reviewed by Malcolm Kerr

International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 12 (December 1980), pp. 544-547.

This book reminds me of the television program "Athletes in Action," in which professional football players compete in swimming, and so forth. Edward Said, a literary critic loaded with talent, has certainly made a splash, but with this sort of effort he is not going to win any major races. This is a great pity, for it is a book that in principle needed to be written, and for which the author possessed rich material. In the end, however, the effort misfired. The book contains many excellent sections and scores many telling points, but it is 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.

The fault is a dual one, in regard to his treatment of both the intellectual tradition of Orientalism properly speaking and contemporary political writing about Near Eastern affairs. On the Orientalist tradition, which takes up the lion's share of attention, Said has read widely (if selectively) and writes imaginatively and perceptively, and he might have brought off a real tour de force if only he had satisfied himself with more limited conclusions. He wishes to show�and does so with some success�that a wide variety of French and British writers and travelers of the past two centuries tended consistently to take an a priori view of the Near East as an exotic, degenerate, sensual, fanatical, and generically different (yet undifferentiated) culture, defined fundamentally by the Islamic tradition, an unalterable, antihumanist faith incapable of development or reform. Much of this outlook is neatly represented by the picture on the dust jacket, resourcefully unearthed by Said: a nineteenth-century painting by Jean-L�on G�r�me titled The Snake Charmer, in which a boy of fourteen or so, stark naked, displays a cobra wrapped around himself to a bearded oriental potentate and his murderous-looking retinue slumped at the base of a wall of richly painted oriental tile, while a cadaverous musician plays a reed instrument. The picture itself speaks volumes, calling to mind all the lurid distortions of the Muslim East offered up by Hollywood and Herblock. Said in his book seeks to show that this luridness is a centuries-old part of the Western cultural scene, and is not a mere reflection of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the oil crisis.

Said further explains that it is not only the sensationalists of the past who have contributed to this image but also the most distinguished and even sympathetic writers, from Chateaubriand and Nerval to Massignon and Gibb, through their constant assumption that they were observing in the East a distinctly different, peculiarly Islamic society, and that the Islamic religion�its theology, its law, its rituals and festivals�effectively defined the whole character and outlook of its adherents. But why, asks Said, should we suppose that the daily life of Muslims is so overwhelmingly defined by religion? Don't we see that these are peoples with economic, social, political, and personal interests and struggles like those of others in the world, arising from their material and historical circumstances? And can we not realize that the chief among these circumstances is the fact of Western domination? Doesn't the projection by the Orientalist of the Oriental reflect the dominating colonial interest of Western governments and economic and cultural establishments?

Once possessed of this conviction, Said turns from an imaginative critic to a relentless polemicist. Of course it is all to the good to understand that Muslims, like others, have much more to think about in their daily business, and even in their more cosmic concerns, than merely the particular view of God they were raised on. The secularization of our understanding of the dynamics of Near Eastern society�the realization, as Morroe Berger once remarked many years ago, that Nasser had more in common with Kwame Nkrumah than he did with the Prophet Muhammad�has been slow in coming, perhaps because so many social scientists specializing in the Near East were first introduced to the area by Orientalists. But can it really be so easily denied out of hand that the Islamic religion has always exerted a pervasive influence on the culture and society of its adherents? Does Said realize how insistently Islamic doctrine in its many variants has traditionally proclaimed the applicability of religious standards to all aspects of human life, and the inseparability of man's secular and spiritual destinies? What does he suppose the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Muslim Brotherhood are all about?

In part, Said's implicit retort is that the Western world all too easily relies on the clerics of the East to define what the East is all about, since it suits Western imperial interests to do so. Khomeini is thus a boon to the Orientalist, who is confirmed in his insistence that the Orient is incorrigibly in the grip of traditional religious fanaticism, and a boon also to the establishment in the West within whose network of influence the Orientalist inescapably if unwittingly falls. "Orientalism," he insists, "is fundamentally a political doctrine" (p. 204); and "For every Orientalist, quite literally, there is a support system of staggering power, considering the ephemerality of the myths that Orientalism propagates. This system now culminates in the very institutions of the state" (p. 397).

This might be an interesting argument if Said really tried to develop it, but in fact he merely assumes it. In his introductory chapter he explains that he has chosen to concentrate on the British and French (and, in the contemporary phase, the American) Orientalists because of his conviction that Orientalist scholarship has acted as a servant of imperialism; and these being the imperial powers, there is little point in studying the writings of scholars from other countries (pp. 4, 15, 17, 19). Thus he deprives himself of the chance to test his proposition by comparing his sample with a raft of Orientalists from other countries, notably Germany but also Holland, Italy, Austria, and Hungary.

Thus conceived, Said's selection of European authors leaves out a veritable army of luminaries familiar to every graduate student in Islamics: Goldziher, Snouck Hurgronje, Becker, N�ldeke, Wellhausen, Gabrieli, Levi Della Vida, Schacht, Rosenthal, and Goitein, all of whom failed to be native citizens of the most successful imperial powers. Yet also omitted are the most distinguished contemporary Oriental scholars even in Britain and France: Arberry, Hourani, Watt, Coulson, Gellner, Evans-Pritchard, Cahen, Brunschwig, Le Tourneau, Laoust, Gardet, Rodinson, Miquel, and Berque, which is rather a lot. In the United States, where he assails the Middle East studies establishment for propping up American neocolonial interests in the Muslim world, he confines his citations to a handful of figures, such as Bernard Lewis and Gustave von Grunebaum (both of them European emigrants), along with Morroe Berger, Manfred Halpern, and Leonard Binder as well as an irrelevant sprinkling of Israelis�Patai, AlRoy, Harkabi�to establish the presence of an anti-Muslim or anti-Arab animus.

Whatever the merits of these scholars�and some are much better than Said allows�they are not a particularly representative sample of Near Eastern studies in the United States today; and if Said had looked further afield he would have got quite different results. He does mention that in the era of Philip Hitti Princeton produced "a large group of important scholars, and its brand of Oriental studies stimulated great scholarly interest in the field" (p. 296), but he oddly ignores every one of these scholars, including W. C. Smith, G. Hourani, N. A. Faris, C. Zurayk, I. Shahid, I. Abu-Lughod, and Hitti himself, men who could hardly be accused of anti-Islamic bias. But if Princeton produced a better breed than the Orientalist profession generally, what was the reason? And what about all the other scholars of Arab Muslim origin working in American universities whom Said also ignores, such as G. Makdisi, F. Rahman, M. Mahdi, F. Ziadeh, M. Khadduri, C. Issawi, H. Sharabi, and A. L. Marsot? Surely as a group they have exerted as much intellectual influence as Said's select roster of ogres, and surely they have not been altogether brainwashed by the tradition.

Then there are all those native American scholars, products of the system, working in modern history and the social sciences, who ought according to Said's argument to be propagating the biases passed on by the Orientalists, but about whose work he says nothing: Geertz, Moore, Waterbury, Burke, Brown, Hudson, Fernea, Ruedy, Dekmejian, Winder, Naff, Gendzier, Bill, Gran, English, Keddie, Mitchell, to name but some. It would be hard indeed to claim that they have been bamboozled by the establishmentarian troika of the Zionist lobby, the State Department, and the Ford Foundation. For that matter, what of those scholars who have worked in the government or the foundations�Badeau, Campbell, Polk, Quandt, Nolte, Horton, Lesch? If anything, a careful study of their work would indicate consistent resistance to the themes of denigration and caricaturization of Eastern peoples of which Said complains.

It may fairly be argued that our contemporary scholars have been too passive, too smothered by the urge for collegial harmony, too intimidated by the fear of being tagged as troublemakers, to offer the needed degree of resistance to the strains of anti-Islamic prejudice that indeed abound in American society. It is unfortunately true, as Said says (p. 301), that there has been no equivalent among Middle Eastern specialists to the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars that was formed during the Vietnam war. Nor have Israeli policies and attitudes toward Arabs received the consensual condemnation that is found among our Africanists of white supremacy in southern Africa. The Middle East Studies Association, to the dismay of some of its more radically inclined members, has consistently tended at its annual meetings to avoid rather than to air political controversy. All of this preference for good behavior may indeed be reprehensible, sweeping under the carpet as it does a generation of scandal concerning the contribution of American media and pressure groups to the public's understanding of issues in the Near East. Our prejudices are real ones, as Professor Said has eloquently pointed out in some of his other writings and as many scholars in the field will agree.

But whether it is the Western tradition of Orientalist scholarship that is primarily to blame�in fact, whether that tradition has, in the net, really contributed to the problem�is another question. Said seems to be stuck with the residual argument that whatever the individual goodwill of the scholars, they are all prisoners of the establishment�the old-boy network of government, business, the foundations�which, in turn, depends on propagating the old racist myths of European Orientalism in order to further the cause of Western imperial domination of the East (pp. 301-302). At best this is a preconceived argument, and a highly debatable one.

The list of victims of Said's passion is a long one, too long to examine in detail. Some of them deserve it: he has justly taken the measure of Ernest Renan. Some others are probably not worth it. One wonders why he is so ready to lump nineteenth-century travelers with professional philologists; why he found it necessary to twist the empathy of Sylvain Levi for colonized peoples into an alleged racism (pp. 248-250), or to dismiss the brilliance of Richard Burton as being overshadowed by a mentality of Western domination of the east (p. 197); why he condemns Massignon for his heterodoxy and Gibb for his orthodoxy; or why he did not distinguish between Bernard Lewis's recent polemics on modern politics and his much more important corpus of scholarship on the history of Islamic society and culture. For those who knew Gustave von Grunebaum and were aware of his scholarly genius and his deep attraction to Islamic culture in all its ramifications, Said's summary exercise in character assassination (pp. 296-298) can only cause deep dismay. Suffice it to say that von Grunebaum's view of Islamic culture as "antihumanist" was a serious proposition, and in fact not an unsympathetic one, denounced but not rebutted by Said, who seems not to recognize the difference between an antihumanist culture and an inhumane one. He might have done well to note that Abdallah Laroui, whose penetrating criticism of von Grunebaum's work he invokes, earned thereby an invitation from von Grunebaum to teach at UCLA; and von Grunebaum being the man he was, with his respect for talent and debate, were he still living would more than likely have responded to Said's book in a similar fashion.

Malcolm Kerr