Edward Said browbeat Middle Eastern studies into submission.
From Ivory Towers on Sand
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's not going to win any
—Malcolm Kerr on
In 1978, Edward Said, a professor of English and comparative literature at
Columbia University, published a book entitled Orientalism. Said did not
emerge from the ranks of Middle Eastern studies. He was born in British-mandated
Palestine, but spent most of his childhood in Egypt in thoroughly Anglophone
surroundings. He then went to America for preparatory school, took his
undergraduate degree at Princeton, finished his graduate studies at Harvard, and
began to teach at Columbia. Said first made his academic way within the narrow
confines of literary theory. "Until the June 1967 war I was completely caught up
in the life of a young professor of English," wrote Said. But "beginning in
1968, I started to think, write, and travel as someone who felt himself to be
directly involved in the renaissance of Palestinian life and politics."2 So began a process of self-reinvention, as Said
set out to establish his Palestinian identity.
Said visited Amman in the summers of 1969 and 1970, a heady time when
Palestinian groups sought to turn Jordan into an armed base. They would be the
force for change throughout the Middle East — so Said then believed and
wrote — and the political cause of Palestine gradually claimed more of his
prodigious output. After 1970, the retrenchment of the Palestinian resistance in
Lebanon put it cheek-to-jowl with the long-standing American presence in that
country. As the 1970s unfolded, Beirut loomed larger in Said's travels, and he
spent a sabbatical year there in 1972-73. It was there that he began to learn
literary Arabic in a systematic way.
In the years that followed, Said evolved into a public intellectual,
meeting the growing American demand for a Palestinian perspective. Liberal
opinion inside the media began to divide over Israel's policies after 1967, but
split following the election of a rightist Israeli government in 1977.
Publishers, journalists, and newscasters began to seek out articulate (and,
preferably, angry) Palestinian voices. Said, positioned within taxi distance of
the media's Manhattan epicenter, seized the opportunity. He would later complain
that Palestinians were systematically denied "permission to narrate" their own
story. But once Said made Palestine his part-time career, the media gave him no
permission to rest. As one of his own disciples complained (in a tribute to
Said), "when the question of Palestine is concerned, there is almost no limit to
the intrusiveness and persistence of television and radio producers,
journalists, and interviewers."3 Said was
combative in argumentation and
concise in formulation, and he entered their Rolodexes immediately.
The Orientalism Debate
Had Said kept his political and professional commitments separate, he would have
remained one more advocate of Palestine in the West — articulate in a way most
likely to appeal to intellectuals, contentious in a way most appropriate to the
political weeklies, op-ed pages, and Nightline, yet still a specimen of
American ethnic politics.
But in his Orientalism, Said blended Palestinian passion and academic
virtuosity so that they reinforced one another. The appeal of Orientalism
resided, in part, in its combination of political polemic and literary
excursion. Said hailed from some point in the East ("this study derives from my
awareness of being an 'Oriental'"), but he was also the Parr Professor of
English and Comparative Literature, who announced in his introduction to
Orientalism that he wrote it in his double capacity.4 It was this
quality which assured that this book, unlike his previous work, would be read
across disciplinary boundaries and even by a general public.
In Orientalism, Said situated the Palestinians in a much wider
context. They were but the latest victims of a deep-seated prejudice against the
Arabs, Islam, and the East more generally — a prejudice so systematic and
coherent that it deserved to be described as "Orientalism," the intellectual and
moral equivalent of anti-Semitism. Until Said, orientalism was generally
understood to refer to academic Oriental studies in the older, European
tradition. (For art historians and collectors, it referred to paintings of
Oriental themes, a facet of nineteenth-century romanticism.) Said resurrected
and resemanticized the term, defining it as a supremacist ideology of
difference, articulated in the West to justify its dominion over the East.
Orientalism, according to Said, was racism of a deceptively subtle kind, and he
sought to demonstrate its pervasiveness and continuity "since the time of
Homer," but especially from the Enlightenment to the present. For most of this
period, announced Said, "every European, in what he could say about the Orient,
was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric."5
To argue his point, Said amassed widely diverse examples from literature
and scholarship, in a pyrotechnic display of erudition that refused all
discrimination among genres and disregarded all extant hierarchies of knowledge.
As one critic put it: "Who, after all, had ever thought that Lamartine and
Olivia Manning, Chateaubriand and Byron, Carlyle, Camus, Voltaire, Gertrude
Bell, the anonymous composers of El Cid and the Chanson de Roland,
Arabists like Gibb, colonial rulers such as Cromer and Balfour, sundry
quasi-literary figures like Edward Lane, scholars of Sufism like Massignon,
Henry Kissinger — all belonged in the same archive and composed a deeply unified
discursive formation!"6 In Said's
account, their texts interacted, and none of
them was free of the hostile prejudgment of the Orient pervasive throughout
Most important of all, Said included scholarly orientalism in his scope, and
even accorded it a crucial role in disseminating orientalist dogmas. This
scholarship, claimed Said, validated and fed the popular orientalism of the
poets, novelists, travellers, and painters. The self-image of the scholars as
truth-seeking investigators was a fraudulent façade, behind which lurked
a sordid tale of complicity with power and acquiescence in the idea of Western
supremacy. Scholars willingly or inadvertently collaborated with European
governments in the promotion and justification of empire-building in Arab and
Muslim lands. None of them, even the most accomplished and well intentioned,
could escape the corrupting effects of power upon knowledge. While other
sciences advanced, scholarly orientalism remained an instance of arrested
development, itself the consequence of a view of Arabs and Muslims as arrested
in their development. "Knowledge of the academic variety does not progress,"
concluded Said in 1981. "I think we should open knowledge to the non-expert."
Over the last twenty years, Said's notion of a unified discourse of
orientalism has been subjected to systematic criticism on numerous counts, and
from many disciplinary vantage points.8
Most criticisms come together on one
point: Said selected only the evidence he needed to establish the existence of
the "discursive formation" he named "Orientalism." He ignored the mass of
evidence, including texts crucial to any history of literature or scholarship,
that stood in the way of his polemical thrust. This evidence would have toppled
Said's thesis, since it demonstrated that the Western understanding and
representation of the East — especially the Arabs and
Islam — had grown ever more ambivalent, nuanced, and diverse. Orientalism did not
exhaust modern European ideas about Muslims and Arabs, any more than
anti-Semitism exhausted modern Europe's ideas about Jews. Nor did the West
"gaze" upon the East in a closed circle of interpretation. Time and again, new
ideas generated by contact across
cultures destabilized a priori assumptions. While prejudices and
stereotypes were endemic, they never congealed into an unchanging, unified
discourse on the Orient, even less a coherent "ideology of difference." And
scholars, in particular, often took the lead in undermining anti-Oriental
Bernard Lewis, Maxime Rodinson, Jacques Berque, W. Montgomery Watt, and
Albert Hourani — doyens of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in the European
tradition — reached a similar conclusion about Orientalism from very
different points of departure. Each of them regarded Said's treatment as a
deeply flawed account of Western scholarship on the Arab and Islamic East, and
some of them wrote alternative interpretations. Lewis, whom Said attacked in
Orientalism, wrote a fighting reply, intended to demonstrate that Said
had utterly distorted the history of scholarship. "The tragedy of Mr. Said's
Orientalism," concluded Lewis, "is that it takes a genuine problem of
real importance and reduces it to the level of political polemic and personal
abuse."9 The French historian Rodinson,
whom Said praised in
Orientalism (and later in Covering Islam), wrote that "as usual,
[Said's] militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements" — a
failing exacerbated by the fact that Said was "inadequately versed in the
practical work of the Orientalists."10
The French scholar Jacques Berque, also
praised in Orientalism, announced that Said had "done quite a disservice
to his countrymen in allowing them to believe in a Western intelligence
coalition against them."11 The British
Islamicist Watt (not mentioned in
Orientalism) found Said guilty of "dubious or erroneous ascription of
motives to writers," and felt compelled to point out "Said's ignorance of
Most tellingly, the British historian Hourani — a man for whom Said
expressed an abiding respect in Orientalism and elsewhere — also had
serious misgivings about the book. He regretted its title: "Orientalism has now
become a dirty word. Nevertheless it should be used for a perfectly respected
discipline." He regretted the book's extremism: "I think [Said] carries it too
far when he says that the orientalists delivered the Orient bound to the
imperial powers." And he regretted the book's omissions: "Edward totally ignores
the German tradition and philosophy of history which was the central tradition
of the orientalists." One did not have to read too much between the lines to
decipher Hourani's final verdict on Orientalism: "I think Edward's other
books are admirable. The one on the question of Palestine is very good indeed
because there he is on firm ground."13
Across the board, the most incisive criticisms of Orientalism originated
in Europe, where many readers stood on firm (and familiar) ground. But in
America, Orientalism became a best-seller, the canonical text of a field
known as postcolonial studies. It inspired countless books, theses, and
undergraduate papers; it was endlessly cited, quoted, and acknowledged. (The
American historian David Gordon aptly described Orientalism as "a work
that in certain circles has been almost Koranic in its prestige.")14
Orientalism was a phenomenon, and it gradually insinuated its way to the
top of the class in Middle Eastern studies. "1978 was a very good year for
landmark books on the Middle East," announced Philip Khoury, then president of
MESA, in his 1998 presidential address. "Edward Said's Orientalism also
appeared that year. I wonder if there's been a better year since?"15 The story
of the career of Orientalism — how and why it did win the race — is
the story of how the founders of Middle Eastern studies in America lost their
composure. It is also, above all, an American tale.
Only in America
A British historian of India, Clive Dewey, looking back with twenty
years of hindsight, wrote this of Orientalism:
When Edward Said's Orientalism first appeared in 1978,
historian after historian must have put it down without finishing it — without
imagining, for a moment, the influence it would exert. It was, technically, so
bad; in every respect, in its use of sources, in its deductions, it lacked rigour
and balance. The outcome was a caricature of Western knowledge of the Orient,
driven by an overtly political agenda. Yet it clearly touched a deep vein of
vulgar prejudice running through American academe.16
Despite the fact that the bulk of
Orientalism dealt with a chapter in the intellectual history of
Europe, the book had its most profound and lasting impact in America. The
"vulgar prejudice" to which Dewey alluded arose from the bitter struggle
for academic hegemony in the humanities and social sciences on American
campuses. As the students of the 1960s became the junior faculty of the 1970s,
the academic center moved leftward. Academization translated radical political
agendas into the theoretical framework of postmodernism, which postulated the
subjectivity and relativity of all knowledge. In a time of diminishing
opportunities in academe, this challenge increasingly took the form of an
insurgency, which ultimately overran university departments in the humanities
and social sciences.
Orientalism, far from bucking convention, actually rode the crest
of this immensely successful academic uprising. "I have found it useful
here to employ Michel Foucault's notion of a discourse, as described by
him in The Archaeology of Knowledge
and in Discipline and Punish, to
identify Orientalism."17 Said's
reverential nod to the French philosopher Foucault in his introduction followed
an endorsement on the jacket of Orientalism, which declared it "the only
American book thus
far which can be compared to [Foucault's] powerful
'archaeologies' of social and intellectual exclusion."18 In the 1970s, Foucault's major works began to
appear in translation in American editions (from Pantheon, publisher of
Orientalism), and the markers strategically placed around
Orientalism were intended to associate the book with a set of
concepts then sweeping through large parts of American academe. "I do not
understand why [Said's] book had such success in the United States,"
wondered Rodinson in Paris. "The average American is not interested in
orientalism."19 But a growing
number of average American academics had just read or heard of Foucault for the
first time, and were drawn to this first American extrapolation — despite what
the jacket endorsement frankly called "the limits of this particular
Said partly overcame the limits of
the subject matter by managing to quote, at least once, many of the English and
French authors whose works are the staples of introductory literature courses.
Yes, he would deal with orientalist scholars whose names meant nothing to
American instructors and students. But readers would be enticed to turn the
page by the expectation of a sudden encounter with Chateaubriand, Nerval, or
This meant that Orientalism could
be integrated easily into introductory curricula in English and French
literatures, especially in their less demanding American
Orientalism also arrived at a crucial moment in the evolution of
third worldism in American academe. By 1978, the enthusiasm for third world
revolutions had ebbed among American intellectuals. (It would decline still
further in the 1980s, when the third world produced a retrograde revolution in
Iran and an anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan.) But an entire generation of
leftist scholars nurtured on radical commitments had already made their way
through doctoral programs, and desperately needed a manifesto to carry them
over the next hurdle.
Said was perfectly positioned to
legitimize at least some of the contentions of the "critical
scholarship" of the left. For while Said cultivated his image as an
outsider ("To the West, which is where I live, to be a Palestinian is in
political terms to be an outlaw of sorts, or at any rate an
outsider"),20 he was in fact the
insider: a chaired professor, in a leading department, at a prestigious
university, in the greatest metropolis. Orientalism had the authority of "one of the
country's most distinguished literary critics" (the book jacket),
and while Said did not explicitly sanction all of the "critical
scholarship," he did make deans and publishers wonder whether they could
afford to do without one of its practitioners. For these younger academics,
battling for university appointments, the publication of
Orientalism was nothing less than "a seminal event, causing
lasting reverberations throughout the academy."
Orientalism also delegitimized the genealogy of
scholarship — and its current practitioners. This certainly was part of the
appeal of the book, which in its last chapter, entitled "Orientalism
Now," unsealed all its indictments. Said was a Palestinian intellectual
(by choice), but he was also a New York intellectual (by habit). He
understood — far
better than many of his targets — that understatement went only so far in
American academe. Allusions are most effective in smaller academic settings,
where an efficient oral network of rumor and innuendo allows readers to fill in
names by themselves. But Said understood that in the vastness of America, the
published text should leave nothing to the imagination. And so
Orientalism named names. Many readers must have gone straight to
the index in search of themselves, their colleagues, or their
The delegitimation unfolded in a
striking passage that effectively cancelled the validity of any Western
scholarship on the East: "For a European or American studying the Orient
there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality: that
he comes up against the Orient as a
European or American first, as an individual second."22 Any literary artifact, artistic creation, or academic
product generated by a European or American continued to be "somehow
tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact" of
Western domination over the East.23
There were no exceptions: wherever orientalism was not "manifest,"
Said determined that it was "latent." He thus saw no need to delve
deeply into the complicated history of Western scholarship (this would not suit
"my descriptive and political interests").24 Instead, Said skimmed across its surface in search of
the most offensive quotes, presented as the core or essence of orientalism,
whose gravitational field no Westerner could hope to escape.
This argument also had practical
implications. Orientalism appeared
at a time when new minorities were seeking equitable if not preferential access
to academe. Among them were Arabs and Muslims, for whom the field of Arab and
Islamic studies had always been an obvious avenue for entry into the
university. Orientalism gave them
a step up. For who could escape the bind of orientalism, if not its ostensible
victims, the Orientals themselves? A South Asian critic of
Orientalism, Aijaz Ahmad, explained the book's operative
importance within the university in this way:
Its most passionate
following in the metropolitan countries
is within those sectors of the university intelligentsia which either originate
in the ethnic minorities or affiliate themselves ideologically with the
academic sections of those minorities. . . . These [immigrants] who came as
graduate students and then joined the faculties, especially in the Humanities
and Social Sciences, tended to come from upper classes in their home countries.
In the process of relocating themselves in the metropolitan countries they
needed documents of their assertion, proof that they had always been
oppressed.... What the upwardly mobile professionals in this
new immigration needed were narratives of oppression that would get them
preferential treatment, reserved jobs, higher salaries in the social position
they already occupied: namely, as middle-class professionals, mostly male. For
such purposes, Orientalism was the
Middle Easterners, and especially
Arab-Americans, had been in the first rank of the founders of Middle Eastern
studies in America, and had long entered the university precisely through the
Arab and Islamic field. (A recent president of MESA summarized his experience
this way: "I cannot claim any discrimination against me in my youth [or
for that matter as an adult] owing to my being an Arab-American.")26 But they had not enjoyed automatic
preference over others. Orientalism implicitly claimed for them a
understanding of the Arab and Islamic East, due not to any individual
competence, but to their collective innocence of orientalist bias. They were
unspoiled; they were entitled.
Knowledge and Power
From the general, Said proceeded to the specific: the
development of Middle Eastern studies in America. Orientalism made two
claims. First, Said determined that
American Middle Eastern studies "retains, in most of its general as well
as its detailed functioning, the traditional orientalist outlook which had been
developed in Europe" — the outlook he had presented (or caricatured)
in his book. "The European tradition of Orientalist scholarship was, if
not taken over, then accommodated, normalized, domesticated, and popularized
and fed into the postwar efflorescence of Near Eastern studies in the United
States."27 In the oceanic crossing,
this tradition traded its old philological cloak for
the fashionable garb of the social sciences. ("Enter the social scientist
and the new expert," wrote Said, "on whose somewhat narrower
shoulders was to fall the mantle of Orientalism.")28 But "the core of the Orientalist
dogma" remained intact.29
This meant that Middle Eastern studies in America suffered from the same
genetic defect as its European parent.
Second, Said represented Middle
Eastern studies in America as a tightly integrated "establishment,"
which maintained dominance through invisible networks:
There is of course a Middle East studies establishment, a
pool of interests, "old boy" or "expert" networks
linking corporate business, the foundations, the oil companies, the missions,
the military, the foreign service, the intelligence community together with the
academic world. There are grants and other rewards, there are organizations,
there are hierarchies, there are institutes, centers, faculties, departments,
all devoted to legitimizing and maintaining the authority of a handful of
basic, basically unchanging ideas about Islam, the Orient, and the Arabs.30
It was all made to sound conspiratorial ("a pool of
interests"), authoritarian ("there are hierarchies"), and
corrupt (those "other rewards"). To top it off, the "old
boys" were of one hue: "Power in the system (in universities,
foundations, and the like) is held almost exclusively by non-Orientals,
although the numerical ratio of Oriental to non-Oriental resident professionals
does not favor the latter so overwhelmingly."31
In 1981, Said published a sequel
to Orientalism, entitled Covering
Islam, which expanded on his sketchy
indictment of Middle Eastern studies in America and took his argument one step
further. The American version of orientalism, he now argued, was even more
hegemonic and constricting than its European predecessors. Britain and France
had produced a class of "colonial experts" for imperial service,
but this class did not in turn produce an adjunct to it
equivalent to the network of the Middle East studies-government-corporate
alliance that exists in the United States. Professors of Arabic or Persian or
Islamic institutions did their work in British and French universities; they
were called on for advice and even participation by the colonial departments
and by private business enterprises; they occasionally held congresses; but
they do not seem to have created an independent structure of their own,
sustained and even maintained by the private business sector or directly by
foundations and the government.32
Europe's scholars, Said now
decided, "intervened here and there in the conduct of policy, but always
after the policy was in place and on the ground so to speak."33 And however much hostility there was to Islam in
Europe, there were always some scholars, like Louis Massignon in France, who
displayed "imagination and refinement."34 Reviewing the works of Rodinson and Hourani, Said
announced that "there is no way of imagining how these works might have
been produced in the United States," for "in America, unlike
Europe, there is both a peculiarly immediate sense of hostility and a coarse,
on the whole unnuanced, attitude toward Islam."
35 American scholars were really just drab policy
experts in academic disguise; the American academic community simply
"responds to what it construes as national and corporate needs."36 In America, it was a "fact," concluded
Said, that "anything said about Islam by a professional scholar is within
the sphere of influence of corporations and the government."37 Throughout Covering Islam, "coarse" America was
unfavorably to "refined" Europe, thus updating the argument of
Orientalism: bad as
orientalism had been in Europe, America made it worse.
no evidence, no documents, no testimony, and no numbers to substantiate any of
his claims about the existence of a "network" of government and
academe. He never quantified the "numerical ratio" of
"Orientals" to "non-Orientals" in positions of
"power" within it. He never bothered to research the precise
development of Middle Eastern studies in America. He was ignorant of the
debates that had already taken place within the field. He did not even allude
to the recent erosion (and near collapse) of external support for these
studies. Above all, he failed to make even the most rudimentary distinctions
between the center and periphery of the field. Said invested a great deal of
energy in other chapters of Orientalism. But his treatment of Middle
Eastern studies in America
was superficial, unsubstantiated, even lazy.
Many failings could be laid at the
door of the founders of Middle Eastern studies, but the most damning was their
failure to expose the weaknesses of Orientalism. A lone (and now-forgotten)
rebuttal came from
Malcolm Kerr, a political scientist born to two American educators in the
hospital of the American University of Beirut, trained at Princeton, and
tenured at UCLA. Kerr represented the best in a school that had always seen
itself as devoted not only to the pursuit of knowledge, but to the service of
the Arab world and its relations with America. Kerr, in his review of
Orientalism in MESA's journal, expressed a profound
disappointment. The book had been
spoiled by overzealous prosecutorial argument in which
fessor 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
Kerr (who was not mentioned one
way or another in Orientalism)
determined that the Americans quoted by Said were "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." For example, Said omitted any discussion of the many scholars
of Arab and Muslim origin who founded and fertilized the field of Middle
Eastern studies in America. "Surely as a group," Kerr opined,
"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 were the numerous American-born scholars, named by
Kerr and omitted by Said, whom it would be hard to claim were "bamboozled
by the establishment troika of the Zionist
lobby, the State Department, and the Ford Foundation." As for scholars
who had worked for the
government or the foundations, "a careful study of their work would
indicate consistent resistance to the themes of denigration and
caricaturization of Eastern peoples of which
But Kerr's was a lone voice
in American Middle Eastern studies. Bernard Lewis did do battle with Said in
the American arena, in an essay on "The Question of Orientalism,"
published in the New York Review of Books.
But Lewis was a newcomer to America, and his rebuttal — a vigorous defense
of the European tradition — did not take up Said's accusations about
the complicities of American Middle Eastern studies. American scholars largely
kept silent. Many no doubt thought that Said made certain valid points about
anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice that outweighed
Orientalism's glaring defects as an account of their field.
Others perhaps thought, following Kerr, that Said was "not going to win
any races" anyway and that the storm would blow over soon enough. Still
others, perhaps more prescient, knew an academic juggernaut when they saw one
and simply got out of the way.|
But more than anything else, the
silence reflected a crisis of self-confidence. The emergence of the Palestinian
resistance, the decline of Lebanon into civil war, the rise of the right to
power in Israel, and the collapse of the shah not only took most academics by
surprise. They cast into doubt the very validity of the modernization and
development paradigm that had guided the field. What good were their premises
if they could not anticipate the Palestinian explosion, which put Americans in
jeopardy across the Middle East? What good were their models, if they could not
predict the surge of rage that shut Americans out of Lebanon and Iran, where
their presence had been so established and comfortable? The Middle Eastern
studies enterprise had not spared the United States even one unpleasant
The failure arose from the biases
of a typically American optimism. But some scholars began to wonder whether
they were wearing the
epistemological blinders which Said called "Orientalism": a
contemptuous refusal to see Arabs and Muslims in all their human dynamism. A
mix of confusion and guilt had descended on the field even before
Orientalism came off the presses. Many scholars, far from
defending their "guild" (Said's definition), were already
predisposed to accept his judgment of their failure: "At almost any given
moment during the past few years there has been considerable evidence,
available to anyone, that the non-Western world generally and Islam in
particular no longer conform to the patterns mapped out by American or European
social scientists, Orientalists, and area experts in the immediate postwar
The Legacy of Orientalism
In the more than twenty years since the publication of
Orientalism, its impact on the broad intellectual climate in
American Middle Eastern studies has been far-reaching.
Orientalism made it acceptable, even expected, for scholars to
spell out their own political commitments as a preface to anything they wrote
or did. More than that, it also enshrined an acceptable hierarchy of political
commitments, with Palestine at the top, followed by the Arab nation and the
Islamic world. They were the long-suffering victims of Western racism, American
imperialism, and Israeli Zionism — the three legs of the orientalist stool.
Fifteen years after publication of Orientalism, the
UCLA historian Nikki Keddie (whose work Said had praised in Covering
Islam) allowed that the book was
"important and in many ways positive." But she also thought it had
had "some unfortunate consequences":
I think that there has been a
tendency in the Middle East
field to adopt the word "orientalism" as a generalized swear-word
essentially referring to people who take the "wrong" position on
the Arab-Israeli dispute or to people who are judged too
"conservative." It has nothing to do with whether they are good or
not good in their disciplines. So "orientalism" for many people is
a word that substitutes for thought and enables people to dismiss certain
scholars and their works. I think that is too bad. It may not have been what
Edward Said meant at all, but the term has become a kind of slogan.40
The political test included more than "right" and
"wrong" in the Arab-Israeli dispute and extended to the entire
range of American involvement in the Middle East, about which (and against
which) Said offered frequent guidance. The effect of Orientalism, as Keddie
indicated, was to inspire even more
intrusive probes into the political views of scholars. "Unawares
perhaps," wrote P. J. Vatikiotis (attacked by Said in Orientalism), "Said introduced McCarthyism into Middle Eastern
studies — at least in the United States."41 Rodinson (praised in
Orientalism) preferred another analogy, describing the book as
"a polemic against orientalism written in a style that was a bit
Stalinist."42 Both comparisons pointed
to the very same effect.
The analogy to McCarthyism, an
American phenomenon, rested upon Said's tendency to list his protagonists
and antagonists. Listing was a consistent feature of his style — a
favorable reviewer of a later book noted Said's tendency to run together
"a string of names, as if that in itself constituted an argument"43 — and when he listed his orientalists, this
effectively became a blacklist. He did it, too, with a combination of
incivility and insult. "The guild of the Middle East Orientalists seems
to have produced only the likes of Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedourie and the utterly
ninth-rate P. J. Vatikiotis," announced Said on one occasion.
"These guns-for-hire assure us that Islam is indeed a terrorist
All this went without a collective
response. Said, the aggrieved Palestinian, had a license; he was held to a
different standard. This indulgence made a telling contrast to the firestorm
that broke out in 1984, when two Jewish organizations also named the names of
professors whom they identified as propagandists against Israel. In reaction,
MESA passed a resolution deploring and condemning blacklists and "false,
vague, or unsubstantiated accusations." Scholarly activity, MESA now
discovered, required "an atmosphere of academic freedom, open
investigation, responsible criticism, and reasoned debate."45 Ironically, many of those who passed this resolution
had already contributed to the deterioration of such an atmosphere, by
applauding or acquiescing in the blacklisting style of Said's accusations
against their colleagues.
Beyond the overt political
allegiance test, Orientalism also
insinuated an ethnic test for admission to the field. As Keddie noted, the book
"could also be used in a dangerous way because it can encourage people to
say, 'You Westerners, you can't do our history right, you
can't study it right, you really shouldn't be studying it, we are
the only ones who can study our own history properly.'"46 Hourani identified the same problem: "I think
all this talk after Edward's book also has a certain danger. There is a
certain counter-attack of Muslims, who say nobody understands Islam except
In a time of limited academic
opportunities, Orientalism became
a valuable tool in ethno-political battles over scarce academic positions.
During the 1970s, university budgets were cut, foundations reduced support for
area studies, and competition over academic positions grew intense. University
graduates from the Middle East did not always find jobs, or failed to land the
plum jobs at major centers. As one magazine account noted, the tight job market
of the 1970s meant that "some Arab scholars must compete with their
American colleagues in order to teach their specialty."48 Resentments began to simmer, especially against
scholars who had landed positions in the boom years.
Orientalism not only overturned bookshelves, it overturned chairs.
It became a manifesto of affirmative action for Arab and Muslim scholars and
established a negative predisposition toward American (and imported European)
scholars. In 1971, only 3.2 percent of Middle East area specialists had been
born in the region, and only 16.7 percent had the language and
foreign-residence profiles coincident with a Middle Eastern
background.49 "Our membership has
changed over the
years," announced MESA's president in 1992, "and possibly
half is now of Middle Eastern heritage."50
Said, of course, preferred to
present Middle Eastern studies as a field of ideological triumph. In 1993, he
wrote of "the extraordinary change in studies of the Middle East, which
when I wrote Orientalism were
still dominated by an aggressively masculine and condescending
ethos."51 "During the 1980s," he
"the formerly conservative Middle East Studies Association underwent an
important ideological transformation. . . . What happened in the Middle East
Studies Association therefore was a metropolitan story of cultural opposition
to Western domination."52 In fact, so
total an "ideological transformation" in MESA (which even named
Said an honorary fellow53) would not
taken place had there not been a massive shift in the ethnic composition of
Middle Eastern studies. In 1988, a younger historian delicately described the
mechanism that produced this shift: "Though an ethnic last name does not
and should not qualify or disqualify a teacher, my impression is that it is of
greater importance to a search committee considering a candidate for a position
in modern Middle Eastern history than it would be for a historian of early
modern France or Latin American colonial history."54 A younger political scientist noted "the
widespread, if undocumentable, impression that an individual's ethnic
background or political persuasion may influence hiring and tenure
decisions."55 For this, Said
most certainly did deserve credit. Twenty years after the book appeared, the
assembled multitudes of the reconstructed MESA rose from their seats in a
standing ovation for Edward Said. Many owed those very seats to
In 1981, Said wrote this about
Middle Eastern studies (in Covering Islam):
There is no denying
that a scholar sitting in Oxford or
Boston writes and researches principally, though not exclusively, according to
standards, conventions, and expectations shaped by his or her peers, not by the
Muslims being studied. This is a truism, perhaps, but it needs emphasis just
The truism remains valid today.
But the "standards, conventions, and expectations" have been
transformed over the last two decades. In Oxford and Boston and across Middle
Eastern studies, they largely conform to those established by Edward Said
himself. These scholars, armed with their well-thumbed copies of
to provide real answers to real questions about the real Middle East. Where
their orientalist predecessors got it wrong, the post-orientalists would get it
right. "Middle Eastern politics are much less unpredictable than is often
supposed," announced Roger Owen, a post-orientalist mandarin who
personified Saidian dominance in Oxford and Boston. (He taught for a quarter of
a century at St. Antony's College, Oxford, before his installation as
director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard.) But as Owen
himself admitted, "the proof of such an assertion must lie not only in
whether or not such an approach is a guide to the present but whether it also
stands the test of time."57 The 1980s
1990s would put that assertion to the most demanding of
© Martin Kramer
To continue to the next chapter of Ivory Towers on Sand, "Islam Obscured," click here.
1 Review of
Orientalism by Malcolm H. Kerr, International Journal
of Middle East Studies 12, no. 4 (December
1980), p. 544.
W. Said, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian
1969-1994 (New York: Pantheon Books,
1994), pp. xiii, xv.
I. Khalidi, "Edward W. Said and the American Public Sphere: Speaking
Truth to Power," Boundary 2 25,
no. 2 (Summer 1998), p. 163. The presentation of Said as someone who has
regarded the media's attention as "unwelcome," and who would
have preferred "the far more congenial tasks of writing and lecturing for
smaller audiences on less topical matters," rings false.
W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon
Books, 1978), pp. 25-28.
Ahmad, "Orientalism and After:
Ambivalence and Metropolitan Location in the Work of Edward Said," in his
In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992), p. 177. It
is ironic that
Said should have ridiculed an orientalist for a similarly eclectic display of
erudition. Here is Said on Gustave von Grunebaum: "A typical page of his
on the Islamic self-image will jam together half-a-dozen references to Islamic
texts drawn from as many periods as possible, references as well to Husserl and
the pro-Socratics, references to Lévi-Strauss and various American
social scientists." Said, Orientalism, p. 296. In Kerr's review of
Orientalism (p. 547), he defined Said's treatment of von
Grunebaum as a "summary exercise in character assassination."
with Said, Washington Post, July 21,
literature on Orientalism is immense.
For a summary of various lines of criticism, see Bill Ashcroft and Pal
Ahluwalia, Edward Said: The Paradox of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999),
Bernard Lewis, "The Question of Orientalism," New York Review of
Books, June 24, 1982. The quote is from
Lewis's response to Said, "Orientalism: An Exchange," New
York Review of Books, August 12, 1982 (this
exchange also includes Said's response to the earlier Lewis article).
Rodinson, Europe and the Mystique of Islam,
trans. Roger Veinus (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987), p.
de l'Orientalisme': Entretien avec Jacques Berque," Qantara 13 (October–November–December 1994), pp.
Montgomery Watt, Muslim-Christian Encounters: Perceptions and
Misperceptions (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 110.
13 Interview with
Albert Hourani in Approaches to the History of the Middle East, ed. Nancy
Elizabeth Gallagher (London: Ithaca Press, 1994), pp. 40–41. Aijaz Ahmad,
like Hourani, opined that "when the dust of current literary debates
settles, Said's most enduring contribution will be seen as residing
neither in Orientalism, which is
a deeply flawed book, nor in the literary
essays which have followed in its wake, but in his work on the Palestine
issue." See Ahmad, "Orientalism and After," pp. 160–61. It is common
for readers of Said to find him most persuasive on subjects with which they are
14 David C.
Gordon, Images of the West: Third World Perspectives (Savage, Md.: Rowman
and Littlefield, 1989), p.
15 Philip S.
Khoury, "Lessons from the Eastern Shore" (1998 Presidential
Address), MESA Bulletin 33, no. 1
(Summer 1999), p. 5.
16 Clive Dewey,
"How the Raj Played Kim's Game," Times Literary Supplement, April 17, 1998,
Orientalism, p. 3.
prepublication endorsement by the Marxist cultural theorist Fredric R. Jameson,
then a professor of literature at Yale.
19 Interview with
Maxime Rodinson in Approaches, p. 124.
20 Edward W.
Said, The Question of Palestine (New
York: Times Books, 1979), p. xviii.
Hajjar and Steve Niva, "(Re)Made in the USA: Middle East Studies in the
Global Era," Middle East Report 7,
no. 4 (October–December 1997), pp. 4–5.
Orientalism, p. 11.
24 Ibid., p. 16.
"Orientalism and After," pp.
"Lessons from the Eastern Shore," p. 2.
Orientalism, p. 295.
29 Ibid., p.
31 Ibid., p.
32 Edward W.
Said, Covering Islam (New York: Pantheon
Books, 1981), p. 145.
33 Ibid., p.
34 Ibid., p.
35 Edward W.
Said, review article in Arab Studies Quarterly 2, no. 4 (Fall 1980), pp.
Islam, p. 145.
37 Ibid., p.
review of Orientalism, pp. 544–47.
Islam, p. 162.
with Nikki Keddie in Approaches, pp.
41 P. J.
Vatikiotis, Among Arabs and Jews: A Personal Experience, 1936–1990 (
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991), p.
with Rodinson in Approaches, p. 124. The title of a review by a French
Jean-Pierre Péroncel-Hugoz, suggested yet a third analogy: "Un
autodafé pour les Orientalistes," Le Monde, October 24, 1980, p. 22
Gorra, "Who Paid the Bills at Mansfield Park? (review of Culture and
Imperialism)," New York
Times, February 28, 1993.
44 Edward W.
Said, "The Essential Terrorist," in Blaming the Victims:
Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, ed. Edward W. Said and
Christopher Hitchens (London: Verso, 1988), p.
156. This passage incidentally displayed complete ignorance of Kedourie's
formation. Kedourie had prepared an iconoclastic thesis at Oxford, and was
denied his doctorate by the ostensible master of
the "guild," Sir Hamilton Gibb. He became a consistent critic of
the "Orientalists" — not of their hostility toward Islam, but
of their idealization of it. Said never dealt with Kedourie's ideas; on
various occasions, he simply (black)listed him.
passed by members at the MESA Annual Business Meeting, San Francisco,
California, November 30, 1984. The resolution was "approved by voice-vote
without dissent." See Phebe Marr, "MESA Condemns
Blacklisting," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 17, 1984.
Compare also Karen J. Winkler,
"Political Tensions of Arab-Israeli Conflict Put Pressure on Scholars Who
Study Middle East," Chronicle of Higher Education, March 27, 1985; Naseer
H. Aruri, "The Middle
East on the U.S. Campus," Link
18, no. 2 (May–June 1985), pp. 1–14.
with Keddie in Approaches, p. 145.
with Hourani in ibid., p. 41.
Scattering of Scholars," Aramco World
(May–June 1979), p. 22.
49 Richard D.
Lambert, Language and Area Studies Review
(Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science, October 1973),
pp. 47, 59. The 16.7 percent included specialists with at least two visits to
the region, total residence of three or more years, one trip since 1964, and
one area language skill rated "easily." Many scholars of Middle
Eastern background, even if born outside the area, would have met these
criteria. Even so, the figure would have included other scholars without any
50 Barbara C.
Aswad, "Arab Americans: Those Who Followed Columbus" (1992
Presidential Address), MESA Bulletin 27,
no. 1 (July 1993), p. 16.
Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. xxvii.
52 Ibid., p.
fellows, of whom there are never more than ten at any one time, are
"outstanding internationally recognized scholars who have made major
contributions to Middle East studies."
54 Kenneth W.
"The Study of Middle Eastern History in the United States," Jerusalem
Quarterly 46 (Spring 1988), p. 58.
55 Lisa Anderson,
"Policy-Making and Theory Building: American Political Science and the
Islamic Middle East," in Theory, Politics, and the Arab World:
Critical Responses, ed. Hisham Sharabi (New York: Routledge, 1990), p.
Islam, pp. 17–18.
State, Power and Politics in the Making of the
Modern Middle East (London: Routledge,
1992), p. 290.