by Martin Kramer
Edward Said browbeat Middle Eastern studies into submission.
 

Said’s Splash

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 races.

Malcolm Kerr on Orientalism(1980)1


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 Western culture.

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." 7

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 prejudices.

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 Islam."12

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.

Said's 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 subject matter."

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 Flaubert. This meant that Orientalism could be integrated easily into introductory curricula in English and French literatures, especially in their less demanding American varieties.

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 quintessential institutional 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." 21

Orientalism also delegitimized the genealogy of established 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 teachers.

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 perfect narrative.25
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 privileged 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 compared unfavorably to "refined" Europe, thus updating the argument of Orientalism: bad as orientalism had been in Europe, America made it worse.

Said offered 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 Pro 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 same error.
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 Said complains."38 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 surprise.

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 years."39

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 religion."44

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 themselves."47

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 continued, "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 have 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 Orientalism.

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 same.56
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 Orientalism, promised 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 and 1990s would put that assertion to the most demanding of tests.

© Martin Kramer

To continue to the next chapter of Ivory Towers on Sand, "Islam Obscured," click here.

Notes

1 Review of Orientalism by Malcolm H. Kerr, International Journal of Middle East Studies 12, no. 4 (December 1980), p. 544.
2 Edward W. Said, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), pp. xiii, xv.
3 Rashid 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.
4 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), pp. 25-28.
5 Ibid., p. 204.
6 Aijaz 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."
7 Interview with Said, Washington Post, July 21, 1981.
8 The 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), pp. 74–86.
9 See 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).
10 Maxime Rodinson, Europe and the Mystique of Islam, trans. Roger Veinus (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987), p. 131n3.
11 "‘Au-delà de l'Orientalisme': Entretien avec Jacques Berque," Qantara 13 (October–November–December 1994), pp. 27–28.
12 William 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 least familiar.
14 David C. Gordon, Images of the West: Third World Perspectives (Savage, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1989), p. 93.
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, p. 10.
17 Said, Orientalism, p. 3.
18 A 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.
21 Lisa 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.
22 Said, Orientalism, p. 11.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid., p. 16.
25 Ahmad, "Orientalism and After," pp. 195–96.
26 Khoury, "Lessons from the Eastern Shore," p. 2.
27 Said, Orientalism, p. 295.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid., p. 302.
30 Ibid., pp. 301–2.
31 Ibid., p. 324.
32 Edward W. Said, Covering Islam (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), p. 145.
33 Ibid., p. 144.
34 Ibid., p. 12.
35 Edward W. Said, review article in Arab Studies Quarterly 2, no. 4 (Fall 1980), pp. 386, 388.
36 Said, Covering Islam, p. 145.
37 Ibid., p. 158.
38 Kerr review of Orientalism, pp. 544–47.
39 Said, Covering Islam, p. 162.
40 Interview with Nikki Keddie in Approaches, pp. 144–45.
41 P. J. Vatikiotis, Among Arabs and Jews: A Personal Experience, 1936–1990 ( London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991), p. 105.
42 Interview with Rodinson in Approaches, p. 124. The title of a review by a French journalist, Jean-Pierre Péroncel-Hugoz, suggested yet a third analogy: "Un autodafé pour les Orientalistes," Le Monde, October 24, 1980, p. 22 .
43 Michael 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.
45 Resolution 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.
46 Interview with Keddie in Approaches, p. 145.
47 Interview with Hourani in ibid., p. 41.
48 "A 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 such background.
50 Barbara C. Aswad, "Arab Americans: Those Who Followed Columbus" (1992 Presidential Address), MESA Bulletin 27, no. 1 (July 1993), p. 16.
51 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. xxvii.
52 Ibid., p. 314.
53 Honorary 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." http://w3fp.arizona.edu/mesassoc/honoraryfellows.htm
54 Kenneth W. Stein, "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. 54.
56 Said, Covering Islam, pp. 17–18.
57 Roger Owen, State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 290.
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"Said's Splash" is chapter two of Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001), pp. 27-43.

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Two chapters of Ivory Towers on Sand are posted at martinkramer.org: this one, and Islam Obscured. The book's Introduction is also posted.

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Islam Obscured, chapter three of Ivory Towers on Sand. (Said was surprised by Islamism.)

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