In response to:
The Question of Orientalism from the June 24, 1982 issue
To the Editors:
Insouciant, outrageous, arbitrary, false, absurd, astonishing, reckless—these are some of the words Bernard Lewis [NYR, June 24] uses to characterize what he interprets me as saying in Orientalism (1978). Yet despite these protestations, the sheer length of his diatribe and the four years of gestation he needed to produce it suggest that he takes what I say quite seriously, non-Orientalist though I may be. It is edifying to note that between Lewis and his Princeton co-luminary Clifford Geertz, whose rather trivial arguments against me were presented only a few weeks before, they seem to have unlimited indulgence to display their attitudes in The New York Review of Books (given that Orientalism was already reviewed in its pages three years ago). Lewis’s verbosity scarcely conceals both the ideological underpinnings of his position and his extraordinary capacity for getting everything wrong. Of course, these are familiar attributes of the Orientalists’ breed, some of whom have at least had the courage to be honest in their active denigration of Islamic, as well as other non-European peoples. Not Lewis. He proceeds in his usual mode by suppressing or distorting the truth and by innuendo, methods to which he adds that veneer of omniscient tranquil authority which he supposes is the way scholars talk. The fact is that the present political moment allows him to deliver ahistorical and willful political assertions in the form of scholarly argument, a practice thoroughly in keeping with the least creditable aspects of old-fashioned colonialist Orientalism.
To imply as he does that the branch of Orientalism dealing with Islam and the Arabs is a learned discipline that can be compared with classical philology is as appropriate as comparing Professor Menachem Milson, Israeli Orientalist and civilian governor of the West Bank, with Wilamowitz. On the one hand Lewis wishes to reduce Islamic Orientalism to the status of an innocent and enthusiastic department of scholarship; on the other he wishes to pretend that Orientalism is too complex, various and technical to exist in a form for any non-Orientalist (like myself and many others) to criticize. Lewis’s tactic here is blatantly to suppress a significant amount of history. European interest in Islam derived from fear of a monotheistic, culturally and militarily formidable competitor to Christianity. The earliest scholars of Islam, as numerous historians have shown, were medieval polemicists writing to ward off the threat of Muslim hordes and of apostasy. In one way or another that combination of fear and hostility has persisted to the present day both in scholarly and non-scholarly attention to an Islam which is viewed as belonging to a part of the world, the Orient, counterposed imaginatively, geographically, and historically against Europe and the West.
The most interesting problems about Islamic or Arabic Orientalism are, first, the forms taken by the medieval vestiges persisting in it so tenaciously, and, second, the whole history and sociology of connections between it and the societies that produced it. There are strong affiliations between Orientalism and, for example, the literary imagination as well as the imperial consciousness. What is therefore striking about many periods of European history is the traffic between what scholars and specialists wrote and what poets, novelists, politicans, and journalists then wrote about Islam. In addition—and this is what Lewis neither can nor will deal with—there is a remarkable (but nonetheless intelligible) coincidence between the rise of modern Orientalist scholarship and the acquisition of vast Eastern empires by Britain and France.
Although the relationship of a classical education within British education contemporaneous with the extension of the British empire is more complex than Lewis might suppose, no such glaring coincidence exists in the modern history of classical studies. Much of the information and knowledge about Islam and the Orient that was used by the colonial powers to justify their colonialism derived from Orientalist scholarship. Even if the reverse is not entirely true, a fairly consistent interchange still continues between area scholars like Orientalists and government departments of foreign affairs. In addition, many of the stereotypes of Islamic sensuality, sloth, fatalism, cruelty, degradation and splendor to be found in writers from John Buchan to V.S. Naipaul are also presuppositions underlying the adjoining field of academic Orientalism. In contrast, the trade in clichés between Indology and Sinology on the one hand, and general culture on the other is not as flourishing. Nor is there very much similarity between what obtains in Sinology and Indology and the fact that many professional scholars of Islam spend their lives studying it and still find it an impossible religion and culture to like, much less admire. To say that this is a matter of not espousing “fashionable causes” is not quite to address the question of why, for example, so many Islamic spècialists actively work for, were and still are routinely consulted by governments whose designs in the Islamic world are economic exploitation, domination or outright aggression, or why so many Islamic scholars—like Lewis himself—voluntarily feel that it is part of their duty to mount attacks on modern Arab or Islamic peoples with the pretense that “classical” Islamic culture can nevertheless be the object of disinterested scholarly concern. The spectacle of specialists in the history of medieval Islamic guilds being sent on State Department missions to brief area embassies on US security interests in the Gulf does not spontaneously suggest anything resembling love of Hellas. But it does suggest Lewis and of course Milson, the Orientalists who each in his own way put theory directly into practise.
It is therefore not surprising that the field of Islamic and Arabic Orientalism, always ready to deny its complicity with state power, has never produced a critique of the affiliations I have just been describing, and that Lewis can utter the amazing statement that a criticism of Orientalism would be “meaningless.” It is also not surprising that with a few exceptions most of the negative criticism my work has elicited from “specialists” has been, like Lewis’s, banal description of a barony violated by a crude trespasser. (Incidentally, Lewis is as usual inaccurate in saying that Le Monde reviewed the French translation of Orientalism unfavorably: there are two reviews, one of them favorable. As for the specialist reviews they were mixed and Lewis wrong again. The special issue of Annales on Islam gave it a good review, as did most of the contributors to a symposium on the book in the Journal of Asian Affairs.) The only specialists (again with a few exceptions) who attempted to deal with what I discuss—which is not only the content of Orientalism, but its relationships, affiliations, political tendencies, world-view—were Sinologists, Indologists, and the like: one example is Benjamin Schwartz of Harvard, who used the occasion of his presidential address to the Asian Studies Association not only to disagree with some of my criticism, but also to welcome my arguments intellectually. The Arabists and Islamicists have responded with the aggrieved outrage that is their substitute for self-reflection; most of them use words like malign, dishonor, libel, as if criticism itself were an impermissible violation of their sacrosanct academic preserve. In Lewis’s case the defense he offers is an act of breathtakingly bad faith, since as I shall show, more than most Orientalists he has been a passionate political partisan against Arab causes in such places as the US Congress, Commentary, and elsewhere. The proper response to him must therefore include an account of what politically and sociologically he is all about when he pretends to be defending the “honor” of his field, a defense which, it will be evident enough, is an elaborate confection of ideological half-truths designed to mislead non-specialist readers.
In short, the relationship between Islamic or Arab Orientalism and modern European culture can be studied without at the same time describing every Orientalist who ever lived, every Orientalist tradition, or everything written by Orientalists. It is idiotic to say that Orientalism is a conspiracy or to suggest that “the West” is evil: both are among the egregious fatuities that Lewis has the gall to ascribe to me. On the other hand it is rank hypocrisy to suppress the cultural, political, ideological, and institutional contexts in which people write, think, and talk about the Orient, whether they are scholars or not. And I believe it is extremely important to understand the fact that the reason why Orientalism is opposed by so many thoughtful Arabs and Muslims is that its modern discourse is correctly perceived as a discourse of power. In this discourse, based mainly upon the assumption that Islam is monolithic and unchanging and therefore marketable by “experts’ for powerful domestic political interests, neither Muslims nor Arabs recognize themselves as human beings or their observers as simple scholars. Most of all they see in the discourse of modern Orientalism a chronic tendency to deny, suppress or distort the cultural context of Orientalism in order to maintain the fiction of its scholarly disinterest. It is precisely this tendency that Lewis’s rejoinder to me exemplifies.
Take first his charges of inaccuracy, ignorance or tendentious analysis. He appeals to an audience that is most unlikely to know how deliberately imprecise his points are but is very likely to assume that since Clifford Geertz has told them I am an intemperate left-wing non-Orientalist Christian Palestinian, I cannot be trusted. This is not an epistemological issue but a political one, and Lewis exploits it shamelessly. He says that my knowledge of Arabic and Islam shows astonishing gaps—as if my knowledge of Arabic isn’t beside the point entirely. His example is my alleged mistranslation of the Arabic word tawhid which, borrowing without acknowledgement from H.A.R. Gibb, Lewis says is monotheism. I don’t wish to argue with Lewis or to show that no Muslim, no Islamic scholar, certainly no literate historian of religion would want to reduce as important a word as tawhid as clumsily as Lewis does to one meaning (especially when elsewhere in his polemics Lewis is at pains to show that words have many meanings). I just want to note that in his unseemly haste to attack me Lewis has overlooked the fact that what I said about tawhid occurs in a discussion of Louis Massignon that is footnoted, and that the reference is to Jacques Waardenburg quoting Massignon’s translation of tawhid verbatim. Now ask literally anyone—including Lewis—with any idea at all about Islam whether he or she would trust Massignon or Lewis and Gibb on the question of tawhid, and the matter would be closed. Fortunately, even that isn’t necessary since Lewis’s carelessness in reading English disqualifies him from argument well before we get to Arabic.
Then there is the meaning of thawra, the common modern Arabic term for revolution, and Lewis’s description of it. His discussion of thawra incidentally is one of two occasions in an enormous article in which Lewis reveals that he is writing not just as a defender of Orientalism, but as someone I had criticized in two of my books. His declaration of interest, as so often, is extremely discreet. With bogus learning, Lewis parades meanings of thawra acquired from a superifical survey of sources. His Orientalist account of the word has very little to do with what it means in contemporary usage; thus his method of proceeding is peculiar to a field that studiously places a greater value on what European scholars thought and said than on what users of a language thought and said. One of his examples is that thawra is associated with the act of rising up, after which Lewis affixes to “rising up” a parenthetical instance, “e.g., a camel.” This he says in his defense follows “the standard classical Arabic dictionaries, and would have been immediately recognized by anyone familiar with Arabic lexicography.” Arabic lexicography isn’t the issue here: the real issue is whether Lewis is right to associate rising camels with the contemporary meaning of the term thawra, and whether anyone using the term in Arabic, i.e., a native speaker, would find the rising camel of any relevance. In fact the standard Arabic dictionaries do not all use the camel example, and when they do (e.g., Lisan al Arab of Ibn Manzur, Tahdhib al lugha by al-Azhari, which are among the very earliest dictionaries) the camel is an insignificant illustration, usually given one or two inconspicuous lines out of a total of several pages. More correct than rising up is the association between thawra and anger as a cause for the movement of armies, people, etc. A very important dictionary, Zamakhshiri’s eleventh-century Assas al Balagha, doesn’t even mention the rising camel. So we see that Lewis deliberately chooses an unimportant example first in order to indulge the well-known Orientalist prejudice that all Semitic languages ought to be understood with reference to concrete or desert usages, and second, to score a point against the modern Arabs whose use of thawra is undercut by the word’s undignified origins. In so doing of course he scants actual usage, the elucidation of which is presumably why he wrote the article. Lewis’s master in this procedure is Renan whose hatred of Arabs and Jews was customarily laced with instances revealing the primitive arrested mentality of desert dwellers lurking beneath a superficially modern exterior.
All of Lewis’s scholarly points are of the same kind and don’t require as much disproof. Certainly his contention that I only discuss minor works by minor Orientalists is about as well-founded as his confusion of revolution with a rising camel. When he says that I malign Lane and Sacy he is reading his own insecurity into what I said. For my purposes Lane’s Modern Egyptians was more important than his Lexicon (to which I devote some words) because so many writers, including Flaubert and Nerval, make use of it as a canonical authority on Oriental life; merely to say that the Lexicon is much more important (perhaps because in its first volume Lane cites the camel-thawra connection in a subsidiary verb form) is to say something very arguable indeed. As for Schlegel’s division of languages into Indo-European and Semitic families, I didn’t cite it as something to be objected to, only to show how Schlegel used the distinction—I quote from pp. 97-98 of Orientalism—to utter strictures on, for example, “the dead empty theism of Islam.” Once again Lewis cannot read what I say with anything resembling accuracy.
Certainly I omitted German scholars, although I would have thought Lewis would have been able to understand my reason for doing so, which (to repeat) is that since I was not talking about everything Orientalists did, and since I was interested principally in the relationship between Orientalism and the two major imperialist powers in the Orient, the German school—despite its prodigious output—can best be regarded as elaborating and extending the essential Weltanschauung adumbrated by its French and British predecessors. Lewis is not the first Orientalist to hector me with omitting the Germans, nor is he the first to cite dutifully a lot of names that I don’t mention. Had he had the intellectual rigor to blame me for not discussing Israeli Orientalists, he would have made a good point. Nevertheless, he needs to be reminded again that I didn’t write a biographical dictionary of Orientalists, and that he and his “specialist” colleagues should produce substantive reasons as to why the Germans and all the others should be mentioned. Otherwise we shall have to conclude that lists of names and expressions of outrage are the extent of what Orientalists can utter when they are criticised intellectually.
Lewis’s ideological unwillingness to confront my essential argument extends naturally to his habit of distorting how I state it. The few sentences he reproduces from my account of Silvestre de Sacy are mischievously purged of the crucial phrases I use to describe the man’s enormous efforts and influence: for example, that “Sacy’s achievement was to have produced a whole field.” Far from dating the rise of Orientalism from the late eighteenth century, I specifically date it from 1312 (pp. 49-50). Having mistaken the fourteenth century for the eighteenth, Lewis is scarcely in a position to fault my sense of history. And given his extraordinarily careless way with what he reads it is no wonder that he cannot grasp the self-evident truth that modern knowledge of the Orient was based on the literal capture, transport, and consequent study by Europeans of documents from the Orient. How and where does Lewis suppose that English and French scholars found the texts on which Orientalism as a science was based? Does he seriously believe that we can just pretend as he does that conquest and acquisition played no part in what Raymond Schwab calls “les étapes litérales” of Orientalist history?
The rest of Lewis’s detailed criticisms have a distinctly nasty political tone about them. When he says that I don’t attack the Soviet Orientalists for their attacks on Mohammed, he signals the audience that I may after all be a Soviet apologist. This bit of red-baiting cannot conceal the obvious, that if the Soviet Russian Orientalists attacked Islam they also attacked Christianity, Judaism, as well as all other religions for being opiates of the people. There is a difference between that, however, and invidiously singling out Islam, a practice more common among Western Orientalists. Interestingly Lewis doesn’t mind citing the great Marxist scholar Rodinson, but he opportunistically omits to mention (a) that far from being a routine academic Marxist, Rodinson was a professed Stalinist member of the French CP, (b) that when Rodinson said of my formulations that pushed to the limit they would lead to a kind of Zhdanovism, Rodinson also made it clear that I did not so push my formulations, and (c) that in his book La Fascination de l’Islam and in an interview given to al-Hawadess, Rodinson made it abundantly clear that he was in substantial agreement with my work.
So sloppy a performance somewhat undermines Lewis’s claims to “scholarly validity” and “intellectual precision.” As a defense of Orientalism then what he says must be judged on the political grounds which his rhetoric has insufficiently hidden. Most Arabs and Muslims today would consider Lewis as their ideological and political enemy. That his books have been translated into Arabic is as much a sign of his popularity among Arabs and Muslims as the Hebrew translation of my book The Question of Palestine is a sign of my popularity in Israel. When he claims that my views about Arab scholars show contempt for them he clumsily misses the point I was making, that Western Orientalists don’t feel they have to read Arab journals as much as Arabs feel they must read Western journals; this is the context of my remark about the absence of a “major” Arab journal. As a perfect instance of what I mean there is Clifford Geertz’s study of a Moroccan market. Aside from giving no proof that he knows the spoken or written language of that market place, Geertz affixes twenty-eight pages of double-columned footnotes in extremely fine print as bibliographical and critical support for his description of a Moroccan souk. In none of this is there any mention of Arab scholarship, much less of Arabic literature, anthropological observation, or history. All the references are essentially to European and American sources.
Not content with pretending that he is a defender of the Arabs, Lewis insinuates that as a Christian Arab I must be perceived as demonstrating the insecure minority status I feel as a non-Muslim within the Islamic world. Geertz openly says the same thing, having the bad taste to explain me as a leftwing Christian Palestinian in an omnibus review of several books that makes a point of not saying anything about the racial origins of authors with whose views he is evidently in political and intellectual agreement. That Geertz should also pair me off with Elie Kedourie, whom he describes as a right-wing Iraqi Jew, merely underlines the racist Orientalist habit of reducing the intellectual positions of wogs to their ethnic genealogy, then pairing them off like matched fighting-cocks. (Would it be regarded as within the limits of polemical etiquette were I similarly to comment upon the ethnic origins of my assailants?)
Since Lewis’s apologia and attack in The New York Review of Books borrows verbatim from his congressional testimony (e.g., his ecological homily on the polluted meaning of the word Arabist), it is proper for me to sketch out the reality of his position and of his “scholarly” activities. He is a frequent visitor to Washington where his testimony before the likes of Senator Henry Jackson mixes standard Cold War bellicosity with fervent recommendations to give Israel more, and still more, arms—presumably so that it may go on improving the lot of Muslims and Arabs who fall within the range of its artillery and airpower. He gives university lectures on such subjects as “Media and Techniques of Propaganda in Islam” in which a highlight of the talk is an allusive—Lewis is always allusive—comparison of the opening phrase to the Islamic call to prayer “God is great” (allah akbar) with Sieg Heil and Il Duce, although I hasten to add that to their credit his audiences on such occasions have received his remarks unkindly. He has the nerve to pretend that only the Arabs are sensitive to what is taught in US and European universities, whereas he knows as well as anyone that such groups as the American Jewish Committee have conducted studies which look for bias and political prejudice in exactly the same places. In fact he is quoted as having said—in terms very far from those a disinterested Orientalist scholar might be expected to use—that “if need be they [Jewish scholars of Islam and the Arabs] ought to wage battle from the relative safety of the growing Jewish studies programs.”
But it is when Lewis tries to hide politics beneath the umbrella of academic respectability that he is at his most unscholarly, and most overtly the active policy scientist, lobbyist and propagandist. His lame concession to even-handedness is that at one of his Princeton international seminars he did invite a Sudanese Muslim to debate the proposition with Africans put forward by “some Israeli scholars” that it was Arab nations “who depopulated their [African] countries in time past.” And if that isn’t lobbying enough he ran a seminar in 1978 on the millet system in which the Palestinian Arab “minority” was spoken for by an Israeli professor mellifluously discussing the Palestinians’ behavior without much reference to the legal strictures against them as non-Jews in a Jewish state, and in which the whole concept of millets, as an implied “solution” for the Middle East’s instability, was presented throughout the seminar in ways that strikingly reproduce the Zionist vision of a world divided into racial and ethnic ghettoes.
Thus for the past several years Lewis has been engaged in preaching scholarship and practising politics. It is of course quite natural for scholars to have political views and even to impart those views to their students and colleagues in an honest manner. Lewis is guilty of no such balance or discipline. Politics always overrides everything except the facade of scholarship. Only “the Arabs” among the peoples, he says with characteristic modesty, vituperatively attack Orientalists. Could it perhaps be that “the Arabs” find Orientalists like Lewis particularly hard not to attack, especially when political attack is the real substance of the scholarship such Orientalists offer?
When Lewis writes as a professional Orientalist historian that
unlike countless millions of refugees in Europe, Asia and Africa who were displaced in the aftermath of World War II, the Palestinian refugees were not resettled but kept in their camps for thirty years. To retain the identity imposed on them by the defunct British mandate, and use it to resist absorption into the vast lands and expanding economies of the Arab world, required a great act of will, and was a remarkable achievement of the Palestinian Arab leadership.
We find not history, not scholarship, but direct political violence substituting for reasoned judgement. To say that Palestinian identity is simply the creation of British colonialism—as if Palestinian history prior to 1920 did not exist—is not only to utter a scandalous falsehood based on a typical Orientalist disregard of mere natives: it is also to propose that resettlement and absorption might be possible if the will of the Palestinian Arab leadership were to be broken. Note also that in making no mention of the 600,000 Israeli Palestinians or of the 1.3 million West Bankers and Gazans, Lewis wishes them away; like Rabbi Kahane and Gush Emunin he therefore seems to advocate driving them out into Arab countries. The resemblance between Lewis’s view of the history and desirable future of the question of Palestine and Menachem Milson’s is chilling. Milson of course has the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon on which to project his ideas, and General Sharon’s tanks and jets to impose them. Lewis’s field of operation is the scholarly equivalent of theirs, although he calls what he does Orientalism.
Edward W. Said
New York, New York
To the Editors:
I have little quarrel with Professor Bernard Lewis’s article on “The Question of Orientalism.” Both in his rebuttals of specific points raised by anti-orientalists and in his general elaboration of the numerous and complex accomplishments of scholars proud to be called orientalists, he is right on nearly every point, inasmuch as he freely acknowledges the unavoidable and human prejudices of some otherwise excellent scholars as well as arbitrary and at times anachronistically silly use of certain labels like Arabist or in fact Orientalist. Most importantly, Professor Lewis is absolutely right in emphasizing the point that there is a level of scholarly accomplishment which knows no ideological, ethnic, national, or cultural frontiers, even if individual practitioners are occasionally guilty of the narrowest prejudices or of misplaced intellectual allegiances.
Yet Professor Lewis does not really ask the fundamental questions which is why the antiorientalist movement has been so successful, in spite of mostly negative reviews by specialists. It obviously corresponds to something which is deeply rooted in the minds of many young and not so young scholars from the Muslim world and it cannot be answered simply by pointing out factual errors or willful misunderstandings. The opening paragraphs of his article proposing a model of revisionist classical studies based on an adaptation to them of what has allegedly happened to Islamic studies are a disingenuous, if amusing, caricature of a phenomenon which is not simply the silly reaction of disgruntled and linguistically or mentally narrow intellectuals. And, while I agree with Professor Lewis that V.S. Naipaul’s book is a very lucid, if depressing, depiction of the world of Islam as it appears to an intelligent outsider, it is still true, I feel, that it is a book which judges from the outside, which does not penetrate into the anguish and the hopes of the believers themselves.
The key point, it seems to me, is that most of us, scholars of the Muslim past, Western orientalists or orientalists de l’intérieur, have separated a completed, discrete, past (the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Umayyads) from the contemporary scene; but many of us have often been tempted to jump from our competence in the past to an explanation of today; how many Western medievalists are called upon to explain contemporary culture? On the other hand, to many younger Muslims and to a number of Westerners who have lived through the upheavals of recent years in the Muslim world, the issue is one of reconciling the turmoils of today with the correct or not images of the past.
In my own field of art and architecture, acute questions have arisen. Why have buildings in the contemporary International Style been imposed so easily on the traditional Islamic architecture of so many cities? Is there something fundamentally Islamic about the past which can be expressed in contemporary terms? Is it a legitimate cause for resentment when interpretations of Islamic forms are based on Western criteria? These are not idle, foolish, or intemperate questions, even if they are sometimes put in unnecessarily truculent terms. They are genuine searches for a self-identity in the contemporary world which are thwarted by an interpretation of the Muslim tradition based on the past. It would be foolish to explain contemporary France in the terms of the passage from the Romanesque to the Gothic, yet this is precisely what is consistently done in dealing with the Muslim world. It is done by non-Muslims as well as by Muslims, in a pattern of mutual influences which may have something to do with the orientalist’s fascination with and knowledge of the past. The attacks on orientalism are in large part the result of the frustration which has arisen in the failure of orientalism to provide answers for contemporary issues. It is, of course, wrong to seek these answers in orientalism, but orientalists have, more frequently than is justified, intimated that they possess these answers.
In short, while Professor Lewis is entirely right in pointing out the scholarly achievements and, in many ways, the intellectual probity and generosity of what we call orientalism, he may have given short shrift to the anxiety, the fears, the expectations of the contemporary Muslim world which are also genuine and respectable feelings, even if expressed at times in sadly and unnecessarily angry terms.
The lesson to be drawn from this debate perhaps should be that orientalists as well as anti-orientalists must define more sharply than they have done so far the exact limits of their competence on the one hand and of the questions they ask, on the other. In this charged atmosphere of today, this may not be a lesson we can easily act upon, but, if there is a strength to traditional scholarship, it is precisely that it can know its limits.
Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art
Bernard Lewis replies:
It is difficult to argue with a scream of rage. Apparently unwilling to defend his interpretation of Orientalism—a branch of scholarship—on a scholarly level, Mr. Said insists on politicizing the whole question and assigning a political significance not only to his own statements but also to those of any who have the temerity to question his facts and methods.
Mr. Said justifies his injection of polities into the debate by alleging that in my article in The New York Review I had borrowed “verbatim” from my congressional testimony, “e.g.,” in the discussion of the meanings of the word Arabist. The article contains no borrowing, verbatim or otherwise, from congressional testimony. The “e.g.,”—misleading since there is no other case—consists of a few words on the term Arabist, and comes not from congressional testimony but from an article published in a London monthly. True, the article was inserted in the record after my testimony, but this is hardly the same thing. A similar looseness marks his allusion to my testimony “before the likes of Senator Henry Jackson”—Mr. Said’s quaint way of describing a subcommittee of the Senate of which Senator Jackson was at that time chairman. I have also testified before a subcommittee of the Senate of which the chairman was Senator George McGovern—a point which Mr. Said did not mention.
The rest is pure imagination. In neither committee did I discuss, let alone recommend, the sending of arms to Israel or anywhere else. Mr. Said’s implication about “State Department missions” is equally baseless. At no time has the State Department sent me on any mission for any purpose whatsoever, nor have I briefed “area embassies” on US security interests or any other topic. Let me add that I would not regard it as shameful to have done any of these things—unless of course I had given bad advice. But in fact I did none of them. In contrast Mr. Said is generous in alluding to me as a specialist “in the history of medieval Islamic guilds.” I did indeed once write an article on this subject—my very first. I have not returned to the subject since then—apart from providing a fuller version for an Iraqi professor who was anxious to translate and publish this article in an Arabic journal, no doubt in the same spirit of hostility, according to Mr. Said, as inspired the other translations, along with the laudatory prefaces, favorable reviews, and academic honors.
If I answer these “accusations,” it is not because I believe that such actions, if authentic, would be crimes, or even that, if crimes, they would in any way be relevant to the discussion of Mr. Said’s scholarship. They may however serve to illustrate Mr. Said’s way with facts and documents. If he deals so cavalierly with as solid a piece of evidence as the Congressional Record, it is hardly surprising that when he resorts to the curious device of quoting hearsay fragments of lectures and conversations, ripped from context and garbled almost beyond recognition, he is even less reliable. But even Mr. Said—though I concede that his knowledge of Arabic is not relevant—ought to know that “Allahu Akbar” is commonly used as a war cry.
Apart from direct personal abuse Mr. Said offers an unsavory mixture of sneer and smear, bluster and innuendo, and guilt by association. A good example is his use of Professor Milson, whose name occurs no fewer than four times in his “response.” Professor Milson must answer for his own activities, but even on the worst possible interpretation of these activities, they have no bearing as such on the quality of his scholarly work, which is the field of Arabic literature, still less on that of any other Orientalist.
But all this political polemic is basically irrelevant to the matter under discussion, namely the attack on Orientalism. In my article I did not make Mr. Said’s political views or associations a central issue, for the simple reason that his assertions about Orientalism, like my criticism of them, must stand or fall on their scholarly merits. His views and my views may no doubt influence the opinions we form, though obviously this takes place in different ways, but in themselves they prove us neither right nor wrong. I probably disagree with Professor Rodinson (who by the way left the French CP some twenty-five years ago. Why drag that up?) even more than I disagree on political matters with Said. The difference is that I respect Rodinson’s scholarship. Mr. Said seems to be unable to conceive that there may be intellectual disagreements which are not political in origin or purpose and that these disagreements may be discussed in anything but emotional and violent language. Some of us try to maintain a standard of honesty in research and accuracy in exposition, and, even under extreme provocation, to discuss our differences in the language of civilized debate. Incidentally Rodinson, in a recent publication, draws a clear distinction between political opinion and scholarly achievement, and applies the term “ideological cretinism” to those who use the one to judge the other.
Mr. Said tries to meet my point about the uniqueness of the Arab response to Orientalism by looking, not at India or China, but at the American Jewish Committee. If the Committee or other Jewish organizations had complained about the treatment of Hebraic and Judaic subjects by Christian and other non-Jewish scholars, there might have been some parallel. In fact they have not. Their concern has been about the effect on contemporary Middle Eastern studies in the universities of the kind of political warfare exemplified by Mr. Said.
While Mr. Said’s main effort is to shift the discussion from the ground of scholarship to that of politics where he feels more at ease, he does make some attempt to confront a few of the specific issues raised in my article. He deals with some by evasion, some by quibbles, some by confusing the issue, some by fudging or restating his previous positions, some with wild and irrelevant countercharges. The most important points, with one exception, he deals with most effectively by simple silence. In all this he follows very closely on the standards of analysis and exposition established in his book.
A few examples may suffice:
I pointed out that Said had made a wholly false statement about the Princeton seminar on slavery, with which incidentally I was in no way concerned and at which I was not present. He replies with further misrepresentations and unattributed and unidentified quotations about that seminar, and adds others about a different seminar held two years later.
I quoted a few examples of mistranslation from Arabic and German. Mr. Said picks the least important, the word tawhid, and tries to cover it with a smokescreen. There is really no need to invoke the authority of Gibb and other eminent scholars for the definition of the word as “monotheism,” which will be found in any Arabic dictionary old or new. Incidentally, in the passage quoted at second hand from Waardenburg, Massignon was providing not a translation of a term but an interpretation of certain Muslim beliefs.
I noted that while Said condemns British and French scholars for their lack of respect for Islam and links their efforts to imperial domination, he has nothing to say about Soviet scholars who are far worse offenders in this respect and who, one might add, unlike the British and French, are the servants of a state which has not relinquished its Muslim domains but is on the contrary adding to them. Said’s reply is that the Russians also attack Christianity and Judaism—presumably this justifies them, though not Ernest Renan, one of his favorite targets, and gives them license both to insult the Prophet and to conquer Afghanistan. He also accuses me of red-baiting, a term sometimes used to claim virtual immunity from criticism for the Soviets, their friends, and those to whom they extend their protection.
When I observed that Mr. Said neglects or maligns Arab scholarship, including a major work on Orientalism, he replies by accusing me of “pretending” that I am “a defender of the Arabs.” This presumably causes the magical disappearance of Najib al-Aqiqi’s three volumes on Orientalism and thus absolves Mr. Said from what would normally be regarded as an offense in scholarly circles—namely, disregarding a major recent work on the subject of his book. PhD theses have been rejected for less. In this connection I might also mention the Syrian Marxist philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, who, while relying entirely on Said’s flawed and skewed definition of Orientalism, nevertheless produced, even within that closed system, a devastating critique of Said’s reasoning and conclusions (Khamsin, no. 8, 1981, pp. 5-26).
When I refer to Said’s bizarre sexual interpretation of my remarks on the Arabic term thawra, he replies by quoting several Arabic dictionaries in which the allusion to a camel does not occur—an argument the logic and relevance of which are not immediately apparent.
I accused Mr. Said of having libeled Silvestre de Sacy by saying that he had “doctored” his texts. Mr. Said replies by referring to other phrases in which he described the “man’s enormous efforts and influence.” This is neither a compliment nor an answer. I had assumed that “doctoring” texts was a bad thing, and that to say that a scholar had done so was a very serious charge, in Sacy’s case totally without foundation. Mr. Said prefers to change the subject.
Perhaps the most remarkable is Said’s answer to my charge that he had falsified and rearranged the history of the Middle East to bear the structure of hypothesis that he wished to impose on it. On this question—of central importance—his only reply is to accuse me of misrepresenting the chronology of his treatment of Orientalism, the implication being that my error would equal and, so to speak, cancel out his own. “Far from dating the rise of Orientalism from the late eighteenth century, I specifically date it from 1312.” This answer is a good example of the kind of multilayered distortion by which Said proceeds. What he actually says on the pages quoted is: “In the Christian West, Orientalism is considered to have commenced its formal existence with the decision of the Church Council of Vienne in 1312 to establish a series of chairs in ‘Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac at Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon, and Salamenca.’ ” This is documented with a footnote reference to Richard Southern’s Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. There is no sense in which this decision can be regarded as the formal beginning of Orientalism. If one speaks of medieval Orientalism in Western Europe, it flourished much earlier; Robert of Ketton’s translation of the Qur’an for example was completed in 1143 and the Vienne decision was not so much the beginning of modern Orientalism as the end of medieval Orientalism—in Southern’s words, “the last salute to a dying ideal.” These chairs were not founded and, to continue Southern’s remarks, “neither the men nor the money was at hand to give substance to the dream, and it faded away without anybody’s noticing.” It was not until the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation that the new kind of Orientalism began to develop in Europe. Mr. Said’s answer to my criticism is further to misstate a misstatement contained in his book.
No one in his right mind would maintain that there is no connection between scholarship—Orientalist or any other—and events in the polities and societies in which the scholars live, just as no one would make such preposterous assertions as those Mr. Said ascribes to his imaginary Orientalists, as for example that “Islam is monolithic and unchanging.” Obviously there is a connection between scholarship and empire, as also between scholarship and commerce, which deserves but has not yet received serious study. Incredibly, Mr. Said challenges his critics to produce “substantive reasons” why the Germans should be “mentioned” in discussing a tradition of scholarship in which they have played a major and perhaps even a preponderant role. If German scholarship is insufficient reason, one might offer another, within his own frame of reference. Mr. Said represents Orientalism as an imperialist byproduct, in which the British and French provided the material and set the tone, and in which the Germans and others did no more than “elaborate” on the “major steps” of their British and French predecessors. But if Arabic studies in Germany, and for that matter in Holland, began as early as in France and earlier than in Britain, and moreover reached at least an equal level of competence and originality, without any imperial Arab connection, his thesis falls to the ground.
Finally I would like to take this opportunity to make two brief corrections to my article. The first relates to Edward Lane. Said did indeed make two passing references to his dictionary, though this hardly invalidates my point. More serious is my own reference to Lane’s Modern Egyptians. Though of minor importance in the academic Orientalist tradition, it is a major contribution to scholarship, and my manner of referring to it did it less than justice. Another point is the possible misunderstanding of my reference to the letters of the late Professor Sheikh Inayatullah published in the Pakistan Times in 1955. Rereading my footnote, it occurs to me that the unwary reader might assume from this that Inayatullah’s letters were part of the agitation. The contrary was the case. Professor Inayatullah was a scholar and a humanist. He was shocked and offended by the campaign, and wrote not to join but to condemn it.
The question under discussion is of profound significance and is part of the larger problem, now receiving some scholarly attention, of the perception of “the Other.” This is not limited to contrasting how one society perceives another with how that other society perceives itself. It is also concerned with the mutual perceptions of the two, as well as with parallel problems in that greater part of the world which is neither Western nor Muslim. The tragedy of Mr. Said’s Orientalism is that it takes a genuine problem of real importance, and reduces it to the level of political polemic and personal abuse.
August 12, 1982