Columbia University’s English Department may seem a surprising place from which to move the world, but this is what Professor Edward Said accomplished. He not only transformed the West’s perception of the Israel-Arab conflict, he also led the way toward a new, post-socialist life for leftism in which the proletariat was replaced by “people of color” as the redeemers of humankind. During the ten years that have passed since his death there have been no signs that his extraordinary influence is diminishing.
According to a 2005 search on the utility “Syllabus finder,” Said’s books were assigned as reading in eight hundred and sixty-eight courses in American colleges and universities (counting only courses whose syllabi were available online). These ranged across literary criticism, politics, anthropology, Middle East studies, and other disciplines including postcolonial studies, a field widely credited with having grown out of Said’s work. More than forty books have been published about him, including even a few critical ones, but mostly adulatory, such as The Cambridge Introduction to Edward Said, published seven years after his death of leukemia in 2003. Georgetown University, UCLA, and other schools offer courses about him. A 2001 review for the Guardian called him “arguably the most influential intellectual of our time.”
The book that made Edward Said famous was Orientalism, published in 1978 when he was forty-three. Said’s objective was to expose the worm at the core of Western civilization, namely, its inability to define itself except over and against an imagined “other.” That “other” was the Oriental, a figure “to be feared . . . or to be controlled.” Ergo, Said claimed that “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was . . . a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” Elsewhere in the text he made clear that what was true for Europeans held equally for Americans.
This echoed a theme of 1960s radicalism that was forged in the movements against Jim Crow and against America’s war in Vietnam, namely that the Caucasian race was the scourge of humanity. Rather than shout this accusation from a soapbox, as others had done, Said delivered it in tones that awed readers with erudition. The names of abstruse contemporary theoreticians and obscure bygone academicians rolled off pages strewn with words that sent readers scurrying to their dictionaries. Never mind that some of these words could not be found in dictionaries (“paradeutic”) or that some were misused (“eschatological” where “scatological” was the intended meaning); never mind that some of the citations were pretentious (“the names of Levi-Strauss, Gramsci, and Michel Foucault drop with a dull thud,” commented historian J. H. Plumb, reviewing the book for the New York Times”)—never mind any of this, the important point that evoked frissons of pleasure and excitement was that here was a “person of color” delivering a withering condemnation of the white man and, so to speak, beating him at his own game of intellectual elegance.
In truth, Said was an unlikely symbol of the wretched of the earth. His father, who called himself William, had emigrated from Jerusalem (a place he hated, according to Edward) to America in 1911, served in World War I, and become a US citizen. Reluctantly yielding to family pressures, he returned to the Middle East in the 1920s and settled in Cairo, where he made his fortune in business and married an Egyptian woman. Edward, their eldest after a first-born had perished in infancy, was told he was named after the Prince of Wales. He and his four sisters were reared in the Protestant church and in relative opulence, with a box at the opera, membership in country clubs, and piano lessons. They were educated at British and American primary and secondary schools in Cairo until Edward was sent to an elite New England prep school at fifteen, then to Princeton. After graduate studies at Harvard, he began to teach literary criticism, rising to the award of an endowed chair at Columbia by the time he was forty and later to the rank of university professor, Columbia’s highest faculty title.
A year after Orientalism sent his personal stock soaring, Said published The Question of Palestine. Fifteen years earlier, the Palestine Liberation Organization had been founded in the effort to consecrate a distinctive Palestinian identity, and the announcement of that identity to the world had mostly taken the form of spectacular acts of terror whose purpose was in large measure to draw attention to Palestinian grievances. Now, Columbia University’s Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature gave the Palestinian cause a dramatically different face.
He brought authenticity to this task because of his origins and authority because of his membership in the Palestinian National Council, the nominal governing body of the PLO. Assuring his readers that the PLO had, since its bombings and hijackings in the early 1970s, “avoided and condemned terror,” presenting PLO leader Yasir Arafat as “a much misunderstood and maligned political personality,” and asserting his own belief in a Palestinian state alongside—rather than in place of—Israel, Said argued in behalf of “a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.” This was so compelling as to sweep up New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who wrote: “So logically and eloquently does Professor Said make [his] case, that one momentarily forgets the many countervailing arguments posed by the Israelis.”
These two books—Orientalism and The Question of Palestine—each of which was followed by various sequels and elaborations, established the twin pillars of Said’s career as the avenging voice of the Palestinians against Israel, and more broadly of the Arabs, Muslims, and other “Orientals” against the West as a whole.
Said rolled American racism and European colonialism into one mélange of white oppression of darker-skinned peoples. He was not the only thinker to have forged this amalgam, but his unique further contribution was to represent “Orientals” as the epitome of the dark-skinned; Muslims as the modal Orientals; Arabs as the essential Muslims; and, finally, Palestinians as the ultimate Arabs. Abracadabra—Israel was transformed from a redemptive refuge from two thousand years of persecution to the very embodiment of white supremacy.
There was one final step in this progression: Edward Said as the emblematic Palestinian. From the time he came into the public eye, Said presented himself as an “exile” who had been born and raised in Jerusalem until forced from there at age twelve by the Jews. A sympathetic writer in the Guardian put it: “His evocation of his own experience of exile has led many of his readers in the west to see him as the embodiment of the Palestinian tragedy.” Indeed, he wrote and narrated a 1998 BBC documentary, In Search of Palestine, which presented his personal story as a microcosm of this ongoing Nakba (or catastrophe, as Palestinians call the birth of Israel).
But in September 1999, Commentary published an investigative article by Justus Reid Weiner presenting evidence that Said had largely falsified his background. A trove of documents showed that until he moved to the United States to attend prep school in 1951, Said had resided his entire life in Cairo, not Palestine. A few months later, Said published his autobiography, which confirmed this charge without acknowledging or making any attempt to explain the earlier contrary claims that he had made in discussing his background.
In reaction to the exposé, Said and several of his supporters unleashed a ferocious assault on Weiner. Said sneered that “because he is relatively unknown, Weiner tries to make a name for himself by attacking a better known person’s reputation.” And eleven ideological soul mates of Said’s, styling themselves “The Arab-Jewish Peace Group,” co-signed a letter to the editor that likened Weiner’s article to “deny[ing] the Holocaust.”
Much of the debate between Weiner and Said revolved around the house in which Said was born and that viewers of his BBC documentary were given to understand was the home where he had grown up. Weiner showed from tax and land registry documents that the house never belonged to Said’s father but rather to his aunt. In his rebuttal, Said had written somewhat implausibly: “The family house was indeed a family house in the Arab sense,” meaning that in the eyes of the extended family it belonged to them all even if the official records showed it to be the property only of Edward’s aunt and her offspring.
Said’s cynical modus operandi was to stop short, where possible, of telling an outright lie while deliberately leaving a false impression. Even so, he did not always avoid crossing the line or dancing so close to it that whether his words should be labeled a lie or merely a deception amounted to a difference without a distinction. “I have never claimed to have been made a refugee, but rather that my extended family . . . in fact was,” he wrote in response to Weiner. But what was a reader supposed to have inferred from his book, The Pen and the Sword, where he had spoken of his “recollections of . . . the first twelve or thirteen years of my life before I left Palestine?” Or from the article, in the London Review of Books, where he had written: “I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt?”
It may be that Said, as he claimed, “scrupulously” recounted his life in his autobiography where at last the true facts of his education and residence emerge. But, as his critics continued to ask, does finally telling his story truthfully wipe away twenty years of lying about it? In the end, Said downplayed the matter. In a late interview with the New York Times he said: “I don’t think it’s that important, in any case. . . . I never have represented my case as the issue to be treated. I’ve represented the case of my people.”
What was important, however, was the light shed on Said’s disingenuous and misleading methods, becasue they also turn out to be the foundation of his scholarly work. The intellectual deceit was especially obvious in his most important book, Orientalism. Its central idea is that Western imperial conquest of Asia and North Africa was entwined with the study and depiction of the native societies, which inevitably entailed misrepresenting and denigrating them. Said explained: “Knowledge of subject races or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control.”
The archetype of those who provided this knowledge was the “Orientalist,” a formal designation for those scholars, most of them Europeans, whose specialties were the languages, culture, history, and sociology of societies of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. However, Said explained that he used the term even more broadly to indicate a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”
Orientalism, he said, embodied “dogmas” that “exist . . . in their purest form today in studies of the Arabs and Islam.” He identified the four “principal” ones as these:
one is the absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, undeveloped, inferior. Another dogma is that abstractions about the Orient . . . are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities. A third dogma is that the Orient is eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself . . . A fourth dogma is that the Orient is at bottom something either to be feared . . . or to be controlled.
Initial reviews of the book, often by specialists, were mixed, but it appeared at a time when “multiculturalism” was becoming the new dogma of the intellectual elites and took on a life of its own, eventually being translated into more than three dozen languages and becoming one of the most influential and widely assigned texts of the latter part of the twentieth century.
Critics pointed out a variety of errors in Orientalism, starting with bloopers that suggested Said’s grasp of Middle Eastern history was shaky. Said claimed that “Britain and France dominated the Eastern Mediterranean from about the end of the seventeenth century on,” whereas for another hundred years it was the Ottomans who ruled that area. He had written that the Muslim conquest of Turkey preceded that of North Africa, but in reality it followed by about four hundred years. And he had referred to British “colonial administrators” of Pakistan whereas Pakistan was formed in the wake of decolonization.
More serious still was his lack of scruple in the use of sources. Anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco, who actually agreed with Said on many ideological issues, observed in his book Reading Orientalism that “one of Said’s rhetorical means for a polemical end is to partially . . . quote a phrase while judiciously neglecting words that would qualify and at times refute what the phrase alone might imply.” He offered as an example of this duplicitous method Said’s use of two quotes from the writings of Sania Hamady, an Arab-American who wrote critically of Arabs. The quotes put her in a bad light, but both times, says Varisco, they were taken from passages where Hamady is merely summarizing someone else’s view, not giving her own. In the same vein, John Rodenbeck, a professor of comparative literature at the American University of Cairo, found that Said’s “persistent misconstruction and misquotation of [the nineteenth century Orientalist Edward] Lane’s words are so clearly willful that they suggest . . . bad faith.”
Said’s misleading use of quotes shows the problem with his work in microcosm. On a broad view, Said fundamentally misrepresented his subject. In challenging Said’s first alleged “dogma” of Orientalism, which ascribes all virtue to the West and its opposite to the Orient, Varisco says that Said is describing “a stereotype that at the time of his writing would have been similarly rejected by the vast majority of those [Said] lumps together as Orientalists.” And the British writer Robert Irwin, whose book Dangerous Knowledge offers a thorough history of Orientalism and also a rebuttal of Said, notes that, historically, “there has been a marked tendency for Orientalists to be anti-imperialists, as their enthusiasm for Arab or Persian or Turkish culture often went hand in hand with a dislike of seeing those people defeated and dominated by the Italians, Russians, British, or French.” (Like Varisco, Irwin makes clear that he is no opponent of Said’s political position, but is offended by his travesty of scholarship.)
This is but a small instance of a large methodological problem that invalidates Said’s work entirely, namely, his selectivity with evidence. Said made clear that his indictment was aimed not at this or that individual but at “Orientalists” per se, which, as we have seen, was a category in which he included all Westerners who said anything about the Orient. Thus, he wrote, “all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact of empire.” And: “No one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism.”
Why did Said choose to paint with such a broad brush? Because he knew that if he had asserted merely that some Westerners wrote pejoratively or condescendingly or misleadingly about the East while others did not, his argument would have lost much of its provocation. It would have demanded clarification about the relative numbers or influence of the two groups, about variations within the groups, about reciprocal attitudes among Easterners toward the West. Above all, it would have drawn the inevitable retort: so what? Was it news that some individuals favored their own societies over others?
The only way Said could make his generalized indictment seem plausible was to select whatever examples fit it and leave out the rest. When challenged on his omissions, Said replied with hauteur that he was under no obligation to include “every Orientalist who ever lived.” But of course the real issue was whether the ones he included made a representative sample (and whether he presented them faithfully).
These methodological failings were mostly lost in the dazzle. What made the book electrifying was that Said had found a new way to condemn the West for its most grievous sins: racism and the subjugation of others. With great originality, Said even extended the indictment through the millennia, a depiction that drew a protest from Sadiq al-Azm, a Syrian philosopher of Marxist bent (and one of that country’s most admired dissidents). Wrote Azm:
Said . . . trac[es] the origins of Orientalism all the way back to Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Dante. In other words, Orientalism is not really a thoroughly modern phenomenon, but is the natural product of an ancient and almost irresistible European bent of mind to misrepresent other . . . cultures . . . in favor of Occidental self-affirmation, domination, and ascendency.
Azm may have thought this wrong, but it was heady stuff. If we are talking about a mentality that is continuous before and after Christ then we are talking less about European culture, which is in large measure defined by Christianity, than about the European race. Thus did Orientalism fit the temper of a time when it was widely asserted that all white people were inherently bigoted, and “encounter groups” met at campuses and workplaces so that whites could discover and confront their inner racist. And nowhere was the evidence of this white evil laid out in greater depth and seeming sophistication than in Said’s pages.
In this atmosphere, wrote the New York Times in its obituary for Said, “Orientalism established Dr. Said as a figure of enormous influence in American and European universities, a hero to many, especially younger faculty and graduate students on the left for whom that book became an intellectual credo and the founding document of what came to be called postcolonial studies.”
It was not only American leftists who seized on the book. The Guardian, in its own obituary, observed that:
Orientalism appeared at an opportune time, enabling upwardly mobile academics from non-western countries (many of whom came from families who had benefited from colonialism) to take advantage of the mood of political correctness it helped to engender by associating themselves with “narratives of oppression,” creating successful careers out of transmitting, interpreting and debating representations of the non-western “other.”
Orientalism, added the Guardian, “is credited with helping to change the direction of several disciplines,” a thought echoed by supporters and detractors alike. Admiringly, Stuart Schaar, a professor emeritus of Middle East history at Brooklyn College, wrote that “the academic community has been transformed and the field of literary criticism has been revolutionized as a result of his legacy.”
Without ever relinquishing his claim to personify a “glamour-garlanded ideal of ‘outsiderdom,’” as one disillusioned reviewer of a series of lectures Said delivered in London put it, Said and his disciples took power in academia, as reflected in the astonishing number of courses that assigned his books and the frequency with which they were cited. Varisco observed that “a generation of students across disciplines has grown up with limited challenges to the polemical charge by Said that scholars who study the Middle East and Islam still do so institutionally through an interpretive sieve that divides a superior West from an inferior East.” The new Saidian orthodoxy became so utterly dominant in the Middle East Studies Association, and so unfriendly to dissenting voices, that in 2007 Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami took the lead in forming an alternative professional organization, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa.
Said was fond of invoking the mantra of “speaking truth to power.” This was an easy boast for someone who opted to live in America, or for that matter to live anywhere, and make a career of denouncing the West and Israel. But while a daring Promethean in the West, Said was more careful closer to native ground. Habib Malik, a historian at the Lebanese American University and a cousin of Said’s, recalls hearing him deliver a talk at the American University of Beirut: “On one occasion he blasted Saddam Hussein and a number of other Arab dictators but stopped short of mentioning [then Syrian dictator] Hafez Assad for obvious reasons: the Syrian mukhabarat [secret police] in Beirut would have picked him up right after the lecture!”
Said’s career, the deviousness and posturing and ineffable vanity of it, would have been mostly an academic matter if he had not been so successful in redefining Arabs and Muslims as the moral equivalent of blacks and in casting Israel as the racist white oppressor. Four years after the UN General Assembly had declared Zionism to be a form of racism, Said gave this same idea a highbrow reiteration. Israel did not give Arabs the same right of immigration as Jews, he said mockingly, because they are “‘less developed.’”
Decades after Orientalism was published, Said explained that Israel had been its covert target all along:
I don’t think I would have written that book had I not been politically associated with a struggle. The struggle of Arab and Palestinian nationalism is very important to that book. Orientalism is not meant to be an abstract account of some historical formation but rather a part of the liberation from such stereotypes and such domination of my own people, whether they are Arabs, Muslims, or Palestinians.
Said had not acknowledged such an agenda in the pages of Orientalism or at the time of its publication, although this ideological subtext could be discerned in his ferocity toward Bernard Lewis, who, observed Irwin, “was not really attacked by Said for being a bad scholar (which he is not), but for being a supporter of Zionism (which he is).” It was also implicit in the identity of those Said exempted from his generalization about Westerners. In the concluding pages of Orientalism, he allowed that a very few “decolonializing” voices could be heard in the West, and in a footnote he offered just two American examples, Noam Chomsky and MERIP, the Middle East Research and Information Project. Chomsky of course is not a Middle East expert or someone who writes often on the Middle East, but he had already carved out a place for himself as the leading Jewish voice of vituperation against Israel. MERIP, a New Left group formed to cheer Palestinian guerrillas and other Arab revolutionaries, was so single-minded in its devotion to this cause that it praised the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics for causing “a boost in morale among Palestinians” and “halt[ing]” moves “for a ‘settlement’ between Israel and the Arab regimes.”
Although Said’s assault on the Jewish state was thus initially camouflaged, it was devastatingly effective, as his stance on Arab/Israel questions came to dominate Middle East studies. The UCLA historian of the Middle East Nikki Keddie, whose sympathetic work on revolutionary Iran had won Said’s praise in his book Covering Islam, commented:
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.
His reputation made by the success of Orientalism, Said devoted much of the rest of his career to more direct advocacy of the Arab/Muslim/Palestinian cause, starting with the publication of The Question of Palestine in 1979, by which time he was already a member of the PLO’s top official body, the Palestinian National Council. The book was a full-throated polemic. The Jews were the aggressors; and the Palestinians their victims—on all counts and with little nuance. Even on the matter of terrorism, Said asserted, “There is nothing in Palestinian history, absolutely nothing at all to rival the record of Zionist terror.”
Said proclaimed himself “horrified” by the terrorist acts that “Palestinian men and women . . . were driven to do.” But all blame ultimately rested with Israel, which had “literally produced, manufactured . . . the ‘terrorist.’”
He wrote, with what even a New York Times reviewer called “stunning disingenuousness,” that “at least since the early seventies, the PLO had avoided and condemned terror.” These words appeared just one year after the organization’s bloodiest attack on Israeli civilians, the March 1978 “coastal road massacre,” in which thirty-eight civilians, thirteen of them children, were randomly gunned down, with scores of others injured—and not by any “renegade” faction but by the PLO’s mainstream group, Fatah. (Said himself was already a member of the PLO’s governing body when this “action” was carried out.)
Said worked hard to solidify the myth that for years Arafat had tried to make peace and been rebuffed: “On occasion after occasion the PLO stated its willingness to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza,” citing resolutions of the Palestinian National Council in 1974 and 1977. This was true, but these resolutions did not convey, as Said went on disingenuously to claim, “an implicit recognition of Israel.” Rather, they envisioned a strategy in which Palestinians would form a government in the West Bank and Gaza, in the event that international diplomacy afforded them this opportunity, not as a step toward peace but with the declared intent of using this territory as a base to fight on to “liberate” the rest of Palestine, i.e., Israel proper. As the PNC’s 1974 resolution stated: “The PLO will struggle against any plan for the establishment of a Palestinian entity the price of which is recognition [of Israel], conciliation, secure borders, and renunciation of the national rights of our people, its right to return, and self-determination on its national soil.”
In 1988, a decade after Said’s book appeared, the PLO did renounce terror and imply its willingness to acquiesce in Israel’s existence, albeit equivocally. These two pivotal concessions were clearly avowed only in the 1993 Oslo Accords. When Arafat finally took this indispensable step toward peace, one might have expected Said, who had been claiming that this had happened avant la lettre, to praise him. Instead, Said denounced his hero. Arafat, he complained, had “sold his people into enslavement,” and he called Oslo—in which Israel and the PLO recognized each other and pledged to hammer out a two-state settlement—an “instrument of Palestinian surrender.” Back in Arafat’s terrorist days, Said had seen him as “a man of genius” and said that “his people . . . loved him.” (Indeed, “Arafat and the Palestinian will . . . were in a sense interchangeable,” he once gushed.) But signing this agreement with Israel had, at a stroke, transformed Arafat, in Said’s eyes, into “a strutting dictator.” Arafat and his circle had become a bunch of “losers and has-beens” who “should step aside.”
Said himself adopted a new position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. No longer did he envision a two-state solution, as he had professed to do back when the idea was theoretical, since the main Palestinian organization (on whose board he sat) was not prepared to suffer the existence of Israel in any shape or form. Now, however, he sought instead “to devise a means where the two peoples can live together in one nation as equals.”
This was not a proposal to be taken seriously. In Israel, large numbers of Arabs did live freely but not in complete equality, a fact over which Said often protested. In the Arab states, many Jews had once lived but nearly all had been expelled. In other words, Said’s new formula was nothing more than a fancy way of opposing the only genuine possibility of peace.
This bitter ender’s position was, of course, phrased in terms chosen to sound idealistic. In that sense it was characteristic of Said’s oeuvre and of the movement of which he was such a critical part. Leftism is the stance of those who aspire to make the world a better place, according to their own view, through political action. For roughly a century its modal idea was Marxism, which identified the proletariat as the engine of redemption, a choice that resonated with the age-old Christian belief that the meek shall inherit the earth. As the twentieth century wore on, however, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela displaced Joe Hill, Mother Bloor, and Henry Wallace as objects of veneration. People of color and strugglers against colonial oppression stirred the hearts of idealists more than leaders of strikes and fighters for a fair day’s pay. Once, Zionism had tapped into that older leftism, seeing itself as a workers’ movement. But instead in the latter twentieth century—and in considerable part thanks to the impact of Edward Said—it became redefined as a movement of white people competing for land with people of color. This transformation meant that from then on the left would be aligned overwhelmingly and ardently against Israel.
Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a frequent contributor to World Affairs, is completing a book on the anti-Israel lobby, from which this article is adapted.
Photo Credit: Justin McIntosh