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A window on the world - Edward Said

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  • agrao99
    A window on the world Edward Said Saturday August 2, 2003 The Guardian http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1010417,00.html *** Western scholars
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      A window on the world
      Edward Said
      Saturday August 2, 2003
      The Guardian

      Western scholars helped justify the war in Iraq, says Edward Said,
      with their orientalist ideas about the 'Arab mind'. Twenty-five years
      after the publication of his post-colonial classic, the author of
      Orientalism argues that humanist understanding is now more urgently
      required than ever before

      Adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Orientalism,
      published by Penguin on August 28 at £10.99

      Nine years ago I wrote an afterword for Orientalism which, in trying
      to clarify what I believed I had and had not said, stressed not only
      the many discussions that had opened up since my book appeared in
      1978, but the ways in which a work about representations of "the
      orient" lent itself to increasing misinterpretation. That I find
      myself feeling more ironic than irritated about that very same thing
      today is a sign of how much my age has crept up on me. The recent
      deaths of my two main intellectual, political and personal mentors,
      the writers and activists Eqbal Ahmad and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, has
      brought sadness and loss, as well as resignation and a certain
      stubborn will to go on.

      In my memoir Out of Place (1999) I described the strange and
      contradictory worlds in which I grew up, providing for myself and my
      readers a detailed account of the settings that I think formed me in
      Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon. But that was a very personal account
      which stopped short of all the years of my own political engagement
      that started after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

      Orientalism is very much a book tied to the tumultuous dynamics of
      contemporary history. Its first page opens with a description of the
      Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990, but the violence and the ugly
      shedding of human blood continues up to this minute. We have had the
      failure of the Oslo peace process, the outbreak of the second
      intifada, and the awful suffering of the Palestinians on the
      reinvaded West Bank and Gaza. The suicide bombing phenomenon has
      appeared with all its hideous damage, none more lurid and apocalyptic
      of course than the events of September 11 2001 and their aftermath in
      the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. As I write these lines, the
      illegal occupation of Iraq by Britain and the United States proceeds.
      Its aftermath is truly awful to contemplate. This is all part of what
      is supposed to be a clash of civilisations, unending, implacable,
      irremediable. Nevertheless, I think not.

      I wish I could say that general understanding of the Middle East, the
      Arabs and Islam in the US has improved, but alas, it really hasn't.
      For all kinds of reasons, the situation in Europe seems to be
      considerably better. What American leaders and their intellectual
      lackeys seem incapable of understanding is that history cannot be
      swept clean like a blackboard, so that "we" might inscribe our own
      future there and impose our own forms of life for these lesser people
      to follow. It is quite common to hear high officials in Washington
      and elsewhere speak of changing the map of the Middle East, as if
      ancient societies and myriad peoples can be shaken up like so many
      peanuts in a jar. But this has often happened with the "orient", that
      semi-mythical construct which since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in
      the late 18th century has been made and remade countless times. In
      the process the uncountable sediments of history, a dizzying variety
      of peoples, languages, experiences, and cultures, are swept aside or
      ignored, relegated to the sandheap along with the treasures ground
      into meaningless fragments that were taken out of Baghdad.

      My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can
      also be unmade and rewritten, so that "our" east, "our" orient
      becomes "ours" to possess and direct. And I have a very high regard
      for the powers and gifts of the peoples of that region to struggle on
      for their vision of what they are and want to be. There has been so
      massive and calculatedly aggressive an attack on contemporary Arab
      and Muslim societies for their backwardness, lack of democracy, and
      abrogation of women's rights that we simply forget that such notions
      as modernity, enlightenment, and democracy are by no means simple and
      agreed-upon concepts that one either does or does not find like
      Easter eggs in the living-room. The breathtaking insouciance of
      jejune publicists who speak in the name of foreign policy and who
      have no knowledge at all of the language real people actually speak,
      has fabricated an arid landscape ready for American power to
      construct there an ersatz model of free market "democracy".

      But there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and
      other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful
      study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand
      knowledge that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation. It
      is surely one of the intellectual catastrophes of history that an
      imperialist war confected by a small group of unelected US officials
      was waged against a devastated third world dictatorship on thoroughly
      ideological grounds having to do with world dominance, security
      control and scarce resources, but disguised for its true intent,
      hastened and reasoned for by orientalists who betrayed their calling
      as scholars.

      The major influences on George W Bush's Pentagon and National
      Security Council were men such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami,
      experts on the Arab and Islamic world who helped the American hawks
      to think about such preposterous phenomena as the Arab mind and the
      centuries-old Islamic decline which only American power could
      reverse. Today bookstores in the US are filled with shabby screeds
      bearing screaming headlines about Islam and terror, the Arab threat
      and the Muslim menace, all of them written by political polemicists
      pretending to knowledge imparted by experts who have supposedly
      penetrated to the heart of these strange oriental peoples. CNN and
      Fox, plus myriad evangelical and rightwing radio hosts, innumerable
      tabloids and even middle-brow journals, have recycled the same
      unverifiable fictions and vast generalisations so as to stir
      up "America" against the foreign devil.

      Without a well-organised sense that the people over there were not
      like "us" and didn't appreciate "our" values - the very core of
      traditional orientalist dogma - there would have been no war. The
      American advisers to the Pentagon and the White House use the same
      clichés, the same demeaning stereotypes, the same justifications for
      power and violence (after all, runs the chorus, power is the only
      language they understand) as the scholars enlisted by the Dutch
      conquerors of Malaysia and Indonesia, the British armies of India,
      Mesopotamia, Egypt, West Africa, the French armies of Indochina and
      North Africa. These people have now been joined in Iraq by a whole
      army of private contractors and eager entrepreneurs to whom shall be
      confided everything from the writing of textbooks and the
      constitution to the refashioning of Iraqi political life and its oil

      Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not
      like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has
      a mission to enlighten, civilise, bring order and democracy, and that
      it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there always
      is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about
      benign or altruistic empires.

      Twenty-five years after my book's publication, Orientalism once again
      raises the question of whether modern imperialism ever ended, or
      whether it has continued in the orient since Napoleon's entry into
      Egypt two centuries ago. Arabs and Muslims have been told that
      victimology and dwelling on the depredations of empire are only ways
      of evading responsibility in the present. You have failed, you have
      gone wrong, says the modern orientalist. This of course is also VS
      Naipaul's contribution to literature, that the victims of empire wail
      on while their country goes to the dogs. But what a shallow
      calculation of the imperial intrusion that is, how little it wishes
      to face the long succession of years through which empire continues
      to work its way in the lives say of Palestinians or Congolese or
      Algerians or Iraqis.

      Think of the line that starts with Napoleon, continues with the rise
      of oriental studies and the takeover of North Africa, and goes on in
      similar undertakings in Vietnam, in Egypt, in Palestine and, during
      the entire 20th century, in the struggle over oil and strategic
      control in the Gulf, in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Afghanistan. Then
      think of the rise of anti-colonial nationalism, through the short
      period of liberal independence, the era of military coups, of
      insurgency, civil war, religious fanaticism, irrational struggle and
      uncompromising brutality against the latest bunch of "natives". Each
      of these phases and eras produces its own distorted knowledge of the
      other, each its own reductive images, its own disputatious polemics.

      My idea in Orientalism was to use humanistic critique to open up the
      fields of struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought and
      analysis to replace the short bursts of polemical, thought-stopping
      fury that so imprison us. I have called what I try to do "humanism",
      a word I continue to use stubbornly despite the scornful dismissal of
      the term by sophisticated postmodern critics. By humanism I mean
      first of all attempting to dissolve Blake's "mind-forg'd manacles" so
      as to be able to use one's mind historically and rationally for the
      purposes of reflective understanding. Moreover humanism is sustained
      by a sense of community with other interpreters and other societies
      and periods: strictly speaking therefore, there is no such thing as
      an isolated humanist.

      Thus it is correct to say that every domain is linked, and that
      nothing that goes on in our world has ever been isolated and pure of
      any outside influence. We need to speak about issues of injustice and
      suffering within a context that is amply situated in history,
      culture, and socio-economic reality. I have spent a great deal of my
      life during the past 35 years advocating the right of the Palestinian
      people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do
      that with full attention paid to the reality of the Jewish people and
      what they suffered by way of persecution and genocide. The paramount
      thing is that the struggle for equality in Palestine/Israel should be
      directed toward a humane goal, that is, coexistence, and not further
      suppression and denial.

      As a humanist whose field is literature, I am old enough to have been
      trained 40 years ago in the field of comparative literature, whose
      leading ideas go back to Germany in the late 18th and early 19th
      centuries. I must mention too the supremely creative contribution of
      Giambattista Vico, the Neapolitan philosopher and philologist whose
      ideas anticipate those of German thinkers such as Herder and Wolf,
      later to be followed by Goethe, Humboldt, Dilthey, Nietzsche,
      Gadamer, and finally the great 20th-century Romance philologists
      Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and Ernst Robert Curtius.

      To young people of the current generation the very idea of philology
      suggests something impossibly antiquarian and musty, but philology in
      fact is the most basic and creative of the interpretive arts. It is
      exemplified for me most admirably in Goethe's interest in Islam
      generally, and the 14th-century Persian Sufi poet Hafiz in
      particular, a consuming passion which led to the composition of the
      West-östlicher Diwan, and it inflected Goethe's later ideas about
      Weltliteratur, the study of all the literatures of the world as a
      symphonic whole which could be apprehended theoretically as having
      preserved the individuality of each work without losing sight of the

      There is a considerable irony to the realisation that as today's
      globalised world draws together, we may be approaching the kind of
      standardisation and homogeneity that Goethe's ideas were specifically
      formulated to prevent. In an essay published in 1951
      entitled "Philologie der Weltliteratur", Auerbach made exactly that
      point. His great book Mimesis, published in Berne in 1946 but written
      while Auerbach was a wartime exile teaching Romance languages in
      Istanbul, was meant to be a testament to the diversity and
      concreteness of the reality represented in western literature from
      Homer to Virginia Woolf; but reading the 1951 essay one senses that,
      for Auerbach, the great book he wrote was an elegy for a period when
      people could interpret texts philologically, concretely, sensitively,
      and intuitively, using erudition and an excellent command of several
      languages to support the kind of understanding that Goethe advocated
      for his understanding of Islamic literature.

      Positive knowledge of languages and history was necessary, but it was
      never enough, any more than the mechanical gathering of facts would
      constitute an adequate method for grasping what an author like Dante,
      for example, was all about. The main requirement for the kind of
      philological understanding Auerbach and his predecessors were talking
      about and tried to practise was one that sympathetically and
      subjectively entered into the life of a written text as seen from the
      perspective of its time and its author. Rather than alienation and
      hostility to another time and a different culture, philology as
      applied to Weltliteratur involved a profound humanistic spirit
      deployed with generosity and, if I may use the word, hospitality.
      Thus the interpreter's mind actively makes a place in it for a
      foreign "other". And this creative making of a place for works that
      are otherwise alien and distant is the most important facet of the
      interpreter's mission.

      All this was obviously undermined and destroyed in Germany by
      national socialism. After the war, Auerbach notes mournfully, the
      standardisation of ideas, and greater and greater specialisation of
      knowledge gradually narrowed the opportunities for the kind of
      investigative and everlastingly inquiring kind of philological work
      that he had represented; and, alas, it's an even more depressing fact
      that since Auerbach's death in 1957 both the idea and practice of
      humanistic research have shrunk in scope as well as in centrality.
      Instead of reading in the real sense of the word, our students today
      are often distracted by the fragmented knowledge available on the
      internet and in the mass media.

      Worse yet, education is threatened by nationalist and religious
      orthodoxies often disseminated by the media as they focus
      ahistorically and sensationally on the distant electronic wars that
      give viewers the sense of surgical precision, but in fact obscure the
      terrible suffering and destruction produced by modern warfare. In the
      demonisation of an unknown enemy for whom the label "terrorist"
      serves the general purpose of keeping people stirred up and angry,
      media images command too much attention and can be exploited at times
      of crisis and insecurity of the kind that the post-September 11
      period has produced.

      Speaking both as an American and as an Arab I must ask my reader not
      to underestimate the kind of simplified view of the world that a
      relative handful of Pentagon civilian elites have formulated for US
      policy in the entire Arab and Islamic worlds, a view in which terror,
      pre-emptive war, and unilateral regime change - backed up by the most
      bloated military budget in history - are the main ideas debated
      endlessly and impoverishingly by a media that assigns itself the role
      of producing so-called "experts" who validate the government's
      general line. Reflection, debate, rational argument and moral
      principle based on a secular notion that human beings must create
      their own history have been replaced by abstract ideas that celebrate
      American or western exceptionalism, denigrate the relevance of
      context, and regard other cultures with contempt.

      Perhaps you will say that I am making too many abrupt transitions
      between humanistic interpretation on the one hand and foreign policy
      on the other, and that a modern technological society which along
      with unprecedented power possesses the internet and F-16 fighter-jets
      must in the end be commanded by formidable technical-policy experts
      like Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle. But what has really been lost
      is a sense of the density and interdependence of human life, which
      can neither be reduced to a formula nor brushed aside as irrelevant.

      That is one side of the global debate. In the Arab and Muslim
      countries the situation is scarcely better. As Roula Khalaf has
      argued, the region has slipped into an easy anti-Americanism that
      shows little understanding of what the US is really like as a
      society. Because the governments are relatively powerless to affect
      US policy toward them, they turn their energies to repressing and
      keeping down their own populations, with results in resentment, anger
      and helpless imprecations that do nothing to open up societies where
      secular ideas about human history and development have been overtaken
      by failure and frustration, as well as by an Islamism built out of
      rote learning and the obliteration of what are perceived to be other,
      competitive forms of secular knowledge. The gradual disappearance of
      the extraordinary tradition of Islamic ijtihad - the process of
      working out Islamic rules with reference to the Koran - has been one
      of the major cultural disasters of our time, with the result that
      critical thinking and individual wrestling with the problems of the
      modern world have simply dropped out of sight.

      This is not to say that the cultural world has simply regressed on
      one side to a belligerent neo-orientalism and on the other to blanket
      rejectionism. Last year's United Nations world summit in
      Johannesburg, for all its limitations, did in fact reveal a vast area
      of common global concern that suggests the welcome emergence of a new
      collective constituency and gives the often facile notion of "one
      world" a new urgency. In all this, however, we must admit that no one
      can possibly know the extraordinarily complex unity of our globalised

      The terrible conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying
      rubrics such as "America," "the west" or "Islam" and invent
      collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are
      actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must
      be opposed. We still have at our disposal the rational interpretive
      skills that are the legacy of humanistic education, not as a
      sentimental piety enjoining us to return to traditional values or the
      classics but as the active practice of worldly secular rational
      discourse. The secular world is the world of history as made by human
      beings. Critical thought does not submit to commands to join in the
      ranks marching against one or another approved enemy. Rather than the
      manufactured clash of civilisations, we need to concentrate on the
      slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each
      other, and live together. But for that kind of wider perception we
      need time, patient and sceptical inquiry, supported by faith in
      communities of interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a
      world demanding instant action and reaction.

      Humanism is centred upon the agency of human individuality and
      subjective intuition, rather than on received ideas and authority.
      Texts have to be read as texts that were produced and live on in all
      sorts of what I have called worldly ways. But this by no means
      excludes power, since on the contrary I have tried to show the
      insinuations, the imbrications of power into even the most recondite
      of studies. And lastly, most important, humanism is the only, and I
      would go as far as to say the final resistance we have against the
      inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.

      · Adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Orientalism,
      published by Penguin on August 28 at £10.99

      Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
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