[20 May 2008]
Like so many, I was first introduced to the works of Edward Said in my first year of grad school in a course called “The History of Historical Writing”. Armed with a newly-minted BA in History, I felt prepared to embark on my new intellectual journey; I was ready to move beyond simply learning about the past, and was anxious to become further acquainted with the methodological nuance of my discipline and the theoretical framework on which its noble institution was founded.
But once the curtain was pulled back and the inner-workings, so carefully hidden before, were at last revealed, I discovered not the functioning unity I had naively anticipated, but instead a fragmented and intellectually divided world marred by opposing camps and rife with internal conflict. Historiography, I had foolishly believed, was simply the study of the evolution of our field; one school of thought refining and adding clarity to the one that came before. Instead, it is a Darwinian struggle where the weak are destroyed and the young ever supplant the old. Old schools of thought become the bones in which the new generations of scholars sharpen their intellectual claws. Indeed, Historiography was revealed as less of an evolution and more as a series of polemical writings on where previous historians “got it wrong”.
One of the books that were required reading for the course was Edward Said’s Orientalism. While Said’s book can be viewed as more relevant to cultural studies and literary theory, its impact on history and historiography is significant, particularly for western historians whose fields of study focused or included the geographical location known as “the Orient”. I had heard of the book before, but until reading it and discussing it in class had never appreciated the scope of its criticisms.
Said challenged the concept of “the Orient” as being a flawed and ethnocentric idea perpetuated by historians, philosophers, and writers who created a false conceptualization of an “unchanging other” to justify their imperialism. The East was unfairly united under a flawed banner and then inaccurately romanticized in a way that made it foreign and strange. Furthermore, Said argued that the act of discourse, in the Foucalt sense of the word, is inherently ideologically-motivated and in the case of the Orientalists-scholars interested in the Orient, the Arab world-was used as a theoretical cover to justify colonialism and exploitation. This book, as I came to learn, was a watershed in post-colonial studies.
These were fascinating and disturbing concepts that strongly challenged many of the conventional underpinnings of history that I had taken for granted. Moreover, being well-versed in the violent history of western expansionism and colonialism, coupled with the books appealing sense of subversiveness, I found Said’s work compelling and interesting. Yet despite the many valid arguments that Orientalism addressed, there was always a sense that there was some underlying flaw in its all-encompassing, explanatory claims. Although I agree with many aspects of Marxist writers-such as their argument that economic factors influencing historical events have traditionally been largely ignored by the historical establishment, I am unable to subscribe to their determinist conclusions. Similarly, while I believe that many of Said’s points are valid, I do not share his view that his conclusions represented the defining totality of the subject. Orientalism seemed an important part of the story, but certainly not the final word on the matter.
It was not until I read Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, that I was able to find an articulation of my sense of dissatisfaction with Said’s thesis. Written by noted scholar Ibn Warraq, Defending the West challenges both Said’s representations of certain scholarly works and his attacks against Western Civilization as a whole. Warraq argues that Orientalism makes unjust attacks against the West and has consequently stifled scholarship for fear of being labeled an “Orientalist”, and created a sense of “self-pity” in some in the Arab world. In addition to his defense of Western values, the author rebuts Said’s analysis of key artists and scholars, which accounts for much of the Orientalist argument.
The opening salvo of Warraq’s attack on Orientalism reads more like a petulant tantrum then a concise professional refutation—a childish “na-uh” cloaked in intellectual vocabulary. Warraq admits that he regrets the tone of this portion—it is based on a previously published essay and he chose to include it without heavy editing as it had already been anthologized. Despite the aggressive tenor, which borders on ad-hominum attack, this section does succeed in undermining the structure of Said’s thesis.
While Orientalism survives this initial critique, Warraq is able to establish several fundamental concerns that when placed with the latter chapters form the foundation for potentially rejecting Said. First, Warraq illustrates how Said misrepresented some of the sources he draws upon for support. He then defends several historians and scholars who are labeled “Orientalists” for their opinions on Asia and the Middle East. Warraq then moves to the structure and presentation Said uses, pointing out logical fallacies and general inconsistencies in the analysis used to buttress Said’s thesis.
While the first essay nips at the flanks more then it directly engages with Orientalism, it does provide a starting point for the next, more comprehensive, phase of Warraq’s assault. He dedicates much of his narrative to defending Western Civilization as a whole by examining three key trends that he says define the western mentality. He explains the despite Said’s claims to the contrary, the West has always been (1) rational; interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, (2) universalist; open minded to other cultures, and (3) self critical; constantly looking within for flaws and failings. He then traces these trends throughout history and then compares them to aspects of Said’s arguments. Warraq argues that these “Three Golden Threads” represent a consistent defining characteristic of the West and goes onto show that these are lacking in many parts of the Arab and non-Western world. His analysis of self-criticism is particularly important, because it shows how Western Civilization can learn from its mistakes and move forward, rather then be defined by them as Orientalism asserts.
The last half of the book focuses on Orientalism in specific aspects of culture, including music, art, and literature. Warraq defends many artists and writers while again rebutting Said’s specific analysis. This section, while too nuanced to go into specifics in a review of this size, does succeed in further undermining Said and calls into question his credibility. Warraq illustrates how many artists did capture accurate portrayals of the Arab world, and that the two civilizations influenced each other in an open and fair manner.
Upon concluding Defending the West it can be said that credibility of Said and the veracity of his theory are called into serious question. However, like Said’s work itself, I did not feel that the discussion is over and that Orientalism as a theory is dead. While one may not agree with all of Said’s conclusions, when examining the violent legacy of colonialism and the methods in which people viewed the non-western world in order to justify the economic exploitation of foreign nations, it is hard not to find some sympathy with Said’s claims. Warraq does an excellent job refuting the specifics, but one can’t help but feel that the general thesis still persists, albeit in a diminished form.
While the subject matter is open for debate by scholars and theorists, I can only claim that Warraq’s fascinating book doesn’t defeat Orientalism, but simply reduces the scope of its accuracy and applicability. Said’s thesis still exists, but it has lost it all-encompassing explanatory power and instead only applies to a portion of the whole picture. Likewise, Warraq’s defends scholars unjustly attacked, and helps reinforce the positive qualities of Western civilization, but it does not completely end the discussion.
The one aspect in which Warraq is completely successful and on which the book itself is worthwhile is his analysis that Orientalism was used to unfairly attack scholars and stifle discourse. For fear of being labeled an Orientalist, Warraq argues, studies and open communication on certain subjects was limited or stopped. This type of intellectual tyranny is precisely the thing that should not be allowed to persist in an academic world. Warraq does an excellent job of showing how Orientalism damaged free expression and open dialogue. Regardless of which side of the discussion you lean towards, it can hopefully be agreed upon that a free and open-minded exchange of ideas should always be encouraged.
Historiography was quite a shock for the naïve young student that I used to be. The works of people like Said, and subsequently Warraq, challenged the erroneous and monolithic world view I had previously nurtured. While this at first caused me some distress, I now take comfort in the lessons it provides. These two authors are emblematic of a far more diverse and to some degree fragmented reality; there is no defining unities and all-encompassing schools of thought that are complete and without room for criticism. Consequently, the discussion represented by Defending the West reminds the reader, if of nothing else, that the world is a vibrant and multifaceted place where ideologies and philosophies are just as varied and distinct as the world they inhabit.