Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Duly Noted

As far as large sections of the British intelligentsia are concerned, orientalism is thought of as an historical evil, something to be ashamed of and linked, however vaguely, to such wickednesses as crusading, racism, the slave trade, colonialism and Zionism. Orientalism, by the Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, published in 1978, pioneered this paranoid approach to an essentially benign academic discipline. In his immensely influential book, Said presented a somewhat confusing survey of the way Europeans and Americans have written and thought about the orient and, more precisely, about the Arab world.

Said argued that orientalism was a sinister discourse that constrained the ways westerners could think and write about the orient. He suggested that there was a malign tradition of disparaging and stereotyping orientals in various ways that went back to Homer, a tradition that was continued by such grand writers as Aeschylus, Dante, Flaubert and Camus.

However, Said argued, in recent centuries academics in Islamic and middle eastern studies had been instrumental in framing a mindset that facilitated and justified imperial dominance over the Arab lands. According to Said (who died in 2003), the west possesses a monopoly over how the orient may be represented.

His thesis has subsequently found incongruous allies among Islamist polemicists. They too see western scholarship as a conspiracy. The Encyclopaedia of Islam, a multi-volume work of mostly western scholarship whose second edition was recently published, has attracted particular criticism from some Muslims, who argue that this sort of reference work should have been written mostly, if not entirely, by Muslims, and should have been subject to Muslim censorship.

From Fall of Orientalism by Robert Irwin, in the February issue of "Prospect."

Said and his followers come in for a share of the blame for the slow death of Arabic and Islamic scholarship in the West, but not all of it:

It would be absurd to pin all the blame for the decline of oriental studies on Said's polemic. Broader intellectual trends have had a role—a flight from difficulty, a suspicion of old-fashioned, fact-bound scholarship and a taste for deconstructive readings of classic works. And when funds are occasionally found for middle eastern topics, the designation of the new posts is dim-wittedly directed by yesterday's newspaper headlines and thus earmarked for such areas as terrorism studies or conflict resolution. In both the universities and the media there is a cult of immediacy and contemporary relevance. This cult would have seemed strange, profane and even frivolous to past intellectual generations.