|Edward Said (left), author of Orientalism (right)|
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.Both parts of that statement are demonstrably true. And yet, it was the object of the usual derision and hostility from those who appear to hold that any criticism of 'minority' cultures is racist and prejudiced by definition, irrespective of its accuracy. Especially when said criticism is expressed by a 'privileged' white Western male, who - it is alleged - harbours a racist agenda to embarrass and humiliate the Muslim world.
A good part of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs can be laid at the door of the late Columbia professor of comparative literature, Edward W. Said. The influence of Said's writing is undeniable and incalculable. His key works Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1981) and Culture & Imperialism (1993) revolutionised the way in which the Middle East is studied, discussed and perceived in the Occident, and the first of these, Orientalism, is credited with having midwifed the birth of Post-Colonial studies in Western academia.
Today his work is assigned reading across a head-spinning array of disciplines and many of his arguments and premises have acquired the power of cross-cultural memes - that is to say, so entrenched have they have become in contemporary received wisdom, that one does not have to have read a page of Said's writing to believe in the essential truth of his views.
As the neo-Conservative writer Joshua Muravchik allows in an otherwise highly critical piece for World Affairs:
[Said] 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.Orientalism is - prima facie - an imposing piece of work. As Muravchik notes, it confronts the reader with a blizzard of assertions, names, quotations and arguments dressed up in the kind of stultifying post-modern jargon often mistaken for scholarly erudition, all of which point to the same damning conclusion: that the West has been engaged in a lengthy, thoroughgoing and systematic attempt to dominate, control and subjugate Islamic society and culture, and that Orientalism, a hitherto respected discipline dedicated to the study of the Near, Mid and Far East, was and is little more than the malevolent handmaiden of Western militarism and Empire. As Said explained in one particularly intemperate passage:
It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. [Pg. 204]This view, while manifestly absurd, nonetheless chimed with the prevailing view on the Left at the time of Orientalism's publication that Western culture, and caucasians in particular, had very little of which they could be proud and much of which they should be ashamed.
Two wars had devastated the European continent and beyond; technological advances were suddenly in the dock following the summary obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; post-Colonial guilt tormented those horrified by the crimes committed by their forefathers in the name of Empire; the brutal war for independence waged by the people of Algeria had ended in 1962; the bitter struggle for racial equality in the United States had finally been won, but Martin Luther King was dead; and, across the globe, American foreign policy was held in contempt for its military involvement in South-East Asia.
In 1967, Susan Sontag informed the readers of The Partisan Review that:
The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean Algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.("Only," Tom Wolfe remarked years later, "in the Land of Rococo Marxists.")
French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose attacks on the notion of objective truth had seen a resurgence of moral and cultural relativism in the post-War West, was by no means alone in applauding the overthrow of the US-backed Iranian Shah in 1979 by theocratic fascists on this basis. That perverse mentality survives in academia to this day, as evidenced (to take but one example) by the English historian Mary Beard's blithe pronouncement in the immediate wake of 9/11 that "no matter how tactfully you dress it up, the US had it coming."
But aside from indulging a Western penchant for self-flagellation, Orientalism and its quasi-sequels also had a deleterious (and, I assume, unintended) effect on prospects for progress within the Muslim world. As Ibn Warraq, the ex-Muslim scholar and founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society, commented:
[Orientalism] taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity - "were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists, we would be great once more" - encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist generation of the 1980s, bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam, and even stopped dead the work of eminent Islamologists who felt their findings might offend Muslim sensibilities and who dared not risk being labelled "Orientalist". The aggressive tone of Orientalism is what I have called "intellectual terrorism", since it seeks to convince, not by arguments or historical analysis, but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism and Eurocentrism from a moral high ground; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him.This included Muslims like the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who argued that the gravest problem facing Muslim countries was not their comparatively brief history under European Imperialism or the opinions of nineteenth century Orientalist scholars, but the escalating cruelty of their own autocratic and theocratic rulers in the here and now. For this, Said labelled Makiya a "native informer".
The difficulty for Saidists is not that they cannot tell the difference between rational, legitimate criticism of Islam and the Muslim world on the one hand and triumphalist chauvinism and racism on the other. The difficulty is that they don't believe there to be any difference. Western criticism, study, analysis of the Orient undertaken from a position of Western power and 'privilege' are colonialist by their very nature.
But the Islamic break with scientific progress and the impediments to progress Islam erected long pre-date the British and French colonial projects in the Middle East.
A once intellectually and culturally vibrant part of the world, the region had enjoyed a relationship of productive cultural exchange with Ancient Greece. In the ninth century, the Abassid Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun moved their capital to Baghdad and there established the House of Wisdom - a vast archive of world knowledge, a translation institute and the most important centre of learning and scientific inquiry of the Islamic Golden Age.
However, by the end of the ninth century, its influence was already in decline, not least because the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil believed Greek thought to be un-Islamic. As the traditionalist Ash'arite school of Islam asserted itself over the rationalist Mutazilites, this decline would accelerate and free thinkers in the Muslim world found themselves subject to vicious persecution. The Orientalist Ernest Renan noted in an 1883 lecture that any progress made in the Muslim world during the second half of the Middle Ages occurred despite Islam, rather than because of it:
To give Islam the credit of Averröes and so many other illustrious [Muslim] thinkers, who passed half their life in prison, in forced hiding, in disgrace, whose books were burned and whose writings almost suppressed by theological authority, is as if one were to ascribe to the inquisition the discoveries of Gallileo, and a whole scientific development it was not able to prevent.As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg observed in a review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion for the Times Literary Supplement in 2007:
[T]hough there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who argued in The Incoherence of Philosophers against the very idea of the laws of nature on the ground that any such laws would put God's hands in chains . . . After al-Ghazzali there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.When the furore over Dawkins's tweet erupted, I happened to be reading Defending the West, a lucid, scholarly and comprehensive demolition of Said's best-known work by Ibn Warraq, upon which I have relied for much of this post. In it, argues that part of what separates Western societies from Islamic ones is the the idea that the pursuit of truth should not be bound by utility, but is an end in itself. This was foundational to Greek thought, exemplified by Aristotle, but has been largely suppressed in Islamic societies since al-Ghazzali. Intellectual curiosity meant the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake; a simple idea but one considered extremely dangerous by religious dogmatists.
So instead Muslim scholars began to distinguish between the Islamic sciences, eg: religion (Koranic exegesis, the science of hadith, jurisprudence, and scholastic theology) and language (grammar, lexicography, rhetoric and literature), and the foreign sciences, eg: mathematics, physics, philosophy, natural history, astronomy and so on. The latter, being universalist, were increasingly neglected from the twelfth century on. And while Western Christianity maintained ties its heritage with Athens and Jerusalem, Islam turned its back on the pre-Islamic of the Middle East. Pre-Islamic civilisations were to be forgotten as periods of base ignorance or Jāhiliyya.
In the late nineteenth century there was a brief rationalist resurgence, but from 1950 onwards, as Islamism began to cast its shadow across the region, it died and with it went the Muslim world's hopes of making its belated appointment with modernity. As Weinberg notes, even in ostensibly secular Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was calling for a complete end to scientific education by 1981.
The observable results of the stifling of free inquiry, creativity and unfettered scientific investigation are by no means limited to the distribution of Nobel Prizes. In 2002, the UN's Arab Human Development Report noted:
There are no reliable figures on the production of books, but many indicators suggest a severe shortage of writing; a large share of the market consists of religious books and educational publications that are limited in their creative content. The figures for translated books are also discouraging. The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates. The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa’moun’s time (the ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.In a 2007 article for Physics Today, Pervez Hoodbhoy, chair and professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, reported:
A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia showed that OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world's science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The US National Science Foundation records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.But as Hoodbhoy goes on the observe, these depressing statistics are symptomatic of deeper cultural problems. For instance:
Most universities in Islamic countries have a starkly inferior quality of teaching and learning, a tenuous connection to job skills, and research that is low in both quality and quantity. Poor teaching owes more to inappropriate attitudes than to material resources. Generally, obedience and rote learning are stressed, and the authority of the teacher is rarely challenged. Debate, analysis, and class discussions are infrequent.The West, on the other hand, has gained much from the scientific method and a spirit of academic openness. Emancipation from Christian dogma led to giant strides being made in scientific inquiry and technological innovation, whilst the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake excited a curiosity about the world beyond its cultural borders. Meanwhile, a culture of scepticism, self-doubt and self-criticism helped foster the very academic freedom which nurtured and promoted Edward Said and which he spent his life's energies denigrating.
And while Said's work was a convenient cudgel with which to bash the West, it was often misleading and tendentious to the point of outright fraudulence. The Orientalists Said attacks in Orientalism were not the Imperialist stooges of his imagination. They were learned classicists and multi-lingual philologists motivated by a desire to know about and to understand cultures, traditions and peoples unlike their own. Their voluminous research and the translations of Arab texts they undertook have proven invaluable, not only to Western scholars but also - in spite of Said's claims to the contrary - to Middle Eastern scholars, who were grateful for the preservation of their own neglected pre-Islamic history.
Which is not to say the Orientalists were always correct. Contrary to Said's insistence that these were people all working in the service of the same conspiratorial colonial agenda, they often disagreed and sharply criticised one another's work. But this is what happens during the course of open research in any field of exploration and discovery.
Greater freedom of opinion in the West also allowed for the plentiful publication in the West of material sympathetic to Islam and the Arab world, but Said didn't find it necessary to mention these. Nor, as numerous critics have pointed out, did he manage to examine (or even appear to notice) the vast contribution to European understanding of the Orient made by German Orientalists. The obvious reason is that there was no corresponding or subsequent Imperial German project in the Middle East, and this inconvenient fact reduces the central argument Said advanced in Orientalism to powder.
Nor does Said make mention of the Western tradition of self-criticism that naturally sprang from freedom of conscience. Moral and cultural relativism were not new phenomena. An uneasiness with the notion of objectivity and universalism can be traced back to the Greek Sophists who believed only in culturally-informed human convention. Tolerance for, as well as curiosity about, other cultures - with a concomitant reluctance to judge or condemn - has been a constant strain in Western culture to varying degrees. In Michel de Montaigne's celebrated 1580 essay On Cannibals, he wrote:
I do not find that there is anything barbaric or savage about this nation, according to what I've been told, unless we are to call barbarism whatever differs from our own customs. Indeed, we seem to have no other standard of truth and reason than the opinions and customs of our own country. . . I am not so concerned that we should remark on the barbaric horror of [ritual murder and cannibalism], but that, while we quite rightly judge their faults, we are blind to our own.Montaigne's essay is at least as mad as Sontag's "white race-as-cancer" remark, but it nonetheless demonstrates that a critical view of the West and a corresponding sympathy, or indulgence even, of other cultures has long been a characteristic of Western thought. This noble tradition of self-criticism is why as long as Western colonialism existed, so did a strain of anti-colonialist thought. It is also why the largest demonstrations following the Sabra and Shatila massacres were in Tel Aviv, and why the largest demonstrations against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq occurred in the West.
The notion that we ought not to study or criticise cultures other than our own is nonsensical, conservative, censorious and - in so small part due to Edward's Said's pernicious influence - dismayingly popular on the post-modern Left. But cultures are simply the product of man-made ideas. Sometimes people have good ideas; sometimes they have bad ones. The ability to discriminate and to judge the difference between the two - to reject or overthrow the former and to fight for and defend the latter - is an extremely precious faculty and a necessary precondition to progress.
Orientalism, however, is an accusatory and deeply reactionary text, the catastrophic effects of which continue to be felt in both Occident and Orient. Demonstrably ahistorical and flawed though its arguments are, large parts of Western academia (perhaps encouraged by Gulf funding) and Western culture in general have internalised them to such a degree, they are convinced that universalist value judgements about Islamic culture are simply a projection of their own inescapable racism. Consequently, they have fallen silent about human rights abuses committed by anyone but the West (and, naturally, Israel).
Meanwhile, in the Muslim world, religious fundamentalists have been adept at weaponising the bitter mindset of conspiracism, victimhood and vengeful grievance that Said encouraged, and directing it towards the West and the Jewish State. There remains a stubborn tendency to blame European Imperialism, American neo-Imperialism, Western cultural imperialism and 'colonial feminism', 'Orientalism', Zionism and sundry other -isms for the parlous state of their societies, rather than the regressive cultural and religious values that inhibit personal emancipation and retard learning, research and political/economic development.
In his article for Physics Today, Pervez Hoodbhoy argues that simply increasing funding for research and development is not enough. Profound behavioural and attitudinal changes within Islamic societies are needed:
. . . a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.In his famous essay Counter-Enlightenment, Isaiah Berlin wrote:
Voltaire, d'Alembert and Condorcet believed that the development of the arts and the sciences was the most powerful weapon in the fight against ignorance, superstition, fanaticism, oppression and barbarism, which crippled effort and frustrated men's search for truth and rational self-direction.They were correct.
UPDATE: In response to this post, Raphael Cormack has posted a blog entry arguing for a more nuanced interpretation of Said's work here.