Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rashid Khalidi: The Cold War, War on Terror, Obama, & the Middle East

Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, lectured on The Cold War in the Middle East, the 'War on Terror' and the New Administration. PART ONE


You have to go the blog directly to view the video links.

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward W. Said Professor of Arab Studies and Professor of History at Columbia University. He is a noted expert on the history of modern Middle East, Palestine, and Israel. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including the groundbreaking Palestinian Identity, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East, and the forthcoming Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Hegemony in the Middle East.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad

Written for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Modern Middle East Wars, to be published by ABC-CLIO.

Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, one of the four (some say five) grand ayatullahs residing in Iraq today.

One of the five grand ayatollahs who make up the Marja‘iyya of al-Najaf, the informal council of Iraq’s senior resident Twelver Shi‘i religious scholars, who has frequently served as the council’s representative public voice in post-2003 invasion Iraq. Al-Fayyad, like the majority of his council colleagues, is not a native Iraqi or an Arab. Born in 1930 in a small village in the Afghan province of Ghazni to a family of farmers, al-Fayyad is an ethnic Hazara, a Dari-speaking people who reside in Afghanistan and parts of Iran and Pakistan. Despite this, the grand ayatollah is fluent in Arabic, though Western reporters and scholars who have met him say that he speaks it with a distinct Dari Afghan accent. He is widely considered to be one of the most influential members of the Marja‘iyya, and also one of the most publicly engaged, arguably even more so than Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi‘i scholar.
Al-Fayyad, like many young Muslims from religious families, began his informal religious studies early, at the age of five, learning the Qur’an from the village mullah, the local religious scholar. According to some reports, he and his family moved to al-Najaf when he was 10 years old. As he grew older, al-Fayyad began studying other subjects, including Arabic language and grammar, rhetoric, logic, Islamic philosophy, Ahadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and the 12 Shi‘i Imams), and Islamic jurisprudence. He ultimately pursued his studies under the supervision of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Kho’i, one of Iraq’s senior resident Shi‘i scholars during the 1970s and the most senior during the 1980s until his death in 1992. According to accounts from individuals close to both al-Fayyad and al-Kho‘i, the former excelled at his studies and is widely acknowledged to have been one of the latter’s best students. Some reports hold that al-Fayyad was, in fact, al-Kho‘i’s best student, and, now, is the most senior member of the Marja‘iyya, but he did not seek to chair the council because scholars who are not Iraqi or Iranian have little chance to gain followers among Arabs and Iranians, who make up the majority of the world’s Shi‘is. In 1992, when the Marja‘iyya was left without a chair after Kho‘i’s death, al-Fayyad, along with the council’s other members, supported al-Sistani for the position.
Following the March 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by the United States and Great Britain, aided by a relatively small coalition of other countries, al-Fayyad proved to be the most willing to engage with the Americans and British, though he did nor support or oppose the invasion. Unlike al-Sistani, he has met occasionally with U.S. and British officials, both diplomatic and military, in order to relay the position of the Marja‘iyya. Al-Fayyad has stated that Iraqi law must take into account Islamic religious law, particularly with regard to social and family issues. He has spoken out strongly against forced secularization of Iraqi society, and has argued that there can be no absolute separation of the state from religion. However, he has also rejected the implementation of an Iranian-style governmental model for Iraq, one based on Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept of wilayat al-faqih, the governance of the supreme religious jurist in the absence of the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who Twelver Shi ‘is believe went into a mystical “hiding” or occultation in the tenth century, and who will return at a time appointed by God. Thus, al-Fayyad has gone on record as being opposed to clerical rule in Iraq, though he does believe that the ‘ulama (Muslim religious scholars) should exercise some influence over Iraqi society, specifically ensuring the protection of Muslim moral and social values.
According to a December 2007 report from the Associated Press, he was supervising the seminary studies of Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist Iraqi Shi‘i leader and head of the Sadr Movement, though al-Fayyad and the Marja‘iyya do not approve of al-Sadr’s approach toward politics and have pressured him to clamp down on his more militant followers.
Fayyad (left) with Bashir Husayn Najafi, a Pakistani, one of the other grand ayatullahs
resident in Iraq.

The Marja‘iyya backed the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a loose coalition of mainly Shi‘i Arab political parties which includes the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Party of Islamic Call (Hizb al-Da‘wa al-Islamiyya), in the January 2005 interim elections and the December 2005 formal elections. Despite their early support, al-Fayyad and his council colleagues reportedly became increasingly critical of the UIA’s performance, particularly the combative political sectarianism of the SIIC and the Da‘wa Party. The Marja‘iyya, through senior spokespeople for the various members, let it be known in mid and late 2008 that it would not back any slate of candidates, and would instead urge its followers to vote for the party or parties that had the best plan for improving the situation in Iraq.
Cole, Juan R. I. The Ayatollahs and Democracy in Iraq, ISIM Paper 7. Leiden, The Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press & the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, 2006.
Hendawi, Hamza and Qassim Abdul-Zahra. “Iraq’s Maverick Cleric Hits the Books,” Associated Press, 13 December 2007.
Khalaji, Mehdi. “Religious Authority in Iraq and the Election,” Policy Watch #1063. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2005.
Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, Official Web Site.
Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. “Iraq: The First Arab Shia State,” The Missouri Review 29, no. 2 (2006): 132-153.
Visser, Reidar. Shi‘i Separatism in Iraq: Internet Reverie or Real Constitutional Challenge? Oslo, Norway: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 2005.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives

Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution. By Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Originally Published in The Muslim World Book Review.

Review by Christopher Anzalone; Indiana University, Bloomington.

The 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadīnejād, the unknown former mayor of Tehran who came from a relatively humble background in the village of Aradan 1200 kilometers southeast of Tehran, to the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran marked the completion of a shift in the country’s political scene. The election of Āhmadīnejād was the crowing event in the rise of a new conservative political movement, the Iranian Neoconservatives, who had begun their march toward power with victories in the 1999 municipal and 2004 parliamentary elections. The Iranian neoconservatives, embodied by Iran’s new president, and recent trends in Iranian politics are thoroughly examined in the new book by Anoushiravan Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Durham University, and Mahjoob Zweiri, a fellow in the modern political history of the Middle East at Durham University and a senior researcher at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. In their well-written study, the two analyze the political failure of the liberal reformists under the former president, Hujjat al-Islām Sayyid Muḥammad Khātamī, the rise of the Neoconservatives, the steadily increasing role of the Iranian military in the country’s politics, and the course taken by Āhmadīnejād as president until the first half of 2006.

Ahmadinejad kisses the hand of Iran's Supreme Leader, Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei [with glasses] as the outgoing president, Hujjat al-Islam Sayyid Muhammad Khatami looks on.

Ehteshami and Zweiri argue that there are presently three major political factions active in Iran today: Traditional Conservatives (represented by the Supreme Leader of the republic, Sayyid ‘Ali Khāmeneī and the generation who were at the forefront of the Iranian Revolution and its subsequent Islamization), Liberal Reformists (such as Khātamī and his political allies), and Neoconservatives, largely non-clerical actors who are close to the security establishment. The initial electoral successes of the liberal reformists with the first presidential electoral victory of Khātamī in 1997 spurred the mobilization of the traditional conservatives and neoconservatives who sought to protect their political and economic interests. Despite the reversal of their onetime monopoly on political power, the traditional conservatives, a group which included the revolutionary ‘ulamā’ such as Khāmeneī, continued to dominate key governmental institutions such as the Council of Guardians, the judiciary, and the military and security services. This enabled the traditional conservatives to short circuit the reformists’ political program by placing legal roadblocks in their way which prevented them from passing much of their promised legal and social reforms.

‘Ali Akbar Hāshemi Rafsanjānī, a key participant in the revolution and a onetime protégé of Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Ruḥollah Khumaynī, initiated the first phase of political and social reform during his second term as president in the 1990s but ended it in order to court traditional conservatives. The Council of Guardians, which was dominated by traditional conservatives, disqualified and barred thousands of liberal reformist parliamentary candidates which allowed neoconservative candidates to sweep into power, winning over 150 of the 290 seats. The neoconservatives also proved themselves to be adept political campaigners and their populist message and emphasis on issues of social justice and economic reform resonated with a large segment of the Iranian electorate. This populist message, combined with Ahmadīnejād’s humble “everyman” background, also proved to be key factors in deciding the 2005 presidential elections. Although he was not expected to perform well, Ahmadīnejād, who earned a Ph.D. in traffic management and engineering, ended up facing Rafsanjānī in a runoff vote. Unlike the wealthy Rafsanjānī, who many voters viewed as the embodiment of the corruption which had spread in post-revolutionary Iran, Ahmadīnejād, was seen as a man of the people who understood the issues facing the common people because of his own life experiences. In the runoff, Ahmadīnejād soundly defeated the wily Rafsanjānī. Ehteshami and Zweiri rightly point out the irony of the U.S. government’s dismissal of the 2005 Iranian presidential elections when 63 percent of the eligible electorate participated, a higher percentage than in any American presidential election.

While the relationship between the neoconservatives and traditional conservatives has generally been a close one, there have been political snags. Conservative MPs questioned Ahmadīnejād’s original list of cabinet ministers because it included too many of his political allies, whose relevant experiences were unclear. Khāmeneī has also reversed some of the president’s decisions and has placed some limitations on Ahmadīnejād’s power, particularly after international pressure on Iran increased after he made fiery, provocative speeches about the Iranian nuclear program. Despite these instances, the neoconservatives and traditional conservatives both seek to limit the successes of the liberal reformists, who they view correctly as being their chief political and social rivals.

Ahmadīnejād, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War and a former commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has courted the political support of the military and security services. The IRGC and Basīj, a large governmental paramilitary organization, are key political constituencies of the president’s. Many of the newly elected MPs in 2004 were either close allies of or former members of the IRGC and the Basīj, who in turn proved to be strong and influential backers of their candidacies.

Ahmadinejad [center] with officers of the Basij paramilitary.

Despite his promise to move Iran closer to its neighbors and other Muslim-majority states, Iran’s relations with neighboring Arab states, most of them dominated by autocratic Sunnī regimes, have become increasingly stressed during Ahmadīnejād’s presidency. His provocative rhetoric and political and financial support of groups such as Iraqi Shi‘ī parties and Lebanon’s Hizbu’llah have alarmed the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the U.S. who in turn have raised the specter of an Iranian Shi‘ī boogeyman who controls all the world’s Shi‘īs. King ‘Abdullah II of Jordan and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have erroneously alleged that Arab Shi‘īs are more loyal to Iran than to their own countries. The conflict between Iranian and Sunni Arab foreign policies, namely that of Saudi Arabia, can be clearly seen in the ongoing sectarian strife and political maneuvering in Lebanon between the pro-government March 14 faction, which is backed politically and financially by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and the National Opposition coalition, of which Hizbu’llah and AMAL are key members. The conflict between the two sides, which is largely political, has taken on more ominous sectarian tones in recent months, particularly among Sunni Arab members of the March 14 faction who have reportedly been financing Salafi takfirī groups as a counterweight to the powerful Shi‘ī party Hizbu’llah.

Ahmadinejad sits on the floor as Iran's Supreme Leader, Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei, speaks. The power relationship is clear in this photograph. In reality, for as much attention as he gets in the Western and particularly hysterical U.S. media, the president of Iran has relatively few powers. The supreme leader is the country's ultimate chief executive officer.

Ehteshami and Zweiri make extensive use of media and journalistic sources in both English and Persian. They have also made use of think tank policy papers and academic sources in coaching their analysis within the larger historical and political context of post-revolutionary Iran. They have also compiled many valuable appendices documenting electoral participation in recent Iranian municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections. The book is written in clear, non-technical language and because of this would be useful in upper-level undergraduate as well as graduate courses on political Islam and modern Iran as well as for the educated non-specialist reader.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

From Israel (and the U.S., Egypt, Saudi Arabia, & Jordan) with Love: Maps & Photos of the Destruction it Wrought in Gaza

A little Palestinian girl cries as she sits next to a puddle on a street in Gaza city,
January 23, 2009. [Reuters]

Palestinian sisters Dunia, 10, and Dana, 5, discover their school books admid the rubble of their destroyed home in the southern part of Gaza City. Some 200,000 Gaza children have returned to school for the first time since Israel's offensive, many having lost family members, their home and their sense of security. [Agence France-Presse]

Members of the Palestinian Khadr family gather around a fire next to a tent in the rubble of their house destroyed in the recent Israeli military operation in the devastated area of east Jabaliya, in the northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009. [Associated Press]

View large maps here.

A Palestinian father and his son sit on the wreckage of their destroyed home in Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza January 23, 2009. [Reuters]

Palestinian boy Muhammed Kutkut, 14, right, covers his face as he sits next to the name sign of his killed friend Ahed Qaddas in the Fakhoura boys school in Jabaliya, northern Gaza strip, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009. Three friends of his class where killed when the Israeli army shelled Jabaliya in the past weeks. Tens of thousands of children have flocked back to schools throughout the Gaza Strip, days after Israel ended its fierce military operation against the territory's rulers. [Associated Press]

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Orientalism & Its Critics: An Essay

*An essay I wrote recently to provide an overview of (1) the main arguments and points made by the late Professor Edward W. Said in his magnum opus, Orientalism, and (2) the main critiques, and in Irwin's case, often caustic criticisms, many unconvincing but some valid, of the book, and in Irwin's case Said himself. [Copyright 2009 by Christopher Anzalone]

Orientalism, the late Edward W. Said’s magnum opus of literary criticism and polemic, is a book that attracts both passionate adulation and vitriolic criticism. During his lifetime, because of his persona as a public intellectual and his steady output of no-holds-barred criticism, represented by books such as OrientalismCovering Islam, Said had both devoted followers and sworn enemies, the most prominent of which was arguably the transplanted British Orientalist-turned-pundit Bernard Lewis. and From its original publication in 1978 to the present day, Orientalism has been both praised and lambasted, with reviews of the book and its author falling everywhere in between. Orientalism, as some scholars and reviewers, among them anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco, have noted, is a book that is frequently cited but is also as frequently willfully, or ignorantly, misrepresented by both its critics and its (supposed) defenders.[1]

To some critics, such as the far right-wing Zionist academic and pundit Martin Kramer, Orientalism, and its author, was a defense of “radical Islamism” and “Arab radicalism.” Said was blamed for what Kramer ineloquently and polemically argued was the “failure of Middle Eastern studies in America.”[2] At the other end of the spectrum was the misuse of Orientalism by what Said's colleague and Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi identifies as, "a populist brand of Arab and Muslim intellectuals who have taken it as a declaration of open season on ‘the West’ (an empty abstraction that they, in fact, thus authenticate and corroborate)…”[3] Dabashi calls these instances, “…abusive readings [of Said]," which Said himself addressed in the new afterword in the 1994 edition of Orientalism:

Let me begin with the one aspect of the book’s reception that I most regret and find myself trying hardest now (in 1994) to overcome. That is the book’s alleged anti-Westernism, as it has been misleadingly and rather too sonorously called by commentators both hostile and sympathetic. This notion has two parts to it, sometimes argued together, sometimes separately. The first is the claim imputed to me that the phenomenon of Orientalism is a synecdoche, or a miniature symbol, of the entire West, and indeed ought to be taken to represent the West as a whole. Since this is so, the argument, continues, therefore the entire Wes is an enemy of the Arab and Islamic or for that matter the Iranian, Chinese, Indian, and many other non-European peoples who suffered Western colonialism and prejudice.

The second part of the argument ascribed to me is no less far-reaching. It is that a predatory West and Orientalism have violated Islam and the Arabs. (Note that the terms “Orientalism” and “West” have been collapsed into each other.) Since that is so, the very existence of Orientalism and Orientalists is seized upon as a pretext for arguing the exact opposite, namely, that Islam is perfect, that it is the only way (al-hal al-wahid), and so on and so on. To criticize Orientalism, as I did in my book, is in effect to be a supporter of Islamism or Muslim fundamentalism.

[I was]…painstakingly carefully about not “defending” or even discussing the Orient and Islam. Yet Orientalism has in fact been read and written about in the Arab world as a systematic defense of Islam and the Arabs, even though I say explicitly in the book that I have no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are. Actually, I go a great deal further when, very early in the book, I say that words such as “Orient” and “Occident” correspond to no stable reality that exists as a natural fact.[4]

His definition of “Orientalism”, Said argues, is not predicated on the “Western” origins of its producers of knowledge but rather was based on what Said argued was a skewed approach toward studying, viewing, and representing “the Orient” as well as what he perceived to be the connection between their intellectual and artistic output and power structures. In short, every “Western” scholar of Islam, the Arabs, and other Middle Eastern and Asian peoples cannot be accurately classified in the Saidian sense as “Orientalist,” as is often done by those individuals identified earlier by Dabashi. It should be noted that some critics allege that Said is not always clear on this point and often grossly conflates the “Orientalists” he is criticizing with a fictional and essentialized “West.”[5]

In the remainder of this short essay, I would like to, (1) Briefly discuss Said’s main arguments in Orientalism, and (2) Briefly highlight two of the most recent critiques of Orientalism. A full accounting of all the discussion stirred up by Orientalism is not possible in this essay, but I believe that it will be instructive to take a look at a couple of the main and recent critiques/criticisms of Said and his book. Specifically, I will highlight two recent works, the first by the British Orientalist Robert Irwin, and the second by American anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco, who has produced the most nuanced critique of Orientalism to date. An even more detailed analysis of Orientalism and its critics is beyond the scope of this response essay, but would certainly include the major letters/ essays responding to Said’s book by Bernard Lewis and Said’s response,[6] the polemic of right wing academic-turned-pundit Martin Kramer, and the nuanced retrospective review by the Princeton anthropologist Lawrence Rosen.[7]

Orientalism, as defined by Said, is “…a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience,” and he notes that, “The Orient [is one of Europe’s] deepest and most recurring images of the Other.”[8] He continues, “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’”[9] Orientalism, as a body of produced knowledge, “is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our world.’”[10] It is a “created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment.”[11] Said dots other definitions of what he means by “Orientalism” throughout the book, and his belief in the connection between the production of knowledge and (state) power is far from subtle: “Orientalism…is knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, study, judgment, discipline, or governing.”[12] Also, he states: “Orientalism is better grasped as a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought than it is simply as a positive doctrine,” and “…Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).”[13] Said claims that when not used to describe the whole of Asia, the term “‘Orient’…was most rigorously understood as applying to the Islamic Orient.”[14] This claim is contrary to my own experience as an “Oriental” who clearly hails from East Asian heritage. This claim is also interesting considering that British colonialism in India predates similar involvement in the “Islamic” Middle East/Orient, to use Said’s terminology. Thus, it is somewhat strange to cut off “the Orient” at the “Islamic” (Central Arab) Middle East and Egypt, excluding most of what lies east of Iraq and west of Egypt. Finally, for Said, the Orientalist attitude toward the Oriental (subject) peoples was one of condescension and superiority, as exemplified by the British viceroy Lord Cromer in late nineteenth century Egypt, who believed that “Orientals” simply do not know what is best for them and thus require European counsel and guidance.[15]

Broadly summarized, Said's argument in Orientalism is that not only did Western “Orientalists,” loosely defined by Said as producers of knowledge about “the Orient,” grossly essentialize both the Orient and its peoples, their creative output, whether scholarly, polemical, or artistic, was the product of their relationship with state power. In other words, Said argued that the production of knowledge was indelibly tied to the machinations of dominant power structures, paramount of which were European, and later American, imperial concerns. “…Orientalism [refers to] a dynamic exchange between individual authors and the large political concerns shaped by the three great empires—British, French, American—in whose intellectual and imaginative territory the writing was produced,” he argues.[16] “…ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied.”[17]

Said’s sharp focus only on British and French, and to a lesser degree American, Orientalism is one of the key criticisms that is often raised about his approach in Orientalism. He defends his decision, saying that he chose to focus primarily on British and French scholarship about the Orient because those two countries took the first “major steps in Oriental scholarship,” and that there scholarship was later “elaborated upon by the Germans.”[18] Said argues that Germany lacked, “[a] national interest” in the Orient and thus was not an example of Orientalism as he defines it.[19] He did acknowledge/claim though that, “…what German Orientalism had in common with Anglo-French and later American Orientalism was a kind of intellectual authority over the Orient within Western culture.”[20] It is interesting here to note Said’s rather generic use of the descriptive “Western,” considering that he claims in Orientalism’s new afterword that such a term refers to “no stable reality.”[21] Other critics have noted that Said is inconsistent in his use of the term “Orient,” fluctuating between the position that it is a fiction and the position that it has been “misrepresented” by the Orientalists.

In one of the more recent critiques of Orientalism, the British Orientalist and Arabist Robert Irwin contends that Said’s explanation decision to largely ignore German Orientalism is built upon spurious claims. Despite Irwin’s often caustic tone throughout his book, which is part criticism of Orientalism (and sometimes of Said himself) and part a history, quite fascinating and overdue it must be said, of European Oriental Studies, he brings up some valid issues and points to several errors of fact made by Said in the passage quoted from Orientalism above:

To Said’s way of thinking, since Britain was the leading imperial power in modern times, it follows that it must have been the leading centre for Oriental studies and, since Germany had no empire in the Arab lands, it followed that Germany’s contribution to Oriental studies must have been of secondary importance. But…the claim that Germans elaborated only on British and French Orientalism is simply not sustainable. Consider the cases of [the German Orientalists] Hammer-Purgstall, Fleischer, Wellhausen, Goldziher (Hungarian, but writing and teaching in German), Nöldeke and Becker. It is impossible to find British forerunners for these figures. The reverse is much easier to demonstrate. We have seen how much Nicholson’s Literary History of the Arabs, Wright’s Arabic Grammar, Lyall’s translation of Arabic poetry, and Cowan’s Arabic-English Dictionary explicitly owed to German scholarship. These works are not marginal, but central to Arabic studies in Britain. Is it really possible that British scholars were mistaken in their belief that they needed to follow German scholars of Arabic and Islam? And why did Renan, whom Said believes to have been a major French Orientalist, believe that Germans dominated the field? And what about the overwhelming pre-eminence of German scholars in Sanskrit studies?[22]

Said differentiates thus between British and French Orientalism: “British Oriental expertise fashioned itself around consensus and orthodoxy and sovereign authority; French Oriental expertise between the [world] wars concerned itself with heterodoxy, spiritual ties, eccentrics.”[23] His primary examples to support this view are the British Orientalist Sir Hamilton Gibb and the French Catholic Orientalist Louis Massignon, whose book on the medieval Baghdadi Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj is filled with Roman Catholic motifs. Irwin is critical of Said’s generalization of European Orientalism, and takes him to task for ignoring or glossing over major Orientalist scholars who do not fit his paradigm, such as the pioneering American scholar Marshall G. S. Hodgson and the Lebanese-British Arab Orientalist Albert Hourani. Similarly, one could also bring up the Lebanese historian Philip K. Hitti, the founder of Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, which is coincidentally where Bernard Lewis holds an emeritus professorship. In the one brief, superficial reference to Hitti, Said praises him for leading a department devoted to scholarship and teaching, as opposed to the Harvard department Gibb was in, which, according to Said, took a more policy-oriented approach.[24]

Irwin is also critical of Said’s failure to substantively address either Russian or Latin Orientalism. With regard to Russian scholarship, he remarks, “…if one wants to give full and proper consideration to the relationship between Orientalism and imperialism, then one should turn to Russia with its vast empire of Muslim subjects in the Caucasus and Central Asia. No history of Orientalism can be regarded as serious if it has totally neglected the contribution of the Russians.”[25] Said’s neglect of Orientalist scholarship in Latin may, argues Irwin, explain why he has such difficulty pinpointing a precise start date for Orientalism, as he ignores some of the earliest European works, which were all written in Latin.[26]

Critics of Orientalism also take issue with Said’s somewhat arbitrary and often unsure, they argue, choice of dating with regard to the “beginnings” of Orientalism. Said himself seems to settle on Napoleon I’s arrival in Mamluk Egypt in 1798 as the start of a sustained “Orientalism.” According to Said, Napoleon launched a full-scale Orientalist project while in Egypt where he sought to document information and connect with the locals as a defender of Islam.[27] Further, it is clear that Said sees France’s time in Egypt (1798-1801, though Bonaparte himself secretly left in 1799) as a major milestone in the history of Orientalism: “After Napoleon…the very language of Orientalism changed radically. Its descriptive realism was upgraded and became not merely a style of representation but a language, indeed a means of creation.”[28]

“…Said is not consistent about the beginnings of Orientalist…,” remarks Irwin.[29] Said acknowledges himself that there were important Orientalist projects that preceded Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, though, according to him, they were few (two) in number.[30] However, in the introduction Said discusses the Greek playwright Aeschylus’ work The Persians as an example of the “Othering” of the “Oriental” (the Persians). Given Said’s lede-in to his discussion of this play, where he seemingly identifies it as an example of Orientalism, it is not unreasonable for some critics of his book to point out his inconsistent dating of the “real” beginnings of the type of discourse and knowledge-power relationship he terms “Orientalism.”[31] Interestingly, for someone as interested in imperialism as Said, he neglects to mention the fact that Aeschylus came of age during the age of Graeco-Persian wars, when Greece experienced several major Persian invasions.[32]

Commenting on Said’s coverage of the history of Orientalism, Varisco argues, not unpersuasively, that, “The historical record of what Said labels ‘Orientalism’ was certainly not set straight in Orientalism by established historiographic measures. Said’s selective, idiosyncratic, and polemical contextualization of Orientalist discourse distorts individuals, institutions, and events. Said wrote back in fury, a scorched-earth form of literary criticism. There is a need to shift through the ashes. Fortunately, many of the errant saw the light, despite the rhetorical damage.”[33] Further, Varisco states, “A major reason I want to return to Orientalism is the importance of placing what Said labeled ‘Orientalism’ in a more soundly recovered historical context…Said’s amateurish and ahistorical essentializing of an Orientalism-as-textualized discourse from Aeschylus to Bernard Lewis has polemical force, but only at the expense of methodological precision and rhetorical consistency.”[34]

Throughout Orientalism, one encounters places where Said overreaches or over-generalizes. For example, consider his claim that, “Orientalism overrode the Orient. As a system of thought about the Orient, it always (emphasis mine) rose from the specifically human detail to the general transhuman one; an observation about a tenth-century Arab poet multiplied itself into a policy towards (and about) the Oriental mentality in Egypt, Iraq, or Arabia.”[35] Although it is possible and even probable that some specialists in classical Arabic poetry were also involved in British and French colonial regimes, are we really to believe that this was always the case? If so, how does Said know? He does not discuss how he reached this absolute conclusion. Ignaz Goldziher is one example of a major Orientalist, arguably the most prominent of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who opposed European imperialism and meddling in the Middle East.[36]

Said goes on, “Orientalism assumed an unchanging Orient, absolutely different (the reasons change from epoch to epoch) from the West.”[37] He later elaborates further, “The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire.”[38] Here, Said explains why his definition of “Orientalist” is so broad, including not only actual scholars but painters, playwrights, philosophers, and musicians. This wide-net approach toward defining who is an “Orientalist” has been widely criticized and critiqued. Irwin writes:

I am hostile to the notion that Orientalism can be viewed primarily as a canon of literary and other artistic masterpieces, mostly composed by dead, white males. The products of mainstream Orientalism were less colorful and less fluent than that. Orientalism in its most important aspect was founded upon academic drudgery and close attention to philological detail. I do not believe that the novelist Flaubert and the Arabist and Islamicist Sir Hamilton Gibb were really contributing to essentially the same discourse or were victims of it.[39]

Despite problems with Irwin’s all-too anecdotal defense of Orientalism and criticism of Said, he raises some intriguing points that I believe bear further discussion. Irwin is certainly not alone in questioning Said’s rather scattered and hodge-podge assortment of examples and evidence to support his definition and reading of Orientalism as a discourse indelibly tied to power structures.

Dabashi laments:

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate misreadings of Edward Said’s Orientalism, not only beyond Edward Said’s control but in fact he inadvertently contributed to it, is its having been turned into an ad hominem attack on Orientalists as such. This misreading, at least in part, is due to a series of public confrontations between Edward Said and Bernard Lewis, who took upon himself the task of defending the Orientalists, prompting Edward Said in turn to engage with Bernard Lewis personally—beyond his cogent references to his work in the pages of Orientalism.


Said justifiably responded to Bernard Lewis and thus inevitably helped in detracting from the more serious discussion of his own work.[40]

Irwin argues, unconvincingly, that, “Anybody who wishes to determine Lewis’s merits as an Orientalist has to engage with [The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Lewis’ study originally published in 1961] and other works of the 1960s. It is not sufficient to pillory him only on the basis of later essays and pieces d’occasion.”[41] Here, Irwin misses the point. Said was not questioning Lewis’ pedigree or “merits” as an Orientalist, rather, he was criticizing what he wrote as an Orientalist in the Saidian sense. It should be said that some of Said’s allegations ask a lot of the reader, such as his stretched analysis of Lewis’ discussion of the term thawra in Arabic discourse.[42]

Likewise, Varisco notes that it is a “common misconception” that Said’s target in Orientalism was “old-fashioned academic Orientalists.” Rather, Varisco argues, “Orientalists, in that broad Saidian sense that includes virtually anyone who studies the Orient, became a necessary audience and have remained so to this day.” Further, “…the most virulent critics of Said have not been students of Oriental history and languages—the ubiquitous Lewis nonwithstanding—but political scientists and protagonists in present-day Arab Israeli politics.” Were he to write an updated version of his critique, Varisco could very include Irwin, an old school British Orientalist, with Lewis and a host of conservative pundits and journalists, such as Jonah Goldberg[43] and David Pryce-Jones[44] to the list of Said’s most virulent critics.

Quite late in Orientalism, Said describes two forms of Orientalism, “Latent” and “Manifest.” Latent Orientalism is defined as, “an almost unconscious (and certainly an untouchable) positivity,” and Manifest Orientalism as, “…the varied stated views about Oriental society, languages, literatures, history, sociology, and so forth…”[45] One wonders how varied the views referred to by Said really are, and whether they should be all lumped together as a single hegemonic discourse. Unfortunately, in this section, Said uses his very few examples, relying on the same ones again and again (Lane, Sacy, Flaubert), and thus it is not possible for the reader to substantively evaluate his overarching, and possibly over-reaching, claims.

Said sees social science, the application of science to the Orient first, rather than mastery of its languages, as the “specifically American contribution to the history of Orientalism.”[46] He alleges that such an approach lacks philology and does not focus on literature, noting that the study of Oriental languages became a policy initiative during the Cold War.[47] Varisco sees Said’s style as ultimately confused: “Much of Said’s polemic is navi-negating, passing by but never really landing squarely in specific disciplines other than his own. When does the novelty of violating disciplinary borders, challenging authorial intentions and discursive regimes and producing a profound uncertainty about all methodological rules wear off?” Varisco also wonders why Orientalism, for all its criticisms, does not propose any substantive remedies to the questions and problems it raises.[48] He finishes, “One of the more consistent critical refrains about Orientalism is that its author is frequently inconsistent, both in theory and execution. One of the major inconsistencies is Said’s ambiguous fence-straddling between old-style humanism and post-structuralist criticism.”[49]

Said summarizes his critique of Orientalism thus: “My objection to what I have called Orientalism is not that it is just the antiquarian study of Oriental languages, societies, and

Edward W. Said

peoples, but that as a system of thought Orientalism approaches a heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex human reality from an uncritically essentialist standpoint; this suggests both an enduring Oriental reality and an opposing, but no less enduring Western essence, which observes the Orient from afar and from, so speak, above.” Finally, he argues that Orientalism is tied to the “general imperial context,” which begins its modern phase (my description) with Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt.[50]

Conclusion: Orientalism in the Eyes of Two of its Critics

Irwin takes by far the more virulently critical view of Orientalism, describing Saidian Orientalism as, “the hegemonic discourse of imperialism, [it] is a discourse that constrains everything that can be written and thought about the Orient and more particularly about Islam and the Arabs. It has legitimized Western penetration of the Arab lands and their appropriation and it underwrites the Zionist project…Characteristically Orientalism is essentialist, racist, patronizing, and ideologically motivated.”[51] Irwin questions the argument that Orientalism, despite its flaws, “deserves praise and attention because of the subsequent debate and research it has provoked…The distortion of the subject matter of Orientalism is so fundamentally that to accept its broad framework as something to work with and then correct would be merely to waste one’s time.”[52] In conclusion, he says bluntly, “[Orientalism] seems to me to be a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations.”[53]

Varisco, as mentioned previously, has written a nuanced and even sympathetic critique of Said’s masterwork, one which should be widely read. “The ‘Orient’ as framed in Orientalism is indeed imaginary; but so is the very Occidental (and certainly not accidental) frame that Said reduces to Oriental discourse,”[54] he says, going on to acknowledge the validity, with a caveat, of one of Said’s central points. “The mantra that defines [Said] is the speaking of truth to power. It would be absurd today to deny the pervasiveness of discursive power and ideology, particularly in Western representations of an assumed Orient. The problem, as I will argue, is that Edward Said often saw this process as unidirectional.” Unlike Irwin, Varisco’s critique is not an attempt to fully dismantle Orientalism: “…many critics seek to ‘strengthen’ rather than ‘jettison’ what Said has done. I count myself among this group.” [55] He is harshly critical of Kramer’s crude, politically-driven assault on not only Orientalism, but Said as a person and all of his scholarship.[56]

Rather than focus on Said the man, Varisco proposes that to really critique Orientalism, focus must be placed solely on the book and not the man who produced it.[57] “I offer my critique as a corrective to the factual errors and polemical airs of Orientalism, not as a defense of Orientalism [as Irwin’s book is] in any of the demonstrative was it—whatever it was or is—played a discursive role in the sins of Western history.”[58] Identifying the problems with past criticisms of the book, he argues, “Negative critics tend to read it contrapuntally, focusing on what is excluded and not directly articulated in this history of Orientalist discourse [this is certainly Irwin’s approach]. The most positive readings tend to expand Said’s tentative ideas to gospel truisms that serve as rallying cries for all sorts of writing back at the establishment.”[59] Quoting Said has become second nature to some, with little critical engagement with his ideas.[60]

A further major, and somewhat ironic, problem is that Orientalism often is not read completely, including the end notes and referencing Said’s sources, which Varisco did in preparing his own critique. “Consider the irony,” he writes, “that one of the paramount examples of twentieth century literary criticism is so rarely read as a whole text.”[61]

[1] Daniel Martin Varisco, Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007), 15.

[2] Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001).

[3] Hamid Dabashi, “Introduction: Ignaz Goldziher and the Question Concerning Orientalism,” in Ignaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies: Volume 1, ed. S.M. Stern and translated by C.R. Barber and S.M. Stern (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006), lxxiii.

[4] Edward W. Said, Orientalism: 25th Anniversary Edition, (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 330-331.

[5] Ibid, 204.

[6] Bernard Lewis, “The Question of Orientalism,” The New York Review of Books, 24 June 1982; Edward W. Said, Oleg Grabar, and Bernard Lewis, “Orientalism: An Exchange,” The New York Review of Books, 12 August 1982.

[7] Lawrence Rosen, “Orientalism Revisited: Edward Said’s Unfinished Critique,” Boston Review, January-February 2007. Accessed at:

[8] Said, 1.

[9] Ibid, 2.

[10] Ibid, 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 41.

[13] Ibid, 43.

[14] Ibid, 74-75.

[15] Ibid, 36-38.

[16] Ibid, 14-15.

[17] Ibid, 5.

[18] Ibid, 17.

[19] Ibid, 19.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, 331.

[22] Robert Irwin, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents (New York: The Overlook Press, 2006), 286-287. See pages 150-157, 185-188, and 197-199 for an overview of the history and Irwin’s arguments for the central importance of German Orientalism.

[23] Said, Orientalism, 246.

[24] Ibid, 296.

[25] Irwin, 229.

[26] Ibid, 287.

[27] Said, Orientalism, 80-87.

[28] Ibid, 87.

[29] Irwin, 3. Irwin argues, “My own view, which I shall be setting out in more detail in the course of this book, is that there was nobody one could consider to be a serious Orientalist prior to Guillaume Postel (c. 1510-1581), and that Orientalism either begins in the sixteenth century with him or, if not quite so early, then no later than the early seventeenth century, when Jacob Golius (1596-1667) and Edward Pococke (1604-91), as well as other not quite so learned or industrious figures, published their ground-breaking researches. However, I shall briefly discuss what might be mistakenly interpreted as evidence of early Orientalism in antiquity and the Middle Ages, before rushing on to the seventeenth and later centuries.” See Irwin, 6-7.

[30] Said, Orientalism, 76.

[31] Ibid, 21.

[32] See Irwin 11-12 for useful historical background on Aeschylus and his personal experiences during the Graeco-Persian wars.

[33] Varisco, 8.

[34] Ibid, 22.

[35] Said, Orientalism, 96.

[36] Irwin, 191-196, and Dabashi in Goldziher, lix-lx & lxii.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid, 204.

[39] Irwin, 8.

[40] Dabashi in Goldziher, li.

[41] Irwin, 260.

[42] Said, Orientalism, 314-315.

[43] Jonah Goldberg, “Occidental Tourist: Travels in a Lost Argument,” National Review Online, 4 February 2002. Accessed at:

[44] See Pryce-Jones’ fawning “review” of Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), “Enough Said,” The New Criterion, January 2008. Accessed at: Warraq, who claims to be a former Muslim, has made a career out pandering to American conservatives and Islamaphobes by mass producing screeds about the “real Islam” and “edited” volumes of other people’s writings.

[45] Said, Orientalism, 206.

[46] Ibid, 290-291.

[47] Ibid, 292-293.

[48] Varisco, 15.

[49] Ibid

[50] Said, Orientalism, 333.

[51] Irwin, 3.

[52] Ibid, 4.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Varisco, xii.

[55] Ibid, xiii.

[56] Ibid, xiii-xv.

[57] Ibid, xvi.

[58] Ibid, 6.

[59] Ibid, 7.

[60] Ibid, 10-11.

[61] Ibid, 15.