The Many Deceits of Edward Said

July 11, 2019 | William D. Rubinstein
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Few thinkers have had so enormous an impact on the humanities as Edward Said, an English professor whose 1978 book Orientalism argued that all Western scholarship of the Middle East—indeed, all European writing about the Islamic world—was inherently suspect, reflecting only stereotypes and fantasies. Accompanying this argument was vituperation against Israel, to which Said dedicated much of his subsequent public life, inspiring multiple generations of academic Israel-haters. William D. Rubinstein examines Said’s distortions and tortured logic:

[I]n films and popular culture, every identifiable group is depicted initially in stereotypical terms: upper-class Englishmen are depicted as plummy-voiced toffs, American army sergeants as martinets, Australians as beer-swilling ockers from the outback. So what? But Said presents only the most negative views of the Islamic world as representative of its depiction in the mainstream West, ignoring any more positive views.

[For instance], the academic and scholarly “orientalists” who wrote about the Islamic world between about 1750 and 1940 were seldom hostile to Islam or to Muslim culture; quite the opposite. Typical was Gottlieb Leitner (1840–99), born in Budapest to Jewish parents who became Protestants. Leitner lived in India and was a renowned linguist. . . . In 1889 he published a pamphlet, Muhammedism, which defended Islam against its critics, and, in the same year, established the Woking Mosque in Surrey, the first mosque in Britain.

Dozens of other scholars and anthropologists throughout the West, normally termed “orientalists,” were highly sympathetic to Islam and its culture. These scholars were ignored in Said’s works, as were modern scholars who studied the politics, economy, and religious culture of the Islamic world in a serious way.

It appears that Said became an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause and, by extension, of the Islamic world, following the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the Arabs. At the time, Israel enjoyed the virtually unanimous support of the Western world’s left intelligentsia. . . . Said effectively—and, it seems, deliberately—provided scholarly backing for the reverse of this former consensus, and for whitewashing the culture and lifestyles of the Islamic world.

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