Beneath Edward Said’s Confused Condemnations of Western Scholarship Lay His Own Insecurities

An urbane and sophisticated Ivy League professor of English literature, specializing in the work of Joseph Conrad, Edward Said was also the author of a gun-toting Yasir Arafat’s first speech at the UN, praising terrorism and condemning “Zionist racists and colonialists.” Said later broke with Arafat because he felt the latter made too many concessions at Oslo. But Said is best known for his 1978 book Orientalism—one of the most influential works in the humanities of the last half-century—which argues that all Western scholarship about the Middle East or Islam is fundamentally untrustworthy, and itself an exercise in imperialism. Sameer Rahim, reviewing a new biography of Said, explores his contradictions:

Towards the end of his life, [Said] elevated “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction” into a credo—these words serve as the epigraph to Timothy Brennan’s new biography, Places of Mind. But Said’s intransigence was not always admirable, and his contradictions often mere confusion. He veered from trashing European scholars of the orient to venerating their achievements; from defending Islam against Western calumnies to condemning fundamentalists who had learned his lessons all too well. Finally, he returned to Western high culture after making his name labeling it as complicit with colonialism.

References to Islam and the Arab world began to appear in his literary criticism, though they were hardly complimentary. In 1975’s Beginnings, he argued that Arab novelists were parasitic on European models. . . . It is impossible to understand the conflicted, uneven, and sometimes misleading nature of Orientalism without first recognizing Said’s secret fear that critical portrayals of Arabs by Europeans might have a point. Partly this was ignorance. He seemed uninterested in those eastern thinkers—not all Arabs or Muslims—who had influenced the West’s orientalists, argued with them or absorbed their insights. Famously, there is very little Arabic actually quoted in Orientalism.

Illustrative of Said’s intellectual shortcomings is an analysis of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, on which Rahim comments:

When the heroine Fanny Price asks her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, who owns Antigua plantations, about slavery she reports there “was such a dead silence!” From this Said extrapolates the novel’s “affiliations with a sordid history”—the slippery term “affiliations” does a lot of work here—arguing that Mansfield Park “opens up a broad expanse of domestic imperialist culture without which Britain’s subsequent acquisition of territory would not have been possible.” No Austen, no British Empire.

Said, however, burdens the author with both too much responsibility—the empire would likely have rumbled on without Austen to grease its ideological wheels—and too little credit. Fanny boldly raises the issue with her uncle because she sees parallels between her own situation as a poor relation and that of his slaves. Sir Thomas’s “dead silence,” as well as that of his complacent family, shows up their moral blankness, not the author’s.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Prospect

More about: Arab World, Edward Said, Yasir Arafat

The End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Rise of the Arab-Israeli Coalition

Nov. 30 2022

After analyzing the struggle between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors since 1949, Dan Schueftan explains the current geopolitical alignment and what it means for Jerusalem:

Using an outdated vocabulary of Middle Eastern affairs, recent relations between Israel and most Arab states are often discussed in terms of peace and normalization. What is happening recently is far more significant than the willingness to live together and overshadow old grievances and animosities. It is about strategic interdependence with a senior Israeli partner. The historic all-Arab coalition against Israel has been replaced by a de-facto Arab-Israeli coalition against the radical forces that threaten them both. Iran is the immediate and outstanding among those radicals, but Erdogan’s Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria—and, in a different way, its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood—are not very far behind.

For Israel, the result of these new alignments is a transformational change in its regional standing, as well as a major upgrade of its position on the global stage. In the Middle East, Israel can, for the first time, act as a full-fledged regional power. . . . On the international scene, global powers and other states no longer have to weigh the advantages of cooperation with Israel against its prohibitive costs in “the Arab World. . . . By far the most significant effect of this transformation is on the American strategic calculus of its relations with Israel.

In some important ways, then, the “New Middle East” has arrived. Not, of course, in the surreal Shimon Peres vision of regional democracy, peace, and prosperity, but in terms of a balance of power and hard strategic realities that can guardrail a somewhat less unstable and dangerous region, where the radicals are isolated and the others cooperate to keep them at bay.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Tablet

More about: Abraham Accords, Israel-Arab relations, Middle East, Shimon Peres, U.S.-Israel relationship