The decades-long feud between Edward Said and Bernard Lewis runs to the heart of dilemmas over Iran, Iraq and the Arab Springby Ali Ansari / July 18, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
An anti-Assad demonstration in the Syrian town of Tamanaa. How should the west respond to turmoil in the Middle East?
The onset of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, coming swiftly after the “Persian summer” of 2009, has spread over much of the Middle East, destabilising the political fabric of the region and challenging a range of policy assumptions. People across the region have risen against their governments, yearning for the sort of civil rights and human dignity that most in the west take for granted.
For some, this is the region’s democratic moment and the west needs to do more than simply cheer from the sidelines. Others have questioned whether the west should contemplate intervention at all, whether we are facing a moment of revolutionary transition to democracy, and moreover whether such “western” values have any resonance in the Islamic world. Is there a moral imperative to intervene or does experience dictate the necessity of detachment? Above all, does the calamity of Iraq not prove that western intervention, however well intentioned, is doomed to fail through mutual incomprehension?
These questions are at the heart of a decades-old clash of ideas about how the west should approach the Middle East that was given new force by 9/11, and even more by the events of the past year. The intellectual figurehead of one side of the debate has been Bernard Lewis, the historian of the Middle East, who in his work has adopted the role of interpreter of the east for western audiences. Through his work runs the traditional scholarly view that dispassionate academic study can yield a critical understanding of its subject. Yet both Lewis and his approach came to be challenged, in often bitter personal attacks, by Edward Said, the Palestinian-American critic and activist, who rejected the notion that the west can ever truly understand the Middle East.
This clash of ideas, and the more than quarter-century public quarrel between the two men, is illuminated both by the posthumous republication this month of Said’s Reflections on Exile, and Beginnings: Intention and Method, and by the recent publication of Lewis’s memoir Notes on a Century. The debate has not only dominated decades of work in academia, but has shaped how policymakers approach the unsettled questions of a turbulent region. Both men contributed enormously to the debate, but both became polarised by an increasingly bitter intellectual encounter that has been in no small measure fuelled by their partisan supporters. Consequently their arguments have often shed more heat than light on what must be one of the most critical issues of our time, with immediate policy implications.
Lewis, who is 96, has come to be identified with the traditional pillar of this argument. Educated at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Lewis was the product of a rigorously empirical training in history, where “facts,” in a dispassionate sense, mattered. Your thesis was determined by the evidence you analysed. The notion that the historian might approach his evidence encumbered by cultural prejudices was not one that would have then been accepted, not least because it undermined the professional integrity of the scholar.
It was precisely this approach, increasingly popular in the post-war social sciences, that Edward Said, a Professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, applied to the field of oriental studies with the publication of his book Orientalism in 1978. Lewis was castigated not only for being apparently unaware of his own cultural prejudices but for constructing a monolithic image of Islam and the Arab world that encouraged misguided, reductive and overwhelmingly negative generalisations.
Lewis was unsurprisingly unhappy about this ad hominem attack, and he devotes a whole chapter of Notes on a Century to the controversy. He describes Said’s book as an attempt to cast the academic study of the east “as part of the imperialist domination and exploitation of the Islamic world by the west.” In particular, writes Lewis, “[Said] imputed to me an especially sinister role as what he called the leader of the Orientalists.” When it first appeared, Said’s critique touched a raw nerve, in part because some of what he said rang true. But others were critical of his personal attacks, and of what were rightly seen as errors in detail skirted over with generalisations that sought to undermine fatally an entire field of study.
With an uncompromising clarity, Said articulated what amounted to a total, structural critique of “orientalism” as a field of intellectual endeavour. As Said put it, “My contention is that without examining orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.” Although Said would extend his argument to encompass all western encounters with the east, his principal focus remained the modern “post-Enlightenment” era. As such, Said’s arguments operated within a wider postmodern critical framework, acquiring an interpretative apparatus that often sought meaning where none existed, and developing a highly relativistic approach towards cultures that precluded any sort of judgement.
Said charged European intellectuals with constructing a fictional image of the east founded on prejudice and colonial imperatives, which rarely had anything to do with the reality on the ground. Preconceptions of oriental despotism, decadence and stagnation all justified the colonial endeavour, and were summed up by depictions of the sexual licentiousness of the Harem, a part of the household which was by definition off limits to any outsider, but that was nonetheless “sexed up” in order to satiate the prejudices of the west. The natives, argued Said, were never consulted, they were depicted; if such was their lot, they had to be liberated. As noted in the epigraph to Orientalism, taken from Marx, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”
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The argument was not new, but the scope of Said’s project was. For those in his sights, the assault proved both unnerving and destabilising, as their life’s work was suddenly pronounced not simply worthless but malign. It was the general and total application of Said’s critique that truly irked those in the firing line—the suggestion that academics, by virtue of operating within a culturally defined vocabulary, were structurally inclined to participate in a colonial project they themselves, as individuals, might have objected to. The critique suggested that not only were western intellectuals culturally inhibited from fully comprehending the east, but that the native people themselves existed outside the interpretation of the east and were simply manipulated by it.
To many, Said’s arguments were irresistible. Those on the left of the political spectrum quickly adopted the Saidian ethos. But, more unexpectedly, it was a surprise hit on campuses in the United States, where academics were eager to supplant the political and intellectual monopoly on the Middle East that the Europeans had long held. For young scholars, particularly those in the social sciences, Orientalism offered an apparent solution to the problem of how to understand relations between east and west. Indeed it is remarkable how Said’s critique and method has come to dominate the field of Middle Eastern studies in the US to a far greater degree than in Europe, where his arguments continue to be debated but have not achieved the iconic status of an orthodoxy.
Said’s argument became all the more influential as the debate moved from the academy towards policy. His critique had become relevant to contemporary politics, not least because of his attacks on Lewis. This was not an obscure disagreement amongst historians but a debate with immediate ramifications, and the most obvious consequence was on the aspect of Middle Eastern policy that most affected the political allegiances of the individuals involved: the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the representation of the Palestinians in particular. The Palestinians came to epitomise Said’s projection of the disempowered oriental. Israel by extension was the colonial power par excellence. The inadvertent consequence of this development was that far from scholarship informing politics, scholarship itself became political.
It was ultimately this transition from methodological critique to ideological orthodoxy that was to undermine Orientalism in the eyes of many scholars, who regarded the zeal of Said’s disciples with some dismay. The totality of Said’s vision resulted in the peremptory dismissal of whole generations of academic work. Moreover, Said committed the ultimate sin of playing the man and not the ball. Ad hominem attacks had existed in European academia, but they were rarely as pervasive or as pointed as in the US.
Said’s critics argued that Orientalism was simply too broad brush to be of any meaningful use. It lacked scholarly precision. Lewis, in Notes on a Century, is unequivocal: the thesis is “just plain wrong.” There can be no conjuncture between imperialism and orientalism because the latter preceded the former by several centuries. Said was after all a professor of comparative literature with a less-than-rigorous approach to historical facts. (Said characteristically dismissed these criticisms as irrelevant.) Most importantly, says Lewis, his opponent failed to offer a satisfactory solution to the problem of cross-cultural interpretation. If Lewis and the orientalists had looked at the east in the wrong way, how should academics in the west approach the subject? Said had no positive answer.
To further muddy the waters, the paradox of Said’s own position was soon pointed out by a growing cohort of critics. A Palestinian-American educated in Christian schools in Jerusalem and Cairo, before heading for the US where he secured a place in Princeton and received his PhD from Harvard, Said was clearly the product of a thoroughly western education. Was he, by virtue of his birth, better able to comprehend the east than those from the west who had devoted a lifetime to studying and in some cases living in the region?
Perhaps most damningly, in my view, in reducing the native peoples of the orient to hapless victims of western manipulation, Said had not only stripped them of responsibility but of power over themselves. Orientalism was a valuable contribution to the debate over understanding the Middle East, but as an ideology it disempowered the very people it sought to empower. Ironically, Said’s argument ended up committing the same sin he had laid at the door of the orientalists.
A good example of the complexity of the debate on orientalism is provided by Edward Granville Browne, Professor of Arabic at Cambridge in the late-19th and early-20th century, whose passion for the east and for the Iranians in particular (despite his title his main interest lay in Persian) drew him increasingly into imperial politics. Curiously, Browne, unlike the British statesman Lord Curzon, barely gets a mention in Orientalism. Yet Browne was exactly the sort of orientalist that critics of Said point to in their rejoinders. Turning from medicine to oriental languages, Browne had first developed an interest in Ottoman Turkish before moving on to Persian. In stark contrast to the “orientalist” depicted in Said’s book, Browne’s interests were motivated by what the scholar and novelist Robert Irwin has described as a “lust” for knowledge about the orient.
Indeed, if Browne did have a political interest, it was certainly not in the service of empire as traditionally understood, but in the service of the Enlightenment. Both Curzon and Browne shared a passion for Persia, but if Curzon’s was dictated largely by geopolitical interest and an antipathy towards autocratic Russia (the real “clash of civilisations” in Curzon’s view), Browne was driven by a belief in an “Iranian awakening,” which had led to a constitutional revolution in 1906.
As with the Arab Spring, debates raged over whether to support the revolution, and if so, how? Browne lobbied relentlessly for British government support in order to prevent Russia undermining the movement and was bitterly disappointed when it did not materialise, as were many Iranian constitutionalists who had pleaded with the “Mother of Parliaments” to come to their aid. Curzon, who was not in government at the time, likewise was keen to secure support, not least because he felt the Russians would increase their influence by ruthlessly supporting the autocracy of the Shah. He too was critical of the British government’s failure to act but was less impassioned than Browne, who drew criticism from some in government for his misplaced romanticism. Revealingly, the British decision not to intervene in favour of the constitutionalists and instead reach an arrangement with Russia was regarded as a betrayal and, in its own way, an act of intervention in favour of autocracy.
Today, Browne far more than Curzon might be castigated as an orientalist, actively engaging in politics and all too eager to secure intervention in the Middle East on the basis of a lively and idealised conception of the orient, which was not altogether flattering to those he disliked. For example, Browne’s racism towards the “Turks” would have placed him squarely within Said’s sights. Yet he showed a belief in indigenous change and the universality of ideals inspired by the Enlightenment that would likewise have put him at odds with anyBernard Lewis-style belief in a “clash of civilisations.” It was in no small measure Browne’s healthy sense of idealism that has resulted in him being the only Englishman to still have a street named after him in Tehran.
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Taken as a critique of scholarly method, Said’s analysis remains an important contribution to the debate. As a world view and ideological doctrine it has proved less effective. Said himself was acutely aware that his more zealous disciples were using his ideas as a convenient stick to beat the imperialist west while depriving local regimes of any responsibility for the crimes they were quite clearly committing against their own people. Yet Said refused to resort to this approach, arguing in a 1985 essay entitled “Orientalism reconsidered” (and republished in Reflections on Exile): “You do not respond… to the tyrannical conjuncture of colonial power with scholarly orientalism simply by proposing an alliance between nativist sentiment buttressed by some variety of native ideology to combat them. This, for example, has been the trap into which many Third World and anti-imperialist activists fell in supporting the Iranian and Palestinian struggles, and who found themselves with either nothing to say about the abominations of Khomeini’s regime or resorting, in the Palestinian case, to the time worn clichés of revolutionism and rejectionary armed-strugglism…”
If Said was guilty of generalisations and of riding roughshod over historical context, it would nonetheless be too easy to dismiss his critique as a fad that, as Lewis suggests in his memoir, we must all sooner or later grow out of. The questions Said raised about the challenges in understanding foreign cultures are more relevant than ever. Since 9/11 and the subsequent western intervention in the Middle East, their academic dispute has decisively entered the public domain, particularly with increased media coverage of the Middle East and the demand for scholars to “explain” the region and Islam.
After 9/11 Lewis, increasingly described as “the greatest living historian of the Middle East,” found himself feted and in considerable demand. He did not disappoint. Indeed, if Said was quick to dismiss the excesses of his disciples, Lewis was all too easily seduced by the flattery of his. His sanguine assessment of Iraqi power having been proved correct in 1991, Lewis later found himself regularly invited to the White House and in the company of Dick Cheney, the vice president. Lewis’s memoirs are regrettably light on the details of these encounters that a reader might find interesting. He does suggest, however, that Cheney has been much maligned, and his own influence on the vice president much exaggerated. Lewis’s protestations that he had no direct hand in policy making must be true; academics from Browne onwards have rarely enjoyed a direct impact on political affairs. But where he is more vulnerable is in his enthusiastic adoption of the idea of a “clash of civilisations,” an idea for which Lewis is not shy of claiming full authorship. It is undoubtedly in this area that Lewis has inadvertedly lived up to the caricature that Said had created for him, with his public pronouncements on Middle Eastern politics in the last decade leaving him open to the charge of being an intellectual tool for imperial domination.
The most notorious example of this tendency was displayed in an ill-judged opinion piece on Iran for an American newspaper in 2006. In his memoirs, Lewis reveals that his priority has always been Iran, not Iraq (and that he had in fact opposed the 2003 invasion). This expertise encouraged him to pronounce in the Wall Street Journal, on the basis of his knowledge of Islam, that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s abrupt decision to respond to the latest EU offer on Iran’s nuclear programme on the 22nd August rather than the 31st was loaded with meaning, since the new date coincided in the Muslim calendar with the commemoration of the night flight of the prophet Muhammad to heaven. Lewis, in a bout of textual over-interpretation more common to followers of Said, argued that this date suggested that Ahmadinejad had a nuclear surprise up his sleeve, before venturing that “it might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary the world.” Lewis reassured his readers that “It is far from certain that Mr Ahmadinejad plans such cataclysmic events precisely for August 22nd. But it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind.” The 22nd August was the beginning of the Iranian calendar month.
It is particularly ironic that in lending credence to the idea of an apocalyptic network centred on Iran, a view that has proved highly influential in US policy circles, Lewis mirrors the worst excesses of Said’s disciples who find the malignant influence of “imperialism” everywhere—excusing the excesses of their own side by exaggerating the malevolence of the other. The reality is, of course, always more complicated. As Said was only too aware, a good critique does not necessarily translate into a good doctrine. Orientalism is not a law; it is a critique. It should challenge consensus, not serve to construct one.
From Persian summer through to Arab Spring, autocratic regimes seek to suppress the voices of their own people. The west is not innocent when it comes to the politics of the Middle East, but neither is it the mother of all evil. We would do well to bear in mind that in seeking civil and political rights, and above all human dignity in the face of the growing power of the state, the people of the Middle East are in great measure inspired by the ideas that were first defined by the European Enlightenment; a movement that did not consider itself inherently “western,” but universal. All men were after all created equal.
Perhaps the real problem with the debate over orientalism is not how we have imagined the east but how we have understood the west, a point neither Said nor Lewis addressed. The popular uprisings in the Arab world and Iran have little to do with either western imperialism or a clash of civilisations—an increasingly arcane argument of little relevance to those on the ground. They aspired instead to achieve the universal ideals given definition in the Enlightenment. Recognise that and we may finally allow the people of the orient to represent themselves.