Arab and Islamic scholarship is dying in the west. Edward Said must share the blameby Robert Irwin / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
How do we know what we think we know about Islam and the Arabs? Movies and novels have long been a rich source of misinformation and eloquent prejudice. Novels like Eric Ambler’s The Levanter, Frederick Forsyth’s The Key to Rebecca and Daniel Easterman’s The Last Assassin, as well as films like Cast a Giant Shadow, Jewel of the Nile and Operation Condor have fed on and refuelled such prejudice. Arabs and Muslims commonly feature as terrorists, religious fanatics, drug dealers, pimps and so on. In the course of the last 50 years or so they have replaced the Nazis as hand-me-down villains. Films in which Arab points of view are realistically and sympathetically presented, such as David O Russell’s political action film Three Kings (1999), set in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf war, are hard to find.
The presentation of Islam by Muslim apologists, on the other hand, has little appeal for non-believers. In the 19th century, a significant sector of the British public read sermons for pleasure. Today’s readers have lost this taste. In any case, Muslim apologists tend to present current Islamic practice and past history as more perfect than would seem plausible to an outsider. Besides there are too many competing accounts of Islam in print—Wahhabi, Deobandi, Barelwi, Ahmadi, Sufi, liberal. As for journalism, its coverage of the middle east is crisis-driven, providing only a restricted context to the latest terrorist atrocity or rigged election. The longue durée of the middle east has been elided.
Orientalist writings, in the sense of books and articles written by academics specialising in Arab and Islamic studies, currently play a negligible part in informing and shaping public opinion. Orientalism is now a pejorative word and its practitioners have become losers in the politics of knowledge. Arabic studies has lost prestige and the resources devoted to it keep diminishing. In a debate in the House of Lords on 24th March 2004, several peers expr…