Culture

Wrong from First to Last

Ibn Warraq is an apostate and a convert—an apostate from Islam and a convert to the glories of Western civilisation. As an apostate from “the religion of peace”, naturally he uses a pseudonym. Ibn Warraq displays the enthusiasm of the convert, but it is an informed and thoughtful enthusiasm. His Defending the West is another demolition of Edward Said’s meretricious and tendentious Orientalism.

Said’s book is clearly so full of errors, misrepresentations, and sins of omission and commission, that criticising it is like shooting fish in a barrel. Indeed, there is something of an intellectual cottage industry in demolishing Said. I particularly liked the comment from journalist and Muslim convert Stephen Schwartz:

“Said’s Orientalism, a ridiculous imposture from its first page to its last, is now a standard text in Anglo-American universities, but reads like the product of a rather dense college student who has just discovered Marxism; there can be no more telling condemnation of the present state of the American academy than the ascendancy of Said.”

But, as Douglas Irwin (himself the author of a splendid demolition of Said, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies,2006) has written, reviewing Ibn Warraq’s book along with another demolition of Said:

“So many academics want the arguments presented in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) to be true. It encourages the reading of novels at an oblique angle in order to discover hidden colonialist subtexts. It promotes a hypercritical version of British and, more generally, of Western achievements. It discourages any kind of critical approach to Islam in Middle Eastern studies. Above all, Orientalism licenses those academics who are so minded to think of their research and teaching as political activities. The drudgery of teaching is thus transformed into something much more exciting, namely ‘speaking truth to power’.”

Except, of course, what they are actually doing is preening to each other. One of the particularly enjoyable bits in Defending the West is Ibn Warraq’s critique of the Said disciple Linda Nocklin, who displays the smug, sneering condescension which is so commonly the modern academic style and is so part of the appeal of Said’s Orientalism.

One of the operating premises of “postcolonial theory”, following Said, is the deeply stupid idea that there is something profoundly and systematically different in how Europeans have treated non-Europeans compared to how they have treated each other. Europeans were as violent, oppressive and imperialistic against each other as they were against non-Europeans.

Just as there were also Europeans who denounced such behaviour against non-Europeans—from Catholic priests speaking up for the Amerindians, Dr Johnson offering a toast to the success of the next slave revolt in the Caribbean or regretting hearing of new exploration achievements as likely to lead to conquest and plunder, Edmund Burke spending years prosecuting Warren Hastings for oppressing Indians, to Roger Casement denouncing Leopold II’s pillaging of the Congo.

Nor is the claim any more sensible in the realm of ideas. Indeed, the conjunction of racial thinking with very local European anti-Semitism was a key step in creating modern racism, whose most vile crime is the thoroughly within-Europe Holocaust.

A similarly deeply stupid idea is that imperialism was, in some sense, a uniquely European perversion or malignancy, requiring special vices or motives. Imperialism is just what rulership has done (when it can), starting from the very beginning of rulership. Since income was extracted from sedentary peasants and trade, the more peasants and trade nodes one controlled, the higher one’s income and the greater one’s power—hence the ubiquity of imperialism in human civilisations. Modern welfare states colonising their own societies, rather than engaging in territorial expansion, is a new version of age-old incentives. (And has its own moral failures: most shamefully in indigenous policy over the last forty years.)

What is striking about Western civilisation is not imperialism, but the extent of the denouncing of it—as the very notion that special motivations were somehow needed reflects. And the most striking thing about Western imperialism—apart from the extent it achieved—is how comparatively limited were the resources devoted to extra-European conquest: for the European powers were usually primarily worried about each other.

Given the penchant in much of contemporary academe for defining oneself against the surrounding society, Orientalism’s popularity has been greatly boosted by how it flatters such prejudices. After all, if one defines oneself against one’s own society, criticism of said society is most definitely not self-criticism. On the contrary, it buttresses one’s sense of being a member of a moral and intellectual elite. Which encourages all sorts of intellectual pathologies, pathologies Ibn Warraq is clearly pained by and wishes to oppose.

Part 1 of Defending the West is an extended essay on Said and his disciples, “the Saidists”. This is an essay Ibn Warraq had previously published, and somewhat regrets the tone of, but has kept unaltered for historical reasons. He notes the brevity of Western rule in the Middle East, which rather undermines blaming it for every ill that has befallen the region. He also notes that Said’s book came in for extensive criticism at the time it was published, to little avail. (A not dissimilar example—Michael Pusey’s deeply mediocre book on “economic rationalism”—was similarly demolished at the time but also panders to academic prejudices, so has also been a smashing local success.)

Part 2 is a series of chapters on what Ibn Warraq calls three “golden threads” of Western civilisation—rationalism, universalism and self-criticism, starting with the Greeks. Various Greek writers displayed the sympathetic curiosity about other cultures that has been such a distinguishing thread within classical and Western civilisations. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans cared about skin colour—for example, Herodotus thought one group of Ethiopians the most attractive people on Earth. Later Arab-Muslim commentary on blacks was often much more derogatory, while racism is endemic in contemporary Asia. Racism is hardly a uniquely Western phenomenon.

Ibn Warraq discusses at length how much more curious about Islam Latin Christendom was than Islam was about anyone else. This includes an extensive discussion of medieval translations of the Koran, the judgments of some of the translators prefiguring those of modern scholarship. He may, as Irwin suggests, somewhat underestimate Islamic curiosity about India and Africa—and possibly Europe—as part of drawing intellectual contrasts between the West and Islam, with his enthusiasm-of-a-convert, a little too much in the West’s favour: a question of nuance, however, rather than a deep problem.

Ibn Warraq also discusses the deeply positive effect of British rule in India on Indian knowledge of their own culture and history, as is widely acknowledged by Indian scholars and thinkers—a rather dramatic contrast to the lack of such positive effects from (much longer) Muslim rule in India.

By carefully going through the history—the extent of Ibn Warraq’s reading is somewhat intimidating—he can eviscerate Said ever more effectively. As he says:

“Edward Said’s Orientalism gave those unable to think for themselves a formula. His work had the attraction of an all-purpose tool his acolytes—eager, intellectually unprepared, aesthetically unsophisticated—could apply to every cultural
phenomenon without having to think critically or having to conduct any real archival research requiring mastery of languages, or research in the field requiring the mastery of technique and a rigorous methodology.”

Formulaic analysis requiring limited effort whose use shows you to be one of the cool kids: clearly, a winning formula. The attraction is so powerful, criticism of Said’s manifold errors has often been shrugged off, the claim being that his thesis has captured some higher truth. How often has congenial faith been insulated from nasty facts by such a move?

As various folk have noted—some of whom Ibn Warraq cites—Saidian “post-colonialism” often systematically denies non-Westerners effective moral agency. But Said’s thesis is rife with contradictions, as philosopher Irfan Khawaja has pointed out:

“Said is committed to an incoherent set of claims about whether or not doctrines have essences. On the one hand, he is committed by the nature of his thesis to the claim that Orientalism has an essence. On the other hand, he indicts Orientalism for the claim that Islam has an essence. The first claim commits Said to the belief that doctrines can have essences. The second commits him to the belief that they cannot. The combination is obviously inconsistent, but both claims are central to his thesis. Given their inconsistency, Said is obliged, logically, to give up one claim. But, given the nature of his thesis, he cannot disavow either claim without disavowing the thesis of his book. The book is therefore an obvious intellectual failure. To add insult to injury, Said explicitly admits that he ‘designed the book to be theoretically inconsistent’. It follows that the book is an avowed failure. To add yet further insult to injury, Said has the audacity of accusing Orientalists of violating the laws of logic—a criticism that can be described, at best, as a lifelong act of hypocrisy.”
[emphasis in the original]

Intellectual charlatan is hardly too strong a judgment on Edward Said. But many academics have rushed to embrace his ideas: for overwhelmingly self-indulgent reasons, at the expense of taxpayers and students. To those mired deep in the “post-colonialist” mindset, any attempt to suggest that Western civilisation has any characteristics or traits which positively distinguish it from other civilisations is illegitimate—indeed, inherently racist. One may, of course, impute as many negative characteristics as one likes to Western civilisation. Imputing positive characteristics to other civilisations and cultures is also entirely fine. It has become good academic style to put “shudder” quotes around positive comments about Western civilisation and cultures (and negative comments about non-Western cultures) but not vice versa.

The state of intellectual life in the West clearly concerns Ibn Warraq, and he discusses how rationalism, universalism and self-criticism can turn into their opposites, making his points partly by contrasting longstanding Western patterns with Islam. In particular, he insists one has to take the Islamic motivations of the jihadis seriously. He also contains a nice discussion of the myth of the manifold Inuit words for snow, an example of the sometimes comical exaggeration of non-Western achievements.

Ibn Warraq usefully distinguishes Islam 1 (the teachings of the Prophet in the Koran), Islam 2 (the religion expounded through hadith, theologians and jurists, including shar’ia) and Islam 3 (what Muslims actually do and have achieved—that is, Islamic civilisation). He seeks to “normalise” Islam 3, discussing (for example) the extensive drug problems in countries such as Iran and Pakistan.

Part 3 is a lengthy discussion of Orientalism in painting, sculpture, music and literature. Strangely enough, folk who went to the effort to paint, sculpt, compose or write about foreign cultures often displayed a very sympathetic attitude thereto. Go figure. And their works are nowadays popular among those same peoples for precisely that reason. The breadth of Ibn Warraq’s reading and appreciation is very much on display here.

Ibn Warraq cites Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their Fashionable Nonsense about a pattern that is quite familiar. Positions which:

“offer a great advantage in intellectual battles: the radical interpretation can serve to attract relatively inexperienced listeners or readers; and if the absurdity of this version is exposed, the author can always defend himself by claiming to have been misunderstood, and retreat to the innocuous interpretation.”

Needless to say, Said also uses this technique.

It is very sad that so much effort has gone into demolishing Said’s intellectual impostures. But such efforts do at least, as in the case of Defending the West, add to our knowledge and understanding—unlike what they are targeting.

Michael Warby is a principal of a business that puts on medieval and ancient history days for schools. An earlier version of this review appeared on his Livejournal.

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