The Middle Eastern Fantasies of Edward Said

Few academics have enjoyed the influence of Edward Said (1935–2003), the father of “post-colonialism”, and a dominant figure across the board in left-wing postmodernism. Yet fewer public intellectuals, even among gurus of the Left intelligentsia, have been more inaccurate or perverse in their influence.

Said became probably the best-known Palestinian intellectual, and was, from 1977 until 1991, a member of the Palestinian National Council, although he later fell out with Yasser Arafat and had his books banned from sale in areas controlled by the PLO. To many in the West, Said was a relative moderate, to others a genuine radical who hated the Israelis. Although he was universally seen as an authentic Palestinian, his background is a strange one. Said repeatedly distorted many aspects of his origins and early life, the actual facts of which were pieced together by investigative journalists only after he became internationally famous; his early life and background have been the subject of much discussion and debate.

The first point to be made is that he and his family were Episcopalians (American Anglicans), not Muslims or even native Middle Eastern Christians like the Copts or Maronites. Said stated repeatedly that he was a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, which is true, but, like so much else in the autobiographical accounts he gave, it is economical with the truth. His family actually lived in Cairo; Said was born in Jerusalem because his mother thought she would receive better medical care in Jerusalem than in Egypt, because of the higher level of care provided by its Jewish doctors, many of whom, when he was born in 1935, were recent refugees from Nazi Germany to the Zionist community in Palestine.

First published in Quadrant‘s July 2019 edition,
this essay is reprised by way of background
to the current global eruption of anti-Semitism.
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In Cairo, Said’s father was the owner of the Standard Stationery Company, the largest office-supply firm in the Middle East; he had lived in Egypt since the mid-1920s. While Said repeatedly implied that he grew up as a Palestinian in Jerusalem, this is simply not true, although he had (wealthy) relatives there, whom he occasionally visited. Said’s father was one of the richest men in Cairo; his family lived in a luxury flat and Said was driven to school in a chauffeured limousine. Said was not educated in Palestine, but in Egypt at Victoria College, Alexandria, an exclusive private school, founded in 1900 by Lord Cromer, the British viceroy, for the local rich and powerful of all backgrounds. Many of its students were Jews or Maltese; few were Palestinians. Among Said’s classmates was the future King Hussein of Jordan.

Most ironically, Said’s father’s high life came to an abrupt end in January 1952, in the “Cairo Fire”, a one-day rampage of rioting, arson and murder in which terrorists destroyed hundreds of shops, hotels, cinemas and restaurants. The instigators of this violent episode, which led to the overthrow of King Farouk and the installation of the Nasser regime, are unknown, but were most probably radical members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who hated Western values and lifestyles. Among the firms totally destroyed at the time was Said’s father’s office supply business—in other words, Said’s father lost his wealth not at the hands of Zionists during the Palestinian “Nakba”, but, in all likelihood, to Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who regarded his business as a component of Western decadence.

Edward Said had been expelled from Victoria College in 1951, and was then sent, improbably, to Mount Hermon School in rural Massachusetts, his father having acquired American citizenship during the First World War when he served in the American army. Mount Hermon is an elite boarding school, one of the Eight Schools Association, the American equivalent of the Clarendon schools including Eton and Harrow. Mount Hermon is also noted for producing many eccentric alumni such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Beatnik poet; there, Said’s unusual background was not so unusual. He then proceeded to earn a BA at Princeton and a PhD from Harvard. From 1963 until his death Said taught at Columbia University in New York, and held visiting lectureships at many elite American universities. It should be clear from all this that Said had little contact with and no professional connections with the Middle East or its universities, although he gave lectures there, as he did elsewhere. From 1951 until his death in 2003, Said lived in the United States and never moved back to the Middle East, although he made many visits there.

Before 1978 Said was virtually unknown outside of the academic ivory tower and, indeed, was probably best known for a study of Joseph Conrad, the great Polish-born English novelist who, like Said, was always a wanderer and an outsider, and with whom Said must have felt a great affinity. In 1978, however, Said published Orientalism, which became one of the best-known and most influential works of non-fiction since the Second World War. It initiated a veritable industry of similar works, almost always by radical academics and critics. “Orientalism”, an old term, was reworked by Said to mean the West’s continuing image of “the East”, the Islamic world, ubiquitously patronising, negative and distorted. It was also critical of some aspects of the Arabs, especially the so-called “subaltern class”, obedient to their Western masters. Said’s work appeared at a crucial time for the Western Left.

By 1978, Marxist class war was largely passé, and was in the process of being replaced by ethnic- and gender-based hostility to the established order. Although this hostility differed from Marxism in its arguments, it shared Marxism’s hatred of Western values and, like it, aimed at their destruction. Said’s post-colonialist theory was closely allied to other postmodernist and “post-structuralist” critiques, sharing their rhetorical claptrap and their common aim at ideological destruction. Said’s post-colonialist views had the additional merit in that probably 98 per cent of its Western advocates had no direct personal knowledge of “the Orient”, the subject they were writing about. The success of Orientalism was immediate and international, making Said one of the best-known and most influential public intellectuals in the world. The many ironies embedded in Said’s own limited engagement with Middle Eastern culture and society were only pointed out by critics much later.

In Tsarist Russia, there was a famous linguist, Daniel Chwolson, born a Jew, who converted to Russian Orthodoxy in order to be appointed a professor. When asked if he “sincerely believed” in his new religion, Chwolson replied that he “sincerely believed that it was better to be a professor at the Imperial University of St Petersburg than a melamed [teacher] in a cheder [Jewish elementary school] in Shnipeshok”. It seems certain that Edward Said sincerely believed that it was better to be a tenured full professor at Columbia University than a moallim (teacher) in a madrassa in Pakistan. But, unlike Said, his Tsarist predecessor did not become internationally famous by defaming the culture in which he lived or by depicting the alleged wrongs done to the society where, since childhood, he had never lived and which he had chosen to leave permanently.

On many grounds the arguments made in Orientalism are deeply flawed and seriously misleading. There is, for instance, the definition of “orientalism” itself. Since the nineteenth century, the term has been used exclusively about the Islamic Middle East, while, in America and elsewhere, the term “the Orient” is used exclusively about the Far East—China, Japan, Korea and environs. Said focuses exclusively on Western views of the Islamic world, without considering any other region or placing this in a wider context.

In fact, in 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? 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, to English-speaking readers, probably the best-known literary work by an Islamic writer is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a long poem by a Persian astronomer and poet who died in 1131, as translated into English by Edward FitzGerald in five editions between 1859 and 1889. The Rubaiyat is one of the few poems of which, at least in the past, most people knew large chunks by heart. But this work presents a philosophy of hedonism, cynicism and religious agnosticism, the very opposite of Islamic fundamentalism. Despite its fame and influence, Said mentions it in Orientalism once, in one line.

The Islamic world impacted on Western countries to very different degrees, and, until recently, had virtually no impact at all in many Western countries. Owing to France’s colonies in North Africa, it is possible to argue that its popular art often focused on the Maghreb, depicted in ways which were demeaning and often pornographic. But this was simply not the case with Britain or America. Britain’s central colonial holding was India, the “jewel in the crown” of the empire. There, before independence, the Hindu-dominated Congress Party often accused the British of favouring India’s Muslims, and of facilitating the movement for the creation of a separate Muslim state. Britain acquired Egypt in 1882, in order to control the Suez Canal, and Iraq, Jordan and Palestine after the First World War, but otherwise steered clear of obtaining Muslim colonies, and always left their elite structure intact, while suppressing the worst aspects of their societies such as slavery. The Islamic world had virtually no impact whatever on British literary or artistic culture.

The situation in America is even more clear cut, with the Islamic world virtually absent from American novels, plays or films. Indeed, American films were specifically forbidden to depict Islam in a negative light, a fact of which Said was probably unaware. The Motion Picture Production Code, in place from the 1930s to the 1960s, specifically stated that “No film or episode should throw ridicule on any religious faith”, that “ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled”, and that “the history, institutions, prominent people, and citizens of other nations should be represented fairly”. Before the 1970s, the United States almost never intervened in the Middle East, let alone had colonies there. Only small numbers of immigrants from the region ever settled in the United States. The region was virtually absent from the American consciousness.

Similarly, 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 Gottleib Leitner (1840–99), born in Budapest to Jewish parents who became Protestants. Leitner lived in India and was a renowned linguist who knew fifteen languages; it was Leitner who suggested the title “Kaisar-i-Hind” (Empress of India), adopted by Queen Victoria. 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.

Said’s contention is that Islam and its societies are portrayed inaccurately in the Western media. He is quite correct: the Islamic world is arguably a dozen times worse than it is depicted, especially by the politically correct Western Left. To take just one aspect of the effects of its culture, consider the inability of the Islamic world to produce top scientists or significant scientific research. There are 1.6 billion Muslims alive today; exactly three Muslim scientists have won Nobel Prizes in science, compared with, for instance, eleven winners who were born, educated or worked in Australia (population 25 million today), and fifty-seven who were educated or taught at Columbia University in New York, where Said taught. This paucity of top-flight scientific talent in the Muslim world has occurred despite the fact that there are no fewer than 1800 colleges and universities in the forty-six countries with Muslim majority populations. If the Islamic world did indeed see a scientific golden age when Europe was in darkness, this has now vanished without trace. According to Hillel Ofek:

Today the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert … Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 per cent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together … Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg has observed “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading” …

A study in 1989 found that in one year the United States published 10,481 scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four. This may sound like the punch line of a bad joke, but when Nature magazine published a sketch of science in the Arab world in 2002, its reporter identified just three scientific areas in which the Islamic world excelled: desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction.

Needless to say, Edward Said did not remark on this aspect of “orientalism”, any more than he commented on the treatment in the Islamic world of political dissenters, religious minorities, women or gays.

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, and particularly in New York, with its enormous Jewish population. Widespread left-wing anti-Zionism had hardly yet emerged. 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. He did this at just the time when the Middle East was emerging as a battleground, when Western values and culture were being questioned by its left-wing, post-Marxist intelligentsia, and when the Left often turned sharply on Israel once it was regarded as oppressing the Palestinians. Yet of all the appalling stances taken by the contemporary Left intelligentsia, those associated with “post-colonialism” are arguably the most hypocritical. Thus, radical feminists support regimes where women are regarded as ninth-class citizens, if that; agnostics champion societies where absolute religious conformity is enforced by the executioner; gays defend cultures where homosexuality carries the death penalty; and political radicals who condemn the West as “undemocratic” admire murderous totalitarian dictatorships.

An important reason why this astonishing hypocrisy became common is because Edward Said gave it legitimacy. By all accounts, it should be noted, he was personally a fine human being, but his intellectual legacy was perverse and destructive.

William Rubinstein held chairs at Deakin University and at the University of Wales, and is now an adjunct professor at Monash University

4 thoughts on “The Middle Eastern Fantasies of Edward Said

  • STD says:

    “Left intelligentsia, those associated with “post-colonialism” are arguably the most hypocritical. Thus, radical feminists support regimes where women are regarded as ninth-class citizens, if that; agnostics champion societies where absolute religious conformity is enforced by the executioner; gays defend cultures where homosexuality carries the death penalty; and political radicals who condemn the West as “undemocratic” admire murderous totalitarian dictatorships.”
    Essentially what the salivating dogs of the left, particularly the academic left want, is a single solution to all the ill’s of the world-the final solution defies all aspect’s of logic and reason-the solution is to be countercultural- a diametric polar world- an ever ongoing insatiable orgy of change-societal Cold War – the me too world. They hate themselves and they loath the status quo especially if that idea ennobles any semblance of success or wealth that has been derived from the richness’s that eternally lay dormant within that culture. It’s the old case of bringing everyone else down to another level.

  • Daffy says:

    Do I note an error? The text is “Said published Orientalism, which became one of the best-known and most influential works of non-fiction since the Second World War”. I think ‘non-fiction’ is the error. Should it not be ‘fiction’. Or, perhaps, a sort of philosophy-fiction, (debt to Pete Medawar for this wonderful term of intellectual abuse)?

  • David Isaac says:

    11th May 12:15 eastern time.
    Thanks for a fascinating article. I suppose given his cosmopolitan upbringing it was difficult for him to sum up his origins and of course Egypt and the Levant have been culturally and politically close for two millennia. I can forgive him for that but anyone who gives succour to hypocritical grievance politics really can’t be called a fine human being, at least not from the point of view of those whose society he is helping to subvert.
    On a finicky note I really think we should aim to use the correct words ‘Gender’ ought to be in quotation marks when it’s substituting for sex which it invariably is. And the Middle East? Well that’s in the middle of the Far East and the Near East, which is where Dr Said grew up.

  • wdr says:

    Agreed. Thanks.

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