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Attack on Said’s Orientalism reflects culturalist turn in foreign affairs

15 December, 2006

There is a sympathetic review by Gary Kamiya of Robert Irwin’s book Dangerous Knowledge on www.salon.com. The book, apparently, sets out to refute Said’s claim that the European “Orientalists,” including anthropologists, were (are?) complicit in an alienating, dehumanizing portrayal of Arab societies by setting up an exotic “oriental” culture. Irwin, who is himself a historian of the Middle East, does not deal with what is generally taken to be Said’s main point — that is, that the hegemonic view of the Orient IS a product of the West — but says that most of his specific claims about the scholars are spurious, as many of them were in fact sympathetic to the societies they studied. (In particular he holds up the example of the Hungarian Jewish scholar Goldziher Ignac.) Apparently the book has already received a number of favourable reviews.

I am sympathetic to the view that Said’s claims about the scholars as vicious accomplices to colonialism and imperialism are lopsided, and sure, it’s important to correct tendencious research. Still, I think that matters relatively little compared to Said’s analysis of the image of the Orient that exists, which I believe is correct. It is more interesting that the backlash against Said appears to be gaining some momentum. The reviewer writes that Bernard Lewis — who he thinks IS the kind of evil orientalist that Said depicted — has been invited to the White House for lunch. The review calls for the rehabilitation of anthropological studies of the Middle East, but as so often these days, does it with the disquieting justification that “the role of tribes and the importance of honor and revenge in Arab culture” should be fully discussed (rather than suppressed by “right [left] – thinking intellectuals”.

Anthropological studies of the Middle East should be strengthened (the latest ethnography of Iraq I could find is from the ’50s). Let us hope they will be able to influence the thinking of foreign-affairs pundits and planners, and we should be happy rather than ashamed if that happens. But such studies should, and undoubtedly will, vigorously question “the role of tribes and the importance of honor and revenge,” rather than being out there to prove them.

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