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> A window on the world
> 
> Western scholars helped justify the war in Iraq, says Edward Said, with their
> orientalist ideas about the 'Arab mind'. Twenty-five years after the
> publication of his post-colonial classic, the author of Orientalism argues
> that humanist understanding is now more urgently required than ever before
> 
> Edward Said
> Saturday August 2, 2003
> The Guardian 
> 
> Nine years ago I wrote an afterword for Orientalism which, in trying to
> clarify what I believed I had and had not said, stressed not only the many
> discussions that had opened up since my book appeared in 1978, but the ways in
> which a work about representations of "the orient" lent itself to increasing
> misinterpretation. That I find myself feeling more ironic than irritated about
> that very same thing today is a sign of how much my age has crept up on me.
> The recent deaths of my two main intellectual, political and personal mentors,
> the writers and activists Eqbal Ahmad and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, has brought
> sadness and loss, as well as resignation and a certain stubborn will to go on.
> 
> In my memoir Out of Place (1999) I described the strange and contradictory
> worlds in which I grew up, providing for myself and my readers a detailed
> account of the settings that I think formed me in Palestine, Egypt and
> Lebanon. But that was a very personal account which stopped short of all the
> years of my own political engagement that started after the 1967 Arab-Israeli
> war. 
> 
> Orientalism is very much a book tied to the tumultuous dynamics of
> contemporary history. Its first page opens with a description of the Lebanese
> civil war that ended in 1990, but the violence and the ugly shedding of human
> blood continues up to this minute. We have had the failure of the Oslo peace
> process, the outbreak of the second intifada, and the awful suffering of the
> Palestinians on the reinvaded West Bank and Gaza. The suicide bombing
> phenomenon has appeared with all its hideous damage, none more lurid and
> apocalyptic of course than the events of September 11 2001 and their aftermath
> in the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. As I write these lines, the illegal
> occupation of Iraq by Britain and the United States proceeds. Its aftermath is
> truly awful to contemplate. This is all part of what is supposed to be a clash
> of civilisations, unending, implacable, irremediable. Nevertheless, I think
> not. 
> 
> I wish I could say that general understanding of the Middle East, the Arabs
> and Islam in the US has improved, but alas, it really hasn't. For all kinds of
> reasons, the situation in Europe seems to be considerably better. What
> American leaders and their intellectual lackeys seem incapable of
> understanding is that history cannot be swept clean like a blackboard, so that
> "we" might inscribe our own future there and impose our own forms of life for
> these lesser people to follow. It is quite common to hear high officials in
> Washington and elsewhere speak of changing the map of the Middle East, as if
> ancient societies and myriad peoples can be shaken up like so many peanuts in
> a jar. But this has often happened with the "orient", that semi-mythical
> construct which since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century
> has been made and remade countless times. In the process the uncountable
> sediments of history, a dizzying variety of peoples, languages, experiences,
> and cultures, are swept aside or ignored, relegated to the sandheap along with
> the treasures ground into meaningless fragments that were taken out of
> Baghdad. 
> 
> My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be
> unmade and rewritten, so that "our" east, "our" orient becomes "ours" to
> possess and direct. And I have a very high regard for the powers and gifts of
> the peoples of that region to struggle on for their vision of what they are
> and want to be. There has been so massive and calculatedly aggressive an
> attack on contemporary Arab and Muslim societies for their backwardness, lack
> of democracy, and abrogation of women's rights that we simply forget that such
> notions as modernity, enlightenment, and democracy are by no means simple and
> agreed-upon concepts that one either does or does not find like Easter eggs in
> the living-room. The breathtaking insouciance of jejune publicists who speak
> in the name of foreign policy and who have no knowledge at all of the language
> real people actually speak, has fabricated an arid landscape ready for
> American power to construct there an ersatz model of free market "democracy".
> 
> But there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times
> that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis
> for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge that is part of an
> overall campaign of self-affirmation. It is surely one of the intellectual
> catastrophes of history that an imperialist war confected by a small group of
> unelected US officials was waged against a devastated third world dictatorship
> on thoroughly ideological grounds having to do with world dominance, security
> control and scarce resources, but disguised for its true intent, hastened and
> reasoned for by orientalists who betrayed their calling as scholars.
> 
> The major influences on George W Bush's Pentagon and National Security Council
> were men such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, experts on the Arab and
> Islamic world who helped the American hawks to think about such preposterous
> phenomena as the Arab mind and the centuries-old Islamic decline which only
> American power could reverse. Today bookstores in the US are filled with
> shabby screeds bearing screaming headlines about Islam and terror, the Arab
> threat and the Muslim menace, all of them written by political polemicists
> pretending to knowledge imparted by experts who have supposedly penetrated to
> the heart of these strange oriental peoples. CNN and Fox, plus myriad
> evangelical and rightwing radio hosts, innumerable tabloids and even
> middle-brow journals, have recycled the same unverifiable fictions and vast
> generalisations so as to stir up "America" against the foreign devil.
> 
> Without a well-organised sense that the people over there were not like "us"
> and didn't appreciate "our" values - the very core of traditional orientalist
> dogma - there would have been no war. The American advisers to the Pentagon
> and the White House use the same clichés, the same demeaning stereotypes, the
> same justifications for power and violence (after all, runs the chorus, power
> is the only language they understand) as the scholars enlisted by the Dutch
> conquerors of Malaysia and Indonesia, the British armies of India,
> Mesopotamia, Egypt, West Africa, the French armies of Indochina and North
> Africa. These people have now been joined in Iraq by a whole army of private
> contractors and eager entrepreneurs to whom shall be confided everything from
> the writing of textbooks and the constitution to the refashioning of Iraqi
> political life and its oil industry.
> 
> Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all
> the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to
> enlighten, civilise, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as
> a last resort. And, sadder still, there always is a chorus of willing
> intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires.
> 
> Twenty-five years after my book's publication, Orientalism once again raises
> the question of whether modern imperialism ever ended, or whether it has
> continued in the orient since Napoleon's entry into Egypt two centuries ago.
> Arabs and Muslims have been told that victimology and dwelling on the
> depredations of empire are only ways of evading responsibility in the present.
> You have failed, you have gone wrong, says the modern orientalist. This of
> course is also VS Naipaul's contribution to literature, that the victims of
> empire wail on while their country goes to the dogs. But what a shallow
> calculation of the imperial intrusion that is, how little it wishes to face
> the long succession of years through which empire continues to work its way in
> the lives say of Palestinians or Congolese or Algerians or Iraqis.
> 
> Think of the line that starts with Napoleon, continues with the rise of
> oriental studies and the takeover of North Africa, and goes on in similar
> undertakings in Vietnam, in Egypt, in Palestine and, during the entire 20th
> century, in the struggle over oil and strategic control in the Gulf, in Iraq,
> Syria, Palestine, and Afghanistan. Then think of the rise of anti-colonial
> nationalism, through the short period of liberal independence, the era of
> military coups, of insurgency, civil war, religious fanaticism, irrational
> struggle and uncompromising brutality against the latest bunch of "natives".
> Each of these phases and eras produces its own distorted knowledge of the
> other, each its own reductive images, its own disputatious polemics.
> 
> My idea in Orientalism was to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of
> struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace
> the short bursts of polemical, thought-stopping fury that so imprison us. I
> have called what I try to do "humanism", a word I continue to use stubbornly
> despite the scornful dismissal of the term by sophisticated postmodern
> critics. By humanism I mean first of all attempting to dissolve Blake's
> "mind-forg'd manacles" so as to be able to use one's mind historically and
> rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding. Moreover humanism is
> sustained by a sense of community with other interpreters and other societies
> and periods: strictly speaking therefore, there is no such thing as an
> isolated humanist.
> 
> Thus it is correct to say that every domain is linked, and that nothing that
> goes on in our world has ever been isolated and pure of any outside influence.
> We need to speak about issues of injustice and suffering within a context that
> is amply situated in history, culture, and socio-economic reality. I have
> spent a great deal of my life during the past 35 years advocating the right of
> the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried
> to do that with full attention paid to the reality of the Jewish people and
> what they suffered by way of persecution and genocide. The paramount thing is
> that the struggle for equality in Palestine/Israel should be directed toward a
> humane goal, that is, coexistence, and not further suppression and denial.
> 
> As a humanist whose field is literature, I am old enough to have been trained
> 40 years ago in the field of comparative literature, whose leading ideas go
> back to Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I must mention too
> the supremely creative contribution of Giambattista Vico, the Neapolitan
> philosopher and philologist whose ideas anticipate those of German thinkers
> such as Herder and Wolf, later to be followed by Goethe, Humboldt, Dilthey,
> Nietzsche, Gadamer, and finally the great 20th-century Romance philologists
> Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and Ernst Robert Curtius.
> 
> To young people of the current generation the very idea of philology suggests
> something impossibly antiquarian and musty, but philology in fact is the most
> basic and creative of the interpretive arts. It is exemplified for me most
> admirably in Goethe's interest in Islam generally, and the 14th-century
> Persian Sufi poet Hafiz in particular, a consuming passion which led to the
> composition of the West-östlicher Diwan, and it inflected Goethe's later ideas
> about Weltliteratur, the study of all the literatures of the world as a
> symphonic whole which could be apprehended theoretically as having preserved
> the individuality of each work without losing sight of the whole.
> 
> There is a considerable irony to the realisation that as today's globalised
> world draws together, we may be approaching the kind of standardisation and
> homogeneity that Goethe's ideas were specifically formulated to prevent. In an
> essay published in 1951 entitled "Philologie der Weltliteratur", Auerbach made
> exactly that point. His great book Mimesis, published in Berne in 1946 but
> written while Auerbach was a wartime exile teaching Romance languages in
> Istanbul, was meant to be a testament to the diversity and concreteness of the
> reality represented in western literature from Homer to Virginia Woolf; but
> reading the 1951 essay one senses that, for Auerbach, the great book he wrote
> was an elegy for a period when people could interpret texts philologically,
> concretely, sensitively, and intuitively, using erudition and an excellent
> command of several languages to support the kind of understanding that Goethe
> advocated for his understanding of Islamic literature.
> 
> Positive knowledge of languages and history was necessary, but it was never
> enough, any more than the mechanical gathering of facts would constitute an
> adequate method for grasping what an author like Dante, for example, was all
> about. The main requirement for the kind of philological understanding
> Auerbach and his predecessors were talking about and tried to practise was one
> that sympathetically and subjectively entered into the life of a written text
> as seen from the perspective of its time and its author. Rather than
> alienation and hostility to another time and a different culture, philology as
> applied to Weltliteratur involved a profound humanistic spirit deployed with
> generosity and, if I may use the word, hospitality. Thus the interpreter's
> mind actively makes a place in it for a foreign "other". And this creative
> making of a place for works that are otherwise alien and distant is the most
> important facet of the interpreter's mission.
> 
> All this was obviously undermined and destroyed in Germany by national
> socialism. After the war, Auerbach notes mournfully, the standardisation of
> ideas, and greater and greater specialisation of knowledge gradually narrowed
> the opportunities for the kind of investigative and everlastingly inquiring
> kind of philological work that he had represented; and, alas, it's an even
> more depressing fact that since Auerbach's death in 1957 both the idea and
> practice of humanistic research have shrunk in scope as well as in centrality.
> Instead of reading in the real sense of the word, our students today are often
> distracted by the fragmented knowledge available on the internet and in the
> mass media. 
> 
> Worse yet, education is threatened by nationalist and religious orthodoxies
> often disseminated by the media as they focus ahistorically and sensationally
> on the distant electronic wars that give viewers the sense of surgical
> precision, but in fact obscure the terrible suffering and destruction produced
> by modern warfare. In the demonisation of an unknown enemy for whom the label
> "terrorist" serves the general purpose of keeping people stirred up and angry,
> media images command too much attention and can be exploited at times of
> crisis and insecurity of the kind that the post-September 11 period has
> produced. 
> 
> Speaking both as an American and as an Arab I must ask my reader not to
> underestimate the kind of simplified view of the world that a relative handful
> of Pentagon civilian elites have formulated for US policy in the entire Arab
> and Islamic worlds, a view in which terror, pre-emptive war, and unilateral
> regime change - backed up by the most bloated military budget in history - are
> the main ideas debated endlessly and impoverishingly by a media that assigns
> itself the role of producing so-called "experts" who validate the government's
> general line. Reflection, debate, rational argument and moral principle based
> on a secular notion that human beings must create their own history have been
> replaced by abstract ideas that celebrate American or western exceptionalism,
> denigrate the relevance of context, and regard other cultures with contempt.
> 
> Perhaps you will say that I am making too many abrupt transitions between
> humanistic interpretation on the one hand and foreign policy on the other, and
> that a modern technological society which along with unprecedented power
> possesses the internet and F-16 fighter-jets must in the end be commanded by
> formidable technical-policy experts like Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle.
> But what has really been lost is a sense of the density and interdependence of
> human life, which can neither be reduced to a formula nor brushed aside as
> irrelevant. 
> 
> That is one side of the global debate. In the Arab and Muslim countries the
> situation is scarcely better. As Roula Khalaf has argued, the region has
> slipped into an easy anti-Americanism that shows little understanding of what
> the US is really like as a society. Because the governments are relatively
> powerless to affect US policy toward them, they turn their energies to
> repressing and keeping down their own populations, with results in resentment,
> anger and helpless imprecations that do nothing to open up societies where
> secular ideas about human history and development have been overtaken by
> failure and frustration, as well as by an Islamism built out of rote learning
> and the obliteration of what are perceived to be other, competitive forms of
> secular knowledge. The gradual disappearance of the extraordinary tradition of
> Islamic ijtihad - the process of working out Islamic rules with reference to
> the Koran - has been one of the major cultural disasters of our time, with the
> result that critical thinking and individual wrestling with the problems of
> the modern world have simply dropped out of sight.
> 
> This is not to say that the cultural world has simply regressed on one side to
> a belligerent neo-orientalism and on the other to blanket rejectionism. Last
> year's United Nations world summit in Johannesburg, for all its limitations,
> did in fact reveal a vast area of common global concern that suggests the
> welcome emergence of a new collective constituency and gives the often facile
> notion of "one world" a new urgency. In all this, however, we must admit that
> no one can possibly know the extraordinarily complex unity of our globalised
> world. 
> 
> The terrible conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics such as
> "America," "the west" or "Islam" and invent collective identities for large
> numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent
> as they are, and must be opposed. We still have at our disposal the rational
> interpretive skills that are the legacy of humanistic education, not as a
> sentimental piety enjoining us to return to traditional values or the classics
> but as the active practice of worldly secular rational discourse. The secular
> world is the world of history as made by human beings. Critical thought does
> not submit to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another
> approved enemy. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilisations, we need
> to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow
> from each other, and live together. But for that kind of wider perception we
> need time, patient and sceptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of
> interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant
> action and reaction.
> 
> Humanism is centred upon the agency of human individuality and subjective
> intuition, rather than on received ideas and authority. Texts have to be read
> as texts that were produced and live on in all sorts of what I have called
> worldly ways. But this by no means excludes power, since on the contrary I
> have tried to show the insinuations, the imbrications of power into even the
> most recondite of studies. And lastly, most important, humanism is the only,
> and I would go as far as to say the final resistance we have against the
> inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.
> 
> · Adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Orientalism, published by
> Penguin on August 28 at £10.99
> 
> Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
> 
> 
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