Edward Said Addresses 9/11 Issues at Chapman University

Article excerpt

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance journalist based in Los Angeles.

In a rare West Coast appearance, Edward Said discussed the widening gap between the U.S. and the Arab/Muslim world since Sept. 11.

Speaking on "Power, Politics and Culture: the U.S. and the Middle East," the renowned Palestinian-American academic was the special guest at a Feb. 28 program sponsored by Chapman University's peace studies program. In his remarks, Said traced the historic connections between the U.S. and the Arab world and the dehumanizing images of Muslims dominating the media since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"I have lived in the U.S. for 50 years," he told the audience, "and I have never felt so isolated in light of the mass arrests and discrimination. I don't know a single Arab or Muslim who doesn't feel he/she has been put in the enemy camp. If one speaks Arabic in public or reads a document in the Arabic language, one is under suspicion."

Asserting that the U.S. media have become an arm of the military, Said noted that it is easier for the government and the press to trash Arabs than to acknowledge the real reasons underlying the Arab/Islamic world's resentment toward Washington.

"U.S. criticism is muted over Israel's barbaric treatment of the Palestinians," averred the Columbia University professor of English and comparative literature. "Even though U.S. foreign policy is accountable to its citizens, it is easier to criticize the Arabs as the villains than to admit the actions that have generated this intense hatred."

Although Americans took an interest in the Arab world after huge petroleum deposits were discovered in the 1930s, Said said, antagonism between the two grew because Arabs became known in the U.S. mainly for being opposed to the state of Israel.

After the 1967 war, he added, popular conceptions of Muslims as addicted to incest, slavery, abnormal sexuality and a permanent war against infidels became accepted in this country.

Said recalled his own encounter with the ridiculous heights to which this animosity rose after his publisher asked him to prepare a list of Third World authors whose works might be translated into English. Many of the writers he suggested were accepted, Said said, but when he questioned the exclusion of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz he was told that Mahfouz's "works are in Arabic and Arabic is a controversial language."

Another absurdity Said pointed out was an American commentator's asking the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. if Mahfouz's having been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was objectionable.

Since the end of the Cold War, Said continued, the U.S. has been the most important force in the Arab world because of its concerns that a steady flow of oil to the West be maintained. Since 1967, however, he emphasized, Israel has occupied Palestinian territory--a fact universally condemned outside the U.S. Nonetheless, Washington continues to subsidize this occupation--which as of this year, he noted, is the longest military occupation in modern history.

In the process, he said, in the name of fighting Israel, Arab regimes declared martial law and committed barbaric acts against any domestic opposition. As civic and secular cultures were suppressed, he explained, extremism and fanaticism became the alternative outlet in the Arab world.

In an aside, Said recalled that, when he was a child growing up in pre-1948 Palestine and Egypt, Jews were considered Arabs with a different religion.

After 1948, however, he said, the state of Israel covered up the story of the dispossessed Palestinians, while conjuring up an image of a tiny Jewish state threatened by its Arab neighbors.

"Israel has received disproportionate support ever since," Said stated, "and when objections rise over this, it says it is about to be destroyed--despite the 200 to 500 nuclear warheads it possesses."

Ironically, Said was delivering his lecture on the first day of Israel's invasion of the Balata and Jenin refugee camps. …