Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Edward Said and Recent Orientalist Critiques

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Edward Said and Recent Orientalist Critiques

Article excerpt

Abstract: There have been many attempts in recent years to discredit Edward Said's thesis of the "affiliation of knowledge with power" (1997: xlix) by those who argue that Orientalist scholarship represents genuine and accurate knowledge of the Arab/Islamic world. Said's detractors claim that much of Orientalist scholarship has been "sympathetic" to the Orient and is free from any power motive. However, this article will attempt to show how all of these arguments fall apart when put to the test of reality, past and present, in literature, Orientalist scholarship and politics. After all the arguments of Bernard Lewis, Ibn Warraq and think tank and area experts, it is Said's voice of humanism that drowns out all of his dissenters' voices in this Orientalist war of words, which as Said believed, is "richly symptomatic of precisely what is denied" (1985: 91).

Keywords: Edward Said, Orientalism, power, imperialism, discourse, culture

Edward Said was obsessed with beginnings. However, his beginnings were never really about going back passively, but about actively making something new, or as Timothy Brennan prefers, Said "translated it [counter-tradition] into a particular idiom" (2008: 4), which inevitably meant challenging what was already there - and Orientalism was a part of what was there. It can safely be said that Said effectively began the interrogation of Western discourse on the other, and thus began a new field of study called "postcolonialism." Orientalist discourse represented for Said an especially poignant example of the "affiliation of knowledge with power" (Said, 1997: xlix):

Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient- dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. (1978: 3)

Said's detractors, however, contend that many Western Orientalist scholars were in it for intellectual curiosity as Said observes: "Lewis has been busy responding to my argument, insisting that the Western quest for knowledge about other societies is unique, that it is motivated by pure curiosity" (1985 : 96); or even for showing Arabs and Muslims in a positive light as Ibn Warraq has attempted to do in Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism (2007). How easily Ibn Warraq wipes out the disastrous effects of colonization and conquest, seeing it as a force of modernization, i.e. a civilizing mission (2007: 29). Even more mainstream scholars of Muslim backgrounds from the Arab world have attempted to discredit Said in their own quest for Western recognition and accolades; one of these writers calls literary Orientalism a "labour of love" (Al-Dabbagh, 2010: 29). Other Orientalist scholars, such as Robert Irwin (2006) and Daniel Martin Varisco (2007), have disputed Said's thesis of the pivotal link between Orientalist scholarship and power by pointing out some weakly translated words and phrases in Said's work and isolated "sympathetic" Orientalist examples, which they believe would dismantle Said's thesis. However, the isolated example, the allegedly misused word, the bothersome turn of phrase or the weakly translated quotation from one source or another do not detract from the overpowering discourse, partly made up of Orientalist scholarship, carefully constructed media images, think tank and area expert discourses that are aimed at bringing about a certain cultural and political reality, which would be translated into military action and economic and cultural policies and strategies for generations to come. Is Orientalist thinking innocent, and was Said wrong about his main thesis of linking the West's archive on the East to power? Why are area studies in the United States well funded and carefully watched? The US House of Representatives passed a bill, "HR 3077," which would require international studies departments to "show more support" for American foreign policy or lose federal funding, especially after the "pernicious influence of the late Edward Said in Middle Eastern studies departments" (Michelle Goldberg quoted in Afzal-Khan, 2005: 22). …

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