Tag Archives: Orientalism

Orientalism: something like a disclaimer

By Sune Haugbolle.


As a blogging newbie I’m discovering how entries can be funny, and sometimes not so funny, in the way that they take on a life of their own on the Net. My previous piece about MESA 2008 and why we should put Said on the backburner was read by a lot of people, which is great. It was also not only linked, but quoted in full length on Daniel Pipes’ Campuswatch webpage, undoubtedly because it contained a critique of MESA president Mervat Hatem’s address in November which can be seen to fit with the general thrust of Martin Kramer’s longstanding attack on the Middle East Studies Association (his book Ivory Towers on Sand, etc). In other words, I was NOT included on Campuswatch for the same reasons as those of my friends who have had the honour. I don’t like that association, and I find it necessary to specify my critique. Having stated my dislike of the McCarthyist project of surveying ME studies for good (read patriotic, anti-Islamic and pro-Israeli) scholarship, it must be added that not all is bad on Campuswatch, and its Middle East Studies in the News section, where I was quoted, has in the past linked to many balanced and interesting pieces (e.g. this Juan Cole refutation of Thomas Friedmann). At the same time the incident has made me think about some of the fault lines in ME studies in new ways. So here’s something like a disclaimer, and an attempt to reflect further on the issue.


First, I do believe that Hatem’s address was indicative of an unreflective kind of celebration of Orientalism in certain circles (perhaps certain generations) of the Middle East Studies community, which I have observed and which I find problematic for several reasons. Said’s book is not flawless, nor is his representation of our discipline’s history. As David Irwin, Maxime Rodinson and many others have painstakingly demonstrated since the book was released thirty years ago, Said’s readings of European Orientalists do not do the scientific insights of their work justice. Nor is his lumping together of very diverse intellectual projects over several hundred years into one “Orientalist” truth regime persuasive at all when subjected to a closer reading of the original texts. So using it as some sort of Bible or Constitution of Middle East Studies is a betrayal of the rich history of our field.  


Perhaps the more important reason why I found Hatem’s address so troubling is that I sensed it was full of repressed knowledge. I cannot believe that she honestly thinks that the UN Human Development Reports reflected Orientalist attitudes, internalised by the Orientals who wrote them, more than the well-documented multiple social and political crises in the Arab world that the reports described. In other words, the knowledge that there is a measure of truth in some of the right-wing attacks on the region, which are of course truly Orientalist in their generalisations, was repressed in Hatem’s speech. In that sense it reflected how the politicisation of Middle East Studies can force people to adopt skewed standpoints that actually betray the knowledge we produce about the region, because their opponents are so radically far to the right in their argumentation.     


Certainly, the attacks on Said and Orientalism that we have witnessed since 2001, represented by the likes of Irwin, Kramer and Ibn Warraq (Irwin being the least ideological of the three), have also been taken too far. In their most extreme, theses critics argue that Said has become a spokesperson or icon for apologetics of everything they think is wrong with the Middle East, be it (an ill-defined) “Islam,” human rights abuses, lack of political freedom, suicide bombers, or Palestinian “terror,” and that MESA is dominated by such individuals who are blind to these ostensibly very obvious things. This is of course an extreme simplification of Said’s work and of the rich and sophisticated research being produced on the Middle East. I don’t share this position, and certainly not the general Said bashing. For me, Edward Said was principally a humanist, who was the product of a particular time and intellectual milieu that reacted against imperialism, intellectual conservativism and, most of all, the tragic injustices committed against the Palestinian people. In fact, I think the main mistake of the Said critics of the last few years is when they (choose to) ignore the reality of Orientalist stereotypes in present and past Western society and scholarship, but also the reality of imperialism and its lingering effects in the Arab world. Not that the reality that the book sought to counter can be used as an excuse for the mistakes and misreading it contains, but it does, to some extent, explain why we can sympathise with its fundamental position. Furthermore, as I said in my last post, the focus on Western misrepresentations of the “Orient” is still a timely intellectual project, not least in the US.


The radical critique of Said which sees him as a “charlatan” (Ibn Warraq) completely ignores all this. That is exactly why my hair stood up when I was listening to Hatem’s presidential address: she fitted the Said critics’ stereotypical image of MESA so well! And she was speaking as the president after all.


That kind of discourse can only lead to a dialogue of the deaf who accuse the other of serving up a dish of stereotypes that has nothing to do with the real world. This whole politicisation of our field may be a fact that we have to deal with, but not one that we should seek to perpetuate. Perhaps the best way to rid ourselves of a polemical war of trenches and extreme politicisation of our work is to ignore the Orientalism debate a tad bit, to the extent that it is possible. A friend of mine commented on my unlikely inclusion on Campuswatch that this proves exactly why Said can’t be put on the backburner. In other words (at least I presume this is what she meant), as long as the likes of Kramer are out there, we need to be aware of stereotypes and politically powerful lobbies who promote the old Orientalist canard about the Orient as intrinsically backwards and therefore in need of help (and invasions). Perhaps. But it should not – must not – lead us to lose focus of our real job: to describe and understand current and past social reality in the Middle East.