More than ten years ago I published at ur-B&W a long article by Ibn Warraq, adapted from a longer one with full references and notes, on Debunking Edward Said. I think it’s relevant to things we’ve been discussing lately, so I want to pay it a visit.’
Consider the following observations on the state of affairs in the contemporary
Arab world :
The history of the modern Arab world – with all its political failures,
its human rights abuses, its stunning military incompetences, its decreasing
production, the fact that alone of all modern peoples, we have receded in democratic and technological and scientific development – is disfigured by a whole series of out-moded and discredited ideas, of which the notion that the Jews never
suffered and that the holocaust is an obfuscatory confection created by the
Elders of Zion is one that is acquiring too much – far too much – currency;
….[T]o support Roger Garaudy, the French writer convicted earlier this year
on charges of holocaust denial, in the name of ‘freedom of opinion’ is a silly
ruse that discredits us more than we already are discredited in the world’s
eyes for our incompetence, our failure to fight a decent battle, our radical
misunderstanding of history and the world we live in. Why don’t we fight harder
for freedom of opinions in our own societies, a freedom, no one needs to be
told, that scarcely exists?
It takes considerable courage for an Arab to write self-criticism of this kind,
indeed, without the personal pronoun ‘we’ how many would have guessed that an
Arab, let alone Edward Said himself, had written it? And yet, ironically, what
makes self-examination for Arabs and Muslims, and particularly criticism of
Islam in the West very difficult is the totally pernicious influence of Edward
Said’s Orientalism. The latter work taught an entire generation of Arabs
the art of self-pity – “were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists
and Zionists, we would be great once more” – encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist
generation of the 1980s, and bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam,
and even stopped dead the research of eminent Islamologists who felt their findings
might offend Muslims sensibilities, and who dared not risk being labelled “orientalist”.
The aggressive tone of Orientalism is what I have called “intellectual
terrorism,” since it does not seek to convince by arguments or historical
analysis but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism, Eurocentrism, from
a moral high ground; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him.
The moral high ground is an essential element in Said’s tactics; since he believes
his position is morally unimpeachable, Said obviously thinks it justifies him
in using any means possible to defend it, including the distortion of the views
of eminent scholars, interpreting intellectual and political history in a highly
tendentious way, in short twisting the truth. But in any case, he does not believe
in the “truth”.
Does that sound familiar? It does to me, at least. It sounds all too much like the way Priyamvada Gopal wrote in her inaccurate and at times abusive article about the protest against gender segregation, and even more like the crude echo of it that Laurie Penny wrote a few days later. It also sounds like the way both Gopal and Penny have reacted to criticism. Penny did listen to some of it, and did slightly amend one paragraph in her article, but she ignored the rest, and left (for one thing) the grossly inaccurate claim about the Student Rights report uncorrected, so there it still sits. Gopal didn’t even do that much, and she’s still flinging around complaints about “liberals” with assorted epithets attached. They both clearly think they occupy the moral high ground, and their thinking that seems to make them unable to argue reasonably.
This wouldn’t matter if it weren’t such an influential idea – “Orientalism” – but it is, so it does.