Middle East Resources

In Defence of Orientalism and Orientalists

By Bassam Michael Madany

During the lockdown occasioned by the Covid-19 Pandemic, I discovered comments I had written twelve years ago, on a Wall Street Journal article, dated 2 May 2008. It was titled, “Bernard Lewis Takes on Political Correctness in Middle East Studies.”

These are excerpts from the article, with further quotations from other sources, followed by my comments. The author, Charlotte Allen began the article by asking, “What to do if you are a college professor and the academic society that represents your field has been overrun by political correctness? One answer is: ‘Form your own organization.’

“That is how, six months ago, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (Asmea) came into being. Now claiming 500 members and gearing up to publish its own scholarly journal, Asmea is meant to be a corrective to the 2,600-member Middle East Studies Association, the premier professional society for scholars of the Middle East.

“Interestingly, both the Middle East Studies Association and the new Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, were founded by the same person: Bernard Lewis.[i] Now 91, Mr. Lewis is the eminence grise of scholars of Islam. His 60-year scholarly career encompasses more than two-dozen books and decades of teaching, first at the University of London and then at Princeton, where he is now a professor emeritus. He gave up on MESA to found Asmea last fall because he wanted there to be "a truly open academic society."

The chairman of ASMEA is Bernard Lewis, and its vice-chairman is the Lebanese-American scholar, Fouad Ajami, the director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. 

“Mr. Lewis spoke those words at Asmea’s first annual conference at a Washington hotel last weekend. The two-day gathering -- featuring only eight panels and roundtables, in contrast to the hundred or so at MESA’s annual meeting in Montreal in November --- showed the promise and also the problems that are part of any professional society’s attempts to defy orthodoxy.”

“We may be extremely puzzled as to how MESA that was founded by Mr. Lewis became such an ideologically motivated association of academics who are bent on destroying the very raison d'être of their discipline. The answer is found in the life and writings of the late professor Edward Said (1935-2003).  In 1978, he published “Orientalism,” a book that charged “Western scholarship on Islam was all but worthless because it had been motivated by efforts to further the ‘colonial’ interests of Western imperial powers, still intent on dominating the East.”

It is unbelievable how many “experts” in the history of the Middle East, fell for the unsubstantiated thesis of Mr. Said. [By the way, I have always been puzzled by the transliteration of the Arabic name as Said, in lieu of Sa’eed!]

As the WSJ article explains, “Unlike Mr. Lewis, Mr. Said had no training in Islamic or Mideast studies (he was in fact, for years, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University). Even so, Mr. Said continues to exert a powerful influence on many American Islamicists; He is their guru, and "Orientalism" is their catechism.”

Over the years, I have been saddened by the trajectory of Edward Said’s life. Coming from an Eastern Christian background, rather than devoting his scholarship to deal with the plight of his people over fourteen centuries of Islamic imperialism, he became the typical Dhimmi who offers his services to the defence of Islam, and to the denigration of the excellent work of American, British and French Orientalists.  

In December 1980, an American Orientalist, Dr. Malcom Kerr,[ii] reviewed “Orientalism” in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 12, Pp. 544-547.

“This book reminds me of the television program ‘Athletes in Action,’ in which professional football players compete in swimming, and so forth. Edward Said, a literary critic loaded with talent, has certainly made a splash, but with this sort of effort he is not going to win any major races. The book contains many excellent sections and scores many telling points, but it is spoiled by overzealous prosecutorial argument in which Professor Said, in his eagerness to spin too large a web, leaps at conclusions and tries to throw everything but the kitchen sink into a preconceived frame of analysis. In charging the entire tradition of European and American Oriental studies with the sins of reductionism and caricature, he commits precisely the same error.”

In 2007, Ibn Warraq wrote “Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism.” (Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, NY 14228

Here are quotations from Ibn Warraq’s book: “To argue his case, Said very conveniently leaves out the important contributions of German Orientalists, for their inclusion would destroy --- and their exclusion does indeed totally destroy --- the central thesis of Orientalism, that all Orientalists produced knowledge that generated power, and that they colluded and helped imperialists found empires. As we shall see, German Orientalists were the greatest of all scholars of the Orient, but, of course, Germany was never an imperial power in any of the Oriental countries of North Africa and the Middle East. … Would it have made sense for German Orientalists to produce work that could help only England and France in their empire building?  P. 44

“Said has much to answer for, Orientalism, despite its systematic distortions and its limited value as an intellectual history, has left Western scholars in fear of asking questions --- in other words, it has inhibited their research. Said’s work, with its strident anti-Westernism, has made the goal of modernization of Middle Eastern societies that much more difficult. His work, wherein all the ills of Middle Eastern societies are blamed on the wicked West, has rendered much-needed self-criticism by Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike, nearly impossible. His work has encouraged Islamic fundamentalists, whose impact on world affairs needs no underlining.  P. 54

My sincere thanks go to the WSJ for having published an article on the decline and fall of MESA, and the birth of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, a scholarly organization that deals accurately with the history and culture of Middle Eastern nations.

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[i] Bernard Lewis, (31 May 1916 – 19 May 2018) was a British American historian specializing in oriental studies. He was also known as a public intellectual and political commentator. Lewis was the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Lewis' expertise was in the history of Islam and the interaction between Islam and the West. He was also noted in academic circles for his works on the history of the Ottoman Empire.

[ii] Malcolm Hooper Kerr (October 8, 1931 – January 18, 1984)  Kerr's youth was spent in Lebanon, on and near the campus of the American University of Beirut, where his parents taught for forty years. His father became the chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at AUB, and his mother was Dean of Women. During World War II, the family relocated to Princeton University in New Jersey. Malcolm undergraduate degree in 1953 came from Princeton University where he had studied with Professor Philip Hitti. He returned to Lebanon and entered a master’s program in Arabic studies, completing it in 1955 at the AUB. He did his doctorate work in Washington, D.C., at the School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, from where he received his Ph.D. in 1958. He served as president of the American University of Beirut from 1982 until he was assassinated two years later, on the campus of the AUB, by an Islamist gunman.