Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism
14 Dec, 2007
Book Description This is the first systematic critique of Edward Said's influential work, Orientalism, a book that for almost three decades has received wide acclaim, voluminous commentary, and translation into more than fifteen languages. Said’s main thesis was that the Western image of the East was heavily biased by colonialist attitudes, racism, and more than two centuries of political exploitation. Although Said’s critique was controversial, the impact of his ideas has been a pervasive rethinking of Western perceptions of Eastern cultures, plus a tendency to view all scholarship in Oriental Studies as tainted by considerations of power and prejudice. In this thorough reconsideration of Said’s famous work, Ibn Warraq argues that Said’s case against the West is seriously flawed. Warraq accuses Said of not only willfully misinterpreting the work of many scholars, but also of systematically misrepresenting Western civilization as a whole. With example after example, he shows that ever since the Greeks Western civilization has always had a strand in its very makeup that has accepted non-Westerners with open arms and has ever been open to foreign ideas. The author also criticizes Said for inadequate methodology, incoherent arguments, and a faulty historical understanding. He points out, not only Said’s tendentious interpretations, but historical howlers that would make a sophomore blush.
Warraq further looks at the destructive influence of Said's study on the history of Western painting, especially of the 19th century, and shows how, once again, the epigones of Said have succeeded in relegating thousands of first-class paintings to the lofts and storage rooms of major museums.
An extended appendix reconsiders the value of 18th- and 19th-century Orientalist scholars and artists, whose work fell into disrepute as a result of Said’s work.
Reviews on Amazon.com:
Edward Said: Master of Race Card Academic Mischief
By David Thomson
The late Edward Said often intimidated his critics with the false charge of racism. He more then hinted that only those who perceived dark skinned people to be inferior might possibly disagree with his conclusions. Ibn Warraq brilliantly shows him to have been an intellectually shallow and not altogether honest writer. At the very best, to be blunt, Said was a second rate mediocrity. He took full advantage, however, of the politically correct cultural zeitgeist dominating our so-called best universities. It is also very fair to accuse Said of slandering great scholars merely for being white skinned Westerners. The author takes him to task in a very careful and detailed manner. This book is not in any way a cheap shot attack on the memory of Edward Said. I dare anyone to find even one substantial mistake in the entire book.
An excellent defense of Western Civilization
By Jill Malter (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is a fine book by "Ibn Warraq." Rather than merely point out a few errors in Ed Said's "Orientalism," it launches into a full-scale defense of the West.
In my opinion, Ed Said was not the first human being to write an untruth, merely the first to put so many untruths in print. And while "Orientalism" is indeed ghastly garbage, one has to wonder about those on university campuses and elsewhere who have taken it seriously. Obviously, "Orientalism" should not be banned just as the words to the "Horst Wessel lied" should not be banned. But one would have to wonder about a university professor who, for political reasons, taught his class the Horst Wessel lied. And I have to wonder about the teaching of "Orientalism" as if it were scholarly work rather than trashy propaganda. As the author of "Defending the West" tells us, quoting Clive Dewey, "Orientalism" clearly touched "a deep vein of vulgar prejudice running through American academe."
Ibn Warraq gets off to a good start by mentioning the aggressive tone of "Orientalism," which he characterizes as "intellectual terrorism" given that it "seeks to convince not by arguments or historical analysis but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism, and Eurocentrism from a moral high ground; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him." And it is disgusting, as the author points out, to see Said's hatred of the country that gave him such privileges as a tenured professor at Columbia University (a university he did much to disgrace). As for his idea that French and British academic studies of Arab lands were part of an imperialist plan, Ibn Warraq reminds us that the first French university chair in Arab studies was founded in 1538 and the first British one in 1633, well before any French of British imperial adventures in the region.
On top of that, the author mentions that Said "always assumed the role in the West of an Islamic expert and has never flinched from telling us in unscholarly journalistic articles what the real Islam is." That's pretty rich of Said, a Christian agnostic. Ibn Warraq says that Said's work "has encouraged Islamic fundamentalists, whose impact on world affairs hardly needs underlining."
Of course, Said omits any context from which various Orientalists wrote. As Ibn Warraq puts it, "even a casual comparison of the rival imperialism of Islam" ought to show that the British Empire should not be dismissed as a purely negative historical force.
Does "Orientalism" at least make logical arguments, albeit using a distorted selection of material? No. It "displays all the laziness and arrogance of the man of letters who does not have much time for empirical research, or, above all, for making sense of its results." I found it interesting that a meritless work written by a propagandist can take years of work to refute, simply because some folks have decided to taunt others by honoring it.
Ibn Warraq applauds Western values as "a system that does not affront our reason and humanity." He warns us that "only within the framework of certain institutions can humankind hope to realize its humanity, that we discard our hard-won institutions at our own peril, the veneer of civilization of most people disappears outside their civilizing confines."
On the other hand, Ibn Warraq warns us that, a little paradoxically, Western rationalism, universalism, and self-criticism can lead to their opposites. For example, "limitless self-criticism leads to self-hatred, as witnessed in the buffooneries of Michael Moore, the exaggerations of Robert Fisk, and the fanaticism of Noam Chomsky."
I agree with the author's reaction to "Orientalism." And I recommend this book.
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Ibn Warraq is the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and the editor of The Origins of the Koran, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and What the Koran Really Says.