Ibn Warraq’s new book Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism recently hit book stores. Earlier this year I sat down with Warraq to talk about the book and his disagreements with the late Said. Here are som exerpts.
Why did you write this book taking on Edward Said and his critique of the orientalists?
”I bought Orientalism when it was published in 1978, but I didn’t read it right away. It ended up somewhere on the shelves. Only 20 years later did I begin to study it in depth. I couldn’t believe my eyes, so much nonsense and so many factual errors. Said is contradicting himself on almost every page.”
What kind of errors do you have in mind?
”Well, in one place he says that the orientalists, authors of Western origin writing about the East, acquired real knowledge about the region, but he doesn’t make any difference between specialists, travel writers or dilettants. In other parts of the book he on the contrary claims that the knowledge of all orientalists was false and based on prejudice. At the same time he subscribes to the view that there isn’t such a thing as the truth. But if he is serious about that, how can he complain that it is just the work of the orientalists that is false.”
Do you have any examples?
Lots of them. Said insists for example that Western imperialists ruled the region based on knowledge that orientalists had acquired, but how could they possible govern if the knowledge of the orientalists’ was so bad? Said accuses the orientalists and the imperialists of being responsible for all the crimes and misfortunes committed in the region, but if you take a look at the greatest and most important orientalists, Western experts on the Middle East and Islam, you’ll find they were Germans, and the Germans didn’t have any colonies in the Middle East. They were not imperialists.”
Do you think Said’s impact only has been negative? His fundamental insight that the study of a foreign culture is informed by one’s own and that it determines our process of understanding a foreign culture has been fruitful, hasn’t it? His insisting on the relationship between knowledge and power?
I think the impact of Said has been a pure diaster, it’s been very harmful for the arts and humanities in the West. And add to that its destructive influence on Arabic culture and the self image of the Arabs. Said isn’t saying anything original. It’s banal. Every student comes to the study of foreign cultures with a certain baggage. The idea that you are excluded from giving any useful information and knowledge just because of who you are has been the most harmful in Said’s work. The claim that it by definition is impossible to free oneself from one’s background and acquire some form of objective knowledge is just crazy. And it’s nothing new. Foucalt wrote about it, and so did Karl Marx. He said that if an individual belongs to the bourgeoisie he or she can’t be objective, and Freudians will explain that my understanding of a certain issue is determined by my early childhood experiences.
Said refuses to investigate the message, and disqualifies instead the messenger. He doesn’t review the merits of the argument and observations. You have ways to control if a specific observation is right or wrong. If 20 people with different backgrounds identify the same phenomena, it is probable that there is some truth to their observation. And if this observation is confirmed by native scholars and writers, then it’s pure nonsense to insist that all Westerners writing about the Orient are prejudiced and unreliable. It’s true that many were racists, but if a racist identifies something as a fact you can’t just refute it as false. According to Said a foreigner will never be able to understand a native culture, not because of what he does, but because of who he is and where he comes from. This is a reverse kind of racism.”
What is the result of Said’s work in the Arab world?
He has taught one or two generations of Arabs the destructive art of self pity. His orientalism legitimized the Arabs’ accusations against the West and Israel for being responsible for all their problems. He provided them with intellectual arguments for not taking responsibility for their cultural and economic diaster. At the same time he has made it extremely difficult for scholars to be critical of Islam. People are terrified by the prospect of being called an orientalist, and that’s the reason why scholars of Islam haven’t been able to look at Islam with the same critical eye as in the case of the Old and the New Testamente. This is very unfortunate. Said is guilty of intellectual terrorism. Today the word orientalism is being used synonymously with islamophobia. The free and critical enquiry of Islam is being blocked, the subject matter is treated with reverence and servility. Scholars for example accept the claim that the Koran is the revelation of God’s word, though anyone in his clear mind understands that the text is a human creation.”
You’ve said that Said’s writings have encouraged fundamentalists in the Middle East. What do you mean by that?
”He has empowered them by priori refuting the orientalists as reliable.”
You defended the publication of the Mohammed cartoons by Jyllands-Posten. But don’t you think that the critics have a point when they say that one has to avoid offending religious feelings, and therefore the newspaper should have refrained from publishing the cartoons?
”No. What kind of right not to be offended are they talking about? No one cares about my rights when the words of the Koran are being spread all around. I see the Koran as an extremely offensive book.”
”It’s an extremely violent book. It’s filled with hate against non-Muslims. It calls for the killing of infidels and calls on Muslims not to have Jews and Christians among their friends. It gives men the right to beat women, and it proscribes the most cruel punishment for theft. It’s a barbaric document, that is deeply insulting.”