The Children of Edward Said

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There is a fascinating passage from the Koran, surah 101, its initial lines variously translated as “The Disaster! What is the Disaster?” (N.J. Dawood, The Koran), “The Crashing Blow. What is the Crashing Blow?” (M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an), “The day of Noise and Clamor. What is the day of Noise and Clamor?” (Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of The Holy Qur’an), and so on. The Arabic term in question, Al-Qaria, is also translated as “the Clatterer”, giving us the most enigmatic version of all, which can be rendered as “The Clatterer! What is the Clatterer? And what shall teach thee what is the Clatterer?” (See the online version of Abdul Daryabadi). Here below is a very readable reproduction from an Arabic/English Facebook site:

The Clatterer—
what is the Clatterer?

And what teaches thee what the Clatterer is?
The day that men shall be like scattered moths,
and the mountains shall be like carded wool.
Then as for him whose scales are heavy,
he shall be in a pleasing life.
And as for him whose scales are light,
his abode shall be the Abyss.
And what teaches thee what it is?—
A blazing Fire.

Yusuf Ali, whose translation and commentary has come to be regarded by many as definitive, parses this surah as referring to the Day of Judgment “when men will be distracted and the landmarks of this world will be lost, but every deed will be weighed in a just balance, and find its real value and setting.” Taking the liberty of the infidel, my own reading of surah 101 differs markedly from the canonical interpretation.

Who are the Clatterers? They swarm everywhere in the Western world. Some of these Clatterers are out-and-out bigots who pontificate in the media, the academy and the political arena. We know them well. Others are guilty of what political commentator George Jonas calls “pragmatic anti-Semitism,” the trendy form of the pestilence taken on board by opportunistic politicos and fashionable highbrows, “just as it was in the 1930s.” Some are “Chatham House” specialists who wish to influence public policy in the direction of a kind of mob-friendly gliberalism. Yet others primarily from the postmodern, multicultural and anti-globalist Left, inspired by the special pleading of the late Edward Said, have espoused the Arab/Muslim/Palestinian cause as inherently virtuous and reasonable.

It is instructive to focus on the primary postulates of Edward Said and his tribe of like-minded postcolonialists. The 1978 publication of Said’s Orientalism prepared the way for the revisionist climate that governs much of the intellectual thought-world today. It marked a decisive shift in contemporary sentiment in favor of Islam and against the West, which is to say, America, Israel and Zionists. Said’s tutelary presence is still everywhere to be found, as we can see in the now-ubiquitous denigration of America, Israel and Zionism and the corresponding rehabilitation of the Arab/Muslim axis and of the Palestinians in particular.

One of Said’s major premises is that the Arab world suffers from the West’s “simple-minded dichotomy of freedom-loving, democratic Israel and evil, totalitarian, and terroristic Arabs,” a distinction which obfuscates “a clear view of what one talks about in talking about the Near East.” This is obviously no longer the consensus, but the argument continues to be made for partisan purposes, especially in Middle East Study departments running riot on Western campuses. By a “clear view,” of course, Said meant to reverse the terms of his rhetorical formulation. Said has done his dirty work superbly, reinforcing the canard of the Arabs as merely “a surmountable obstacle to Israel’s creation.”

To appropriate one of his own images, the impression arises of Said riding into the field of Middle East scholarship like Rudolph Valentino’s flamboyant Sheik Ahmed Ban Hassan intent on a rescue mission. Said, himself not a Muslim but a self-proclaimed Christian Palestinian—although it now turns out that, like Yasser Arafat, who claimed to be from East Jerusalem, he was an Egyptian—is the Pied Piper of our current Orientalists and postcolonial mandarins, a public figure whose intellectual respectability and personal charisma have made him a very effective evangelist for the movement.

The problematic nature of his oeuvre seems not to matter. To little avail, Ibn Warraq in Defending the West has convincingly shown that Orientalism is a veritable tissue of fabrications, misconceptions, internal contradictions, damaging omissions, historical blind spots, false attributions and extremely shabby scholarship, all amounting to what Warraq calls a form of “intellectual terrorism.” For all his suavity, Said possessed an intifadic temperament. The famous episode of the Columbia prof chucking stones at Israeli soldiers is only a physical embodiment of his textual lapidations. Ironically, in developing his position, Said condemns Western orientalists for employing “retrograde intellectual tactics,” which is precisely what Warraq reveals him to be guilty of.

Arabist Robert Irwin’s demolition of Said’s “labyrinth of false turns, trompe l’oeil perspectives and cul-de-sacs” is no less devastating. In For Lust of Knowing, Irwin writes that “the distortion of subject matter in Orientalism is so fundamental that to accept its broad framework as something to work with and then correct would be merely to waste one’s time.” Said’s book, he continues, “seems to me to be a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentation.”

Apart from Warraq and Irwin, as well as Bernard Lewis in his well-known quarrel with Said, Kanan Makiya (incidentally, no great friend of Israel) in Cruelty and Silence, Martin Kramer in Ivory Towers on Sand and a seemingly repentant Christopher Hitchins, who once collaborated with Said, very few thinkers have had the audacity or the courage to call Said’s bluff. Why have we so capriciously accepted his thesis that the West has worked with prefab stereotypes of the Orient? Why, with few exceptions, have we not investigated how the Orient has assembled an equally illusory straw man of its presumed Western oppressor? (One such exception is furnished by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margolit’s Occidentalism, dealing with the “dehumanizing picture of the West painted by its enemies.”) And why, for that matter, have we waited so long to explode Said’s self-perpetuated myth of origins—or to savor the piquant fact, as Jack Cashill conclusively documents in Hoodwinked and again in Deconstructing Obama, that he was born in a Jewish hospital in Jerusalem where his parents rightly evaluated the odds of a safe delivery? And that Said, whose father was a naturalized American, also held American citizenship from birth.

Despite the damaging critiques of his work, Said-like thinking has become epidemic among the emir class of intellectual Clatterers. The fact that the Muslim Middle East currently has little to offer the world except lessons in state repression and religious fanaticism and the efficient distribution of bloody, indiscriminate killing techniques seems to have escaped these luminaries almost perfectly. The so-called “Arab Spring” has furnished ample evidence that Clatterdom inevitably gets the world wrong: Libya is a bloodbath, Tunisia is leaning toward renewed fundamentalism, al-Qaeda is making inroads in Yemen, Egypt is going rogue. Station our Clatterers in Tahrir Square, the symbol of revolutionary freedom, and they will have their heads duly smashed by the emblematic truncheon.

In lionizing Edward Said, popular novelists such as Ahdaf Soueif in her novel The Map of Love (the character Omar is a stand-in for Said) and debatable scholars such as Rashid Khalidi, who currently occupies the Edward Said Chair of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, and their peers and colleagues do not advance the cause of truth and understanding but promote culturally vetted stereotypes while adding ever more entries to the pseudodoxia epidemica. The tendency to rely on clichés, unreflected truisms, popular beliefs and what Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum called “Idols of the Theatre”—faults arising from received systems of thought—should be seen for what it is, a form of intellectual evasion that spares critic, novelist or scholar from having to study the relevant issues independently, outside the dispensary of commonplace assumptions. It should be more than enough to downgrade their intellectual credit rating.

Let us examine four prominent Clatterers, who may not necessarily regard themselves as Said’s lineal descendants but are heavily indebted to his blazing the trail for their errant if influential ideas.

Acclaimed Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder, author of the best-selling Sophie’s World (30 million copies worldwide) is plainly an intellectual lightweight who would merit little interest had the recent terrorist atrocity in Norway not brought him once again to the world’s attention. Writing in the New York Times for July 28, 2011, Gaarder regurgitated the usual leftist claptrap, blaming the “thousands of right-wing extremists” and an apparently teeming horde of “Islamophobes” for Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous rampage. “Those who claim to protect the next generation of Norwegians against Islamist extremism,” Gaarder huffs, “are, in fact, the greater menace.” This is the same man, let us remember, who wrote an article called “God’s Chosen People” in the daily Aftenposten for August 5, 2006, accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and of contemplating “a final solution to the Palestinian problem” (italics mine). According to this literary simpleton, Judaism is “an archaic national and warlike religion.”

Clearly, he has never read the Koran or troubled himself with the Sunnah or familiarized himself with the millennial antisemitism of Christian Europe—or the vile Jew-hatred of his own country. For Gaarder, the Good Samaritan is “today, we would say, a Palestinian,” as Said too would have contended. The Israelis, on the contrary, are “baby killers” and “Zionist terrorists.” Gaarder’s ignorance of history, no less than his disregard of local and immediate events, are infused by a hatred so great that, as blogger Christian T. on the NIJ site puts it, his “racist mind-set has become axiomatic.” Gaarder has recently published a partial retraction (original in Aftenposten for April 20, 2011), but it is very far from convincing. Indeed, it looks like nothing so much as damage control. His real attitude is very different. He is proud that his country has welcomed 200,000 Muslim immigrants, “including more than 30,000 Pakistanis.” And this demography is growing rapidly.

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  • Chezwick_mac

    Warraq's deconstruction of 'Orientalism' was both thorough and devastating. He clarified the central premise of Said's utterly racist construct, that Western man – by his very essence – was/is unqualified to offer critical scrutiny of Islam.

    Imagine for a moment an inversion of the equation…that the Muslim scholar, by virtue of his very identity, is intrinsically unqualified to offer critical scrutiny of the Western world. Such a premise would result in a cacophony of protest the likes of which would bring down the proverbial house. NO ONE could possibly survive in academia after having postulated such a premise. And yet, Edward Said has the MESA Chair embroidered with his name.

    Warraq adroitly points out that much of Western study of Islam came from German scholars. Germany was a country with no colonial presence in the Arab-Persian world…and therefore, its academics had no agenda to serve other than pure, scholarly inquiry.

    No matter. In Said's universe, a German scholar was no different than a British colonialist; both were Western, both were white….and therefore, neither could possibly be objective about the non-West, the non-white.

    More than any other single individual, Edward Said succeeded in poisoning the intellectual atmosphere on Western campuses with his cultural and racial bigotry. One hopes that over time, sanity will prevail in the universities and his views will be thoroughly repudiated.

    Than again, I'm not holding my breath.

    • Raymond in DC

      Those of us who studied international and middle east politics but left the academy before the release of Orientalism should consider ourselves lucky. Most of us still have the good sense to recognize Said's thesis as the crock it is. Unfortunately, our words carry little weight against his followers who today dominate the academy and hold sway over our decision and opinion makers.

  • jacob

    But though, our Western pseudointellectuals such as this Norwegian moron,
    leftists and liberals all kind, keep eating up SAID's brayings and outright lies
    by the bulldozerfull….

    Will it ever be eradicated ???

    It would take a revolution to accomplish it, short of making a clean slate of all
    biased tenured idiots

  • StephenD

    I have a problem with your article right out of the gate. That is your, perhaps unintentional, legitimizing of a passage from the Qur'an, Surah 101. I would contend that there is NOTHING in there worthy to be proclaimed as prophetic; “Noise Makers” though there be, in all ages. The best capture of their ilk is found in your quote, "what Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum called “Idols of the Theatre”—faults arising from received systems of thought—should be seen for what it is, a form of intellectual evasion that spares critic…."
    "Idols of the Theatre" That is probably the best description of these Noise Makers offered.
    They are not legitimate. Based on a false premise, they can never be legitimate.

  • tanstaafl

    The west has all manner of Quislings in its midst.

  • xlent

    So….Said is just another plain ol socio/commio same o same o???? They are sort of everywhere it seems.

  • Mike in VA

    Without question, Ibn Warraq's "Defending the West" is one of the greatest intellectual works of our time. No library is complete without this masterly deconstruction of the brazenly dishonest faux-scholarship of Edward Said and his acolytes. The West will be forever in Ibn Warraq's debt for the invaluable service he has performed researching and writing this brilliant masterpiece.

    Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism

  • KathleenP

    Jostein Gardner's novel Sophie's World (I read it mainly because I lived in Japan at the time and English reading material was scarce, and my father, whose opinions I generally respected, had recommended it) was basically a pretentious and frequently incoherent load of tripe. Thus it gives one a certain satisfaction to realize what a pillcock he truly is. Leftard dhimmi Norwegians like him fully deserve the dismal future that is in store for them. I just feel sorry for the majority who never asked for it.

  • Amused

    Requirements for recognizing islam for the totalitarian , anti-thetical to human rights , barbaric cult that it is : an 8th grade reading level ,and to read the Q'uran , Sunna and haddiths .
    After doing so , no sane man in his right mind could come to the conclusion , that islam is "a religion of peace " , but rather an enemy of all that is civil and humane .It is in fact an existential threat to the entire world , and it's ethos the most dangerous that I have ever encountered ,surpassing even that of the nazis in that it is adhered to by so many more than the mere 6 million or so Germans of the nazi Regime . And if mere reading of those works is not enough , simple observation of the behavior of mohamedans around the globe can lead to only one conclusion .

    • nina

      Isn't it interesting! "Jews" in lower-case, Germans in upper-case. Subconscious? Na!

  • zsqpwxxeh

    I had the dubious honor of being a student in one of Crazy Eddie's few undergrad courses, "The English Novel," at Columbia in the early 80s. (Yes, he was actually a professor of English Lit.) The class, composed of about 75 students, hated him for his contemptuous, sneering, almost psychotically poor lecture style and the fact that he was totally unavailable–everything was done by his grad student aides. He would rush in just before class, proclaim his wisdom to the last rows of seats, maybe haughtily answer a question or two, and dash off at the bell, one surmises to some anti-Israel conference or demonstration.

    His fanatic pro-Arab stance was well-known. He was the most famous prof on campus because of "Orientalism," which had already become canonical for the dominant left. Some of us grew to despise him so much on a personal level that we wore yarmulkes to class even if non-Jewish or toted Israeli army-marked bookbags just to get his goat. He pretended not to notice, and indeed he made no attempt whatever to get to know his students. An absolute schmuck.

    • Mike in VA

      It's interesting to note that two of the Left's most prominent "intellectual" charlatans – Noam Chomsky and Edward Said – achieved much of their renown operating outside of their fields of expertise (and it certainly shows).

  • Amused

    Since when is bigotry and jew hate limited to academia ? I have known many from childhood who never set foot in a university nor heard a professor 's lecture . Hitler wrote a book , but jews had been persecuted before the printing press . To think anti-semitism is espoused in the halls of higher learning and from there propelled to the masses , is an underestimation of the problem .

    • nina

      Antisemitism was always promulgated by the upper classes, even in antiquity. As most of the people were illiterate, the learned (not always) clergy told them what to think, or more correctly, what to feel.

  • steven l

    A lot more Muslims should move to Norway. They are use to oil for one and the rest will follow. Just like in Belgium where some areas are restricted exclusively to Muslims. Native Belgians are persona non-grata or afraid to venture into these "verboten" areas. To destroy the right in the US, like the socialists did in Europe, the left will join anyone including Islamists (they of course will claim that these Islamists are not Islamists). Political correctness obliges!

  • DrAvrington

    Fabulous critique but What's a "Palestinian"? Just wondering considering neither the regions of Palaestina nor Palestine were ever countries, states or nations…..

  • Robert

    Edward Said was too intelligent and scholarly to know that he wasn't hyperbolizing or outrightly prevaricating. Towards the end of his life, he was highly critical of Arafat, embraced the two-state solution (implicit recognition of Israel) and rued out loud the fact that there was no compelling Palestinian narrative.

    I believe for the sake and cause of a founding myth, he privately (intellectually) decided that the means (the myth, or the 'lie') would justify the ends. Since in the public mind there now exists the entity of the Palestinian people, underwritten by a highly effective and sympathetic founding myth (Israel brutally expelled the Palestinians from their land), Said must be given an A + for his life's work, that is he should be judged on what he set out to accomplish. The history of emerging nationalisms and nationhoods is inseparable from the reflex practice of demonizing 'the other.' Why should a nascent Palestine be expected to play by a different set of rules?. If and when Palestine achieves statehood, it will be in large part due to Said's maneuvers — the stuff-in-waiting of history and legend.

    • aspacia

      Robert, what valid sources can I link to regarding your claim?

      • Robert

        Sources. Not off hand; I'm recalling what I read perhaps ten years ago. Re first para claims, perhaps his last essays or interviews with Barsamian. He also singled out the corruption of Arafat and cronies.

        Re para #2, pure conjecture.
        Despite the A + grade, I mostly agree with Solway's position. I think Orientalism is a sham. He's more persuasive when discussing literature (Culture and Imperialism) and singing the praises of Opus 111.

        • aspacia

          I will have to locate valid sources as I have never read this.

    • Mike in VA

      Edward Said too scholarly?

      Now, there's an amusing thought…

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