The Children of Edward Said

Leading us into the abyss.

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.

Westernized crypto-Islamist Tariq Ramadan, an idol of the cultural left, passes himself off as a Muslim reformer but strongly implies in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam that Islam is a superior religion that will outclass Judaism and Christianity. According to an interview in the New Statesman for June 21, 2004, Ramadan believes that Islam can infiltrate and conquer the West by initially peaceful means, continuing immigration, and the “duty for Muslims…to take Islam from the periphery of European culture to the centre.” The warrant here is clearly Koran 9:33 in which Allah sends forth his prophet “to make the true faith supreme over all religions.”

Ramadan argues that what should “be called into question” is not Islam in itself or the violence it is said to engender but “the immigration policies of Western countries and their social and urban policies,” which give “rise to vexatious, discriminatory, and unjust administrative measures”—a conclusion straight out of the pages of Orientalism. In a speech given to an Islamic circle of North America (ICNA) fundraiser on July 27 of this year in Dallas, Ramadan took the next logical step. “It should be us,” he told the crowd, “with our understanding of Islam, our principles, colonizing the United States of America.” Ipse dixit.

John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleel Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, deserves special mention. Esposito writes in his co-edited volume Islam and Democracy that “[i]t is important to examine the conceptual resources within Islam for democratization” and to see that “the term ‘democracy’ is capable of multiple interpretations and applications.” Esposito’s “democracies” are like Groucho Marx’s “principles”: “If you don’t like them, I have others.” The fact that there is no true democracy anywhere in the Islamic world, not even in Indonesia or Turkey which are frequently cited as democratic beacons and signs of the reformability of Islam, does not constitute a problem for someone who is funded by Saudi money—no more than it does for Jimmy Carter whose Peace Center floats on Wahhabi cash.

Esposito has assumed the mantle of Edward Said to become Senior Academic Clatterer among today’s pro-Islamic intellectual synod. In his most recent book, The Future of Islam, he asserts against all the evidence that “religion will remain a significant political and social force for reform” and endorses the convenient fiction that serves the interests of Western temporizers, namely that the “threat to the West will not come from civilizational differences but from the political and socioeconomic reality that breeds radicalism.” The degree of cognitive dissonance exemplified by such statements, however typical of our Islamic infatuates, paid proselytizers and professional flunkies, is really quite remarkable. Obviously infected by what Bernard Lewis in a 1954 essay for The Royal Institute of International Affairs called “the romantic and apologetic presentation of Islam” that discounts the fact that “the political history of Islam is one of almost unrelieved autocracy,” Esposito concludes by stressing, Obama-like, our “shared values, dreams and aspirations.”

Indeed, no catalogue of Said’s innumerable acolytes would be complete without mentioning Barack Obama. The Clatterer-in-Chief studied under Said at Columbia in the period between 1981 and 1983, taking at least one course from his presumptive mentor. He was later photographed with him, seated at the same table and engaged in earnest conversation at a 1998 Arab American Action Network dinner in Chicago, where Said delivered the keynote speech calling, as a news account has it, for a campaign “against Israeli apartheid.” Being someone’s dinner companion is not an offense. But when that “someone” is Edward Said, a former preceptor, a pro-Arab and anti-Israeli firebrand, and about to give a scandalous address, there is room for suspicion.

As Andrew McCarthy writes in National Review Online, “Obama plainly maintained some sort of tie with Said,” whose intimate circle also included Obama’s friends, Weather Underground terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn and former Palestinian activist Rashid Khalidi. Dinesh D’Souza in The Roots of Obama’s Rage points out that Said “seems to have had a lasting influence on Obama: some of Obama’s writings are highly resonant with Said’s themes and arguments.” And Stanley Kurtz, author of Radical-in Chief, for his part sees “a sincere interest in Said’s radical views.” True, the details of the relation between the president and his teacher remain somewhat shrouded since Obama has steadfastly refused to release his Columbia transcripts and his graduating thesis—a suppression which also generates suspicion.

Whatever the exact nature of the liaison may be, Obama’s latest policy decisions favoring the Palestinians, his insistence that any peace agreement be based on Israel’s indefensible 1967 borders, and the hard line he has generally adopted to Israel’s distinct disadvantage suggest a profound connection with Said’s political convictions—as Cashill reports, Said served for many years on the Palestine National Conference, “alongside…Yassir Arafat and still harder core radicals from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the terrorist group that hijacked the Achille Lauro.” Moreover, there can be little doubt that Obama’s frequent overtures to the Islamic world, his notorious “apology tour,” his telling bow to the Saudi king, the obsequious flattery of his Cairo speech and his warming rapport with the Muslim Brotherhood all indicate a strong affinity with Said’s ideological perspective, as expounded not only in Orientalism but in a pulpiteering and deeply-skewed successor volume The Question of Palestine. (True to form, Said there extravagantly praises his friend, Israel Shahak, one of the most viperous Jewish Jew-haters of modern times whose anti-Talmudic and anti-Israeli Jewish History, Jewish Religion has made a major contribution toward the effort to disentitle the Jewish state.) In any event, it appears that the faux apostolic tradition continues at the highest levels.

The question now presents itself. What stance should the justly skeptical take up? But how we should properly respond to our Clatterers is not that difficult to determine. They should be read or attended to not with the proverbial grain of salt but the entire salt mine. Their strictures and admonitions invariably mislead and can be counted on to exacerbate a deteriorating political situation. Emerging from the ambience of Orientalism, some consciously, others unconsciously, they swivel between disingenuousness and blindness. Their “scales are light” and the verdict of history will be pronounced against them.

The four conspicuous figures I have cited are representative of a legionary host. Whatever their public profile, the spawn of Edward Said proliferate everywhere one may look, even though, as Makiya has meticulously unpacked for us in Cruelty and Silence, Said’s “depiction of the state of Arabic culture is simply untrue.” But the day of retribution is not all that far off. As events regress, the world will not be kind to the Clatterers, who “shall be like scattered moths” and whose “abode shall be the abyss.” They have stoked the “blazing fire” that will consume them. It is only a matter of time.