Monday, November 13, 2006

Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism

From a review of Dangerous Knowledge by Robert Irwin.

Nearly 30 years ago, the late Edward Said brought out his most famous book, Orientalism (1978). Till then, Orientalism had been regarded as simply the branch of European scholarship focusing on the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. But Said argued that it was, in fact, a highly politicized concept, the umbrella term for a kind of intellectual -- fostering racism, justifying Western interference in largely Muslim nations, and generally controlling how the West perceived the Middle East. It was, to use the now familiar academic catchphrase, a hegemonic discourse, reducing rich and vital cultures, peoples and religions to a set of patronizing stereotypes. As a scholarly discipline, Orientalism was rotten with bad faith or its students were the naive tools of a colonialist ideology.

The book proved wildly successful and made the young Said a star of the academy and of what has come to be called cultural studies. Indeed, Orientalism supported the central theoretical premise of many intellectuals at the time -- that the prejudices of dead white European males had utterly distorted and warped their scholarship, art, politics and human sympathies.

Robert Irwin, himself an Oxford-trained Arabist, doesn't buy this. He asserts in his introduction and argues in his penultimate chapter that Said's book, thinking and evidence are shoddy, unreliable and mean-spirited.
In fact, the book devotes only one chapter to Said. It is really a history of the historians of the Arabs and, to judge from this review, seeks mainly to 'defend their honour'. The reviewer does not go into Irwin's criticisms of Said. For a detailed demolition, see Keith Windschuttle's article from The New Criterion.

The review does, however, include some nice snippets.
He reminds us, time and again, that Jews have consistently been the greatest Arabic scholars, from the Hungarian Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921), "the uncontested master of Islamic studies," to our contemporary Bernard Lewis. Above all, Irwin emphasizes what the late Albert Hourani (author of the bestselling A History of the Arab Peoples ) learned from his teacher Richard Walzer: "the importance of scholarly traditions: the way in which scholarship was passed from one generation to another by a kind of apostolic succession, a chain of witnesses (a silsila to give it its Arabic name)."
It seems as if at least this "apostolic succession" does still limp on despite the depredations of Said and his all-too-numerous acolytes.

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