Books March 2007

East is East

A new history of Orientalism reveals the vagary and variety of the field—and the danger of declaring any area of inquiry off-limits.

Of what book and author was the following sentence written, and by whom?

Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home—all in one act.
From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Fiction of Life" (May 7, 2003)
Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, on the dangers of using religion as an ideology, and the freedoms that literature can bring.

Interviews: "Setting the Record Straight" (September 22, 1999)
Edward Said confronts his future, his past, and his critics' accusations.

This was the quasi-articulate attack recently leveled, by a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, on Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s account of private seminars on Nabokov for young women in Iran. The professor described Nafisi’s work as resembling “the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India,” and its author as the moral equivalent of a sadistic torturer at Abu Ghraib. “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi,” Hamid Dabashi, who is himself of Iranian origin and believes that Nafisi’s book is a conscious part of the softening-up for an American bombing campaign in Iran, has said.

I cannot imagine my late friend Edward Said, who was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, either saying or believing anything so vulgar. And I know from experience that he was often dismayed by the views of people claiming to be his acolytes. But if there is a faction in the academy that now regards the acquisition of knowledge about “the East” as an essentially imperialist project, amounting to an “appropriation” and “subordination” of another culture, then it must be conceded that Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism, was highly influential in forming this cast of mind.

Robert Irwin’s new history of the field of Oriental studies is explicitly designed as a refutation of Said’s thesis, and has an entire chapter devoted to a direct assault upon it. The author insists that he has no animus against Said personally or politically, that he tends to share his view of the injustice done to the people of Palestine, and that he regarded him as a man of taste and discernment. Irwin makes this disclaimer, perhaps, very slightly too fulsomely—at one point also recycling the discredited allegation that Said was not “really” a Palestinian from Jerusalem at all. But he is more lucid and reliable when he sets out to demonstrate the complexity and diversity of Orientalism, to defend his profession from the charge of being a conscious or unconscious accomplice of empire, and to decry the damage done by those whose reading even of Orientalism was probably superficial.

I still think that Said’s book was useful if only in forcing people in “the West” to examine the assumptions that underlay their cosmology. If asked what I mean by that, I should cite Robert Hughes, who recalls how his parents’ generation in Australia would refer to New Guinea or Indonesia, say, as “the Far East” when they were, in point of fact, their near North. The very term Middle East, I have recently learned from Michael Oren’s absorbing history of American engagement in the region, was coined by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose life’s work was the creation of an American Navy on the model of the British imperial fleet. I remember my own surprise when I realized, in New Delhi in the 1970s, that by the crisis in “Western Asia,” the newspaper article I was reading meant to refer to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It can be said for Edward Said that he helped make us reconsider our perspectives a little.

“This book,” writes Irwin in his agreeably breezy introduction to it, “contains many sketches of individual Orientalists—dabblers, obsessives, evangelists, freethinkers, madmen, charlatans, pedants, romantics. (Even so, perhaps still not enough of them.)” Indeed, its chief strength lies precisely in showing the vagary and variety of the subject, and thus obliquely convicting any single unified critique of it as essentially reductionist—a neat tu quoque against the Said school.

Among Irwin’s initial points is one that should scarcely have needed to be made. The British proconsular class were for the most part not Orientalists at all. They were classicists. When they adapted old texts and languages to their task of dominion, they were looking to the grand precedents of Greece and Rome. And though it is true that the protracted Greek confrontation with the Persians created the first “East-West” division in the European mind, it is also true that the Greek word barbaros, with all its freight of later associations, was not a pejorative. It simply demarcated Greek-speaking from non-Greek-speaking peoples. So it was simplistic of Said to say that the roots of the problem lay with The Iliad: The Hellenes often looked down on uncouth northerners like the Scythians, while greatly admiring (and borrowing from) the Egyptians. As Irwin goes on to say:

Lord Curzon, Sir Ronald Storrs, T. E. Lawrence and most of the rest of them were steeped in the Greek and Roman classics. Readings of Thucydides, Herodotus and Tacitus guided those who governed the British. Lord Cromer, the proconsul in Egypt, was obsessed with the Roman empire and its decline and fall. Sir Ronald Storrs used to read the Odyssey before breakfast. T. E. Lawrence read the Greek poets during his time as an archaeologist at Carcemish and later translated the Odyssey. Colonial administrators were much more likely to be familiar with the campaigns of Caesar than those of Muhammad and the Quraysh.

In contradistinction, or at any rate by contrast, those whose passion was for the Orient were very often numbered among the anti-imperialists. This was true not only of English scholars like Edward Granville Browne—author of A Year Among the Persians, who became a strenuous partisan of the struggle of Eastern peoples against British and Russian tutelage—but also of many of the French enthusiasts, from the wildly eccentric Louis Massignon, who campaigned for the independence of French North Africa and took his anti-Zionism to the point of Judeophobia, to Marxisant professors like Maxime Rodinson. Nor was it at all uncommon for Orientalist pioneers to “go native,” if the expression can be allowed, and to adopt forms of Islam such as Sufism. This was not true of the Soviet and Nazi Orientalists, on whom Irwin gives us two tantalizingly brief sections; but the first group was concerned with negating and discrediting Islam, and the second was obsessed with bogus racist and pseudo-ethnological theories, which in their turn caused many of the finest German scholars to flee overseas and replant the discipline elsewhere. None of this makes a good “fit” with Said’s over- and under-drawn picture of a discipline dedicated to the propagation of British and French imperial hegemony.

Though this book is an extraordinarily attractive short introduction to the different national schools of Orientalism, and to the various scholars who labored to make Eastern philology and philosophy more accessible, its chief interest to the lay reader lies in its consideration of Orientalism as a study of Islam. Irwin shows us the early Christian attempts to translate and understand the Koran, most of which were preoccupied with showing its heretical character. These make especially absorbing reading in the light of the pope’s recent lecture at Regensburg University, and his revival of the medieval critique of the teachings of Muhammad. That tradition extends quite far into the modern epoch, with the consecrated work of Father Henri Lammens, a Belgian Jesuit who taught in Beirut in the early part of the twentieth century and made himself master of the suras and hadiths. Lammens’s intention was to show that, to the extent that Muhammad could be said to have existed, the prophet was a sex-crazed brigand whose preachments were either plagiarized or falsified. The greatest Orientalist of them all, the Hungarian genius Ignaz Goldziher, asked ironically, “What would remain of the Gospels if [Lammens] applied to them the same methods he applies to the Qur’an?”

The same unwelcome implication of this excellent question may well have occurred to the Church itself: I can tell you that Lammens’s books are now extremely hard to obtain. And though Irwin does not say so explicitly, the general academic reticence about Islam that he so much deplores may well have something to do with the potentially atheistic consequences of any unfettered inquiry. As he phrases it:

Because of the possible offense to Muslim susceptibilities, Western scholars who specialize in the early history of Islam have to be extremely careful what they say, and some of them have developed subtle forms of double-speak when discussing contentious matters.

This is to say the very least: “Western scholars” and authors like Karen Armstrong and Bruce Lawrence have adopted the strategy of taking Islam’s claims more or less at face value, while non-Western critics who do not believe in revealed religion at all, such as Ibn Warraq, are now operating on the very margin of what is considered tactful or permissible. Even a relatively generous treatment of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, such as that composed by Rodinson, is considered too controversial on many campuses in the West, and as involving readers or distributors in real physical danger if offered for discussion even in Cairo, let alone Baghdad or Beirut. The splendid nineteenth-century Oxford Orientalist David Margoliouth (described by Irwin as having “the kind of beautiful mind that could see patterns where none existed”) was perhaps not so eccentric when he claimed to notice analogies “between the founder of Islam and Brigham Young, the founder of the Mormon faith.” The usefulness of polygamy in forming and cementing alliances, as well as in satisfying other requirements, is something that was indeed noticed by Joseph Smith—the actual “founder of the Mormon faith”—who furthermore announced himself as the man who would do for North America what Muhammad had done for the Arabian Peninsula. Irwin might have done well to pursue this and other insights, rather than exhibiting a little of the very reluctance of which he claims to disapprove.

To return, then, to Said. It is, on reflection, a great mark against his book that it did not consider the work of Goldziher, whose preeminence Irwin has reasserted in a wonderfully readable thumbnail chapter that leaves one yearning for more. Even Said’s friend Albert Hourani, who did so much to arouse interest in the neglected field of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, could not pardon this omission. And Rodinson, that great Jewish foe of Zionism, felt constrained to remind his Palestinian comrade that it is a mistake to concentrate exclusively on the Arab world, since four-fifths of Muslims are not Arabs. Most of all, though, one must be ready to oppose any analysis that even slightly licenses the idea that “outsiders” are not welcome to study other cultures. So far from defending those cultures from depredation, such a stance actually permits them to fall under the dominance of stultified and conservative forces to whom everything depends on an affirmation of blind faith. This, and not the inquiry into its origins, might be described as the problem in the first place.

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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