Edward Said: The Out of Step Intellectual

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Widely misunderstood, but avant-garde, Edward Said has left a legacy of work that continues to hold relevance to thinkers navigating today’s muddy waters.

“I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the midst of a battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for… Criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom.” — Edward Said, The World, the Text, the Critic

“Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort.” — Edward Said, preface to 2003 edition of Orientalism

Edward Said, Orientalism, identity politics, Palestine, Islam, colonialism

Salman Rushdie, in a 2013 opinion piece for The New York Times, lamented the decline in public respect for moral courage from dissidents, noting how easy it is to “admire physical bravery than moral courage — the courage of the life of the mind, or of public figures”, and how strange it is that we have become increasingly “suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power and dogma.”

Rushdie cites many fine exemplars of moral courage, including Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi (although he will probably have to revise that one), the Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari and Pussy Riot . Even Nicolas Sarkozy gets a mention. But the name that perhaps most catches one’s eye is of the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said (1935–2003), former professor of comparative literature at Columbia University and prolific literary and cultural theorist. He describes Said as an “out of step intellectual” who was “dismissed absurdly as an apologist for Palestinian terrorism”.

Rushdie and Said were very close friends and open admirers of each others works because of their shared experience of displacement, migration and living in between worlds. Said in particular (at a time when Rushdie’s politics was more radical and left wing than it is now) praised Rushdie for his critique and mockery of imperial arrogance, colonial nostalgia and xenophobic nativism, plus his appreciation for the complexity of cultural differences, multiple affiliations and the migrant experience, which he seamlessly weaved into the fabric of his novels and essays. Likewise, Rushdie wrote positive reviews of Said’s works such as After the Last Sky and his memoir Out of Place, and consistently praised him for being a courageous spokesperson for the Palestinian cause in the West.

Said was also one of the strongest defenders of Rushdie when the odious Ayatollah Khomeini released his unconscionable fatwa on Valentine’s day 1989 calling for Rushdie to be murdered — and offering money for it too — for allegedly ‘blaspheming’ Islam. Said labelled the cause to defend Salman as an “intifada of the imagination” and reminded people who supposedly believe in secular values that it was their duty to defend dissidents like Rushdie, for “freedom of expression cannot be sought invidiously in one territory, and ignored in another.” Rushdie, for him, became a symbol for “everyone who dares to speak out against power, to say that we are entitled to think and express forbidden thoughts, to argue for democracy and freedom of opinion.” This is something Said doesn’t get enough credit for, both by self proclaimed anti-racists, who perhaps may view Said as an intellectual godfather, yet retreat into pearl clutching mode whenever Islam is criticised or satirised, even by someone who comes from a Muslim background, and particularly by Western ‘civilisationists’, who view the Satanic Verses fiasco as the first shot fired in the ‘clash of civilisations’ between ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’.

“Said labelled the cause to defend Salman as an ‘intifada of the imagination’ and reminded people who supposedly believe in secular values that it was their duty to defend dissidents like Rushdie, for “freedom of expression cannot be sought invidiously in one territory, and ignored in another.’ “

It would have been interesting to see what their route their friendship would have taken had Edward lived past 2003. Since the inauguration post-9/11 epoch, in the era of the ‘war on terror’ and the supposed ‘clash of civilisations’, Rushdie has become more conservative in his politics and has been accused, by some, of being lukewarm at best, or just plain dreadful at worst, on issues he previously spoke passionately about such as imperialism, racism, immigration and multiculturalism.

A taste of how this may have developed was when Said himself raised the subject of Rushdie’s political metamorphosis in a public conversation at Columbia University in April 2003 on Rushdie’s works. He of course still praised Rushdie’s fiction, in particular Midnight’s Children, for the reasons I outlined earlier (interestingly he contrasts Rushdie’s compassion for the colonised with V.S Naipaul’s ethnic resentment and soft revisionism of the colonial experience), but he did express disappointment with Rushdie’s sympathies for Western interventionism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the way he increasingly played to the ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric by adopting what he perceived to be reductionist views of Islam and politics in the Muslim world. As Said put it “There’s a greater disconnect between his non-fictional prose and his fiction, now, than there was in the decade of the 1980s.” Yet, Said is sensitive about how he expresses this and feels he does understand why Rushdie may have come to this position: “I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t have had a tremendous sense of disorientation…He felt confusion, denial and anger for the onslaught against [The Satanic Verses]…There was a sense his own people and religion turned against him.”

“He did express disappointment with Rushdie’s sympathies for Western interventionism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the way he increasingly played to the ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric by adopting what he perceived to be reductionist views of Islam and politics in the Muslim world.

It is now 15 full years since Edward Said’s passing as a result of a 12 year arduous battle with leukaemia, after he received the diagnosis in the autumn of 1991. Through his death, I believe we lost the most eloquent and articulate advocate of the Palestinians and their struggle for self determination in the Western world, as well as one of the great secular humanist intellectuals of the late 20th century. His work helped to influence how I see the world, and it was through reading him that I first became interested in the Palestine Question and the broader Middle East. Reading him I discovered everything that I liked in an intellectual and everything that I aspired to be: erudite, lucid, independent, sophisticated, flexible, heterogeneous, and cosmopolitan.

Said is well known for his magnum corpus, Orientalism. Published in 1978, it is regarded as one of the most influential texts of the late 20th century and a founding text for post-colonial studies. In it, he explained how Western scholarship and literary culture had historically manufactured a fictional ‘Orient’ that existed outside of history and described this ‘Orient’ and its people based on caricatures and crude stereotypes, portraying them as backward and lascivious, or as aggressive, irrational and barbaric.

This dehumanising discourse was done as way for the ‘West’ to define its own ‘superior’ identity against the inferior Oriental ‘other’ and serve as an ideological justification for the colonial enterprise. “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule”, Said wrote, “is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact.” Orientalism had a huge effect in changing Western academia where no serious scholar could write about another part of the world without examining their own assumptions and biases, and taking into account this pernicious ideology that masquerades as disinterested objectivity

However, Said is probably best remembered for his firm and resolute pro-Palestine activism. Said was once asked whether the year 1917 meant anything to him. He replied without hesitation in the affirmative, but not because of the Russian revolution as one may suspect, but because it was the year when the Balfour declaration was signed, where the origins of the Israel-Palestine conflict as we know it lay. Palestine was his cause and he would never accept the dispossession of his people as normal, nor the hideous lies, evasions and propaganda that was deployed to obscure this injustice. Edward did more than most to unashamedly champion Palestinian liberation in the West. He wasn’t simple minded about this either. He understood the moral complexity of the conflict and that ethnic absolutism was not the solution. As he once put it, the Palestinians are the “victims of the victims”, which meant that the fate of Israeli Jews and Palestinians are intertwined together, and the only rational solution to this conflict for the peoples to share the land, not submit to chauvinism and racism.

People of my generation need to realise this was achieved at a time when pro-Palestinian activism wasn’t as popular as it is now, and Said received death threats and had to have special security in his home because of his outspokenness on the issue. Back then, it wasn’t chic to wear a Palestinian badge on your jacket as it is now. Back then, the New York Times considered it “ideologically biased” to use the term occupation to describe the Israeli subordination of the West Bank and Gaza. So for all the problems that exist now, we have come a long way in terms gaining sympathy, if not support, for the Palestinian cause.

“People of my generation need to realise this was achieved at a time when pro-Palestinian activism wasn’t as popular as it is now, and Said received death threats and had to have special security in his home because of his outspokenness on the issue.”

But what I really admire in him was his much under-emphasised and understated humanism. It is slightly ironic that some of Edward’s supposed admirers hold very anti-humanist and anti-universalist views while Edward himself was a humanist and a universalist–and not ashamed of it either. In the preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism, he writes that he still “stubbornly” continued to call himself a humanist for the purpose of his work “despite the scornful dismissal of the term by sophisticated post-modern critics.” “Humanism” he goes on, “is the only — I would go so far as saying the final–resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.”

There are many misconceptions and characterisations of Edward that have been popularised, some intentionally, some unintentionally. One is the claim that he is a post-modernist, which is not true. Though there is a funny anecdote in the memoir of Najla Said — Edward’s daughter — where she recalls her father’s legacy:

To very smart people who study a lot, Edward Said is the “father of postcolonial studies” or, as he told me once when he insisted I was wasting my college education by taking a course on postmodernism and I told him he didn’t even know what it was:

“Know what it is, Najla? I invented it!!!”

I still don’t know if he was joking or serious.

I think he was joking. Nevertheless, it is not true to say that Said was a post-modernist. It is certainly true that he used any insight he could find from thinkers who are usually associated with post-modernism, whether it be Michel Foucault (whose idea of ‘discourses’ very much influenced Orientalism), Jacques Derrida or Gilles Delueze. The same could be said for how he would be inspired by ideas from Marxist thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, György Lukács and C.L.R James, even though he himself was not a Marxist (and always remained very distant from it). But Said always had his own trajectory: a radical humanism based on what he called ‘secular criticism’, which held all methods and ideologies that claimed a monopoly on truth at arm’s length whilst gaining any insight one can from those ideologies that was true to the everyday struggles of oppressed people and ensure that those oppressed peoples are self-critical too.

The other misconception is that he was an ‘identitarian’, responsible for generating ‘identity politics’ on the left, ‘SJW’ victimhood culture and all the rest of what we always read about on social media. This is simply a falsehood. If one reads Culture and Imperialism (my favourite of all of Said’s works) one would discover that he was a consistent critic of identity politics, which he referred to as “overrated”, wherever it came from, whether it was the high altitude ‘civilisationism’ of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, the exclusionary, often ethnic nationalisms from various post-colonial governments, or from pseudo-progressives (many of whom wish to claim Edward as an intellectual godfather) who have a weird aversion to anything and everything from ‘dead white men’ based on nothing more than politically correct gesture politics.

If one reads his magnificent essay titled “The Politics of Knowledge”, which can be found in his essay collection Reflections on Exile, which touches on the so-called ‘canon wars’, he maintained the need to challenge Eurocentrism and “widen the area of awareness in the study of culture” that is inclusive of non-Western writers and thinkers. Yet, he stated that if this isn’t situated into a broader emancipatory humanist outlook, then all that will happen is a replacement of one ethno-centrist dogma with another one that does absolutely nothing to further the cause of human liberation. In the same essay he states that “victimhood…does not guarantee or enable a shared sense of humanity” unless that history of oppression is “universalized to include all sufferers”. He also lambastes the canon war warriors for having “ears of tin”, unable to “distinguish between good writing and politically correct attitudes, as if a fifth-rate political pamphlet and a good novel have more or less the same significance.”

“He maintained the need to challenge Eurocentrism and ‘widen the area of awareness in the study of culture’ that is inclusive of non-Western writers and thinkers.”

He then makes the case for “worldliness”, a syncretic and integrated literary humanism, against exclusivism and separatism:

“What I am talking about is the opposite of separatism, and also the reverse of exclusivism. It is only through the scrutiny of these works as literature, as style, as pleasure and illumination, that they can be brought in, so to speak, and kept in. Otherwise they will be regarded only as informative ethnographic specimens, suitable for the limited attention of experts and area specialists. Worldliness is therefore the restoration to such works and interpretations of their place in the global setting, a restoration that can only be accomplished by an appreciation not of some tiny, defensively constituted corner of the world, but of the large, many windowed house of human culture as a whole.”

I hope this settles the ‘identity politics’ charge.

Alas, as is always the case, no human being is perfect. Despite my admiration for Edward, his moral courage, his willingness to cut against the grain and his emancipatory humanist imagination, he had a number of blindspots and got some things deeply wrong. Such as his highbrow, culturally conservative and elitist disdain for popular culture, in particular American popular culture. His disparaging view of George Orwell as “Anglo-centric”. His atrocious view of the Kosovo question, where he exhibited a sort of prelude to the sterile pseudo ‘anti-imperialism hegemonic on the left that I have long taken issue with, and where he totally contradicts the notion he put forward in Representations of the Intellectual, that the responsible intellectual holds a universal outlook in the defence of human rights everywhere. It is tragic that a Palestinian who had experienced the pain of exile was very prepared to shrug with indifference at the prospect of the Kosovars, a European Muslim population no less, becoming exiled from their homeland, in the name of ‘anti-imperialism’ whilst not offering any idea of concretely helping the Kosovars aside from NATO intervention. It left a bitter taste in my mouth indeed.

While I did like a lot of what he wrote in Orientalism, and one shouldn’t underestimate its achievements, I think it was a very flawed text. In fact, at times it is confusing and contradictory, as well as ahistorical and very imprecise in its critique. For example, he claims that the 18th century is the starting point where one can situate Orientalism “as the corporate institution in dealing with the Orient.” However, Said also claims that the discourse of Orientalism stretches all the way back to Homer, Euripides and Aeschylus in classical Greece. So Orientalism is no longer historically situated in post-Enlightenment Europe as various European nations consolidated their colonial empires, but a deep tradition that originates from the very genesis of so called ‘Western’ civilization, so much so that Orientalism can, in his words, “accommodate Aeschylus, say, and Victor Hugo, Dante and Karl Marx.”

Any concept of a discourse that claims writers and thinkers as historically and philosophically diverse as Aeschylus, Hugo, Dante and Marx existed in an unchanging Orientalist tradition in ‘the West’ is going to run into problems. As Kenan Malik, Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm and Aijaz Ahmad have noted, this unintentionally mimics the very discourse he is criticising and upholds the ontological distinction between the West and the rest he seeks to transcend. This view then leads him to claim that “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequentially a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric.” As Aijaz Ahmad observed in In Theory, “These ways of dismissing entire civilisations as diseased formations are unfortunately far too familiar for us, who live on the other side of the colonial divide, from the history of imperialism itself.”

One is always tempted to ask ‘What would Edward think?’ in our present situation where the politics of identity seems ever more hegemonic across the globe. I really wish he were alive so that he could give us his thoughts on the dire state of Gaza, the continued occupation of the West Bank, the Trump administration officially moving the American embassy to Jerusalem (much to the joy of hard right Zionists in Israel and their odious Christian sympathisers in America), the utter uselessness and impotence of the Palestinian Authority, as well as broader topics like the Arab Spring and its fallout, the rise of nativist populism in the West and so on. This is of course in the realm of speculation, but I have no doubt that Edward would have been very sharp and thoughtful in his commentary on all these trends, even if one does not agree with all of his positions. The real shame is that Edward isn’t able to take part in the argument at all, which I believe is a loss for us all.

The Irish have a saying: “Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann (We shall not see his like again)”. Never has that expression seemed so apt in the case of Edward Wadie Said. Despite his flaws, he will always be an inspiration to those of us who live between worlds, whose lives are shaped by migration, dislocation and diaspora, who strive for a humanism and universality based on emancipation, and take the responsibility of the intellectual seriously. Indeed, there will never be someone quite like him ever again.

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