“We Arabs and the west”

Faleh Jabar
28 September 2003

I was shocked but not surprised. Truly, his was a ‘death foretold’. For years he has been struggling with that faceless monster, leukaemia, submissively waiting for the final return to dust; to that dark hole where total indifference to the beauty of the human being or to the riches of the human mind, prevails.

The first time I saw him in the flesh was in London in 1992, where he was delivering a lecture, his reason deployed in the service of a great passion. I remember wondering at the time how he could free his reason from the tyranny of passion.

The last time I saw him was in New York University, delivering another lecture alongside his mate Noam Chomsky. This time, it was the turn of his passion to serve and help us grasp a sophisticated train of reasoning: and I wondered how he could reconcile his passion with the dictates of reason.

Brutal mischief! Today, his whole life has slipped into eternity, an emptiness bereft of any chance of further conciliation, correction or legal appeal. Never again shall we encounter the continuing battle of sense and sensibility which he came to symbolise. There is no more chance for him to defend himself, challenge us, or rethink his approach. But his intellectual heritage is there waiting for us, we the living, to turn to and examine time and time again.

Among his writings Orientalism and Covering Islam stand out in bold relief. One of the many paradoxes of Edward Said’s works is that in the eyes of most Arab intellectuals his texts came to mean the exact opposite of what he wanted. His criticism of the west has been interpreted as a defence of some sort of aboriginal essentialism. He protested in passing against this travesty. Let me add my voice to his. The figure of Said always reminds me of the late 19th century Egyptian thinker-reformer, Muhammad Abdu. Both men are chapters of the same book: We Arabs and the West.

Abdu took the rocky path from the medieval Mut’tazilite rational theology (embedded in Aristotle’s logic) to the western evolutionism of Herbert Spencer and Ernest Renan. In this journeying, he initiated the Orient into its first act of sustained self-criticism, helping it to look at the Oriental self through the lens of the Occident’s rationalism.

Edward Said threw down the same gauntlet as Muhammad Abdu, beginning and ending his journey within the confines of western thought. In his Orientalism, Said was a daring, esoteric Sinbad who dug deep into the entrails of the west’s forays into self-criticism. His was not a defence of the Orient, rather a correction of the west’s own imagining of the Orient.

Said borrowed Michel Foucault’s power-knowledge dichotomy. For the French scholar, discourses are never objective constructions, but rather techniques of control. Institutions – such as mental clinics – generate discourses, and this knowledge bestows power. Insanity is controlled by ‘experts’ and represented by ‘the other’ as ‘mental disorder’, with never a chance to speak for itself. It is caged in the concepts and categories of ‘science’. This is a paradox, one that Said develops into a framework for explaining the encounter between the Orient and the Occident.

He never defined what the Orient was: he implied what it was not. He never defended the evils of the Orient, its regression, its dictators, its nostalgic harking back to the happy old days of its once glorious past. Arab intellectuals mistook the essence of Said’s criticism. But he chose never to rectify their misconception.

One of the resulting ambiguities ignited a controversy amongst Iraqi intellectuals. His criticism of United States policies towards Iraq omitted the domestic dimension: the horrible reality of Iraqi totalitarianism. He had every opportunity to clarify this. He elected not to do so – until, that is, a few months before the invasion of Iraq, when he signed a letter calling on the Iraqi dictator to resign. The balm of that moving expression of solidarity was felt by many Iraqi writers, who hailed Said’s courage in the face of herd-like pro-Saddam fanaticism.

Edward Said’s critical mind will be missed. The best lesson he bequeathed to Arab intellectuals is that intellectuals should keep a distance from their own governments, leaving themselves free to criticise them, whether or not they claim to be engaged in national struggle. Challenging ‘consensus’ is the essence of reason. Where rationalism finally takes effect is in this stubborn drive towards diverse representations, the only remedy to the banal ways of thinking prevailing in our miserable Arab world.

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