The Magazine

Edward Said, Imperialist

The hegemonic impulse of post-colonialism.

Oct 8, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 04 • By STANLEY KURTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

America’s response to past acts of terrorism, then, has been mere "hysteria." Said criticized an earlier anti-terrorism bill, strongly supported by both Democrats and Republicans, as an "Orwellian" effort to impose an "us vs. them" dichotomy on the world, a substitute for the old Communist enemy. And Said makes it clear in Orientalism that one of his chief purposes in writing the book was to discourage cooperation between American students of the Middle East and the United States government.

Here, Said has succeeded admirably. If you want to know why our intelligence agencies are unable to find enough speakers of Arabic, try to imagine a bright young student at one of our elite universities enrolling in an Arabic class with the avowed aim of joining the CIA. At many or most of our finest schools, such an admission would result in social ostracism, and put both grades and faculty recommendations at risk.

BUT FOR ALL THAT, SAID’S PUBLISHED ESSAYS and interviews mask the extent of his anti-Americanism. His views are presented, uncamouflaged, where few of his American admirers will read them, in the pages of the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram. There Said makes it clear that he sees the United States as a genocidal power, with a "history of reducing whole peoples, countries and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust." According to Said, when it comes to war crimes, in comparison to Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or Sandy Berger, Slobodan Milosevic is "a rank amateur."

The evident intent of Said’s pieces in Al Ahram is to encourage his Egyptian readers to turn against their government on account of its willingness to cooperate with the United States. Again and again, Said tries to strip away the persistent conviction of his Egyptian audience that, for all its faults, America is genuinely dedicated to the principles of freedom and democracy. For Said, American democracy is a sham; he contemptuously dismisses the Constitution as a document created by "wealthy, white, slaveholding, Anglophilic" men. The remarkable thing is how thoroughly convinced Said is of America’s stultifying intellectual climate, even as his own ideas have grown to prominence—arguably, predominance—in significant sections of the American academy. But it’s obvious that Said will be satisfied only with a revolution—a radical breakdown of the current global system. In his work for Al Ahram, Said’s despair at the existing world consensus on free markets and democracy is palpable.

In his remarks on the September 11 attacks—published in both the British Observer and in Al Ahram—Said meets expectations, blaming the strikes on America’s support for Israel and on our sanctions against Iraq. He spins out his now familiar case against the American media for their supposedly Manichaean division of the world into good West and evil Islam—this despite the fact that the networks and the president have been bending over backwards to avoid that sort of stereotyping. And he continues to obscure the depths of his hatreds. Washington journalist Andrew Sullivan spotted a telling bit of bowdlerizing in the British version of one essay, which left out a swipe at Rudy Giuliani’s "virulently Zionist views," added for the delectation of Al Ahram’s readers.

But for all of the usual incantations, there is something different this time in Said’s response to the terror. Said is evidently agonized by the recognition that the attacks may destroy his plans. His longtime hope has been that an alliance of Arab nationalism and Western liberalism (the same alliance that has given him so much academic influence) might eventually turn the politics of the Middle East in a Palestinian direction. That hope is now dying.

So, forgetting himself, in his remarks on recent events, Said lashes out at the terrorists’ "primitive" ideas of revolution, their "magical thinking," and their "lying religious claptrap." It’s almost enough to make a bigoted British imperialist blush. Indeed, it’s difficult to decide whether to make sense of this descent into classic "Orientalist" language as a vindication of his post-colonial theory or not. After all, Said spewed his invective at "primitive" Arabs at the very same moment he was demanding that control of the revolution be returned to secular radicals like himself. So maybe forms of knowledge and power go hand in hand after all. Or is it that the liberal humanists were right all along about there being truths that transcend political differences? Maybe certain insights are available to Western "neo-imperialists" and leftist Third World intellectuals alike, say, the insight that "magical thinking"—scapegoating for instance—might compromise the legitimacy of terrorist tactics and call for a response that goes beyond attempts at rational persuasion or exercises in role-playing.

Edward Said and his supporters in the American academy know a lot about scapegoating. Like the terrorists themselves, the post-colonial theorists have long found comfort and solidarity in blaming both American power and a fast-fading band of traditionalist scholars for the complex ills of the Muslim world. The price of this little bit of enchantment has been the erosion of our capacity to listen to, contemplate, and when necessary defend our very lives against the sometimes unpleasant realities of life on the other side of the globe. One wonders whether the evident costs of our flirtation with post-colonial theory might finally prompt a restoration of balance to the academy, or whether American students of the Middle East will continue to direct their attention away from Saddam Hussein, to focus instead upon the terrible burden of Jane Austen’s imperialist legacy.

Stanley Kurtz is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.