Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Some overdue advice from Edward Said

Edward Said is not someone whom I often quote approvingly. But the last paragraph of his piece in the London Observer on the Sunday after the terrorist attacks ("Islam and the West are Inadequate Banners," 9/16/2001; reprinted as "There are Many Islams" in the Guardian Weekly for 9/20-26 and in CounterPunch) actually had something valuable and important to say:
'Islam' and 'the West' are simply inadequate as banners to follow blindly. Some will run behind them, but for future generations to condemn themselves to prolonged war and suffering without so much as a critical pause, without looking at interdependent histories of injustice and oppression, without trying for common emancipation and mutual enlightenment seems far more wilful than necessary.
I'll second that. But I was especially struck by the last two sentences:
Demonisation of the Other is not a sufficient basis for any kind of decent politics, certainly not now when the roots of terror in injustice can be addressed, and the terrorists isolated, deterred or put out of business. It takes patience and education, but is more worth the investment than still greater levels of large-scale violence and suffering.
Unfortunately, I suspect that too many readers will take this as simply another criticism of so-called western "orientalism." It is actually a crucially important message for the Arab world--and for Arab intellectuals, both in the Middle East and abroad, as well as their sympathizers in the west and the former Third World--if they make an effort to hear it. And I believe that Said intended for it to be heard this way.

Nor, although Said is a little ambiguous (or misleading) in this respect, does this message apply only to Islamic extremists (and their apologists). Said suggests in this article that "the secular consciousness has to make itself felt" in both the US and the Middle East. But the crucial fact, which I suspect that Said understands very well, is that for half a century the "demonization of the Other," above all of Israel, has been THE central unifying focus of politics and political discourse in the Arab world--"left" or "right," "secular" or religious, "progressive" or reactionary, nationalist or Islamist. (There have been some honorable exceptions, among whom I would not include Said.) I can understand the reasons why it's hard for them to give it up. (It's less forgivable when this is ignored, whitewashed, or even encouraged by sympathizers in the west, from naive journalists and foreign-policy Arabists to alleged "progressives" and reflexive anti-Zionists). Unfortunately, this world-view has been poisonous and self-destructive for Arab societies themselves (and especially disastrous for the Palestinians).

Said could start by taking his own advice ... but I will hardly be holding my breath. Earlier in this same article, there is a passage, which would be mind-boggling if it weren't so familiar, that speaks of "the influence of the oil, defense, and Zionist lobbies now consolidating their hold on the entire Middle East...." The Zionist lobby consolidating its "hold on the entire Middle East"? Aside from the totally ludicrous character of this drivel, the language here is, at best, just a shade removed from that of good old classical anti-semitic propaganda. (Similarly, in the ideological circles that Timothy McVeigh used to frequent, the general consensus is that the U.S. is ruled by something called the Zionist Occupation Government, or ZOG.) But leaving that aside ...

If we take Said's last paragraph at face value, the basic advice is excellent. For example, if the Arabs (and their sympathizers) could genuinely begin to recognize that "demonization of the Other is not a basis for any decent politics," this would certainly be a huge step forward--and not only for the Arab-Israeli conflict. I am not optimistic (and, in fact, the recent outrageous fiasco in Durban is just one sign that things are actually getting worse in this respect); but one can always hope.

Jeff Weintraub