Book Review: Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism

Posted: 3/2/2009 2:29:00 PM
Author: Reviewed by A. J. Caschetta

Defending the West
A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism
by Ibn Warraq
Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007. 556 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by A.J. Caschetta

Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2009, pp. 77-79

Deconstructing Edward Said
It is now five years after the death of Edward Said, the man who made it cool to hate the West, and the reevaluation of his thought and work is thankfully well underway. Said forged a career out of revisiting the past, "deconstructing" what he found and writing it anew. Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism by Ibn Warraq, founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society, reveals just how massive a fabrication Said's version of history is. The book spells out in great detail Said's deeply flawed writings and his legacy: the modern academic fetish for examining microscopically the flaws and failings (real and imagined) of the West while simultaneously portraying an ever-peaceful East perpetually victimized by the technologically superior but, of course, morally benighted West. This is the fashionable narrative in the humanities departments of virtually every college and university in America, if not in all of Western academia.

Those who perpetuate it Ibn Warraq calls "Saidists." Among them, Said has achieved cult-like status as a prophet who (in the tired cliché of the Left) "spoke truth to power." They see it as their mission to reveal cracks in the deception foisted on the world by an older generation of historians whose work attempts to disguise an aggressive, dominating West. A corollary, more covert mission is to erect their own wall to insulate the East from the kinds of attacks they themselves make on the West. And the Saidists have been so successful that many people now see colonialism and empire as creations of the West and symptoms of a Western moral inferiority that (especially for Western scholars) must be atoned for in many ways. Saidism, one might say, is a way to atone.

Ibn Warraq's ambitious book brings together three projects, each worthy of a full-length study: first, a critique of Said's thought and work focusing on the insidious effects of his magnum opus, Orientalism;[1] second, a defense of the West against the academic assaults that have become commonplace since Said's book was published; and third, a welcome reappraisal of the eighteenth- through twentieth-century linguists, historians, artists, and writers who studied the East and who are known today as Orientalists, a term Said made pejorative. Ibn Warraq masterfully weaves the three projects together in 556 pages.

The author lays bare Said's methods of obfuscation, which often use nonsensical and impenetrable prose, insinuation, and outright falsification. Said's ad hominem attacks against those who criticized his work are recounted, demonstrating that Said was both a metaphorical as well as a literal stone-thrower. And the growing list of Said's "historical howlers" (obvious inaccuracies and misstatements of fact) unmasks an amateur historian who was either extremely sloppy or just plain dishonest.

Ibn Warraq's defense of the West centers around what he calls the "Three Tutelary Guiding Lights" (rationalism, universalism, and self-criticism), which he portrays as the cement of Western civilization. From ancient Greece to Victorian England, Ibn Warraq takes his readers on a ride through history, repairing the damage wrought by Edward Said and his Saidists, arguing that the three "golden threads" are always present. By contrast, some of Ibn Warraq's defense of the West is accomplished by a comparison to the East in which the flaws of the latter are examined. This brave and decidedly un-PC tack tells the story of Eastern imperialism (which Said largely ignored) and exposes a litany of human rights abuses in Eastern, often Islamic, nations in what will be an eye-opening experience for some readers.

In reappraising the Orientalists, Ibn Warraq defends their works as labors of love rather than exploitative endeavors. Those readers unfamiliar with these Orientalists will find themselves seeking out their work where, Ibn Warraq tells us, can be found "no disdain, but rather sympathy, patience, attentive curiosity, and the surprise of discovery." Ibn Warraq argues that rather than the conniving and condescending bogeymen Saidists portray, "Orientalists of the late nineteenth century were drawing upon a humane tradition established 250 years earlier."

In adducing evidence for his arguments, the author proves versatile, equally at home summarizing the latest academic arcana, describing the pleasures of Orientalist paintings, and quoting comments left by a tourist in the guest book of a museum exhibiting Orientalist art work. Passages range from the erudite to the commonsensical. On the erudite side, Said's claim that the Orientalists "essentialized" the Orient is itself exposed as an argument dependent on an "essentialized" portrayal of the West. On the commonsensical side, there are many outstanding passages: My favorite comes in chapter 12 where Ibn Warraq neatly dismantles the arguments of Linda Nochlin, a Saidist of some note. Discussing the paintings of Jéan-Léon Gerôme, Nochlin claims that the absence of a Western colonial presence in the scenes comprises an attempt to hide the historical reality of that presence, presumably in the furtherance of some vaguely imperialist agenda; Ibn Warraq responds with the following bit of disarming logic:

If you have ever visited the Taj Mahal … you have not resisted the temptation to take a photograph of it. If you have taken a photograph, you were anxious not to include some fat Western tourist, in shorts, hat, and sunglasses with a camera slung around his neck, in the frame. You waited until there were no tourists near to spoil the view; such tourists would have looked out of place and as inappropriate as their dress. Orientalist paintings were often commissioned by Europeans or Americans back home, and the latter certainly did not want to buy views that showed tourists.

This is brilliant in its clarity and simplicity—Occam's razor meets art history. Another gem comes in an attack on the cultural relativism that has become academic orthodoxy: "relativism, like cholesterol, comes in two forms: good and bad … the good type of relativism was originally only a way of preaching tolerance to others—the Other." Insights abound, many of them very quotable.

Those readers who were intrigued by Ibn Warraq's brief scheme of "the three Islams" in the introduction to his ground-breaking Why I Am Not a Muslim[2] will appreciate the elaboration on the idea in his chapter "The Pathological Niceness of Liberals, Antimonies, Paradoxes, and Western Values." This section would serve nicely as a stand-alone piece and as an excellent anodyne to any college freshman who has survived, mind intact, the institutionalized pabulum that passes as "global studies" in most public schools today.

Will Ibn Warraq's new book end forever the deleterious effects of more than thirty years of petulant, dishonest, self-loathing Saidism? Probably not. But any honest acolytes of Edward Said who read this book will either be forever relieved of their knee-jerk faith in the simple dichotomy of Western guilt and Eastern victimhood that is at the core of Said's thought, or they will be forced to participate in their own hoodwinking. Ibn Warraq's critique of Said's thought and work is thorough and convincing, indeed devastating to anyone depending on Saidism. It should do to Orientalism what Mary Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa[3] did to Martin Bernal's Black Athena.[4] And it should force the Saidists to acknowledge the sophistry of their false prophet.

A.J. Caschetta is a lecturer in the English department at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he teaches literature, linguistics, and a class called "Writing Terror" about the rhetoric of terrorism.

[1] New York: Vintage, 1978.
[2] New York: Prometheus Books, 1995.
[3] New York: Basic Books, 1997.
[4] New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.