Originally posted September 2009

Due to an accident of history, I found myself traveling around the Middle East in 1955/6, and then studying at Oxford at the birth of modern Middle Eastern Studies in the West signaled, inter alia, by the creation of the Center of Middle Eastern studies at Saint Antony’s College. There, I participated, in a very small way, in a process which required creating the subject more or less de novo, on the basis of a handful of scholarly books about the region. But I did it under the guidance of the brilliant Albert Hourani — an outsider himself, having never studied Near East languages and civilizations in the traditional Orientalist way, and who was thus better able to understand, and to critique, their basic structures of thought, most notably in his wonderful essay, “Islam and the Philosophers of History,” while also following in the steps of his own mentor, Sir Hamilton Gibb.

Given the vast changes in the world in the 1960s and the great desire to liberate ourselves from the world views of race and empire, it was only natural that young persons like me should have turned to the new fields of economic development, social history, sociology, and, particularly, social anthropology for our alternatives — using them, as best we could, to re-read, and then re-shape and re-use, major modern era texts like Gibb and Bowen’s Islam and the West, Halil Inalcik’s articles worrying at the notion of Ottoman decline, and Albert Hourani’s own work on the so-called “Islamic city.”

Given the temper of these times, it was also natural that those early social science critics of Orientalist scholarship should band together in workshops around joint projects designed to employ what we identified as the German-style 19th century “critique” — both to expose the lack of real explanatory value in traditional Orientalism and to begin to provide what we took to be a more useful way of studying the modern Middle East. This included, among many other issues, an attempt to come to terms with the way in which not just the traditional academic Orientalists but also several of the founders of Western social science, most notably Marx and Weber, held Orientalist-type views concerning a fundamental difference between East and West. Furthermore, also in anticipation of Edward Said, we had begun to discuss the ways in which our own social science disciplines, anthropology in particular, played a major role in what Talal Asad called the “Colonial Encounter.”

Edward Said himself was well aware of what we were attempting — via our Review of Middle East Studies — having had his attention drawn to it by Fred Halliday, a very important figure in my story. Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, while Edward could commend us for working, as he put it, in “disciplines not fields,” I do not think he had any real understanding of what practicing these disciplines actually involved. This was partly the result of his inclinations, character, and training. He was a humanist through and through, seeing the world via the optic of literature, music, and the arts, not by the use of supposedly value-free economics, political science, or sociology.

Just as important, as he explained to me, he had come to the end of his year at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Palo Alto tired out by writing Chapters 1 and 2 and in such a hurry to finish that he raced through Chapter 3, “Orientalism now,” without either thinking through his argument as far as the relationship between Orientalism and the modern centers of modern Middle Eastern studies was concerned, or paying much attention to the alternatives which he left, clearly and specifically, to others. As he puts it in the book’s rushed, last few pages:

… in conclusion, what of some alternative to Orientalism? Is this book an argument only against something, and not for something positive?

And then, having spent a sentence mentioning a number of what he called “new departures,” including the work of my own group — called the Hull group after the venue of our first few workshops — he notes that he does not attempt to do

… more than mention them or allude to them quickly. My project has been to describe a particular system of ideas, not by any means to displace the system of ideas, not by any means to displace the system with a new one.

How Orientalism Was Received

Reading and thinking about Orientalism when it was first published I, and some — but not many — of my colleagues, experienced a great sense of relief. After a decade or so of critique, our work had been overtaken and summed up by Edward in such a comprehensive way that, so it then appeared, we could all get on with what seemed the much more important task of finding better ways of studying the economies, societies, and political systems of the Middle East.

What we did not understand, and could probably not have understood at that time, was that this project was going to be much more difficult to conduct and harder to sustain than we had imagined. Probably none of us also understood how the presence of the book would complicate our new task, even though there were many indications of the problems and difficulties that lay ahead. One of these occurred during a 1979 trip in which I presented Edward’s ideas to the members of the Israeli Oriental Society. The sense of the threat the book posed was palpable. Gabriel Baer’s response was that the name of the Society would be changed “over his dead body.” Shimon Shamir’s response was that the book represented the ravings of a deranged Palestinian.

And so it has been ever since. Orientalism often continues to be regarded as dangerous, perhaps in particular by those who have never read it. Hence, the intense, ludicrous, alarming and, I would hope, unique way in which the field of modern Middle Eastern studies has become polarized between the followers of Edward Said and those of Bernard Lewis and, now between those belonging to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and its newly-created rival, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).

Given the fact that this “dangerous person” Edward Said appeared well-versed, if not in the social sciences then in post-structuralism and in what was soon to become post-colonial studies, meant that the motley band of persons identified as Saidians could all be tarred — regardless of what they actually said, regardless of what they actually taught — with the same brush as being purveyors of politically motivated, trendy, and ideologically dangerous gibberish. Such is the meretricious message which, without much elaboration, and without any obvious mental effort, remains as potent with some audiences as it did 30 years ago.

It also is worth noting that the personal tone of the book helped to make things even worse. The author himself, his reasons for writing the book, his genuine offense at the way Arabs and Muslim are objectified in such a reductionist way, is powerfully present in the text. He names names — Bernard Lewis’ in particular. And certain passages are more easily read as political and polemical rather than as scholarly and academic, even if this was almost certainly not Edward’s original intention.

All this has had unfortunate consequences. Critics use the personal and the political to muddy the waters, not only of Edward’s critique itself but also of anyone who can reasonably, or unreasonably, be associated with it. Hence it provides a reason for not taking the work of a huge number of scholars of the Middle East with the academic respect it deserves, even when, as in the case of most social scientists at least, their work has little or nothing to do with Orientalism, either in praise or blame. By the same token, it allows those who still practice some version of an Orientalist approach to insulate themselves, and their students, from a powerful, alternative, point of view.

More seriously, the ad hominem attacks on Said and his band of alleged Pied Pipers also make it more difficult to sustain an attack on the role of Orientalists in authorizing certain aspects not only of American military and security policy but those of Israel as well. For all the books that castigate the malign influence of the State Department Arabists, none to my knowledge point to the policy impact of Israeli Orientalists as well as to the fact that, even in Israeli terms, their close association with the country’s defense establishment has been counter-productive to what might be described as the country’s national interests. Think of expert authorities like Gabriel Baer, who assured me, in the mid-1970s, that Egypt would never make peace with Israel. Think of those who created and managed the Palestinian “village leagues.” Think of those who supported policies to encourage Hamas during the first Intifada. Think of those who argued that the Shi‘a population could be lured into playing an anti-PLO, anti-Syrian role in South Lebanon.

Bad Orientalism encourages the notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Bad Orientalism, paradoxically, though based on the concept of a certain Middle Eastern timelessness, authorizes ambitious schemes of political and social engineering based on short-term considerations while lacking any way of anticipating unexpected long-term consequences.

Back to the Social Sciences

When it comes to the immediate reception of Edward’s work, it was not only many Orientalists, or near-Orientalists, who were upset but also many well versed in what they regarded as a progressive science of society. This certainly applied to persons such as Harry Magdoff, the New York editor of the Monthly Review, who asked me to review Orientalism, a book about which he had very mixed feelings. It was also true of colleagues such as Fred Halliday, who argued that Orientalism could easily be read as creating an irreconcilable division between East and West, thereby undermining one of the basic features of our universalistic approach.

No less telling was Fred’s second argument that, for many peoples of the Middle East in the 1970s, works by the scholars Edward defined as Orientalists were sometimes the only source of data for understanding large parts of their own national history. Al-Azm was to make the same point only a few years later.

Several enormously important implications follow. The first is that we need the social sciences in Middle East studies not just for their own sake, but also to be able to continue to make use of works by persons we regard as Orientalists, though without falling prey to their assumptions and reductionism. This is the more significant as our own thinking contains either unexamined assumptions from the Orientalist period or, at the very least, questions which we cannot help students to answer properly because we do not know how to frame them or where to look for answers. A good example of this is what used to be called Islamic legal studies, studied only through certain canonic texts, and posited on the notion that the master story was one in which modern legal codes imported tout court from the West quickly supplanted so-called traditional Shari‘a law, confining it simply to the area of personal status.

Second, we need to continue the good work of combining training in languages, history, and culture with training in the social sciences begun in most American and European centers of Middle Eastern studies. One without the other is no longer enough — and is no longer seen to be enough.

Third, the social sciences provide a necessary additive to works of analysis which operate simply at the level of discourse and the various ways this has been used to answer questions with little or no attention to what I would still want to call material reality.

Last, but not least, and in answer to those critics who accuse Said-influenced social scientists of managing to avoid most of the important political and ideological issues of the moment, we now have the tools to make important contributions to such vital contemporary Middle Eastern subjects as military occupations, religious politics, the explosive growth of the Gulf port cities, and Islamic banking, not to mention the enormous impact of globalization, where a knowledge of the history of the region has to be combined with an ability to pick out and to describe those underlying structures, dynamics, and trajectories which define them now and will continue to do so in the future.

All this is good news, and would certainly be good news to Edward Said himself. Given that the field of modern Middle East Studies is only some 50 years old, that it had to extract itself from the hold of a first generation of scholars who still saw the Middle East in very reductionist, ahistorical terms, and that it takes time to build up a core of experts versed in language, history, local knowledge, and the social sciences, we finally have a set of praiseworthy scholars.


It is important to see Edward Said’s work, and the mixed reception it received, in the round. This means reading Orientalism as carefully as its author would wish and then being able to understand its role as the first part of a project which required the construction of alternative methodologies as its complement. Inevitably, this alternative project proved to be much more difficult for reasons Edward himself could not anticipate and for which his own critique shares a small part of the blame.

Nevertheless, viewed from the perspective of modern Middle East studies, the present and the future look surprisingly good, with the ever expanding production of highly skilled graduate students around the world well-supplied with the tools not just to make use of whatever data the field contains but also to use their knowledge of the various social science disciplines to challenge the conventional wisdom and the old paradigms which continue to stand in the way of a proper understanding of how Middle Eastern societies, economies, and political systems really work.

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