Originally posted September 2009
When I published Weber and Islam (1974), there was relatively little literature on Max Weber’s fragmentary sociology of Islam. It was positively reviewed by Ernest Gellner (1975) in Population Studies, but my interpretation of Weber and Gellner’s response were later criticized, often informally, by people around the “Hull group” — a collection of radical social scientists outside what was seen to be the conservative scholarly establishment of professional Middle East associations — with whom I had become associated. As a reflection on this debate, I published Marx and the End of Orientalism (1978) which, influenced by Marxists such as Louis Althusser, took a critical look at the mainstream social science literature by scholars such as Daniel Lerner and Shlomo Avineri.
Fortuitously, my overview of social science appeared in the same year as Edward Said’s Orientalism (1974). I was immediately captivated by Said’s approach and by the man, who combined comparative literary studies with political engagement and offered a model of the public intellectual. Said was attractive partly because most academics experience a sense of homelessness, which his autobiography Out of Place (1999) so perfectly captured. His persistent mood of exile and dislocation was expressed in his Western identity as “Edward” and his Eastern persona as “Said.” Although I have not changed my view of the man, I am now forced to admit that the whole debate about Orientalism in retrospect looks like a dead end, if not pernicious and corrosive.
Needless to say, Weber’s vision of Islam and more generally of “Asian religions” has been condemned as an example of Orientalism in which a dynamic West was contrasted with and counter-posed to a stagnant East. Despite these ongoing criticisms, Weber’s approach still commands attention as a general framework. The Weber legacy survives because, while Said’s account of Orientalism provided some valuable criticisms of Western scholarship, it did not provide — and probably did not set out to provide — a convincing or systematic alternative. What, if anything, comes after Said’s critique of Orientalism apart from more textual analysis and deconstructive investigation?
Said’s work rightly became a powerful component of post-colonial literature, but I am doubtful about its lasting benefit in the social sciences. In retrospect, I am not convinced that any concrete methodological directives follow from Said’s critique apart from some prudential recommendations to be self-reflexive about taken-for-granted assumptions, to become aware of persistent forms of bias or openly critical of hidden racist assumptions. However, such recommendations are not exactly original, and they are hardly likely to give rise to controversy. The nub of my response, therefore, is that the legacy of Said has been to add fuel to the assumption that research students do not have to collect data in the study of actual societies through ethnographic or other forms of inquiry; they merely need to examine texts. The result was to cast doubt on perfectly legitimate methodologies and research questions in favor of strategies of textual deconstructions. If there is a lesson — which I am the first to accept — from this debate, it is that academics are unconscionably prone to intellectual fashions and anxious to grasp the fig-leaf of literary theory and continental philosophy. Perhaps Michel Foucault’s writings on the “spiritual revolution” in Iran might be another example of how fashion has obscured our understanding of social reality. I would prefer my students to read Marshall G.S.Hodgson on The Venture of Islam (1974) or Andre Gunder Frank on ReOrient (1998) than any amount of work on genealogy or discourse or inter-textuality.
In any case I am not wholly convinced about the originality of Said’s Orientalism. He was openly dependent on Raymond Schwab’s The Oriental Renaissance, which in 1950 traced the early stages of Orientalism, especially the growth of Sanskrit studies, and provided the context for Said’s own Orientalism. Schwab examined the problem of intellectual responsibility towards other cultures through a detailed analysis of the rise of translation and interpretation. Said wrote a sympathetic introduction to the English translation of Schwab, which was reprinted in The World, the Text and the Critic. Hence, Schwab rather than Foucault framed Said’s agenda to understand Europe’s cultural appropriation of Islam and the Middle East. From these studies, Said absorbed the original message of philology: that all human languages have a common origin. It was not until the Victorian age that human cultures were racialized and there emerged the view that humankind was differentiated by grammars that were largely incommensurable.
Criticisms of Said’s work are now only too well known. First, he exaggerated the degree of coherence in Western academic writing on Islam and the Middle East, and consequently it is difficult to classify Louis Massignon, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Maxime Rodinson, and Marshall G.S.Hodgson within Said’s paradigm. In any case, Said concentrated primarily on literary figures and not on historians and social scientists. Within the literary field, he was mainly concerned with French contributions.
Secondly, many radical writers have written sympathetically and intelligently about other cultures in order to attack Western colonialism. In recent years, I have taught courses on the sociology of Asian societies in which Said’s Orientalism is at the head of my reading list, but in practice it is difficult to apply Said’s framework to such literary works as A Passage to India, Burmese Days, or A Quiet American. Furthermore, the mainstream literature from sociology and anthropology — such as James Scott’s Weapons of Weak or Theda Skocpol’s States and Revolution, or Robert Bellah’s Imagining Japan — can hardly be open to the accusation of Orientalism.
Thirdly, Said probably also contributed to the emergence of Occidentalism. Critics of Western imperialism often neglect the history of Japanese imperialism. For many Asians, economic imperialism means Japanese imperialism, and as a result the Orientalist debate understates the strength of racial images which have been generated against the West. Orientalism should be seen as relational and dialogic. The issue of the yellow cab women and general dislike of white foreigners, or Gaijin, give a clear expression of traditional Japanese ambiguity towards contact with the outside world. Asian stereotypes could be taken as an illustration of what we might call ‘reverse orientalism’.
Finally, the debate about Orientalism cannot be separated from Middle East politics; therefore, it is almost impossible to achieve anything like an objective assessment of the issues. Generally speaking, the critique of Orientalism has not seen the ironic connection between two forms of racism, namely against Arabs and against Jews. To his great credit, this had clearly not escaped Said. In the introduction to Orientalism, he wrote that in “addition and by an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch Orientalism resemble each other is a historical, cultural and political truth that needs only be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be perfectly understood.” In a reply to his critics, Said also noted the parallels between what he called “Islamophobia” and anti-Semitism. In Religion and Social Theory (1983), I argued that there are two related problems, namely the idea of Islamic gaps and Judaic contradictions. By this observation, I meant that, while Islam had been defined by its absences (of rationality, autonomous cities, independent bourgeoisie, asceticism and so forth), Judaism had been defined by the contradictory nature of its religious injunctions where its dietary laws transferred the quest for personal salvation into a set of ritualistic prescriptions according to Weber’s Ancient Judaism. The West defined its identity in reference to the lazy sensual Arab and the untrustworthy Jew. In fact, precisely because Judaism and Islam shared so much in common (monotheism, prophetic and charismatic revelation, the religion of the Book, and a radical eschatology), the construction of these contrasted paradigms was especially tragic.
Towards the end of my career, I find I get more pleasure from Said’s work on music such as On Late Style (2006), and therefore I come to criticize Orientalism, not to condemn the man. Humanistic values — the real legacy of comparative literature — flow abundantly from Said’s work on the limitations and dangers of traditional Orientalism, from his vision of the intellectual exile, and from his political engagement with the Palestinian issue. The realization of those values was his constant concern, and the achievement of those values in modern scholarship has been rendered infinitely more difficult by his demise.
. Armando Salvatore, “Beyond Orientalism? Max Weber and the Displacement of ‘Essentialism’ in the Study of Islam,” Arabica 43 (1996), pp. 412-33.
. Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Foucault, Gender and the Iranian Revolution: The Seductions of Islamism (Chicago, IL:University of Chicago Press, 2005).
. James G. Carrier, ed., Occidentalism. Images of the West (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1995).
. K. Kelsky, “Flirting with the foreign: Interracial Sex in Japan’s ‘International’ Age” in R.Wilson and Wimal Dissanyake, eds., Global/Local .Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary (Durham, NC and London, UK: Duke University Press, 1996). pp. 179-192.
. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), pp. 27-28.